Asa Neal, banjo, Birdie, blind, C&O Railroad, Charlie Mershon, Chet Rogers, Clark Kessinger, Clayt Fry, Community Common, Devil's Dream, Dinky Coffman, Dominique Bennett, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, Elmer Lohorn, fiddle, fiddlers, fiddling, Girl I Left Behind Me, Great Depression, Harry Frye, history, Jason Lovins, John Hartford, John Lozier, John Simon, Kentucky, Kid Lewis, music, Norfolk and Western Railroad, Ohio, Portsmouth, Portsmouth Airs, Portsmouth YMCA, Ragtime Annie, Roger Cooper, Roy Rogers, Russell, West End Jubilee, writing
A little later, I met John Lozier at Portsmouth. He was a real ball of energy. It was hard to believe that he was in his late eighties. I just sat back and listened to him talk about Ed.
“The first time I ever saw Ed Haley he was sitting on the street in a little old stool of a thing — him and his wife — had a little boy with him. They always kept a little boy with them — one of the kids that would lead them here and there and yander. And I didn’t know this but a fella by the name of Charlie Mershon was there and the Mershons are all fiddlers. They live over here in Ohio somewhere. And Charlie went home and told his dad, ‘I heard a man that could out-fiddle you.’ He went over and he had to take his hat off to Ed. But Ed had long, slim fingers like a woman and he played so soft you just had to listen. He was a great fiddler.”
I asked John to tell me about playing with Ed at the Portsmouth YMCA.
“A fella by the name of Dinky Coffman was the head of the entertainment committee at the N&W over here in Portsmouth,” he said. “Well, whenever Dink Coffman would want us to have a little shindig or whatever you want to call it he would take us over in the shops at the N&W at noon. They was about seven hundred people worked over there at one time. And nickels and dimes — whatever they could get — that’s the way Ed Haley made his living. It had to be a rough life. Of course, back in the twenties you make a dollar, honey, you could wrap it ’round a corncob and be nigger rich. And the last time I played with Ed Haley was at the YMCA at the C&O Russell yards.”
I asked John how Ed looked back then and he said, “Ed was a little old short pot-bellied feller. He had an old brown hat on as well as I can remember and just an old brown coat and a pair of britches. He didn’t dress like he was going out on vaudeville stage or anything. His wife would take Braille with her and read Braille for a little extra entertainment. She played a banjo-uke — eight string, short neck — but she just played chords. Mostly me and her would play and she would second after me. One time, we went up to the Russell yards at the YMCA up there and she accompanied me on the piano. I never knew any of the kids.”
John asked to see my fiddle, so I lifted it out of the case and reached it to him. He said to his wife, “Oh, Lord. Look at this. Isn’t that done pretty? My granddad made fiddles and he used three things: a wood chisel, a pocketknife, and a piece of window glass. All he bought was the fingerboard and the apron. And he made little wood clamps and wedges. He wouldn’t let me pick up the fiddle — afraid I’d drop it and break the neck out of it. And I started playing old fiddle tunes on a harp.”
Not long after that, John pulled out his harmonica and played “Devil’s Dream”, “Portsmouth Airs”, “Birdie”, “Girl I Left Behind Me”, and “Ragtime Annie”.
I joined in every now and then, which prompted him to say things like, “You’re putting something extra in there,” or “You missed a note. See that?”
To call him feisty would be a huge understatement.
At one point, he said, “I’m trying to tell you something. You’re gonna be here all day. This is my day.”
A little later he said, “I don’t know if you know what you’re doing or not, but you’re putting a few little slip notes in there. You put more notes in that than what Ed would have put in it. You’ve been listening to Clark Kessinger records.”
John opened up a whole new facet of our conversation by mentioning Clark Kessinger, who he’d heard play one time at the West End Jubilee on Market Street in Portsmouth.
“Clark Kessinger was a hard loser in a contest,” John said. “If he lost, he’d just stomp and carry on something awful.”
Clark came to Portsmouth and played a lot because of the great number of musicians in the town during the Depression.
“I come into Portsmouth about the time that Roy Rogers left here,” John said. “Now he had a cousin that was a better guitar player than he was: Chet. He had a little neck like a turkey. And him and Dominique Bennett, Clayt Fry, Elmer Lohorn… Elmer Lohorn was the only man I ever seen that played ‘companion time’ on the guitar. It was a double time — everything he done was doubled. And Harry Frye was a fine tenor banjo player. We had one guitar player by the name of Kid Lewis — was a smart-alec — and he could play classical stuff. But they just sat around and played cards and drank moonshine and got good. Asa Neal was, I’d say, our champion fiddler around here. Asa Neal bought ever record that Clark Kessinger ever put out.”
At that moment, John Simon, a local folklorist, showed up with Roger Cooper, a Buddy Thomas protégé. I got Roger to play the fiddle while I seconded him on my banjo. John Lozier jumped in when we weren’t playing something “just right.” At some point, Jason Lovins, a local newspaper reporter, dropped in with a camera and asked a few questions. He promised to plug my interest in Ed’s life in the Community Common.