For my second CD, I have set to music a dozen poems by a masterful but neglected Appalachian poet and writer. During his short, tragic life, “Georgia’s farmer-poet” Byron Herbert Reece published four highly regarded collections of poems and two novels then lapsed into obscurity. Building on the strengths of my CD of poetry and traditional folk music Buried Land, I sought timeless musical settings to bring to life some of Reece’s finest poems. The biographical essay on Byron Herbert Reece is included in the CD.
For this is the service of song:
To brighten the dim
Coin of a kingdom whose king
Lies centuries asleep,
To render the humblest thing
To memory’s keep.
“The Service of Song,” Byron Herbert Reece
Byron Herbert Reece was born in 1917 in a cabin on a small farm near Choestoe, in Union County, Georgia. From the mid 1940s to the mid 1950s he published four books of poems and two novels, all with E.P. Dutton in New York, and all receiving generally favorable reviews. Syndicated reviewer Edward M. Case in a 1955 review declared, “It seems to me that with the exception of Robert Frost, Reece is our greatest living poet, and even Frost is not so pure a lyricist, nor as strong and lonely a voice.”
Reece’s mother and father had contracted tuberculosis by the mid-1930s, and Reece faithfully tended their family farm, even while accepting visiting writing positions at the University of California at Los Angeles, Emory University, and the University of Georgia. Reece was never able to reconcile the exhausting physical demands of farming with the time and energy his literary career required of him. He addressed this conflict humorously in an article he wrote for the Atlanta Journal Magazine: “Once while I was writing my first novel, I happened to remark to a correspondent that I had been plowing potatoes. She wrote that I should concentrate on the book. ‘Anybody can plow potatoes,’ she said. ‘Anybody can plow potatoes,’ I wrote in return, ‘but nobody is willing to plow mine but me.’” Reece’s exasperation is apparent in a 1952 letter in which he says simply that farming and writing both “make too many demands on your energy and time.” He eventually contracted the tuberculosis that killed both his parents, which further sapped his energy. Depressed by his deteriorating health and the prospect of hospitalization and dependency, he took his own life on June 3, 1958, in his quarters on the campus of Young Harris College, in Northern Georgia, where he was teaching at the time. He was 40 years old.
Reece’s biographer Bettie Sellers recounts that Reece remembered his parents attending song fests where local people “would congregate at the home of someone, preferably a person of good voice who knew a lot of songs, and sing away the Sunday afternoons.” He also remembered his mother’s pure, clear voice singing lullabies, some of which he later learned derived from the Child ballads of England and Scotland. As an adult, though, Reece seemed to prefer Classical music, and he would often speak of the pleasure he took in listening to it on the radio and later on phonograph records he would save his money to purchase. An often repeated detail of Reece’s suicide is that when his body was discovered the phonograph was just finishing playing a rendition of Mozart’s “Piano Sonata in D.” Several of Reece’s own Christmas poems were set to music by Kenneth Walton and published by Boosey and Hawkes during his lifetime, and near the end of his life he worked on the libretto for an opera based on the traditional ballad “Mattie Groves” in collaboration with John Vincent, director of the Department of Music at UCLA, where Reece had once served a stint as Writer in Residence.
Byron Herbert Reece is unquestionably the bard of the North Georgia Mountains, but his scope and his appeal are much wider. Though Reece was a product of and participant in his tiny community of Choestoe, his solitary nature as a writer, exacerbated by his tuberculosis, and his wider experience of the world afforded him a larger and more objective perspective on his community. His poems and novels together comprise a richly detailed narrative of an Appalachian farming community confronting the modern world as seen through the penetrating eyes of an intimate stranger. Would Reece have appreciated these musical settings of his poems? I can’t say. Thankfully I don’t have to fear his judgment, which could sometimes be pointed. I’d like to think maybe he would hear in some of them echoes of the old hymns and ballads he loved as a child. At any rate, I hope they do his life and his art some useful service.
The first two tracks on The Service of Song: