Bonaparte's Retreat, Brooks Hardway, Clark Kessinger, Dusty Miller, Ed Haley, Emery Bailey, fiddler, fiddling, French Carpenter, Gerry Milnes, history, Jimmy Johnson Bring Your Jug Around the Hill, John Cottrell, John Hartford, Laury Hicks, Lost Indian, Mississippi Sawyer, music, Old Sledge, Sally Ann Johnson, Sally Goodin, Sol Carpenter, Spencer, Stackolee, Ward Jarvis, West Virginia, writing
After listening to Gerry’s tape, I gave Brooks a call. His voice was extremely weak compared to the 1988 interview, indicating that his health had taken a turn for the worse. As I introduced myself and tried to explain the reason for my call he told me to speak up because his hearing wasn’t very good. Just when I figured he hadn’t heard a word I said, he remarked, “I’ve got a lot of tapes of you, John. I’ve been listening to you for twenty years.” He also had Ed’s record, which he said was a good representation of his fiddling.
“It had his zip on the bow,” Brooks said. “The record that I’ve got was made off of some old discs that his wife had saved. They was a record man visited him and talked with him and wanted him to make records but at that time they just paid you for it and that was it. And Ed said, ‘I won’t make a record unless you give me royalty on it. You’ll have to give me a percentage of what you make on it.’ So he never made no records.”
I wanted to know more about the “zip” in Ed’s bowing, but Brooks didn’t remember any specifics.
“No, at the time I met Ed Haley I was just a big young boy entering into manhood,” he said. “But I’ll never forget Ed Haley and his fiddle as long as I live. My my, he fiddled fast. He had the smoothest bow hand I ever heard. Soft as silk — soft as a woman’s voice. And he had fingers like a baby. You see, he never did work any. I think he went blind at about nine years old.”
I asked where Ed positioned the fiddle when playing and he said, “He held the fiddle high on his shoulder. Not on his arm nor not up under his chin.”
As for Ed’s tunes, Brooks said, “He played these old Clay County-Braxton-Calhoun-Gilmer tunes. These old John Cottrell tunes — ‘Mississippi Sawyer’. The old-time ‘Sally Goodin’ — mercy mercy he could play ‘Sally Goodin’. And ‘Sally Ann Johnson’.”
I asked Brooks where he used to see Ed and he basically repeated what he had told Gerry Milnes about him playing at the courthouse in Spencer, West Virginia. I wondered if there was a crowd around him.
“You betcha there was a crowd,” Brook said. “Generally, they was ten or fifteen men standing around up as close to old Ed as they could get. He was sitting on a chair and had that tin cup on the arm of that chair. Them nickels and dimes was just cracking in that tin cup. I even put a quarter in his tin cup. Course he’d empty it every little bit. That was back in the late 20s, early 30s. You take a tin cup half full of nickels and dimes and you could buy a pretty good sack of groceries with it. It wasn’t like it is today.”
In spite of Ed’s popularity, no one in the crowd danced.
“Them old farmers wouldn’t hit a lick with their feet,” Brooks said.
Brooks said he never heard Ed play the banjo but got really excited when I asked him about his singing.
“Oh, I’m glad you mentioned it,” he said. “The first time I heard ‘Stackolee’, Ed Haley played it and sung it sitting in the courthouse yard at Spencer. Now I’m telling you, he could make you hump up when he’d sing that song. And he knew it the old original way. That’s the first time I ever heard a man sing with a fiddle. Back in that day, it was seldom you heard a man do that. French Carpenter, he was a good singer with the fiddle. He was a good old-time fiddler. His daddy was named Solly Carpenter. Old Sol Carpenter’s favorite was Emery Bailey. He was fifty years ahead of his time.”
I asked if Emery Bailey was as good as Ed Haley and Brooks said, “He wasn’t as good as Ed Haley by no means. Ed Haley was far ahead of everybody at that day and time. But Emery Bailey was one among the best of the fiddlers in Calhoun-Braxton-Clay-Gilmer Counties. Now, there’s a contemporary of Ed Haley — have you heard of Clark Kessinger? He could fiddle just about… Well, not as good — there was nobody could fiddle as good as Ed Haley could, but I’ll tell you, Clark Kessinger could come close to him.”
Brooks pointed out that being a fiddler in those days wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
“No, at that time the fiddle was looked down upon. People wouldn’t fool with a fiddler,” he said. “The fiddle seemed to be a disgrace. You take a man going along the road with a fiddle and he was looked down upon and talked about.”
Things got kind of quiet, then I asked him if Ed played a tune called “Jimmy Johnson Bring Your Jug Around the Hill”.
“Oh, you betcha,” Brooks said. “Ward Jarvis learned to play that just about as good as Ed played it, too. Ward Jarvis was among the best fiddlers in the country.”
Brooks said Ed also played “Dusty Miller” and “Lost Indian”. He played everything in the standard key.
“Now you take a lot of tunes that some of our country fiddlers — Laury Hicks and Ward Jarvis and others… French Carpenter. They would tune their fiddle and put it up in A — they called it the high key. Ed never changed his fiddle that I seen.”
Brooks didn’t remember Ed playing some of his most famous cross-key pieces, like “Old Sledge” or “Bonaparte’s Retreat”.
“Now them’s Sol Carpenter tunes that you’re talking about,” he said. “That’s back a generation behind Ed Haley.”