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Not long after visiting Ugee, I received some great information in the mail regarding Rector Hicks, a fiddler and nephew to Ed’s friend Laury Hicks. Rector grew up watching his uncle Laury play the fiddle.
“Rector was born out in the country around Chloe, Calhoun County, West Virginia, in 1914,” Joe LaRose wrote in Traditional Music and Dance in Northeast Ohio (March 1985). “His father was a good mouth harp player, but no one else in his family played music. Rector learned from fiddlers who lived in his area, beginning to play the instrument when he was around ten years old. Rector learned a lot from time spent with a distant cousin, Laury Hicks, a generation older than Rector and one of the foremost fiddlers in the area. ‘I don’t know of a fiddle player, really, that played like him. Ed Haley said Laury was the best fiddler he ever heard on the old time tunes, you know, and old fast ones. Hisself, he said that. And I always thought he was.'”
While at Laury’s, Rector Hicks also had the opportunity to see Ed.
“He was hard to figure out,” Rector told LaRose. “When I was around him most I didn’t know too much about fiddling, and a lot of that stuff I could pick up now if I was around him. How he got all that in there with his bow like he did you’d never believe it. He just set there this way (passes the length of the bow back and forth across the strings) but everything seemed like it just come in there. If you’d hear him play… Now that record, that’s not Ed Haley. That’s him, but that’s no good. You don’t get a lot of what he puts in. But he puts every note in that thing. His left hand, his fingers just flew. But his right hand… He just set there and his fiddle laid on his arm, set there and rocked. That’s the way he played. All them fastest tunes he played, didn’t seem like he put any of the bow in hardly. But it was all in there.”
Rector seemed to idolize Haley, at least according to Kerry Blech, a fiddling buff and friend of mine.
“Rector, when he was a teenager, had saved up some money and got him a pretty good fiddle and when Ed would come and stay at Laury’s house Rector would always come over,” Kerry wrote. “For a couple of years, Ed would tease him and say, ‘Well, I really like that fiddle you got, Rector. We should swap.’ And once he did and went off and played in some other town, then came back through about a week later and got his fiddle back. Rector said he was just really thrilled to’ve had Ed’s fiddle for even a week.”
As Rector got older and learned more about the fiddle, he really patterned after Haley’s style.
“Rector’s approach to playing has much in common with Haley’s,” LaRose wrote of Hicks. “Like Haley, Rector holds his fiddle against his upper arm and chest and supports it with his wrist (he does not rock the fiddle under the bow, though, like Haley did.) Rector uses a variety of bow strokes. Like Haley, he uses the length of the bow, sometimes playing a passage of several notes with one long stroke, deftly rocking the bow as he plays. He will accent the melody at chosen times with short, quick strokes. Rather than overlay the melody with a patterned or constant bow rhythm as some dance-oriented fiddlers do, Rector adapts his bowing to the melody of the particular tune he’s playing. Much of the lilt and movement of his tunes is built into the sequence of notes played with his left hand.”
Rector apparently kept in touch with Ed’s family, who he sometimes visited long after Haley’s death, and was very disappointed with the quality of fiddling on the Parkersburg Landing album.
“When I met Rector in the mid-70s, the Haley LP had just come out and Rector called me up to tell me it was awful,” Kerry wrote. “He said it was not representative of the man’s genius. He told me that he knew the man, and although many years had passed, the Haley genius was still in his mind’s eye. He also said that there were many other home recordings beyond what Gus Meade had copied. He said that Haley’s children had split up the recordings, that Lawrence had a number of them, and that a daughter, who lived in the Akron-Canton area, had over a hundred of them, and that Rector occasionally went over there and listened. He said that the family was irritated by how the Rounder record came to be and did not want to be involved with any of us city folk any more, afraid that someone would exploit their father’s music.”
At that time in his life, Rector mostly played Tommy Jarrell tunes but also several Ed Haley tunes, like “Birdie”, “Sugar in the Morning” (“Banjo Tramp”), “Ragpicker Bill”, “Black Sheep”, and “Staggerlee”.
Just before Brandon and I left, Ugee told us about the last time she saw Ed. It was the late 1940s and he lived on 45th Street in Ashland. Aunt Rosie Day made the trip with her, but warned her that the chances of hearing any music were slim because Ed and Ella had played little music since Ralph’s death.
“Oh, well,” Ugee told her. “They’ll play for me or I’ll tear his house down.”
She could tell upon arriving at the Haley home, though, that Ed and Ella were “different people.” When she asked to hear some music, Ella said, “We ain’t got nothing to sing about anymore.” Aunt Rosie kinda took the hint, saying to Ugee, “Well, we better go home now.” But Ugee refused, saying, “No, I’m staying all night. The fight’s on.”
Ella tried to appease her by getting out the homemade records (which were already scratched up), but Ugee said, “Ed, you’re talking to the wrong woman. You’re going to play music tonight or we’re gonna break your music box. Now get your fiddle and get your mandolin and let’s hear some music. The fight’s on.”
She said Ed threw his head back and laughed with a “big chaw of tobacco” in his mouth, then said, “I reckon we might as well play for her. She ain’t gonna shut her mouth till we do.”
Ugee admitted that she “was really carrying on awful.” When Ed started playing, “he played some of the saddest things that I ever heard. You know, he was down in the dumps – and Ella, too. It didn’t even sound like them. I let them play three or four and I said, ‘Now I’m tired of that stuff. I don’t like that stuff.’ That ain’t music at all.’ It didn’t sound like them. I said, ‘Now, I want some music.’”
Ed whispered to Ella, “Watch this,” then went all out for “Calhoun County Blues”. Ugee took off dancing and Ed “got to laughing” and then fiddled up a storm.
“That’s the first time they’s been any laughing and going on in this house since Ralph died,” Ella said.
A little later, “Ed said he was getting sleepy. He was wanting to go to bed, but he didn’t want to go to bed and leave me and Ella setting up in there. He kept saying, ‘Well ain’t you fellers getting tired?’ I said, ‘No we ain’t a bit tired.’ And I’d punch Ella. I said, ‘Not a bit in the world.’ Ed said, ‘Ugee you ain’t got any more sense than you ever had.’ And I said, ‘Well, you don’t act like you know too much, either.’ Well, we got in there and went to bed and we laid there and talked and carried on and laughed. I was sleeping with Ella and he was over in the other bed. He said, ‘Now I’m a going to sleep.’ I said, ‘Well, quit your laughing then.’ He said, ‘I wish you’d shut your mouth.’ Well Mom came down the next day from up in Calhoun County. I didn’t tell them she was a coming. You ought to have heard Ed and them tell how I came down there and picked on them. Mom said, ‘You ought to run her off.’ He said, ‘I tried to but she didn’t have sense enough to leave.’ And then he got to playing some music. And I said, ‘He don’t know how to play. He’s lost all of his touch. And Ella, she can’t play the mandolin,’ and all that kind of stuff with them. And Ella said, ‘You know we haven’t played any since Ralph died.’”
Ugee’s visit apparently cheered Ed and Ella up, because they tried to get her to stay all summer. Ed told her, “That’s what we need down here,” but she teased them about being “dead people” and said she’d never do it.
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Ugee said, “I never will forget the first time I seen Ella. I’d fixed cabbage for supper — big head of cabbage. Next morning, Ed said, ‘Where’s the cabbage?’ I said, ‘Well you don’t want cabbage for breakfast.’ ‘Oh,’ Ella said, ‘We love cabbage for breakfast.’ I went and got that cabbage and heated it up. I wish you’d a seen her eating that cabbage. I didn’t know anyone ate cabbage for breakfast. I was a fixing eggs and bacon.”
Brandon asked about Ella’s appearance.
“Ella wasn’t no bad looking woman at all,” Ugee said. “She was a nice looking woman, I thought. When I seen her, she had had three kids and she was a little heavier then. She kept herself nice-looking. She liked to wear nice dresses and she liked to wear hose. You’d be surprised to see her wash them kids and clean them. Now really you would. She’d pick them kids up and say, ‘Come here, you’ve got a dirty face.’ How she knowed they had a dirty face, I don’t know.”
I asked Ugee if Ed ever got into any fights, because his face looked lop-sided in one of his pictures.
“Aw, he’s fell a lot of times,” she said. “I’ve seen his boy Clyde and that Ralph — wasn’t his son, but he called him his son — I’ve seen them lead him across logs and let him fall down and laugh about it. Yeah, they didn’t care for doing anything like that. No wonder when he’d get up, if he could get to one of them, he’d whoop one of them. They was into everything. I never seen Lawrence or Jack either one into anything. But you turned Ralph or Clyde loose anyplace, they might ‘weigh’ chickens and kill your chickens. Maybe put a string around their neck and hold them up and maybe kill two or three hens — choke them to death. Why, Ed’d get mad. Ella would, too, over things like that. She’d say, ‘My, my, my.’ They’d run in and grab their purse and take their money. Ella’d buy anything they wanted.”
Even though Ed’s kids treated him rough, Ugee said he “liked to joke and talk and laugh. I never seen Ed Haley mad but once in my life. Me and him almost fit, too, that time. He whooped Clyde. He oughta whipped Clyde but not like he did. Clyde aimed to jerk him off the porch. If he had, he’d a killed him. And he jerked his belt off and he went to whooping Clyde. And he was whooping hard. He was trying to beat him to death. I walked out on the porch and said, ‘That’s enough, Ed.’ And he said, ‘Damn him. He tried to kill me.’ I grabbed a hold of the belt. He said, ‘Ugee, let loose of it.’ I said, ‘I ain’t letting loose of it. You’ve whooped him enough and I don’t want to see no more of that. While I’m living, don’t you ever hit one of them kids with a belt. I don’t allow that.’ He said, ‘I’ll whip them with a belt when I’m damn good and ready.’ I said, ‘You’ll not whip them here — not like that.’ I mean, he was beating him.”
Brandon asked if the other boys were mean to Ed or ever got whipped and Ugee said, “Clyde’s the only one I ever seen him whoop. They was about to send him to reform school — stealing, I think. He musta been about fourteen years old. That there Ralph, he was ornerier than… That Ralph even shot hisself with a gun to see how it’d feel to be shot. That was up where we lived. My mother doctored him. Mona, she was ornery. She’d steal off her mom. Take stuff out and destroy it. She was pretty as she could be. She’d just look at you as if to say, ‘I’ll do as I please.’ Ed swore she was just like her aunt on her mother’s side. And Noah was sneaking — dangerous sneaking. He was into everything and he’d lie. Noah was awful bad about gambling.”
Ugee really contrasted Ralph, Clyde, Noah, and Mona with Jack and Lawrence.
“Jack and Lawrence was gentlemen,” she said. “None of them come up with Lawrence, far as I’m concerned. He would lead his mom and dad anyplace. I can see how careful he was. That little hand of his leading his mother around this mud hole, ’round this log and stuff. Really, I’m not taking up for him because he’s dead or anything like that. I always called him ‘my little boy.’ He was always littler than the rest of them.”
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I asked Ugee if Laury ever listened to the Grand Ole Opry and she said, “Yes. He got to hear it the year before he died. He got a radio. Let’s see, what is his name? George Hayes. We had Hayeses that lived down at Arnoldsburg. And he brought Dad up a little radio when Dad was down sick.”
Now, did Ed Haley ever hear the Grand Ole Opry?
“Oh, yes. He heard it down in Kentucky.”
Did he like it?
“No. He went to Cincinnati one time. They was a gonna make records — him and Ella — but they wanted to pick out the one for him to play. Nobody done him that a way. So he said, ‘I’ll pick my own.’ He went to Nashville once. I don’t know as he went to the Grand Ole Opry but he went to Nashville. Somebody drove him, took him down. But when he found out what they done, he didn’t have no use for that.”
Ugee made it clear that she had missed out on most of Ed’s wild times. She knew nothing about his running around with people like Doc White or chasing women. She did say he was bad about telling “dirty jokes.”
“Many a time he’s told me, ‘All right, Ugee. You better get in the kitchen. I’m gonna tell a dirty joke.’ And he’d tell some kind and you could hear the crowd out there just a dying over it. Ella’d say, ‘Mmm, I’ll go to the kitchen, too.'”
I asked Ugee about Ed’s drinking and she told the story again about her brother Harvey giving him drinks to play “Sweet Florena”. She sang some of it for me:
Oncest I bought your clothes, sweet Florena.
Oncest I bought your clothes, sweet Florene
Oncest I bought your clothes but now I ain’t got no dough
And I have to travel on, sweet Florene.
After finishing that verse, Ugee said, “That’s part of the song. And Ella didn’t like to hear that song. I think it reminded her of some of his old girlfriends or something. And she didn’t like for him to play ‘Buttermilk Mountain’, either. He’d throw back his head and laugh. She’d say, ‘Don’t play that thing. I don’t want to hear that thing.’ But she’d second it. She’d draw her eyes close together.”
Brandon asked Ugee about her aunt Rosie Hicks, who was Laury’s sister and a close friend to the Haley family. She said Aunt Rosie was working in Ed’s home in Catlettsburg when she met Blind Bill Day (her sixth husband) during the early years of the Depression. It was a rocky marriage, according to Rosie’s only child, Nora (Davis) Martin.
“I was gonna tell you about him hitting Aunt Rosie,” Ugee said. “He came through the house and Aunt Rosie was upstairs quilting and all at once — Nora said she was in the kitchen cooking — and she heard the awfulest noise a coming down the stairs and said, ‘Mommy had old Bill Day by the leg and was bringing him bumpety-bump down the stairs, dragging him. Got him in the kitchen. He just walked up and hit her with that left hand right in the mouth. She just jerked his britches off of him and started to sit his bare hind-end on the cook stove — and it red hot.’ And Nora said, ‘Oh, Mommy, don’t do that. You’ll kill him.’ She said, ‘That’s what I’m a trying to do.’ And she grabbed her mother and him both and jerked them away from there.”
Ugee was more complimentary of Day’s colleague, Jean Thomas.
“I’ve got cards from her and letters and pictures,” she said. “I’ve been to her house — stayed all night with her. She was nice. She was too good to Bill Day. She spent money on him and give him the name of Jilson Setters. Sent him to England and he played for the queen over there.”
Brandon wondered if Bill Day was a very good fiddler.
“Well, I’m gonna tell ya, I stayed all night with Aunt Rosie and Bill Day one time,” Ugee said. “They lived on 45th Street in Ashland, Kentucky. My brother took me and my mom down there and he hadn’t seen Aunt Rosie for a long time. She’d married again and she lived down there in Ashland, Kentucky. And we aimed to see Ed and Ella, but they was in Cincinnati playing music. That’s who we went to see. So Harvey, he filled hisself up with beer. That’s the first time I ever seen a quart bottle of beer. Anyway, we went up there to hear Uncle Bill play. Harvey laid down on the bed like he was sick. He wasn’t sick: he wanted me just to listen to that fellow play that fiddle. He knowed I’d get sick of it. And he played that song about the Shanghai rooster. I never got so tired in my life of hearing anything as I did that. He only played three pieces. Harvey laid there, he’d say, ‘Play that again. I love it.’ And I had to sit there and listen to it, ’cause I didn’t want to embarrass him by getting up and walking out. I walked over to Harvey and I said, ‘You’re not sick and you’re not tired, so you get up.’ Said, ‘Ugee, I’ve got an awful headache. I drove all the way down here.’ I said, ‘That bottle that you drank give you the headache, so you get up and you listen to your Uncle Bill.’ He went to the toilet. I said, ‘I’m telling you right now — you’re gonna listen to Uncle Bill if I have to listen to him.’ Harvey said, ‘I’m not listening to him no longer. I’ve heard all I want to hear of Uncle Bill.’ I got Harvey up and then I run and jumped in the bed and I covered my head up with a pillow. But we stayed all night and Aunt Rosie went home with us. She told him she’s a going up to Nora’s, but she went to Calhoun with us in the car, and I reckon while she’s gone old Bill tore up the house. I don’t think they lived together very long after that ’cause it wasn’t very long till she come back home. It was home there at my dad’s.”
Brandon asked if Day ever played with Ed in Calhoun County and Ugee said, “Oh, no. If he had, Dad woulda kicked him out.”
Okay, I thought: so Laury had no tolerance for lesser fiddlers. What about Ed?
“Ed Haley, if somebody was playing a piece of music and they wasn’t hitting it right, he’d stick his hands in his pockets and say, ‘Goddamn, goddamn,'” Ugee said. “Dad’d say, ‘Boy, ain’t he good?’ Ed would cuss a blue streak. Then after the man was gone, whoever it was, Dad and Ed would go to mocking him. Dad and Ed Haley was like brothers. They loved each other. Ella and Mom, too. Jack was the baby the first time I seen Ed after he was married. They was expecting Lawrence, so they named him after my dad. Then when she had Mona, why instead of calling her Minnie, she named her after Mom.”
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As Ugee spoke about her life, I pulled out the Laury Hicks fiddle and began to play. For Ugee, hearing it painted pictures and conjured up images from long ago. Her eyes teared up, full of emotion and melancholy.
“I never thought I’d hear Dad’s fiddle played again,” she said, after I played one tune.
For the next half-hour, I played for her, intermittently asking things like, “Did you ever hear Ed play ‘The Star Spangled Banner’?”
“I certainly have.”
What about “Dixie”?
“Oh my god, yes. Him and Dad both played ‘Dixie’.”
Did they play “West Fork Gals”?
“Oh, yeah. I don’t think they was any fiddling pieces back then they didn’t know.”
Before putting the fiddle back in the case, I asked what Ed did when he needed repairs on his fiddles.
“They didn’t work on their fiddles very much,” Ugee said. “They kept their fiddles in good shape. I’ve seen Dad string the bow hair off a horse’s tail. Seen him do that a many a time. He’d string up the bows for Ed, too. Dad could do all of that.”
Did Ed trade fiddles a lot?
“Oh, yeah. Anybody that came along. He’s been there with three or four. He used to come and try to trade some of them off to Dad. Sometimes Dad’d trade with him, sometimes he didn’t. I’ve seen my dad have as high as seven fiddles.”
I showed Ed’s fiddle to Ugee and she said, “Ed Haley got that fiddle from Dad. Ed traded him a real dark-looking fiddle. Ed got my guitar, too. He wanted it for Ralph.”
Brandon asked Ugee about her father’s background, a very important thing considering his strong presence in Ed’s life. She said he was born in 1880 to Washington and Elizabeth (McCune) Hicks in Calhoun County.
“Well, he come very near to getting killed when he was young,” she said. “Perry Meadows stabbed him seven times with a knife right around the heart in a fight. They didn’t think he’d live at all. He told Perry if he lived, ‘I’ll get you.’ He liked to beat Perry to death after he got older. Old Mrs. Meadows was gonna indict Dad over it it but Dad rode a pony horse and went with Ab Moss’ mother to Mount Airy, North Carolina. Back then, they wasn’t no roads — just trails. Took his big dog with him named Ring. He come very near to beating Perry to death, though, I guess. They was friends afterwards. Perry lived down the road just about half a mile below us. Dad never cared that much about Perry but he treated him right.”
Ugee spoke little about Laury’s bachelor days but implied that his musical skill and talent at square dancing made him popular with the ladies.
“They wouldn’t have a square dance in the country without having Laury Hicks,” she bragged.
She felt Laury inherited his musical talent from his mother’s side of the family, the McCunes. Laury’s uncle Jim McCune, who lived at the infamous “Booger Hole,” had musical children: John was a good fiddler on two or three tunes, while Jasper was the best banjoist in the area. Another son Tom “could play the banjo, but he was the best whistler I ever heard in my life. Dad give him a dollar a day to come up and whistle for him when he was bad sick.”
“All them McCunes could play music and they could dance, too,” Ugee said, before adding that they were mostly known as singers.
In 1904, Laury married Minnie Shaver. Because he was so close to his mother (he was her “favorite”), he remained living at home with his new bride. Years later, he played his fiddle and sang for his mother at her deathbed. Ugee sang all she could remember of the song:
There was an old man, he had a wooden leg.
He had no tobaccer but tobaccer he’d beg.”
“That was Grandpap Hicks’ favorite and the night that Granny died in 1923 I was putting her to bed and he was just see-sawing on the fiddle. She said ‘Laury, play your dad’s tune,’ and he said, ‘Oh Mam, I have to change the key.’ She said, ‘Don’t make no difference. Play Wash’s piece.’ I never will forget: I went to the kitchen and he was playing that and he hollered, ‘Hey, Ugee! Come here quick!’ And I come back in and seen they was something wrong with Granny. And I run and aimed to work with her…she was gone.”
Ugee couldn’t remember the title of her grandfather’s favorite tune, nor any more words to it, but Brandon later found those lyrics in a song recorded by Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers called “Hinkey Dinkey Dee”.
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On April 12, 1997, Brandon and I went to see Ugee Postalwait in Rogersville, Alabama. For the most part, she repeated a lot of the same stories I’d heard before, maybe with a new detail or two here and there. We began with her memories of Ed and Johnny Hager, who came to her father’s house around 1913. Brandon asked her specific questions about Johnny, which caused her to say: “He was a little short fella, slender. He was a nice person. Well-mannered. He was a good banjo-player. John Hager was a good friend of Dad and Mom’s both — all of us. Us kids, too. He used to write Mom and Dad. He wrote them from Webster Springs and he wrote them from Greenbrier. Different places where he was at. John wrote a letter back home and said he quit traveling with Ed ’cause Ed drank. He couldn’t take it. I’ve often wondered and studied about what become of him.”
Later, Ed sometimes came with a guitar player, but Ugee couldn’t recall his name.
Brandon was curious to know how far Ed traveled with his music, so he asked if Ed and Ella ever played around Parkersburg.
“I’m pretty sure they have,” Ugee said, “and Marietta, too. Harvey took them up to Akron to play music and they crowded that street so bad up there that they passed a law up there, you couldn’t stand on the corner and play music any more. They wouldn’t allow them to stand on the street. They had to move. See, they was such a crowd got around them.”
I asked, “How much do you reckon Ed would take in of a night?”
Ugee said, “I have seen Ed and Ella take in as much as a hundred dollars right there in Spencer.”
Wow, were they using a cup or a hat to collect money?
“They never used no cup. Just sit a box down or hat down and people come through and throwed money in it. Anyone that come along and dropped money in there, they’d play just the same.”
Would he play me anything I’d ask for?
“Why sure. He’d play it for you and then maybe if you asked for it again he might play you something else and call it that. He didn’t care to rename songs, like ‘Soldiers Joy’. He might call that ‘Runnin’ the Soldier’ or ‘Runnin’ the Track’ or something like that.”
I reminded Ugee that she heard Ed say he just picked up a fiddle and started playing it when he was small and she said, “Oh, yeah. He’d sit in the floor and play on that fiddle. Somebody brought something in that had two strings on it. He wasn’t very old. Just barely a walking, he said. Just like him a talking to me one time, telling me about his dad. Telling about them a lynching him. He said, ‘Goddamn him, they oughta lynched him.’ And I never asked him why. Why would a man say that about his dad? Maybe he was thinking about that man putting him in that barrel of water and causing him to be blind. But Ella’s eyes, they was ate out with blue vitriol.”
Ugee fully believed that measles had caused Ed’s blindness because they almost “put her blind,” too, when she was a girl.
“I must have been about five years old,” she said. “Well, Ed musta been there, too. Musta been the same year he was there that I had the measles and I went blind in my eyes. Couldn’t see nothing for three or four days. Had Granny’s bed set up by the side of the fireplace. I remember that instead of springs, it had rope. And Christmas time come up. And Dad, he played Santa Claus, I reckon. He got me jellybeans. I couldn’t see nothing for two or three weeks. I didn’t think I’d ever see again. Back then, they called them the ‘big’ measles and the ‘little’ measles. The big ones, they called the German measles. And I had them bad. Harvey come around — he was older than I was — he’d say, ‘You stink’, ’cause he could smell that fever on me.”
Brandon asked Ugee what year she was born in, to kind of help us better understand the time frame of her memories.
“I was born in 1907,” she said. “I got married in 1924. I left and went to Akron, but we come back ever month for a long time. If we knowed Ed was a coming in, we was there. I moved back in 1930. We lived on the farm until 1941. Then we went to a farm at the mouth of Stinson.”
At some point, Ugee moved back to Akron, where she lived when I first met her in 1991.
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Around that time, as Billy and Brandon wandered in the woods of eastern Kentucky, I called Jimmy Triplett, a fiddler and protégé of Doc White in West Virginia. Doc, in addition to being Ed’s friend, was a jack of all trades — fiddler, doctor, dentist… I’d recently heard that he was a photographer and wondered if maybe he had pictures of Ed or Laury Hicks. Jimmy wasn’t really sure.
“It was way back when he was a youth that he took pictures,” he said. “I guess he was considered an amateur, but he made a lot of photographs used for postcards.”
I asked Jimmy if Doc ever talked about Ed and he said, “Yeah, he talked about how good he was and everything. He said that he was one of the best that he ever heard.”
What kind of tunes did Doc play?
“The main one Doc plays is ‘Pigeon on the Gate’ — he got that from Ed Haley,” Jimmy said. “I think it would be in standard tuning — it’s a D tune. I don’t know that there’s that many other tunes that he got off of Ed Haley that he played, but he talked about him a whole bunch and then described seeing him and his wife play.”
Jimmy played a tape over the telephone of Doc talking and playing “Pigeon on the Gate”.
“Here’s one they call the ‘Pigeon on the Gate’,” Doc said. “Ed Haley, a blind man, played that tune from Kentucky. Best fiddler that ever I heard draw a bow. His wife was blind and she played the mandolin. They used to come through the country and stop at our houses and stay for days and play with us. You ought to’ve heard him play the fiddle. He’d make them fellas over there sick.”
Jimmy referred me to John Morris, an Ivydale-area fiddler who’d known Doc and even learned “Pigeon on the Gate” from him. John was too young to remember Ed personally (he was fifty-something) but had heard a lot of stories.
“I growed up hearing about Ed Haley from my dad,” John said. “I heard a lot of other stories about him later. He used to come here and stay at my grandparents’ house some. Their names were Amos and Ocie Morris. They just lived about a mile and a half from the train station and it was on the way to Calhoun County and they were from Calhoun County. He’d ride the train to Ivydale. If it was the evening train, usually a lot of people from Calhoun County — the next county back — stayed at my grandparents’ house. He’d stay at my grandpaw and grandmaw’s up here and then go on the next day. He usually, I think, visited with Laury Hicks mostly.”
What about Laury?
“Laury Hicks was evidently a riverman,” John said. “I believe it was Aunt Minnie Moss that said he could take a hog’s head of salt or something under each arm and he poled boats up and down the Elk River and hauled supplies when they used them flatboats. I’ve heard stories of his strength — what a strong and robust kind of a man he was. My dad said that when Laury Hicks died, Ed Haley wasn’t here and the next time he come through they took a chair and set it out at Laury Hicks’ grave and Ed Haley sat out on Laury Hicks’ grave and fiddled for about four hours.”
John said stories abounded about Ed among the people of Calhoun County.
“They told that they was having church over there someplace one night in an old school building or something on top of the hill between Walker and Stinson,” he said. “Ed happened to be in the country and they wanted him to play some hymns. He got started playing and he got off of playing hymns and they wound up breaking up church and having a dance. And they was about to take him up over it — about to get in trouble with the law over it — for breaking up church.”
I asked John if he thought that was a true story and he said, “Well, I’ve heard that. I know Ed cussed all the time. He was bad to cuss and swear. I heard that my Grandmaw Morris about put him away from the table for swearing at the table. Dad said he swore continuously.”
It was coincidental that John would mention Ed’s profanity. A few days later, Brandon met a niece to Johnny Hager at a genealogical meeting and she said Johnny quit traveling with Ed because he used foul language and because he had another woman in Calhoun County. Supposedly, when this woman died Ed played the fiddle at her grave all night. This “other woman” story may have had some merit: Wilson Douglas told me that Ed had an illegitimate daughter in that country.
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The next day, at the fiddling contest, Brandon met George Carr of Madison, West Virginia. George said Ed was the reason he started playing the fiddle many years ago.
“I was raised in Calhoun County,” he said. “I first saw Ed Haley as a small boy in the one-room Walker School House. Sometime in the early ’30s, about ’34, ’35, I’d say. Him and his wife came and they played for us and he fascinated me with that fiddle. And he had a son called ‘Puckett’ and I don’t know what ever became of him. But Ed and his wife would play on the streets in Spencer where the stock sale was every Friday and they would play there and she pinned a tin cup in her apron and they got nickels and dimes and quarters and fifty cents but no greenbacks. He stayed with a fella by the name of Laury Hicks who was a local fiddler and a self-taught veterinarian. His wife, Minnie Hicks, was a midwife — delivered many, many babies — who held my father in her arms when he was a small baby and he died in ’75 and he was 77 years old.”
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We hadn’t played long until Slim was telling me more about his background.
“I came from a line of Irish fiddlers,” he said. “My dad, his brothers, and his dad… The old man was so good on the fiddle — he was in the Civil War — my grandfather — that the soldiers all chipped in and bought him a fiddle and he didn’t have to fight. He was from Coalton on the road to Grayson out back of Ashland.”
Slim said his dad played “The Old Lady Carried the Jug Around the Hill” and “Girl With the Blue Dress On”.
Here comes the girl with the blue dress on, the blue dress on, with the blue dress on.
Everybody’s crazy about the girl with the blue dress on…
I asked him if his father played “Catlettsburg” and he said yes, although it was not the same version as what Ed played.
“My dad played it,” Slim said. “He played ‘Birdie’, ‘Tennessee Waggoner’. He got these two fingers cut when he was working at a steel mill and his fingers stayed stiff so he had to play the rest of his life with these two fingers. I don’t remember when he played with all five ’cause I was too small. He played ‘Boatin’ Up Sandy’.”
Every now and then, Slim would tell me something about Ed.
“Every Saturday Ed would go to a county courthouse someplace,” he said. “Believe it or not, he was in Grantsville one time when I was up there, sitting on the steps up there at the courthouse. I walked over, I said, ‘Ed, aren’t you out of place?’ He said, ‘You’re liable to find me anywhere.'”
I asked Slim if he ever saw Ed drunk and he said, “I don’t think I ever saw him sober. He didn’t get too high. Seemed like it give him more pep.”
I asked Slim if he remembered Sweet Georgia Brown coming to see Ed in Ashland and he said, “He was up in Ashland at one time. We called him Brownie. Well, he wasn’t around Ed too much. Ed was a close guy. He didn’t associate with a lot of people. Now, he liked me pretty well…but most fiddle players don’t like fiddle players.”
Speaking of fiddlers, Slim said he had met a lot of them during his lifetime. I wondered if he ever met any as good as Ed and he said, “Clark Kessinger was the closest. I think Clark learned from him. See when Clark made records for Brunswick — they had a studio down in Ashland — Ed wouldn’t play on it. He wouldn’t make records. Didn’t want to. He wouldn’t play over the radio. He said they wasn’t any money in that. He wanted to be somewhere somebody could throw a nickel or dime in that cup. He was very poor. He wasn’t starving to death, but — his wife was blind, too — there was no way that they could make any money. And he had a 17- or 18-year-old boy — he was a good guitar player, but he wouldn’t play with him. I don’t remember what his name was. He was ashamed of his father and mother — to get out in public. Not for any personal reasons…just the fact he could see and they couldn’t.”
Slim began talking about his own career in music, mostly his Depression-era radio work. He mentioned working with or meeting people like Bill and Charlie Monroe and Earl Scruggs and even credited himself with bringing “Orange Blossom Special” to Charleston from Atlanta in October of 1938. He kind of caught us by surprise when he spoke of having played all through the Guyandotte Valley.
“We played personal appearances up and down through there,” Slim said. “Played schools and theaters: Godby Branch School, up on Crawley Creek — one room school — and Hugh Dingess School — it was about an eight-room red brick building — Green Shoal, Wewanta. Harts School, I guess I must have played that school fifteen times. From about ’39 on up to 50-something. Everybody turned out when we played Harts. It was supposed to be the meanest place they was on the Guyan at that time. Came across Big Ugly Creek there. See, it goes from Lincoln County over into Boone. I used to broadcast down in there. I’d say, ‘All you Big Ugly girls be sure to come out and see us now.'”
I asked Slim if he played with any local musicians and he said, “No, we went in and played the show. Once in a while, we’d have amateur contests and they’d come in. Well, we’d have fiddling conventions at big high schools.”
I asked Slim if he ever saw Ed around Harts and he said, “No, not down there. Only time I ever seen Ed was around Ashland and Logan and Chapmanville. He played at the bank in Chapmanville. Chapmanville was 12 miles from Logan.”
Later that night, Brandon and I found some more family photographs in a box at Pat Haley’s. One was of Ella, while others were of Margaret Arms. Margaret was a real “mystery lady”: nobody seemed clear on her relationship to the Haley family. Lawrence Haley had remembered her as a cousin to either Ed or Ella, while Mona called her “Margaret Thomas” and said she lived in Cincinnati.
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Brandon and I got a good night’s sleep at Pat Haley’s home in Ashland, then took off the next morning to see Wilson Douglas in Clendenin, West Virginia. I wanted to hear more about his memories of Ed, play some music, and go see the old Laury Hicks homeplace. Wilson met us on his porch with Kim Johnson, a banjo player. We all went inside and got settled, where Kim mentioned that Laury first invited Ed to his house after meeting him in St. Albans, near Charleston. Wilson was quick to offer new details about Ed — of a more seedy variety. He said Ed “ran around” a lot with Bernard Postalwait when he was in the area. They usually got drunk and went “women crazy” and stayed gone all night. Hicks apparently had a “wild side,” too. Wilson hinted that he was a moonshiner who sometimes left home on timber jobs…and never showed up.
We wasted little time in taking off to see some of Ed’s old stomping grounds in Clay and Calhoun Counties. There was a slight drizzle, just enough to wet everything.
Our first stop was the Hicks homeplace, which had been overtaken by weeds on my previous visit in 1994. The weeds were gone this time, so we got out of the car and maneuvered through the rotting remains of an outhouse, chicken coop, cellar base, parts of an old fence, and scattered boards — all damp and colored dark brown due to the light rain dropping down around us.
It was a far cry from the “old days” when (according to Ugee Postalwait) the family had farmed corn, wheat and cane all the way back up the mountain to the head of Hog Run Hollow. Gone were the apple and peach orchards. Gone were the gardens down by the creek (now taken in by the paved road). And, most obviously, gone was the old Hicks home, the last of four houses built on the site (the final one having been constructed in 1936).
We soon made our way up the hill to the cemetery, where Brandon took pictures. I just kind of stared at Laury’s grave — picturing Ed playing there after Laury’s death in 1937.
As we came off the hill, Wilson said Hicks was rumored to have died from “some bad cases of VD.”
Later that day, Wilson showed us Clay, the seat of government for Clay County. This was the place where Ed Haley arrived by train from Charleston enroute to the home of Laury Hicks. Lawrence Haley once told me about his father walking from Clay to Arnoldsburg, a town some thirty miles away. Brandon had found this great article titled “Old-Time Fiddlers Will Gather At Clay Saturday” from a 1921 edition of the Lincoln Republican.
Clay, W.Va., Jan. 10 — Elaborate preparations are being made in the little city of Clay for the old-time fiddlers’ contest which will be held on Saturday night, January 22. An attendance surpassing anything ever held in Clay is expected, and the hospitable citizens of this town have appointed a committee to look after the welfare of its guests. Similar contests have been held in various other sections of West Virginia this winter, but they cannot even compare to the one which will be held in Clay, it is predicted. Old-time fiddlers from far and near are coming to compete, and, if possible, carry off the honors of the evening.
Among some of the celebrated old-time fiddlers who will be here is “Jack” McElwaine of Erbacon, in Webster county. “Jack” has played the fiddle for more than fifty years, and between times has been justice of the peace, preached the gospel and practiced law. He learned to play under Saul Carpenter, the most famous old-time fiddler of them all, and who played himself out of Camp Chase during the Civil war. Another fiddler equally famous is “Edin” Hammons, who hails from the head of Wiliams river, and whose sole occupation all through life has been hunt, trap and play the fiddle. “Edin” has killed more bears, deer and played the fiddle more than any other man on Williams River.
It is said that Senator William E. Chilton and Colonel Bob Carr of Charleston have been given invitations to attend the contest and compete with these old-time fiddlers.
Several local celebrities are expected to enter the contest, and the old mountaineer fiddlers are looking forward to this part of the contest with great pleasure and saying “the city fellers will have to fiddle some to beat them.” No complete list of the fiddlers who enter the contest has been made public, but some fifteen or twenty are expected. Ben Friend, Ed Williams, Luther Carder and “Bill” Stutler, men who have been winning prizes in other contests, will be there.
People of Clay and surrounding country are looking forward to this event with great anticipation and pleasure. The last contest of the kind was held at Richwood, Thursday night of last week, and fully 200 persons were unable to get into the theater where it was held.
There are very few of the real old time fiddlers who play the old mountain tunes living today, and within a very short time there will be none left and no one to take their place. The younger generation has neither talent nor desire for this kind of music. At any rate, one can not find a young man of today who can play the fiddle in the “good old-fashioned way.”
Clay, I found, was a small shell of a town with a nice old courthouse sitting high on the hill. There was the typical arrangement of buildings: sagging old businesses hinting at lost prosperity, a small bank, dollar stores, a car dealership, a post office, and a Gino’s restaurant. No red lights and basically one two-lane thoroughfare through town. There was a hotel with the weekly newspaper office headquartered beneath where, I was told, you could go in late and help yourself to a key and then pay for your room the next morning on your way out. After passing through town and crossing the Pisgah Bridge, we spotted an old section of residences and a community church. The track bed was still visible but the railroad was long gone.
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After his return to West Virginia, Johnny Hager took immediate notice of the large number of musicians who lived in the head of Big Harts Creek. His first cousin, Jefferson “Jig-Toe” Baisden (1879-1970), was a dancer and banjo-picker. J. E. “Ed” Belcher (1889-1970), who played several instruments, and Robert Martin, an Arthur Smith-style fiddler, were other significant musicians in the area. Ed Haley (1885-1951), a blind fiddler from Trace Fork, particularly caught Hager’s attention. Johnny’s desire to absorb Haley’s music was understandable because, as Jess Chambers stated, “It was a badge of honor to have played with Ed Haley.” Jeff Baisden, a cousin to both men, may have introduced the pair.
Johnny could supposedly play any instrument and his trip out to Kansas allowed him to soak up a variety of western tunes and playing styles which were completely new to folks in Logan County. Both of these qualities, his diverse musical capabilities and his unique musical background, ensured that he an Ed Haley had many intense music sessions. According to Turley Adams, Johnny’s great-nephew, Hager encouraged Ed to take his show on the road and volunteered to serve as Haley’s “eyes” on such trips. This willingness to travel, coupled with his apparent competence as a musician, made Johnny a perfect sidekick to Ed. Haley and Hager were both unmarried, a convenience which allowed them to roam the country with few cares or responsibilities.
Johnny and Ed traveled to various places in West Virginia but are particularly remembered up around the Calhoun-Clay County area north of Kanawha County. Aside from being populated with rural folks similar to Hager’s neighbors in Logan and Boone Counties, the area was also endowed with a host of great musicians. Haley and Hager wintered there as young men with a fiddler named Lawrence “Laury” Hicks (1880-1937). Ugee (Hicks) Postalwait of Akron, Ohio, a daughter of Laury Hicks, said that Ed and Johnny first came and visited her father in the early 1910s. Hager was a tall, slim banjo-picker. When Ed and Johnny left Laury’s home in the spring, with Johnny leading the way, Ugee and her brother stood on the bank by the house and “hollered and cried after them.”
Most agree that Johnny’s travels with Ed Haley ended around 1914 when Haley married Ella Trumbo, a blind music instructor from Morehead in Rowan County, Kentucky. Haley’s habit of cursing and drinking also helped end the partnership. Hager did not care for it.
For the most part, Johnny spent the remainder of his life playing music while boarding with his Baisden kinfolk on the North Fork of Big Creek. Irene Hager, a daughter of Hubert E. and Mary (Pauley) Baisden, remembered Johnny playing music on her father’s front porch in the late 1920s. Her father, a banjo-picker, lived at Greenview and the Big Branch of Spruce Fork of Little Coal River in Boone County. Hubert Baisden was Johnny’s first cousin. Hager boarded with him for several weeks at a time. One of Hager’s chores at the Baisden home was to keep wood in the stove. Irene said that Johnny often talked about his early travels with Ed Haley.
Johnny Hager was a man with little roots and family, a fellow who never had a real home. Many from Harts Creek remember that Hager was simply from the “the North Fork of Big Creek.” Dave Brumfield, a great-nephew, said that Hager stayed in that vicinity with a Thomas family. No doubt, this Thomas family was headed by Sampson Thomas who married Dicy Adams, a sister-in-law to Johnny’s sister Victoria Adams. Incidentally, just over the mountain from North Fork was the Broad Branch of Big Ugly Creek where lived a fiddler named Jefferson “Jeff” Duty (born about 1877). During Hager’s stay on the North Fork, he probably visited this musician (and any others in this locality) to learn a few new licks.
Hager also stayed with Simon and Bertha (Baisden) Bias on Bias Branch in Boone County. Mrs. Bias’ grandfather, Riland Baisden, was a brother to Johnny Hager’s mother. He spent a lot of time on the Garretts Fork of Big Creek with the Barkers before leaving them to stay with Wilson Craddock’s family on Hewitts Creek in Boone County. Mr. Craddock’s widow has a necklace which Johnny gave her during his time there. Lydia (Adkins) Johnson of Powderly, Texas, recalled that Hager lived with her mother and father during her “growing up years at home” in the late 1920s and 1930s. Johnson “was born (around 1923) and raised in Boone Co. just over the hill from Chapmanville.” Hager was a hard worker and was very efficient at “old-time” carpentry jobs and such tasks as digging wells. According to Johnson: “[Johnny] was a handy man, & a fiddle player. (Sometimes) a neighbor would need him to come live with them, to build them an out house for them. He was noted for the best out houses, he earned his keep by living with & helping others.”
Lydia Johson described Johnny as “a very neat man” and Dolly Bell agreed, stating that he always kept his hair cut and his face shaved. He never wore suits and never dated women so far as any of his family knew. In Irene Hager’s words, he “was a pretty straight fellow” and Dave Brumfield said he never drank when visiting his father’s home on Harts Creek.
NOTE: Originally published in “Kith and Kin of Boone County, West Virginia” Volume XXII
Published by Boone County Genealogical Society
Madison, West Virginia, 1997
Dedicated to the late Dolly (Hager) Bell