accordion, Alan Jabbour, American Folklife Center, Appalachia, Ashland, Blackberry Blossom, blind, books, Charles Wolfe, Charleston, Clark Kessinger, Dick Burnett, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, fiddler, Fire on the Mountain, Forks of Sandy, Great Depression, guitar, Gus Meade, history, John Hartford, Kentucky, Ladies on the Steamboat, Lawrence Haley, Leonard Rutherford, Library of Congress, Logan, Man of Constant Sorrow, mandolin, Mark Wilson, Money Musk, Monticello, Murfreesboro, music, Nashville, National Fiddlers Association, Ohio, Parkersburg Landing, Ralph Haley, Rounder Records, Salt River, Tennessee, Tommy Magness, Washington DC, West Virginia, writers, writing
In the early days of my interest in Ed Haley, I did locate one enthusiast of his music. Dr. Charles Wolfe, a foremost country music historian at Murfreesboro, Tennessee regarded Haley as “a misty legend – perhaps the most influential of all the early eastern Kentucky traditional fiddlers…whose contributions [to country music has] been little known or appreciated.” Of the Haley recordings he had written: “The quality of the fiddling comes through even on these scratchy home recordings, and makes us wonder what this man might have sounded like in his twenties or thirties.”
Dr. Wolfe said Clark Kessinger, the famous fiddler from Charleston, West Virginia was a huge fan of Haley’s music. “Ed Haley, an old blind fellow, he was from over around Logan, close to the Kentucky-West Virginia line,” Kessinger said in an interview several years before his 1975 death. “Yeah, he was a great fiddler…he was a smooth fiddler. Oh, that Haley I thought was the best. Him and Tommy Magness used to play around Nashville, Grand Ole Opry.” There was a reference on Parkersburg Landing to Haley liking Kessinger’s fiddling, although he “once complained that Kessinger always shied away from playing in front of him.”
Clark Kessinger, born in 1896, was only slightly younger than Haley. He took up the fiddle at the age of five and was playing for dances when he was ten. By the twenties, he was a local radio star and recording artist. His career fizzled during the Great Depression, although the National Fiddlers Association declared him as the “fiddling champion of the East” in 1936. All of these accolades were in sharp contrast to Haley, who refused to make a commercial record for fear of having his music “stolen” and who sometimes shied away from contests because they were often rigged.
“Ed was always afraid the companies would take advantage of a blind man,” Parkersburg Landing claimed. “This suspicion also kept him from the folklorists recording in Ashland.”
In time, Kessinger was rediscovered. During the folk music revival of the sixties and seventies, he made appearances on the Today show, at the White House and even at the Grand Ole Opry.
Dr. Wolfe also mentioned Dick Burnett, the blind minstrel of Monticello, Kentucky. Burnett traveled extensively through the South with Leonard Rutherford during the early decades of the twentieth century. Haley played Burnett’s “Man of Constant Sorrow”, while Burnett credited him as his source for “Ladies on the Steamboat” and “Blackberry Blossom”.
“Ed Haley was the first man to play that in the State of Kentucky that I know of,” Burnett said, referencing the latter tune. “He was a blind fiddler in Ashland, Kentucky. I played in Ashland different times. He’d go down every day to meet the crowds comin’ in at the river. He was a good fiddler. He played that, and Bob Johnson of Paintsville, Kentucky, he learned it. I never heard any words to it. It’s just an old time hillbilly piece.”
Dr. Wolfe told me about Mark Wilson and Gus Meade, the two scholars who had produced Parkersburg Landing in the mid-seventies. He said they first heard about Haley from older fiddlers in the Tri-State region of West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio. Inspired by stories of his greatness, they located Haley’s son Lawrence in Ashland, Kentucky. Lawrence Haley had most of his father’s home recordings and he agreed to allow the Library of Congress to copy them. This led to the release of Parkersburg Landing in 1976 by Rounder Records. Since then, Lawrence had made it clear that he wanted to keep his father’s records only in the family. Dr. Wolfe suggested I contact him for more information on Haley’s life and music.
The next time I was in Washington, DC, I visited Gus Meade at his home near Alexandria, Virginia. Gus had spent years of his spare time at the Library of Congress making lists of fiddle tunes, fiddlers, and old-time recordings, scanning newspapers, documenting fiddlers’ contests, studying the evolution of tunes, and going on expeditions with fiddle-buffs John Harrod and Mark Wilson. I spent much of my visit looking through various manifestations of his research, most of which was congested in the basement of his home. He had more copies of Haley’s recordings than what was used on Parkersburg Landing, which he agreed to share with me so long as I didn’t tell anyone about it.
I next went to the Library of Congress to access its complete archive of Haley’s home recordings. I initially spoke with Alan Jabbour, head of the American Folklife Center. Alan had supervised the original copying of the records with Lawrence Haley. Within a few minutes, I was given a mimeographed list of Haley’s recordings, which included the following introductory notes:
Three 10″ reels of tape double-track at 7.5 ips. Copy of 54 original discs of Ed Haley, fiddle and vocal, Mrs. Haley, mandolin, accordion, and vocal, and their son Ralph Haley, guitar. Recorded April and September 1946 and (probably) other occasions by Ralph Haley. Lent for duplication by Lawrence Haley (son of Mr. and Mrs. Ed Haley), May 23-25, 1973. An interview of Lawrence Haley by Alan Jabbour (May 25, 1973) concludes the B-side of tape 3. The interview concentrates on the musical life of his parents, who were traveling professional musicians throughout eastern Kentucky and southern and central West Virginia during the first half of the 20th century. They were both blind and relied upon music for their livelihood.
Just before giving me access to the recordings, Alan warned me of their poor sound quality. He said the Library had secured the best copies possible by playing them on a special turntable with weighted tone arms and hi-tech filters and equalization but had been unable to overcome their general overuse and fragility.
A few minutes later, I was lightly searched – no recording equipment was allowed – and placed in a booth with a volume knob, where I communicated with an engineer on the other side of a wall by use of a talkback switch. Referencing the mimeographed list, I called out the names of Ed’s tunes one by one: “Forks of Sandy”, “Money Musk”, “Salt River”, “Fire on the Mountain”… As they played back to me, it seemed like they were coming through the radio on a distant station during a rainstorm.
Scott Spencer said:
Brandon, I have read that Dick Burnett got credit for first recording of “Man of Constant Sorrow”, and he wouldn’t admit if it was “his” song or not. John Hartford was the actual singer of that song and “Indian War Whoop” in the movie…..am I correct? So I have read that you/John give Ed Haley credit for the inspiration to use those in the movie….is this also correct? Wikipedia gives 2 different entries with conflict as to “who” gets credit for the song, “Man of Constant Sorrow”. I think this is a very old tune that Ed Haley added the words to, and then Burnett took it from there…..what is your opinion?
Brandon Ray Kirk said:
John and I located a statement from Burnett in which he says that Ed Haley was the first person he ever heard in Kentucky who played “Man of Constant Sorrow.” In other words, Burnett attributed the tune to Ed Haley. It’s worth noting that Ed Haley nor any of his family ever claimed that he composed the tune. For the “O Brother” movie, John sang “Indian War Whoop” as requested by the Coen Brothers. He was initially scheduled to appear at the end of the movie but could not do so due to poor health so the Coen Brothers located someone else to play his part. John managed to include Ed Haley’s version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” on the “O Brother” soundtrack. I was with John through this whole process. I attended the initial meeting in Nashville with the Coen Brothers and also was present in the studio for the recordings that were made under the direction of T. Bone Burnett. The version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” as played by Ed Haley and other eastern Kentucky fiddlers is not the same version that can be heard elsewhere. John made sure the movie credit attributed the fiddle tune version to Ed Haley so that royalties would go to a certain group of Haley-related people… But other than the statement by Dick Burnett, we did not locate any other source that indicated that Haley composed the tune.