8th of January, banjo, Battle of New Orleans, Black and Jet, blind, Clyde Haley, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, fiddle, history, Indian Squaw, John Hartford, Lawrence Haley, Lost Indian, mandolin, Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind, measles, moonshine, music, Paddy on the Turnpike, Pigeon on the Gate, Portsmouth, Reader's Digest, The Lightning Express, U.S. Army
Clyde paused, then asked, “Did Lawrence show you them pictures of my dad? Did you ever see him in that big coat?”
Before I could answer, he took off again, “He wore that long as I remember about him, and he’d go to the bootlegger and get him a pint of moonshine — one in each pocket in that overcoat — and he’d go over to Portsmouth. I’ve seen him have an old clay pipe in his coat pocket and he smoked that when he was out playing anywhere. He smoked Strader’s Natural Leaf Tobacco. He’d take out his pocketknife and chop it up real fine and put it in his pipe. He also chewed Brown Mule tobacco and he carried a tobacco can in his pocket to spit in. He always had a cane with him. Always. He’d feel with it. That was his ‘seeing eye-dog.’ And if anybody’d look him in the eyes, his eyeballs were real messed up from the measles. That’s exactly what put him blind. My mother had a accident with her daddy’s wagon. He had a carnival wagon. I think she started out in her life teaching kids, but then she had so many kids herself she got away from that. She could’ve been a music teacher.”
Clyde said, “I wish you could’ve known him personally. He could pin you down somewhere and tell you stories that you wouldn’t believe could happen. And I’ve thought a lot of times about things he told, and it had to be true ’cause how else could they happen without somebody really knowing it?”
I kept hearing these references to Ed’s story-telling abilities and was becoming somewhat fascinated. “What kind of stories did he tell?” I asked Clyde.
“Well, just like a hillbilly mountaineer, you’d get him started on a story and he wouldn’t quit,” Clyde said. “He was a storyteller’s storyteller. I tell you, he could tell some big ones. My dad could walk you down talking the Bible and he wasn’t a religious man. Well, my mother would read that Ziegler Magazine, you know, and that was a lot like blind people’s Reader’s Digest. My mother would read to him. They’d sit for hours and hours at a time and he’d drink and she’d read the magazine to him. Used to be so much of it, it would get monotonous.”
Right away, I thought Clyde’s memory of Ella reading to Ed for hours as he drank was one of the best lines I’d heard up to that point. I mean, it really told an incredible amount about their life at home. As I thought about that image, Clyde told about his father playing music on the streets.
“My dad done most of his street playing over there in Ironton,” he said. “And he didn’t like to go out on the street and play with my mother. He didn’t like to go anywhere with her. It made him feel lower than he was. My mother played a mandolin. She had an old five-string Gibson banjo, too. One of them short ones. Banjo-mandolin, they called it.”
Clyde said Ed sometimes put out a hat for money when he was playing on the street, but never a tin cup. Ella did that.
“She had a Army drinking cup — one of those old-time tin cups,” he said. “My mother would put it out because my mother played an accordion, too. Things like ‘Stackolee’, ‘Black and Jet’… My mother and my father sang that. They had a duo, you know. Did you ever hear ‘The Lightning Express’? About the conductor on the railroad and he got run over by that train in the end of it?”
I hadn’t, so I asked Clyde to name more of his father’s tunes.
“‘Forked Deer’, and all the old-timers,” he said. “He was real well-versed in most of them.”
What about “Indian Squaw”?
“‘Indian Squaw’?” he said. “Yeah, yeah. He knew ‘The Lost Indian’ and all the old tunes like ‘Paddy on the Turnpike’ and ‘Pigeon on the Gate’. And he even made one tune for my brother Lawrence called ‘8th of January’ and that was one of the best tunes I ever heard him play.”
Of course, “8th of January” was an old fiddle tune commemorating Andrew Jackson’s victory against the British at the Battle of New Orleans — not Lawrence Haley’s birthday — but it sure was interesting that Clyde made the correlation.
How about waltzes? I asked.
“Well, he knew quite a few of them, you know,” Clyde said. “He was a fiddler’s fiddler. Most of his tunes that he played, my mother played with him on piano or an accordion. And my dad, you could call the name of a tune, and he knew it by heart. He didn’t have to study about it, he just played it.”