Article MT016

Nat Reese

Life and music in west Virginia

I was introduced to Nat Reese ten years ago by folklorist Joan Fenton, who researched black music in West Virginia during the 1970's.  Nat and his wife Bessie have since opened their hearts and Mercer County home to me during several visits.  I have always been impressed by how Bessie's warm practicality balances Nat's wandering, artistic nature, and the wonderful ways they have kept each other going through difficult years.

Protracted conversations with Nat have revealed his strong grasp of local history, which he views without heavy judgments or bitterness.  His story spans a period of great social and technological change, especially during the decades of the 1920's and '30's.  This was the wide-open era of boom towns and labour camps, when Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith and many others toured through the coalfields 'meeting the paydays'.

As a struggling young musician, Nat was in the thick of exciting changes and heart-breaking recessions.  His music playing took him to every corner of southern West Virginia, from roadhouses and house parties to uptown 'white only' clubs, where "you could play dance music for the people all night, and then the man would refuse to sell you a sandwich on the way out."

And though Nat describes the kind of inhibition that results from such abuses, he met the world around him undaunted, with courageous enthusiasm.  You will feel here the warmth in which Nat wraps his stories, and sense his optimism as you smile at his wit and turn of phrase.

The recorded conversation from which this article grew occurred at Nat's home in Princeton in June 1981.  Here, Nat relives his experiences growing up in the coalfields and traces his development as a musician.

I was born in Salem, Virginia, on Water Street, 1924.  My dad was Thomas Reese, Sr.  My brother, he was Thomas Reese, Jr.  My sister is Barbara Lee Reese, which she's a McClanahan now, lives in Mullens.  And old Nathaniel - me - old Nat.  N H Reese.

Did your family come from the deep South?

See, my father was born in Birmingham.  Everybody was migrating, looking for work.  He got as far as Salem, Virginia, and he started working for a coal and ice company in Roanoke.  So he bought a home in Salem.  He would do custodial work in the evening for the women's college there, Hollins College.

He started him a little restaurant there on Water Street, oh, about a block down the street from where we lived.  He'd sell soft drinks and had two pool tables there.  He paid a guy to run that while he would drive a truck for the coal and ice company.

And then he heard of all the money that people was making out here in the coalfields.  You know how rumours go - you can shake money off the trees!  So he decided he'd kind of like to shake a couple of these trees.  He came out here and worked on the Virginian Railroad for about 58 years, and he still didn't find that money tree.

In '28 he moved us from Salem to Itmann, West Virginia, which is in Wyoming County, down below Mullens.  Then we moved back up here to Princeton.  And then we moved from here back to the coalfields, and then came back again.

At that time, you know, jobs were pretty plentiful.  I'll tell you what was really good about the coalfields at that time: if you could play music or play baseball, you could get a job.  They would make you a job.  one of the workers, all he had to do was go to the bank boss and tell him, say, "There's a good ball player here needs a job." And they'd give him a job picking bone, (the shale or other impurities in coal, which was removed by hand in the days before mechanical processing plants) or anything, just to keep him there to play, because the quartets and choirs and baseball teams were the main goal at that time.

All those mines wanted to keep the people happy.  And they knew to let them sing and have a good time, play ball.  They'd get a bulldozer to push the slate dump off and flatten that slate dump and make a ball field out of it.  And on Sunday evening it'd be more people there than you could get into one of these parks you see around here, people all up the side of the hill looking at that baseball game.

And those guys played a whole lot better ball, some of them did, than the major leaguers now getting two and three million dollars a year.  I'm not lying.  Some of these players now couldn't hold a light to those players, boy!  Those guys back there then would run a hundred-yard dash in, oh, 9.2, 9.3, 9.5.  They were doing that here in 1935, '36.  That's right.  It was awful swift fellows, yeah boy.  Awful swift.

Did you play ball yourself?

I played after I got up some size, after we came up here.  I never played in the coalfields because I was too small then.  I sang in a quartet with the grown guys then.  They always needed a tenor and, see, my voice hadn't changed and I had a soprano that they could use.  I think that's how I got into that religious singing.  They called it gospel music at that time.

Of course my dad, he played the guitar.  My mother, she played the accordion.  But after he got his fingers all mashed up working in the coal, he quit playing and didn't play any more.  He just played long enough to show me a few chords, and I went from there on my own until I moved up here to Princeton.  That was in early '36.

I met a fellow called Mitchell Gordon.  He was young, too, about three years older than I, and he was just a natural, he was a born musician.  He could write it, play it, any instrument.  Well, he started me.  And he said, "If you're going to play, you could play well by ear, but let's play by music."  So we started burning a lot of midnight oil then.  We'd work together at the Elks Club down here, and then after the club would close, we'd stay up and practice music until 4:30 and 5:00 in the morning.  Then we'd sleep about three or four hours and then we'd open.  We'd stay at that club all night long.  It'd be in the wintertime a lot of times, and snow on the ground.  It was warm in there and so we'd just stay there.  We had to clean the club up and open it at 9:00 the next morning.  Then he'd go home and change clothes and come back, and then I'd go home and change clothes and come back, and we kept the ball rolling.

You're not talking much about hardship through the Depression in your own family.  You seem like you got by.

Well, I'll tell you, it was rough.  It was rough.  But it wasn't as hard on my family as it was on a lot of people.  Now I remember my dad, he'd work to 10 hours, and he wasn't making but $2.64 a day.  And he would take part of that and give people dinner and food, and buy food and pack them lunches when they were hoboing.  If you came to the door he'd give a meal and pack you a lunch to help you on your way.

I never can remember being barefooted in the wintertime.  I had new shoes in the winter, and I wanted to go barefooted in the summer.  He'd always buy me a pair of shoes for Sunday school.  If I didn't go to Sunday school there was no playing.

See, that was one of those things back there then.  It wasn't so much what you had.  It was what you did with what you had.  Most of those people, they had a running account with the company store.  You've heard that old Tennessee Ernie piece, I Owe my Soul to the Company Store?  There's many a man never seen the light out of that deal.  They were good workers and they worked for years and years.  The company knew they was good for the money because they proved themselves worthy of working, you know.  You could get anything you wanted.  And if you needed some money, it was always a way they could fix it so you could get the money, and you'd pay it back in payments.  It's just one of those things

When I came along they didn't have all this machinery and stuff in mines.  We had machines that cut in some mines, and in some mines you had to cut coal with a pick.  And when you went into the mines the bank boss says, "Bring me a cut of coal or bring your tools." You know what that means? You clean up the whole cut, or you don't have any job.  That's right.  And he didn't pay for no rock.  The time that you took to load that rock and carry it outside and dump it, you didn't get anything for.  You just got paid for the coal.

So how old were you when you first went in the mines?

Oh, I first went in about 17 or 18, somewhere along in there.  I would work a while and then I would go to school, and then I'd work a while and then go to the railroad.  I guess I had about eight years in the mines, something like that.  I worked in a lot of small mines up this way, you know, these little one- and two-horse mines up here in Matoaka.

Back, say, in the early '40's and back in there, boy, you had to do your own shooting.  You'd blow your holes, cap up your own powder, and boy, that put out a smoke and a gas that was hard to inhale.  And you'd have to get that out and move that rock.  Oh, you'd have to go back on that powder.  You shoot it and then you take your shovel, a No. 4 shovel, and fan the smoke, to go back in there so you can hurry up and start loading, set your timber and start loading, you see.

And you had to do your own brattice work.  Brattice is nothing but burlap, you've seen burlap bags.  It was cut in great big sheets and you would nail it on the posts, on your timbers, and that's how you got air to the coal face where you worked.  And it didn't work good.  Now, I'll just tell you, it didn't work good.

Well, now they got a law, said you must have 10 years, or better, or you wouldn't have black lung.  Well, two could be loading in a place, and that dust would be so bad 'till I couldn't see you over there.  I know you're over there because I can hear you shoveling, but I can't see you.

And, oh my God! you cough that stuff up.  I bet you the last mine I worked in, it was three years afterwards that I was still coughing up black.  And I don't know how many years that it was just brown, just like I was chewing tobacco, or something.  Two or three years of that is black lung.  I've got it now.  I passed my test for it.

Were there a lot of black people from the South coming into southern West Virginia in the late '30s and early '40s?

The biggest part of them was already here.  I'll tell you what they were doing.  The young ones was growing up and having more children, and they were just multiplying more.  The biggest of the migration from the South in the late '30s went to Michigan, Chicago and New York, places like that.  You see, those people that run the foundries and steel mills and things like that, would send buses all the way south and bring those people up, because they were hard workers, brother.  Now, you take a man that's been working for 75 cents a day, and you give him $3.50 to $4 and $5 an hour, that man's going to really put out some work.  You see my point?

Many of the black families here got pretty well established.  Now what they did during that time, they would move around.  You'd find them leaving, some leaving the coalfields and coming this way, some leaving here and going to the coalfields.  Well, see, some younger ones would marry, they'd leave here to go to the coalfields and go to work, where some of the older heads had worked themselves out.

But a lot of them would drift in here because this is a border.  This is the border part of our state, you see.  You can just come right across the line from Virginia or Tennessee.  I mean, because it's just a hop, skip and a jump.  They just easily drift into here.  This was called for years the gateway to the coalfields.

It was a lot of people that come in and stayed 10, 15 years, and moved, just kept going, go somewhere else.  They would maybe come in here and stay six or seven years and then go on down the line to Logan.  And then, maybe seven years later, you'll run into him in Beckley, or somewhere, and he says, "I settled in Logan," or, "I settled in Glen White on the other side of Beckley." Something like that.

But they were mostly musicians.  I'll tell you what.  We had what they called a dance band, but we played jazz, and then we played polkas.  We played blues.  It wouldn't be the regular, what you call alley blues, or cotton field blues.  It wasn't the regular Delta blues, see.  There's a difference in Delta blues and, say, sentimental blues.  The original blues did originate in the Delta bottom, between Louisiana and Georgia in different communities down there.  When it began to travel through Chicago, different ones would leave from there and come this way.  They'd come in here and begin to kind of modernise it a little.  They'd make it smoother.  Make a lull, or put more feeling in it.

By the mid-'30's there was a whole class, I guess, of traveling professional musicians?

It was.  And they was the poorest bunch in the United States.  Man, you didn't make a lot!  People wanted to hear, but they didn't have the money.  They didn't have the money to pay for the music.  Oh, when you made $10 to $12 a night apiece, you have made a lot of money.  You have made a lot of money.

And yet the famous musicians did come into the coalfields, Bessie Smith and ...

They traveled all around.  Now I seen a time when Duke Ellington came over here and played at the Hillbilly Barn, between here and Bluefield, for $500.  Well, you couldn't get his band, several years before he died, under $50,000 or $100,000 for a night to save your life.  And I think when he was getting the $500 he played better music, really, in a way, because he was in his prime then.  Ah, that was Duke Ellington, Tiny Bradshaw, Count Basie, Jimmy Lungford, the Woody Boys, and Gene Krupa.  He was with Benny Goodman then.

They came over here to what they called dance halls then.  They would come and have dances there, and it would be people all the way from Charleston come in here to hear it.  You'd get people out of 18 or 20 counties.  You'd see white in there mixed in it, yeah.  Yes sir.

What were some of the wide-open places in the coalfields then?  People have talked to me a lot about McDowell County's Keystone, for example.

Yeah, Keystone was open.  Wide open.  Cinder Bottom.  That's where I was playing the night the guy shot through the guitar.

We were playing and the people were having a good time and dancing and somebody got to arguing, a sailor and some guy got to arguing, and somebody shot.  I felt a tug and when I looked down it was a hole there, and in the back of it was a hole there.  I got up and politely made it to the door and pointed to the guitar and told them, I says, "Someone has shot a hole in it and I won't be back!"  I went out and got in the car and locked my door, and I didn't go back any more.  That seemed to have been a warning to me.  And I tried to heed it.  Well, they stood around and tried to see if anyone was hit, or anything.  And then they went on and played the rest of the night.

Tell us a little more about what people mean when they say Keystone was wide open.

Well, someone was killed down there about every week!  There was gambling, hustling, numbers playing, prostitution.  You could buy whiskey - any kind you wanted: Scotch, bourbon, good moonshine, bad moonshine, almost-good moonshine.  And home brew.  Every other door, or every three or four doors there was a house you could buy whiskey, or something else.  And if that's not wide open, I don't know you would call it.

And see, the law at that time was ruled by the biggest company that's there.  It was a politician deal.  People had no say-so, much.  The politicians say "I'm getting money from that place and that place and that place, so don't you bother them.  As long as nobody ain't hurt or nothing, just pass on by." Well, that went on.

There was a lot of places like that the coalfields here.  Lester was that way, over near Beckley.  And of course, you know Charleston was that way for years and years and years.  And, uh, Logan, Welch, Northfork, Keystone, Bramwell, Switchback.  A lot of times, places like that gets a name only according to who's telling it, you know.  Logan was as open as Keystone was, really.

What kind of music was made in those places?

Piano music, mandolin, guitar, the small bands - three, four, and six pieces.  And the blues - you would hear them at what they called house parties.  On Friday nights one house would have beer, home brew and whiskey, and they would hire someone to play, or two people to play guitar.  And they'd have one of the biggest house dances ever was, boy!  People'd be dancing everywhere.  A man'd knock the paneling out of between two rooms and make one great big space.  People would get in there and dance just the same as they was in a ballroom, boy, at the Holiday Inn!  Yes sir.  And they would dance all night long, as long as the music was there.

Of course, when you seen one house party you seen them all.  They were no different, wasn't nothing but a couple of walls knocked out, where you'd have enough room to jitterbug.  That's what they called dancing back in that day, it was jitterbug.  It was swing, and then jitterbug, and then they went to doing the Big Apple, and Susie Q and all that, you know.  And they started doing the shuffle, the slow drag.  They did the two-step and they waltzed, and they just kept progressing.  Somebody find out they could dance a little bit faster, and there you go.

Everybody knew who they were dancing with at that time.  You disco now, and everybody's out there doing their own thing.  I don't know who is with who, when you look out there.  And I don't think they do, either, part of the time.  I think they start with one and end up with another.  It does look like that.  Of course, I know who they come with, you know, but it does look awful far between.

People would sell fish, chicken, barbecue, chitlins, all such stuff at the houseparties.  You'd be surprised at the money people have made.  People have made their living and got well-off doing that, because, you see, during that time they were building the railroads through Wyoming County and on to Virginia.  And they had boxcar loads of people come from east Virginia, work on the railroad.  They called them "extra gang men."

Biggest of those people were single, and they'd line those rails and ties and lay track.  Those guys made that money, and they spent it just like they made it, brother!  It was good money, because they made a little bit better than the average worker at that time, which was $5.18 for 10 hours.  That was a lot of money then, because you could get a two-pound box of sugar for seven cents, eight cents.  So that's what made the great difference in the economy at that time.

The first time I ever played anywhere out in my life, I was about nine years old.  My father bought me an instrument, it was bigger than a ukulele, but smaller than a regular guitar.  They called it a tiple and it had 10 strings.  In Mullens, they gave some kind of shindig there, and one of the men who worked for the foreman on the railroad, a white fellow, heard me sitting on the porch singing and playing that tiple.  He went down there and told.  And they asked me to come down and play on that show and told me, said, "You don't have to play but one song." And I think I played ten songs before they let me off that stage.  I was nine years old then.  Me and my little tiple.  That's right.  The first song was Corrine, Corrine, because that was a popular piece back then.  I can remember he said, "You won't have to play but one song."

My father started me off in the key of C, playing pieces like Corrine.  You remember that old piece?  Years ago you heard people singing it.  The Preacher and the Bear, that type of thing, and Shanghai Chicken,  those pieces.  Now they are real old pieces, and the biggest of them were played in the key of C.

But we don't play them now, a lot of these pieces, like the people played them originally, because those pieces were given from one person.  Then another person got a little different style and he'll play it a little different.  And it keeps a bobbing, and after a while you got about nine different styles of that one song, and it's about that long, when it was about this long in the beginning.  Of course, now, you take pieces like Stardust, and How High the Moon, and Blue Moon, and stuff like that Mood Indigo, Solitude, September Song, and all those pieces - ain't too much variation you can put to them, you know.  They really hold their own, because a lot of those pieces never die.  Oh - I'll say two centuries from now people will still be singing Stardust. That's right!  One of the beautifulest pieces ever wrote.

But at that time I played a whole gob of songs, you know.  I'd keep setting around and go from one song to another.  I'd learn a whole lot off the radio, see.  Everybody had them old Philco radios.  Well, on Saturday nights the only entertainment you had was to listen to the Grand Ole Opry.  And they'd have Amos 'n' Andy and Ozzie and Harriet, Arthur Godfrey, and like that, you know.

And I always was waiting for the Grand Ole Opry,"see.  D Ford Bailey blowing the fox trot, or fox hunt, or whatever he called it.  Boy, that guy could blow a harp - one heck of a harp blower.  You could almost see that fox running in front of them dogs.  And Uncle Dave Macon, he played the old thumb-type banjo, you know, he played like Grandpa Jones do now.  And of course, Minnie Pearl.  Arthur Smith was a young man.  He was playing on there then.  And Homer and Jethro, they were going strong.

What did you think about programs like Amos 'n' Andy, about the way black people were portrayed?

Didn't think anything about it.  It was just something that went on and that was it.

Did you think it was funny?

Yeah, it was funny.  It was funny.  If I heard it now it would still be funny.  But I'll tell you what.  It was just like Santa Claus.  When I first heard it I thought they was really coloured.  Really!  But they were white, both of them.  And, buddy, they had that dialect down 100 percent.  If you didn't see them you'd never know.  It surprised the heck out of me!  Really, I didn't believe it until they had a newsreel in the Royal Theatre down here, and I seen them.  I said, "Well, I'll be doggone." That was just one of them things.  Now, those guys were showmen.  They were really showmen.  These people now call themselves show people, but back there then you really had to have something to give, or else it didn't work.

What instruments did you take up after the tiple?

I went from the tiple to the guitar, and from the guitar to the piano, from the piano to the organ.  From the organ I went to the bass viola, and from that to a standard string harp, concert harp.

Where did you play that?

Over WHIS - Bluefield.  I picked it up, first time I'd seen one for years, when I was over there playing one night with Bill Harmer.  He played piano with us for years.  But every Saturday night from 10:00 to 10:30, Bill would play blues, sentimental music, jazz and like that on the radio.  So he asked me, said, "You ought to come on and play with me sometime." Said, "That would give me a great back-up."  So I started going with him and I played with him for over two years, every Saturday night 10:00 to 10:30.  They had a harp over there, and I asked the announcer one evening, I said, "Is this thing in tune?" And he said, "I guess it is.  Got too many strings on it for me, I don't know whether it's in tune, or not."

And I just started playing around with it, and I got so I could play bluesey on that thing, boy.  yes sir, and it just come natural.  Just come natural.  I could play anything, you could hum anything and I could play right along.  Yes sir.  I think that is really the beautifulest music you'd ever want to hear.

Tell me about the band you played in.

I'll start with the guitar, we had a guitar.  We had two trumpets.  The alto sax player, he would rotate backwards and forth, alternate.  He would play the clarinet.  And boy, he was some musician, too.  We had the bass, the piano player, the drums, and we had a tenor saxophone player, and at one time we had two alto sax players.

We first started out with a stand-up bass, and then we tore a kitchen cabinet out, old kitchen cabinet, and got us some Elmers Glue, took a neck off a guitar and made us a bass.  We went downtown and bought us a DeArmond attachment amplifier, you know, what you used add to old flat-top guitars.  And at that time you could buy a DeArmond amplifier for about six or seven dollars and it was made better than the ones you buy now for 20-some dollars.  And we hitched that up to that bass, and we had a lap bass instead of a stand-up bass.  We finally ended up going back to the stand-up because it had more volume.  That stand-up bass is really beautiful.

Wasn't but nine people in that band.  But now we played for the Elks Club, country club, and places like that.  Now, these house parties, when they had their little bands they very seldom had a drummer.  It would be maybe a mandolin and two guitars, just two regular guitars and a tenor guitar.  And you'd be surprised at the music those guys could make.

We had to sign a contract for most jobs.  I'm not lying, they wanted contracts back there then.  I know one time we had contracts for a dance hall in Christiansburg, Virginia.  We started down there, and there was two carloads of us, and one of the cars broke down.  We traveled together and we wouldn't leave the other.  And the contract was for $360.  That was on a Friday night, and it was hard to get anyone to work on your car.  Everybody was out in them beer joints, and you couldn't get nobody to work on no car.

Finally we got a guy to come and pull it in.  We was closer back this way than we were to Christiansburg, so we come on back.  And we had to pawn our instruments downtown to get the money to pay that contract off.  See, that man done sold all them tickets and things.  He had to give them tickets back, and he wanted his money, boy!  And we ended up paying that $360.  Yes, we did.  That was a lot of money back there at that time, but we all pooled together and made it.  Then we played three or four places, and then it wasn't too hard on nobody, see, because we taken that money and just put it back in there, covered what we borrowed.

Was that a totally black band?

Yeah, at that time it was.  But when we played for the Elks Club or over at the country club in Bluefield, there was a number of white would come up and play with us.  A lot of the white ladies, if they wanted to play they come, say, "Let us sit in a little bit with you." We'd tell them to come on.

We played sheet music, we wasn't playing by ear.  Back there then you couldn't fool the people.  Now a lot of the guys out here, they don't know one side of the sheet from the other.  But, you see, back there then you set up and you played for a dance.  Somebody liable to come up and bring you a whole full illustration, got a part for everything in it.  They'd say, "Play this piece for me, and I'll give you $50 or $75." Well, now, if you can't read, you don't play the piece, see.  We would practice all during the week, at night and in the evenings.

Where'd you work during the day?

Bar-tending here in town at the Elks Club.  I was a cook and a bartender.  Steaks, salads, chiffon pie, marble cakes, German chocolate cakes.  And I was a second cook at the MacArthur Hotel in Pearisburg, Virginia, for almost two years.  That was years ago, though.

At that time we would practice a lot at the Elks Club because it was the availability of a piano there at all times, see.  One man would take care of the bar-room while the others practiced.  Or a lot of the club members down there, they would say, "We'll take over for you for three hours or so." Because we played for their dances, too.  So they was helping theirself when we practiced.  The more we practised, the better we were.  It worked out real good.

Did you ever play any songs related to coal mines, or were you trying to forget about mining when you had a guitar in your hand?

It never crossed my mind.  Well, really, to tell you the truth, I was in another world, because when I was playing music nothing else was on my mind but music at that time.  You could walk up and say something.  You might have to speak to me three times before I'd know you were talking with me.

Did you ever think of music as a way out of the coalfields?

Well, I'll tell you.  At the time I came along, it wasn't what you knew, it was who you knew.  If you was at the right place at the right time, you had it made.  And if you wasn't, shame on you!  And then in your traveling, ah, where you really made you money was at the places frequented more by white people.  There was a lot of people there would dance to your music all night long - and the owner of the restaurant wouldn't sell you a sandwich after you got through.

So if you had a place where you can make a living, you wouldn't turn that loose.  See, I married young, and you don't just grab a wife and a couple of kids and tear off down the road, you know.  It don't work like that.

And, see, it's a lot of rough stories, boy.  It's not near like it is now.  Transportation was bad.  The old cars run good while they run, but they didn't last too long.  You could take a piece of baling wire and a screwdriver and a pair of pliers and keep one on the road.  But you didn't come by them too fast.

And so many places - where now you can go, you can get your foot in the door, or you can go talk to the manager - you wasn't allowed to walk in then.  They had a WHITE ONLY sign up there and you couldn't go in there.  So in fact you were, well, inhibited.  Inhibited in the beginning.  And, so, you'd either have to know someone that's there to help you, or else you're better off staying in the coal mine.  A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.  You mess around and don't have no bird at all!

Michael Kline - 19.2.98
Photos - Michael Keller
First published in Goldenseal magazine, 1987

Article MT016

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