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Established in 1806, Giles County was named for William Branch Giles who served in Virginia in the US and Virginia legislatures before being elected Governor of Virginia in 1827. Giles is known for some of the best hiking in the Southwest Virginia region with The Cascades trail, as well as home to the famous Mountain Lake Lodge where Dirty Dancing was filmed. In addition to the beautiful outdoor recreation opportunities, impactful heritage musicians also are from this county, including James Henry Reed and John “Uncle” Homer Walker.
Born in 1884, Henry Reed was a fiddler and banjo player of traditional music that resided in Glyn Lyn. Though he never had a professional career, his influence spread because of Alan Jabbour, his apprentice and member of The Hollow Rock String Band. The Hollow Rock String Band recorded many of his tunes, including one of his most notable compositions called “Over the Waterfall.”
Reed’s repertoire of various styles of music and the unique way that he held his fiddle with the left hand were both impactful and documented though many recordings by Alan Jabbour. These recordings reside in the Library of Congress as part of the Digital Collection titled Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection. Reed’s influence continues to this day through the annual Henry Reed Memorial Fiddlers Convention held in Newport, VA.
Glyn Lyn was also home to John “Uncle” Homer Walker, who was an old-time banjo player. He rose to popularity starting with folk music revival of the 1960s.
His father was a banjo player and his entire family learned stringed instruments including the fiddle, mandolin and guitar. He started performing in the 1920s and included old-time black spirituals and folk tunes taught to him from his grandfather, a former slave, who had taught him how to play clawhammer banjo. Beginning in the 1960s, he started appearing at folk festivals including the John Henry Folk Festival and the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife. He was also the subject of the documentary film Banjo Man in 1977 and had featured recordings on Virginia Traditions – Non-Blues Secular Black Music and Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia.
Pearisburg, VA is currently home to The Giles Mountain String Band, a 4 member old-time band that credit Reed as a major influence in their playing. The group consists of Chris Via on banjo, Angie Via on bass, Dean Reed, youngest son of revered fiddler, Henry Reed, on guitar and Bill Blevins on fiddle.
Photo: Henry Reed playing the fiddle, accompanied by Bobbie Thompson of the Hollow Rock String Band on guitar, at the Narrows (Virginia) Fiddlers Contest, summer 1967. Photograph by Kit Olson, reproduced with permission.