Manly Reece

Manly Reece, circa 1855.

In my entry on Charlie Poole I mentioned the Charlie Poole Festival, which is held each year in Eden, NC, the combined town in Rockingham County formerly known as Leaksville, Draper and Spray. Charlie Poole lived and worked in Spray in the second half of his life, and now there is an effort to create the “National Banjo Center” on the Dan River there. The banjo museum would highlight Poole’s contributions to American musical history at or near the Spray Cotton Mill site, “ground zero” or “hallowed ground, as far as the music world is concerned,” said one of the promoters. (see March 26, 2009 article at ).

Not to take anything away from Charlie Poole or the economic development activities of Rockingham County, but southern banjo history- even North Carolina banjo history- has a much wider sweep and deeper pull than is found just along the Dan River. Here locally, Charlie Poole’s teacher and mentor Daner Johnson (mentioned in the previous article) not only taught Charlie but a generation of other local banjo pickers. No recordings of Johnson are known, but his Randolph County pupils Kelly Sears and and Glenn Davis are both featured on “The North Carolina Banjo Collection,” musician/ folklorist Bob Carlin’s excellent 1998 Rounder double-album which demonstrates the evolution of banjo-picking through 20th-century recording history.

However, the history of the banjo didn’t start with Charlie Poole or Daner Johnson. The roots of the instrument are agreed to be found in Africa and the transplanted traditions of African-American enslaved people in the antebellum American South. Less certain is how the instrument made its way into white southern culture. Joel Sweeny (1810-1860) of Appomattox County, Virginia, is the earliest documented white banjo player, and popularized the instrument in New York with his group of blackface minstrels at least by April 1839 (see ).

Sweeny’s tour of England, Ireland and Scotland in 1843-44 is credited with introducing the banjo to Europe. (Bob Carlin recently wrote a book about Joel Sweeney, too- ).

But in Randolph County, the roots of the banjo can be traced to Manly Reece (1830-1864), a native of the area between Franklinville and Liberty. For almost everything I know about Manly Reece I must give credit up front to Andy Cahan, musician, historian, antiquarian bookseller and former Chapel Hill resident.  Andy came South from New York where he had been a featured artist (along with Bob Carlin) on the influential Kicking Mule album “Melodic Clawhammer Banjo” ( ). As a young music historian and grad student Andy conducted oral history interviews around Galax in the 1980s on Manly Reece that led him directly back to Randolph County. His research paper “Adam Manly Reece: An Early Banjo Player of Grayson County, Virginia” was written for a class at UNC in 1987, and I am much obliged to Andy for sharing the paper and accompanying photographs with me. [It is one of the most valuable works of Randolph County and southern banjo history that has never been officially published, and I hope that is remedied soon!]

Banjo built by Manly Reece ca. 1848.

Through born in Randolph County, Manly Reece introduced the banjo to the Galax, Virginia area. His father George Reece, a blacksmith, was one of the twelve children of William Reece and Elizabeth Lane, who are buried in the Sandy Creek Baptist Church cemetery (see the church’s prior entry). George’s sister Agnes was the second wife of Elisha Coffin, underground railroad conductor, builder of my house and the 1838 cotton mill in Franklinville (see his prior entry), making her the aunt and Elisha the step-uncle of Manly (all history is genealogy!).

Detail of Manly Reece banjo- the back of the neck.

George Reece is remembered by his descendants to have played the fiddle, and Manly is said to have learned to play the banjo while just a boy. Manly’s own banjo, which is still in the possession of family members, is said to have been built by him before the family moved to Virginia between 1846 and 1848. Once settled in Galax, Manly played with the legendary fiddler Greenberry Leonard (1810-1892), who trained Emmet Lundy, one of the earliest recorded fiddlers in the area.  Manly’s banjo originally had 4 strings, but before he went into the army he’d converted it to 5 strings.  The family remembers that Manly played first in the clawhammer style, and later learned to fingerpick.  He could play many Stephen Foster songs, so Andy theorizes that Manly could have learned from a passing minstrel show (though I’ve found no references to those playing the Randolph County area).  Andy believes that Manly introduced the banjo to the Galax area, partly based on letters written to Manly after he went into service with the Confederate Army, where women write that they miss him and haven’t heard the banjo played since he left. His banjo was returned to his family after Manly was killed in March, 1864, while riding on top of a troop train in the Petersburg area.

Julia Reece Green and unknown fiddle player (original from Kahle Brewer)

Manly’s sister Julia Reece Green (1842-1911) learned to play the banjo from Manly, and passed the skill to her grandson Kahle Brewer. Kahle Brewer was a well-known old-time musician in Galax of the 1970s and 80s, and became a mentor to Andy Cahan and other expatriate students of southern musicology.

L-R: Allen Hart (banjo); Wayne Martin (fiddle); Kahle Brewer (fiddle); Alice Gerard (guitar); at Brewer house in Galax, VA, August 1988.

[From Kerry Blech website, .]

Andy Cahan’s initial research is still the last academic look into the antebellum roots of Randolph County music.  We’re missing fifty years or more from the story of 19th century music in the county, and perhaps some day that link can be uncovered. Between the time the Reeces moved to Galax in 1848 and the time a young Daner Johnson began to play circa 1890, at least a generation or two of musicians passed their banjo knowledge along. Whoever that was-–Daner Johnson’s teacher and mentor– is currently unknown. But Manly Reece, Daner Johnson and Charlie Poole were all born in northeastern Randolph, within a 5-mile radius of each other, so it is obvious that “ground zero” for the Johnson-Poole banjo tradition rightfully can be located somewhere just north of Franklinville, in Randolph County.


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8 Responses to “Manly Reece”

  1. Liz Wheaton Says:

    Hi Mack,

    A friend just sent me the link to this site, and after reading just this one post, I’m sure I’ll be savoring it for a long time to come. I’ve been looking for information on traditional music in NC for some time, and I’m doubly grateful to know the person who’s devoting the time to document this as well as your other Rand. Co. history.

    You may cover this elsewhere in the blog, but are there traditional musicians (and/or dancers) who are still active in this area? I would love to get together with others to listen/watch/learn more!

    Thanks so much for your effort, Mack!


  2. christopher graham Says:

    Hey. Do you, or Andy Cahan, have any idea why the Reeces moved to Galax in the first place?

    • macwhatley Says:

      No. I know of no family letters or records from any of the Reeces that give their reasons or background history for anything. Alas.

      • Willi Says:

        Hi! I’m writing a book about Early Banjo players and am trying to get ahold of Mr. Cahan! Any way you know of I can find him? Thanks!

      • macwhatley Says:

        He had an antique shop in Pittsboro, but later had a rare book business in another state. I don’t have current info on him, and I wish I did!

  3. Andy Cahan Says:

    Hi Mac and all,
    My full work on Manly Reece will be included in a future book and audio project that I will soon be participating in producing.
    Just FYI, I am not the Andy Cahan who was a rare book seller in Chapel Hill. Just the same name, and he moved to Ohio a few years back. I am still in NC. Thanks for the interest in my work.

  4. Andy Says:

    Hi Mac, I just ran across this! I don’t know whether you’ll see this post, but I just wanted to update you on this work. It has been published in a couple of different forms (including in the Galax Gazette in their fiddler’s convention special edition!) and a Schirmer book about traditional music. Also in the notes to Carlin’s NC compilation. More significantly I believe, will be its inclusion in a work collaboration that will result in a book and CD project based on the musics of the region.
    Also, a correction on my identity: A very common error has been the confusion between Andy Cahan the antiquarian bookseller who was in Chapel Hill for a number of years until he returned to Ohio; and me. I still live in the region.

    Christopher: good question regarding the Reece’s move to Virginia. I speculated upon that question in the full length version of the paper. Will dig it out and post at some point.

  5. Andy Says:

    Hi Mac,
    Hope this finds you well. I just saw this article. I know it was posted long ago, but just for clarification, I am still living in NC. The antiquarian bookseller that you referred to was another guy by the same name who lived in the same area but moved to Ohio a few years ago. Nice guy. We still get each other’s phone calls from time to time.
    By the way, the Manly Reece work will probably be included in a project I will be contributing to in the next year or so. It will be a book/CD based on recordings of old musicians in the Blue Ridge Mountains and essays discussing the music and history of the area.

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