Appalachia, Catlettsburg, Clyde Haley, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, fiddle, fiddlers, fiddling, Harts Creek, history, Irish lilt, Kenova, Kermit, Kevin Burke, Lawrence Haley, music, Nashville, Noah Mullins, Norfolk and Western Railroad, Patsy Haley, snap bowing, West Virginia, Williamson, writing
Nestled in Nashville, I worked obsessively on Ed Haley’s music. First, I made a real effort to transcribe it note for note and break it down “under the microscope.” Initially, I had tried to play it generally the way he did while keeping its spirit — with my own twists, of course, which is nearly impossible not to do. This time, though, I wanted to study it as you might a fabulous book — break it down, look at it mechanically… I made a huge discovery regarding Ed’s bowing during that time. With Lawrence’s help via telephone conversations, I deduced that Ed used what Scotch fiddlers call “snap bowing,” which is when you separate notes by applying pressure (“little stops”) with the bow — not by changing its direction. Of course, Ed didn’t use those patterns exclusively and mixed them with more conventional strokes.
I also spent a lot of time listening to Ed’s recordings and playing my versions of his songs into a tape recorder. One of the first things I figured out was that he used what fiddler Kevin Burke calls the “Irish lilt” to give his music a “dotted note feel.” It would be like playing a tune in triplets with the middle note taken out.
I also discovered that Lawrence was right about Ed not playing so many notes; instead, he created the illusion of doing so by phrasing his tunes in a way that gave them a nice “crooked” flavor.
Throughout these discoveries, Lawrence continued his role as my brutally honest fiddle teacher. His comments were surprisingly musical for someone who kept reminding me that he didn’t even play anything. When I played “Yellow Barber” for him over the telephone, he said, “That sounded right except when you get down to that low end, you’re doing a little skipping in there and it seemed to me like Pop played that a little bit smoother. Like he had a roll to his… And I noticed you had a few jumping notes in there that really I don’t remember hearing. Maybe you can hear them. Other than that, it sounded great to me.”
Lawrence seemed pleased with my playing of Ed’s “Catlettsburg”.
“That was good, John,” he said. “That was really good.”
I told him I didn’t know how Ed was able to get up into second position on that tune with the fiddle sitting at his shoulder.
“I always thought that he kinda controlled the violin with his thumb and the meaty part of his hand between his finger and thumb,” Lawrence said. “He could relax that up and down the neck of the violin or he could tighten that and he could still have the flexibility of his fingers, plus that give him the ability to rock that violin body underneath the bow, too.”
I was trying that and eventually got to where I could will my fingers into third position still holding the fiddle at my shoulder, which if you have to play for a long time is sure easier on the neck of the player.
I told Lawrence about talking with Clyde, especially about his memories of Ed mistreating him as a child.
“I don’t know, maybe my dad was mean to him when he was a young’n,” Lawrence said. “But I can’t remember my dad ever laying a hand on me to hurt me. I musta been a rowdy little kid ’cause it seemed like whenever Pop’d pick me up he’d call me ‘muddy duck’ because I was always dirty, I reckon, whenever he’d get a hold of me. He’d just rub my head or something like that and call me his ‘muddy duck.’ I don’t know where Clyde got his story from.”
Lawrence agreed that his dad sometimes abused his mother, although he placed a lot of blame for their marital problems on her.
“Well, he could be temperamental with my mother at times, but I think she was temperamental, too. I think my mother’s people had higher tempers than Dad’s people did. They seemed to be kinda quiet people. Noah Mullins was supposed to killed a revenuer up there at Harts. They waylaid a revenuer and they laid it on Noah, but Noah Mullins always seemed to me like just as quiet and as calm a fella as could be. But I had some of my uncles on my mother’s side, they were a little bit of a temperamental type of people. So I’d put some of the blame on my mother for her treatment of my dad. You know, a woman can upset a man and whip him quicker with words than he can whip her with his fists.”
I totally agreed, then asked Lawrence if he knew anything about the Muncys from Patsy’s genealogy.
“We’d ride the Norfork and Western train up from Kenova and stop at Kermit and stay there with Muncy people,” he said. “They lived in an apartment up over their store and filling station-type thing and they had one of them small monkeys. I went up there one day and got right at the top of the steps and was playing with that monkey and I musta made it mad and it made a rush at me and I musta jumped back and I went to the bottom of them steps. That made me remember it more than anything else. I can’t even remember that Pop played music while he was there for them. They mighta just talked. We used to stop there maybe and stay all night and Pop and Mom and me would go on to Williamson and they’d play at courthouse days or something there. Pop musta had people up in there, but he never said anything to me about it.”