Ola Belle Reed (FRC203)
by Thomas Polis (For further information go to www.olabellereed.com)
Ola Belle Reed was born Ola Wave Campbell on August 17, 1916, in Lansing, North Carolina. She was one of thirteen children born to Arthur Harrison Campbell and Ella May Osborne Campbell. The Campbell family ancestors had moved to the New River Valley of western North Carolina sometime around the 1760’s. Arthur Harrison was an educated man who spent his life as a schoolteacher. He also owned a general store and was a dedicated farmer during summer months on his farm in the New River Valley. The Great Depression brought a huge economic burden on the large Campbell family, and they followed many Appalachian mountain people to northeastern Maryland, where there was fertile farmland and it seemed easier to secure jobs. Music was an integral part of the cultural heritage on both sides of Ola Belle’s family. Her grandfather Alexander Bolivar Campbell was an early Primitive Baptist preacher and an accomplished fiddle player. Her father played fiddle, banjo, guitar, and organ and formed a string band, The New River Boys and Girls, with his brother Oliver Dockery, known as “Doc” and sister Ellen, in 1910. An uncle on her mother’s side, Herb Osborne, sang mining songs made popular in the coalfields of West Virginia. Her grandmother and mother sang ballads and topical songs in the traditional Appalachian style.
Ola Belle began performing professionally as a member of the North Carolina Ridge Runners. She played old-time banjo and guitar and sang for the Appalachian area audiences in the Maryland-Delaware-Pennsylvania area. By the mid-1930s, scores of music parks and picnic grounds had been established throughout the region, each with a sizable audience and concession money to pay and feed the house band.
“Back home in the summertime we had carnivals – they were the main thing – and little parks,” Ola Belle said. “They were so little that the few times the Ridge Runners played down there, we would be the only show there. I remember one time we came back on a Monday after playing one of these parks…. We played every half-hour all day ’til the park closed. Up here [in Maryland and surrounding areas] the parks were bigger and there were more of them, especially in Pennsylvania. There weren’t big music parks like that back home.”
After Ola Belle’s brother, Alex, returned from World War II, in which he served in the Army and was wounded during the invasion of Normandy Beach, he and Ola Belle became a musical team and formed their own country music band. It was named The New River Boys, a name derived from the group formed earlier by Ola Belle’s father, Arthur Harrison. Alex Campbell, Ola Belle, and The New River Boys broadcast over the radio on WASA in Havre De Grace, Maryland. The Campbell family later moved to Oxford, Pennsylvania, where they built a strong following, and they were featured on many radio programs over WCOJ in Coatesville, Pennsylvania and WBMO in Baltimore, Maryland. Alex and Ola Belle wrote over 200 songs and played hundreds more traditional songs that were featured over many other radio stations in the United States.
In 1945, Ola Belle was offered more than $100 per week, quite a good sum in those days, to join country music legend Roy Acuff’s band and backup group. Ola Belle declined the offer. Instead, she stayed home and married Ralph “Bud” Reed, who was also an accomplished local area musical performer.
In 1949, the music group The New River Boys was reformed. It consisted of Alex Campbell, who sang, played guitar and some fiddle, Ola Belle, who also sang and played banjo and guitar, Deacon Brumfield on the dobro, Ted Lundy on the 5-string banjo, John Jackson on the fiddle, and Earl Wallace on the upright string bass.
In addition to performing, the group sponsored many musical programs at a country music park called New River Ranch, near Rising Sun, Maryland. New River Ranch was one of the most active country music parks, bringing big-name bluegrass and country music stars to the area, along with featuring a vast amount of local talent. In 1960, the group transferred to Sunset Park, in West Grove, Pennsylvania, which acquired quite a reputation as one of the quintessential country music performance parks. The group performed there for 26 years, broadcasting their own Sunday radio program live from the park. In the mid-1960s the group was receiving national exposure on radio station WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia. They were heard throughout the entire eastern United States and even into Canada.
In addition to all of their radio and personal appearances, Ola Belle and Alex operated Campbell’s Corner, a general store in Oxford, Pennsylvania that, in addition to general merchandise and groceries, sold country and gospel records. In the back of the store there was a performance stage and a radio booth that Alex used to transmit his popular radio programs. Alex bought time from the large radio stations and broadcast remotely from the store. He was considered one of the best “pitchmen” in the radio industry. Alex and Ola Belle were on over 200 radio stations at one time and also made numerous appearances at local TV stations and musical festivals. Alex retired in 1984 but continued to keep himself busy transmitting his programs on radio station WGCB in Red Lion, Pennsylvania. He still spent much time at Sunset Park and in mail-order record sales.
Ola Belle continued to perform music with her family, including her husband and her son, David, often at informal gatherings tht she organized for her neighbors and friends. “I remember one time we were having a gathering,” she said. “Everyone was coming … we bought a new linoleum rug for the kitchen … and we played and they danced round and round. … And I’ll never forget, next morning – we never noticed it at the time – next morning, there was nothing left but black. They wore the whole top off.”
Through the years, Ola Belle wrote many, many songs about her Appalachian past and her commitment to family traditions, religious values, and social justice. In 1978, the University of Maryland awarded her an honorary doctorate of letters for her contributions to the arts and culture of Maryland and the United States. She was also recognized for her historical and musical contributions by the Smithsonian Institute, the Library of Congress, and the Country Music Association. In 1987, Ola Belle suffered a stroke, and she was bed-ridden until her death on August 16, 2002. She passed away one day before her 86th birthday.
In 1992, country music star Marty Stuart introduced Ola Belle’s song “High On A Mountain” on his “This One’s Gonna Hurt You” album, which earned Stuart and Ola Belle a Gold Record.
Ola Belle’s autobiographical song “I’ve Endured” perhaps best sums up her personal tenacity: “I’ve worked for the rich, I’ve lived with the poor; Lord, I’ve seen many a heartache, there’ll be many more; I’ve lived, loved and sorrowed, been to success’s door; I’ve endured, I’ve endured.”