Abe Keibler, Adams County, Asa Neal, banjo, Blue Creek, Charlie Fry, Clark Kessinger, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, fiddle, fiddling, Great Depression, Harry Frye, history, John Hartford, John Keibler, John Lozier, Kentucky, moonshine, music, Natchee the Indian, Norfolk and Western Railroad, Ohio, Portsmouth, Sam Cox, South Portsmouth, West End Jubilee, Winding Down the Sheets, writing
About two weeks later, I called John Lozier, the harp player in South Portsmouth, Kentucky. I wanted to hear more about his memories of Ed in Portsmouth, Ohio.
“That there’s where I met Ed Haley at — sitting on Market Street back in about ’28 or ’29 playing for nickels and dimes,” he said. “And his wife had a banjo-uke of some kind. It was about an eight-stringed instrument, but it wasn’t a ukelele and it wasn’t a banjo. And she was blind. They raised five children.”
I had some very specific questions about Ed’s fiddling, which John answered in short measure. I wondered, for instance, if he was a loud or soft fiddler.
“When Ed played, he played so soft and so low that you had to listen,” he said. “It was just like pouring water through a funnel.”
Where did Ed Haley put the fiddle?
“He put it up under his chin.”
Did he play a long bow or a short bow?
“I think he used all of his bow. In other words, he didn’t waste any of it. He played an awful lot of hornpipes.”
I asked John about Asa Neal, the great Portsmouth fiddler whose skill was preserved only on a few cassette tapes floating amongst an “underground” network of old-time music enthusiasts.
“Asa Neal was a good fiddler and he copied after Clark Kessinger,” John said. “He lived over here in Portsmouth and worked on a section on the N&W. I don’t know how he played as well as he did — fingers clamped around them old pick handles all day long. He was kindly rough and a little loud, but he could play a lot of fiddle. Lord, I’ve eat at his house many a time.”
I asked John if Ed knew Asa Neal and he said yes, then added, “Ed Haley and them used to get in a contest when they used to have the West End Jubilee down on Market Street in Portsmouth and Clark Kessinger would come down. Someone asked Charlie Fry one time, said, ‘What are you gonna play?’ and he told him. He said, ‘Well, Clark Kessinger’s gonna do that.’ He said, ‘That’s all right — I’ll use that rolling bow on him.’ Charlie Fry, he had a boy that was a tenor banjo player and he was good. His name was Harry Frye.”
John seemed to regard the Keiblers — who were apparently his kinfolk — as the best among local fiddlers.
“I remember Uncle John Keibler,” he said. “Uncle John Keibler was the best fiddler they was in the country. He was another Ed Haley — he played all of his life. ‘Winding Down the Sheets’, now there’s an old Keibler tune. Did you know there’s one of the Keibler boys up here yet left that plays? Abe Keibler. Lives right above me about four mile in a housing project up here at South Shore. He’s got sugar awful bad, but he’s one of the younger ones of the old set. He’s one of the boys of the seven I told you about and they all played. Now one of them has got the old fiddle that Grandpa brought over here from Germany. Made in 1620 or 1720. A Stradivarius. Abe’s boy’s got it.”
I asked John if Ed knew the Keiblers and he said, “I don’t know whether he did or not. He knew the Mershon boys that lived over on Pond Creek and around over in there. They was a bunch of Mershon boys that played fiddle and banjo there. Some of them were pretty good and some was rough. They was good for a square dance, but they couldn’t play with Ed Haley.”
John was on a roll: “At one time, they was more good musicians around Portsmouth — during the Depression — and they wasn’t no work and they just sat around and played cards and drank a little moonshine and got good. None of them ever went anyplace. And they was just some great fiddlers. Sam Cox, he was a banjo player. You know Natchee the Indian? He lived down around Blue Creek somewhere in Adams County. He’d play the bow over the fiddle and under and upside down and lay down… But Ed Haley never did do that. Ed Haley would just sit and roll it out just as smooth — just spit it right out on the street for ya. Smoothest fiddler I ever heard.”