By DENNIS HEVESI
Published: May 1, 2010
The New York Times
One night in 1944, a high school girl with streaming red hair skipped onto the floor of a New York nightclub, perched on a high stool and said, “This is a zither.”
In her pure, sweet soprano, lilting to the twangy sound of that string instrument, Susan Reed soon enchanted the crowd with a range of folk songs, with lyrics like, “Black, black, black is the color of my true love’s hair.”
Within a year, Life magazine was proclaiming: “The pet of Manhattan nightclubbers is a chubby, freckle-faced redhead of 18 named Susie Reed. Three times a night, Cafe Society Uptown’s choosy customers sit enraptured while Susie sings old Irish, English and Appalachian ballads and accompanies herself on the zither or the Irish harp.”
And two years later, Alan Lomax, a renowned authority on American folk music, was hailing her as a leading voice in a rebirth of the genre. “One of the most heartening things about America in 1947 is the spring freshet of enthusiasm for native balladry and folklore that is running through the country from coast to coast,” Mr. Lomax wrote in The New York Times. “Big, dulcet-voiced Burl Ives from Indiana, Josh White with his South Carolina blues, Woody Guthrie with his Okie songs, Susan Reed with her Southern lyric songs have become nationally known.”
Barely more than five years later, however, Ms. Reed all but stepped off stage.
On April 25, Ms. Reed died at a nursing home on Long Island, her son, Reed Karen, said. She was 84 and lived in Nyack, N.Y., where for years she had owned a handicraft shop.
Susan Catherine Reed was born in Columbia, S.C., on Jan. 11, 1926. Although her parents, Daniel and Isadora Reed, were well acquainted with folk songs and tales, they were not country folk. Her father was a film director, her mother a theater publicist. A close family friend, the poet Carl Sandburg, regularly visited the Reeds in South Carolina as he compiled his folk anthology, “The American Songbag.”
Susie picked up tunes, as well as a zither, a harp and a lute. When the family moved to New York, she began entertaining at private parties and fund-raisers for wounded World War II soldiers recovering in Manhattan hospitals. Barney Josephson, the owner of the Cafe Society nightclub, spotted her and gave her her big break.
She went on to sing on radio and television, at Town Hall in New York, and at dozens of concerts a year around the country. She recorded for RCA Victor, Columbia and Elektra. In 1946, she appeared on Broadway in “Shooting Star,” a musical about Billy the Kid. And in 1948 she co-starred with Gene Krupa in the movie “Glamour Girl,” playing a backwoods girl who sings folk songs and is brought to the big city to perform.
But Ms. Reed’s full-time folk career lasted less than six years. She performed intermittently in the 1960s and ’70s, always starting by saying, “This is a zither.”
Asked why she walked away, she told The Times in 1971: “I was singing at the Palmer House in Chicago when I thought, ‘This is a rotten business.’ And I just turned off.”
Her son, Reed, said, however: “Although that may be true, the Red Scare also forced her to leave the limelight. She was involved with civil rights; her father had been a Communist. She was pretty much relegated to whistle-stop engagements in Podunk towns.”
Besides her son, Ms. Reed is survived by two grandchildren. Her marriage to James Karen, an actor, ended in divorce.
Out of the limelight, her voice a bit deeper, she still performed at the occasional fund-raiser. “Everyone with an organization who wants to put over brotherhood and peace,” she said, “they just call old Sue.”
A version of this article appeared in print on May 2, 2010, on page A32 of the New York edition.