Appalachia, Armco, Ashland, banjo, Billy in the Lowground, Blackberry Blossom, Brownlow's Dream, Cacklin Hen, Clyde Haley, Dill Pickle Rag, Ella Haley, fiddle, fiddler, fiddling, Flop-Eared Mule, history, John Hartford, Kentucky, music, Roy Clark
Clyde’s memories of Ed playing in contests were much more detailed than anything I had heard from the other kids.
“I’ve seen him go to contests and look like a farmer and he won every one he ever got into,” he said. “He’d go down to the Armco there in Ashland — they’d put up a bandstand up there — and when they’d have contests they had these eight or ten fiddlers up on the stage and he’d be up in all that mess. He fiddled with some of the best that there was in that country in that particular part of the time. I know he had a lot of people used to come to the house and play music with him.”
I asked Clyde what tunes Ed won contests with and he said, “Well, ‘Cacklin’ Hen’, ‘Billy in the Lowground’ and tunes like that. Not any particular ones. He could play any kind of music if he knew it. If he knew the words, he could make music like nobody you ever heard in your life. He had one tune called the ‘Flop-Eared Mule’. I remember ‘Brownlow’s Dream’, ‘Blackberry Blossom’ and ‘Dill Pickle Rag’.”
Gradually easing into specifics, I wondered if Ed held the bow in the middle or out on the end.
“It would depend on what kind of music he was playing,” Clyde said matter-of-factly. “I’ve seen him hold a fiddle bow down at the end, where the hair hooks up. Depending on the tune, the fastness of the tune, he could hold a bow anywhere he wanted to.”
Did he bow with short strokes or long strokes?
“Well, it would depend on which way he was sitting,” Clyde said. “If he was sitting on a chair with his right leg put out far… He never held the fiddle like anybody else I ever saw. He held it way low on his chest, almost down to his belt-line. My dad had long arms, you know. He was a long, thin man. We have a tendency to want to exaggerate a little bit and say he was bigger than he was, but I knew him pretty well. His hands were real thin — looked like a piano player. He could finger that fiddle like nobody you ever heard or saw.”
I asked if Ed picked the banjo and Clyde said, “Oh, yes. He was better with a banjo than he was with his fiddle. It didn’t have a thumb-string on it. I tried to learn how to play the banjo, too, but I never could do any good at it. Well, my mother bought me a fiddle in the store somewhere and she tried to get me to learn how to play the fiddle because she knew she was gonna be dead one of these days and him too and she wanted to have all that music made for posterity. My mom didn’t want me to do it, but my dad wanted me to. He called me his favorite son and said he wanted me to carry on his tradition. I tried, but I got my fingers cut off when I was a lot younger — two-thirds of my first and second fingers on my left hand — and that messed me up from noting. Ralph was the one that played with my dad a lot. He played the guitar like Roy Clark played. He had a big Martin guitar that was a double-header and he could play on both necks of it at the same time. Ralph was a good musician. He died in 1945.”
Clyde talked a lot about Ed being a drinker, which was something Lawrence kind of kept “under wraps”.
“He was a rip-snorter, don’t think he wasn’t,” he said. “You know, he could be pretty boisterous when he wanted to be. Ed Haley was a mean person — believe me he was. I loved him… He used to take me because he knew I liked to go with him. He would give me a drink every once in a while. He knew I got to liking that and he’d take me with him just about everywhere he went. I think he was the one who got me to drinking too when I was a kid and it’s the worst thing I could’ve done. Course I had no control over it then.”
I asked Clyde what Ed’s drink of choice was and he said, “Whiskey. He wasn’t a beer drinker much, or wine. He didn’t go much for that kind of stuff. He drank moonshine when he could get it, and he generally got it.”
Clyde had seen Ed drunk but said it didn’t hurt his fiddle playing.
“I think if anything, it made it better.”