Ashland, Big Sandy River, Blackberry Blossom, Blaze Starr, Bluegrass Meadows, Boyd County, Clark Kessinger, Dave Peyton, Delbarton, Duke Williamson, Ed Haley, fiddle, fiddler, fiddlers, fiddling, Georgia Slim Rutland, Grand Ole Opry, Hank Williams, Herald-Dispatch, history, Huntington, Jennies Creek, John Fleming, John Hartford, Kentucky, Lawrence Haley, Lynn Davis, McVeigh, Mingo County, Minnie Pearl, Molly O Day, Molly O'Day, music, Parkersburg Landing, Pike County, Pond Creek, Short Tail Fork, Shove That Hog's Foot, Skeets Williamson, Snake Chapman, Texas, West Virginia, Williamson
Early that summer, I was back at Lawrence Haley’s in Ashland with plans to visit Lynn Davis in Huntington, West Virginia. Lynn had been mentioned in the Parkersburg Landing liner notes as a source for Haley’s biographical sketch and was the widower of Molly O’Day, the famous country singer. Snake Chapman had told me that Molly and her family were close friends to Haley, who visited their home regularly in Pike County, Kentucky. I was sure Lynn would have a lot of great stories to tell about Ed. At our arrival, he was incredibly friendly — almost overwhelming us with the “welcome mat.” All we had to do was mention Ed’s name and he started telling us how he and Molly used to pick him up in Ashland and drive him up the Big Sandy Valley to see Molly’s father in southeastern Kentucky.
“That was back in the early forties,” he said. “We’d come to Ashland and get him at his home up on Winchester about 37th Street. They was a market there or something you turned up by and we’d go there and pick him up and take him up to Molly’s dad and mother up in Pond Creek, Kentucky — above Williamson. There’s an old log house up there — it’s been boarded up and sort of a thing built around it so people couldn’t get in and tear it up or something — but it’s falling down. He’d stay up there with Molly’s dad and mother for several days. They’d take him to Delbarton, a coal town over there from Williamson, and they’d just drive him around, buddy. Now Molly’s brother, he really loved Ed’s fiddling.”
Lynn was referencing Skeets Williamson, Molly’s older brother and a good fiddler by all accounts. Lynn showed me an album titled Fiddlin’ Skeets Williamson (c.1977), which referenced him as “one of country music’s more skilled fiddlers during the 1940’s — one of the best in his day.”
Skeets was born in 1920 at McVeigh, Kentucky, meaning he was approximately 35 years younger than Haley. As a child, he played music with Molly and his older brother Duke Williamson, as well as Snake Chapman. “During these years, the famous fiddler of Eastern Kentucky, Blind Ed Haley, became a tremendous influence on him,” the album liner notes proclaimed. “Skeets (along with Clark Kessinger) still contend that Haley was the greatest fiddler who ever played.” During a brief stint on Texas radio, Skeets met Georgia Slim Rutland, the famous radio fiddler who spent a year listening to Haley in Ashland.
I asked Lynn more about his trips to Haley’s home on 37th Street.
“We used to go down to his house and Molly’d say, ‘Uncle Ed, I’d just love to hear you play me a tune.’ Well he’d be sitting on the couch and he’d just reach over behind the couch — that’s where he kept his fiddle. He always had it in hand reach. So he would get it out of there, man, and fiddle.”
Sometimes Lynn and Molly would join in, but they mostly just sat back in awe.
“You’ve seen people get under the anointing of the Holy Ghost, John,” Lynn said. “Well now, that’s the way he played. I mean, I’ve seen him be playing a tune and man just shake, you know. It was hitting him. I mean, it was vibrating right in his very spirit. Molly always said, ‘I believe that fiddlers get anointed to the fiddle just like a preacher gets anointed to preach.’ They feel it. Man, he’d rock that fiddle. He’d get with rocking it what a lot of people get with bowing. It was something else. But he got into it man. He moved all over.”
Lynn said Ed was a “great artist” but had no specific memories of his technique. He didn’t comment on Ed’s bowing, fingering or even his fiddle positioning but did say that he mostly played in standard tuning. Only occasionally did Ed “play some weird stuff” in other tunings.
Lynn’s memories of Haley’s tunes seemed limited.
“Well, he played one called ‘Bluegrass Meadows’,” he said. “He had some great names for them. Of course one of his specials was ‘Blackberry Blossoms’. He liked that real good, and he’d tell real stories. He would be a sawing his fiddle a little while he was telling the story, and everybody naturally was just quiet as a mouse. You know, they didn’t want to miss nothing.”
What kind of stories?
“Well, I know about the hog’s foot thing. He said they went someplace to play and they didn’t have anything to eat and those boys went out and stole a hog and said they brought it in and butchered it and heard somebody coming. It was the law. They run in and put that hog in the bed and covered it up like it was somebody sleeping. And Ed was sitting there fiddling and somebody whispered to him, said, ‘Ed, that hog’s foot’s stickin’ out from under the cover there.’ So he started fiddling and singing, ‘Shove that hog’s foot further under the cover…’ He made it up as he went.”
The next thing I knew, Lynn was telling me about his musical career. He’d been acquainted with everybody from country great Hank Williams to Opry star Minnie Pearl. We knew a lot of the same people — a source of “bonding” — and it wasn’t long until he started handing me tapes and records of Molly O’Day and Georgia Slim Rutland. He said he had a wire recording of Ed and Ella somewhere, but couldn’t find it. He promised me though, “When I find this wire — and I will find it — it’s yours.”
Sometime later, he called Dave Peyton, a reporter-friend from the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, to come over for an interview. With Peyton’s arrival, Lynn (ever the showman) spun some big tales.
“Now, Molly’s grandfather on her mother’s side was the king of the moonshiners in West Virginia and he was known as ‘Twelve-Toed John Fleming’,” Lynn said. “He had six toes on each foot. Man, he was a rounder. Little short fella, little handlebar mustache — barefooted. He was from the Short Tail Fork of Jenny’s Creek. And the reason they called it that, those boys didn’t have any britches and they wore those big long night shirts till they was twelve or fourteen years old.”
Lynn was on a roll.
“I preached Molly’s uncle’s funeral. Her uncle is the father of Blaze Starr — the stripper. That’s Molly’s first cousin. In her book, she said she would walk seven miles through the woods to somebody that had a radio so she could hear her pretty cousin Molly sing. She was here in town about three or four months ago. We had breakfast a couple times together. She’s not stripping anymore. She makes jewelry and sells it. She’s about 60 right now.”