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On June 2, 2004, Billy Adkins and I visited Frank Hill. Mr. Hill, a retired farmer, bus driver, and store keeper, made his home on Ellis Fork of North Fork of Big Creek in Boone County, West Virginia. Born in 1923, he was the son of Edward W. and Annie Elizabeth (Stollings) Hill. Billy and I were interested in hearing about Mr. Hill’s Fowler ancestry and anything he wanted to share about his own life. We greatly enjoyed our visit. What follows is a partial transcript of our interview:
I was born April 22, 1923 up the Ellis Fork Road. When I was born there, we had a four-room Jenny Lind house. It was an old-timer: double fireplace that burned coal and wood, you know. My mother had eleven children and I was the last one. When she saw me, she give up.
I went to the Stone School, a one-room school just up Ellis Fork. My wife’s grandpa, Albert Stone, gave them land to build this school. It wasn’t a big lot – it might have been 300 feet square. We played ball there in the creek. We didn’t have much dry ground. Well, I went through the 8th grade around there. Arithmetic was my best subject. I had good handwriting, too. I thought I could go into the 9th at Chapmanville but they wouldn’t let me. They said I hadn’t took this test you were supposed to take as you left the 8th grade.
I walked a mile and six-tenths to school. We’d had bad teachers. They couldn’t get no control over the students. Dad got this old fellow from Madison and he said, “Now, I’ll give you ten dollars extra on the month.” I think the board paid fifty dollars a month. Back then, young men and women went to school. Twenty, twenty-five years old. They were so mean the teachers couldn’t hardly handle them. I had an older brother that was one of them. A teacher whipped a younger brother he had one day and he said, “Old man, wait till I catch you out. I’ll give you a good one.” And he meant it, too.
Little Johnny Hager was a fiddle player. He was a little man, never was married. And he never had a home. All he had was a little suitcase with a few clothes in it. He’d stay with people maybe a month or two and the way he paid his keep was he whittled out lids or fed their pigs and stuff like that. He’d stay there a month or two till he felt he’d wore out his welcome then he’d go to another house. He was a well-liked little guy. Us boys, we followed him wherever he went cause he could sure play that fiddle. He played one tune called “Hell Among the Heffers”.
We had a hard time in this world. You couldn’t buy a job then. I had a brother-in-law that worked for the Pure Oil Company in Logan that was the only man that had a public job in this whole hollow. People grew tobacco to pay their taxes and bills they had accumulated. It was terrible. I remember my daddy had a little barrel of little potatoes when spring come and this old fellow lived above us, he was a musician. His name was Carlos Clark. He’d come out of the coalfields in Logan and he lost his home. His wife was a cousin of mine. He was trying to teach me to play the guitar. I’d go there and she’d lead the singing and he’d pick the guitar and I’d try to play second. He give me eleven lessons for that barrel of potatoes.
We had two or three around here that went to work in the CCC camps. Lloyd Ellis from Whitman’s Creek was one of them and Seymour Ellis was another one from Six Mile. In his last days, that was all he wanted to talk about. They went plumb into California in the CC camps. Then war broke out and they just switched them camps over to the Army. The Army operated those camps anyhow. That’s why they was so successful. They had control over boys to teach them how to do things.
We got just as wild as any of them. Ed Haley used to come over here and play. The Barker family had a full band. Now, they could make the rafters roar. There was an old lady lived in here married to Walter Fowler who called the dances and there wasn’t a one of us really knowed how to dance but we put on a show anyhow. They had them in people’s homes. No drinking allowed but there was always a few that did. They always had a lot of good cakes.
It was mostly Church of Christ around here. The main preacher up here in these parts was Pope Dial from Huntington. I’ll tell you another one that came in here that followed him sort of was Melvin White. Vernon Mullins followed up years later when he preached in here. I remember the first sermon he ever preached was around here in the one-room Stone School. He established a lot of different churches in the country but that was the first one. He’d talk about how he started here, preached his first sermon. Every funeral he conducted on this creek, he’d tell that story.
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The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington, WV, and the Ashland (KY) Daily Independent have recently provided great coverage of the book and related research projects. Many thanks to these newspapers for supporting regional history. Here are the links to the stories:
I am honored that some of my writing will appear in forthcoming issues of Goldenseal and The Kentucky Explorer, two of my absolute favorite magazines. The Winter issue of Goldenseal will feature a story about Ed Haley’s background on Harts Creek and his later visits to the community. A smaller story details John Hartford’s search for Ed Haley in the Harts Creek area. The December issue of The Kentucky Explorer will feature a story about Ed Haley’s friendship with Dr. H.H. Holbrook of Ashland and Greenup.
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When Ed first went out into the neighborhood with his dad’s fiddle and armed with his melodies (as interpreted by his mother) I think he probably caused not a small sensation amongst family and neighbors and his ear being as great as it was I think he picked up an incredible amount of other music really fast. I think he played with a lot of ornaments when he was a teenager and up into maybe even his thirties. Snake Chapman and Ugee Postalwait have alluded to this. Snake said the dining room recordings just didn’t sound as old-timey as he remembered Ed playing and Ugee said she remembered him and her dad talking about the little melodies between the notes. Of course Ed had to have been through a lot of subtle changes in style since that time. I think in later years he stripped a lot of the ornaments out of his fiddling in order to appeal to the Arthur Smith-Clayton McMitchen crowd who loved the radio style that was so much in vogue at that time. This might have helped make a little more money on the street. People have always liked to hear someone play and sound just like what they hear on the radio or a record. But I think if someone had asked Ed if he had done that consciously that he would have denied it and if he was in a bad mood they might have even had a fight on their hands.
I keep having this idea of Ed imitating other instruments on the fiddle because I’ve tried it myself and wouldn’t it be something that some of these great parts was really an imitation of John Hager’s banjo playing. I’d love to know where that passage is or whether it even exists.
It’s obvious that when Ed had good firm second that wouldn’t slow down for anything, he really leaned back on the beat and got in that little pocket where so many great musicians like to be. Ella and Mona really held up a good solid beat, but I’ll bet Ed was hard on them — a real taskmaster. It’s all in that rhythm section. Wilson Douglas told me one time that Ed always told him to play it real lazy. Texas Shorty, Benny Martin, and Buddy Emmons refer to it as holding on to the note as long as you can before you start the next one. This is an important part of Ed’s feel and sound and it really comes through on the dining room recordings. I get it by playing as slow as I can against a beat I hope is not gonna move, and then I swing the notes with a dotted note feel — a real lilt if I can get it — and just drag on the beat as hard as I can ’cause I know it’s not gonna slow down. I’d love to know just when Ed figured that out or if it was always there. I always think of Ed in his younger years playing on top of the beat or even ahead of it like I did when I was young and full of piss and vinegar. Actually when you’re playing alone you do hafta pretty well stay on top of the beat to hold the time or at least set it, cause you are the beat but you have to keep from rushing which we will tend do when we get to hard passages in order to get them over with. We’ll not do that no more. Mark O’Connor told me one time that while he is playing a tune he’ll play on top of and behind the beat on purpose. He described playing behind it as letting the beat drag you along…almost like water skiing. Oh, to have known what Ed and John Hager or Bernie Adams sounded like together.
I think Ed worked on his fiddling probably daily most of his life so it is fair to say that it was changing all the time. This would explain the varying descriptions of his playing that have come down. I’m sure they’re probably all accurate. Lawrence, Ugee, and Mona always said Ed played with great smooth long bow strokes and Snake Chapman always was adamant about him playing with short single strokes and Slim Clere said the same thing — that he bowed out everything — no bow slurs. Of course, in the dining room sessions you can hear both ways. It’s amazing how well Ed did without the feedback of working with a tape recorder. What an incredible ear he had. As far as I know, the only time he probably heard himself played back was the recordings we have. I hope there are others out there but I’ve come to doubt it.
Brandon and I have always had a gut feeling that if we’d dug down into the hillside a little further at Milt and Green’s grave we might have found something. We only went down five feet and then we were defeated by the rain. What if we had gone down the requisite six feet? What if, like the probe, Owsley had misjudged the bottom of the grave shaft due to the mud and water? What if it hadn’t rained and muddied up the work area? If Melvin Kirk and Ben Walker went so far as to bury the men in a deep grave, why not assume they would have gone for the standard six feet grave traditionally dug? In the following weeks, old timers around Harts kept telling Brandon and Billy, “If they didn’t dig at least six feet, it’s no wonder they didn’t find anything.” We didn’t want to question the professionalism of experts like the Smithsonian forensic team or seem like we wanted to find Milt and Green so badly that we couldn’t accept the concept that they were gone…but what if? The explanation that Doug Owsley gave us about the coal seam and underground stream made a lot of sense. Needless to say we were really disappointed. I had started to rationalize that not finding anything might indicate that they were buried in the nude and just thrown in the hole with no box or winding sheet or anything.
I was in Durham, North Carolina, the other day and I saw a fiddler on the street and I automatically found myself thinking of Ed. I didn’t have to fill in or rearrange much in my imagination to see him there playing on the street — even though this man was standing up, and played nothing like him. Of course when Ed was younger he probably stood up to play all the time like in the Webster Springs picture…dapper and wearing his derby. I always seem to picture Ed sitting down. Another great thrill for me is a young blind fiddler from Jeffersonville, Indiana, named Michael Cleveland who when he plays I can see Ed at nineteen. He stands up so straight he almost looks like he’s gonna fall over backward the way Lawrence said his dad did. When he plays I can’t take my eyes off of him thinking of Ed. Now my friend Matt Combs, who has done a lot of the transcriptions for this book, sits with me and plays Ed’s notes off of the paper, and I play off the top of my head, so in that sense it’s like playing with him.
I guess it’s time to just leave this alone and get back to my study of the fiddle. Maybe get geared up for “Volume Two.” I spend long hours here at the dining room table with my tape recorder and I can hear Lawrence and feel Ed as I try and play my way back into the past. I find that the study of Ed’s music leads me to the study of all music and the way it’s played.
For me a “tune” is a specific order of notes played by a certain person on a certain day at a certain time and given a certain name and if you want to really pin it down you could include the latitude and longitude of the event. If you were not there to personally witness this happening then the word of some one else is okay as long as you include that in the triangulation so that when you have put out this information you can lean back and say to your listener, “Now…you know as much about it as I do and you can draw your own conclusions.” This works for events and etc. Sometimes these sort of documented rumors are as close as we can get to the truth and it’s better than nothing.
I’ve been thinking about how much Ed probably wouldn’t like to think about a whole lot of what we have put in this book. For sure he didn’t like to talk about it, especially to his family. I guess I don’t blame him — he lived it. It’s easy for us to get into all of it from our totally secure positions here in 2000 knowing what we know. And from the vantage point of our research, there are probably some areas where we know things that Ed never did.
We decided to call this book “The Search for Ed Haley: Volume One” because we know that after it comes out people will be calling us saying, “Well, you didn’t call me,” and “You didn’t get that right,” and no telling what. But then that gives us fuel for Volume Two. Of course there is the chance (and it has crossed my mind) that when this book comes out that some of the old Harts Creek animosities might still be smoldering and some people might feel hurt. God, I hope not. Everybody has encouraged us and said it was time to bring out the truth.
In case you hadn’t figured it out, Brandon wrote most all of this book and I just went through and “Hartfordized” it. Even though I have my name up top, Brandon is the one who did all the work. A typical day for us would be Brandon back in the office transcribing taped interviews, making chapters out of them, and working and reworking the words. Me, I’ll be sitting at the dining room table out in the other room sawing on a fiddle. At first when Brandon would bring me a chapter I would go through it on the laptop and make corrections and reword some things. Then Brandon very quickly caught on to what it was I was after, and after awhile he would bring me chapters and I would just read them in amazement and not do anything to them, and we would just go on. It really is wonderful, ’cause even though we know every word in the book when we read it back we still learn things. “Oh, that’s why that happened that way. Well I’ll be damned.”
I’ve given this story a lot of thought and most of what I’m about to say is from instinct and gut reaction cause we didn’t necessarily have cold hard facts. I think Ed learned a lot from his mother in the period right after his dad’s death when he and her probably spent a lot of time in that cabin hid out together from the community at large and his only contact was through his mother’s family (his grandparents). Ed found a fiddle that his father had left behind (very possibly the one in the photograph which looks home made) and started sawing around on it. His mother in her grief over her late husband was probably all the time whistling and singing the old melodies, most of which he had played, and Ed picked them up much in the way that Howdy Forrester told me he picked up a lot of melodies from his mom’s whistling and singing around the house. They were the melodies Ed and his mother shared. His unusually natural technique developed because he had such a great ear and naturally not being able to see he was not in a position to pick up bad technical habits from other fiddlers. His mother probably coached him much in the same way that Lawrence coached me a hundred years later…saying things like, “That just don’t sound right.” “Pop never played that many notes.” “Pop’s groups of notes were smaller.” But then because we both could see, Lawrence also said things like, “Your bow hold don’t look like Pop’s” and “Pop held his fiddle down here and turned it.”
Just before Christmas, Brandon and I received a letter from Rich, at the Smithsonian, which provided us with some preliminary information on the gravesite:
The burial surface is a large shallow depression in the soil located on a steep slope. The depression is approximately one foot deep. The western side of the burial depression, presumably the head, is marked by two small rock cairns that feature natural upright stone slabs projecting from the tops. The opposite end (foot) is marked by two small rock cairns.
The burial appears to be shallow when probing in the deepest part of the depression, with the burial shaft floor located at a depth of approximately 2 feet.
The shaft is of sufficient size to have accommodated two persons lying side-by-side. It is very shallow, but this may have been due to haste during excavation of the burial pit, or it could have resulted from termination of the efforts of the grave diggers when they encountered the underlying siltstone strata.
Two items that could effect bone preservation were noted: oak trees are in the vicinity of the burial, and the tannin from these leaves can elevate the acid content of the soil; and the presence of some white clay also indicates soil acidity. However, the burial is on a steep slope and located high up near the brow of the ridge. The slope and wind action at that elevation could retard a significant accumulation of leaves. The slope also prevents any significant amount of water from collecting in the burial depression.
The remoteness of the burial site will make it necessary to complete the disinterment in a single day or else provide overnight guards.
Brandon Kirk, Ed Haley, feud, Green McCoy, Haley-McCoy grave, John Hartford, John Imlay, Lawrence Kirk, Lincoln County Feud, Low Gap, Malcolm Richardson, Melvin Kirk, Milt Haley, Smithsonian, Steve Haley, Walker Family Cemetery, writing
The following morning, Brandon and I met Steve Haley at the bus. Not long afterwards, two men drove up in a white SUV and eased out toward us. The Smithsonian forensic crew had arrived. They were dressed ordinary and casually, except for very “official-looking” black caps adorned with golden seals. The driver, a large man with a rough voice and commanding presence, introduced himself as Malcolm Richardson – or “Rich,” as he preferred to be called. The other fellow, younger than Rich, tall and seemingly jolly, was John Imlay. We almost immediately piled into their vehicle and headed for the grave.
Upon reaching the logging road at Low Gap, Rich decided not to use it to drive up to the grave. Instead, we parked just off the hill near the Walker Family Cemetery and headed up the hill on foot. We were barely there when Lawrence Kirk, who’d shown me the gravesite back in 1993, popped out of the bushes. He’d preferred to “rough it” up the hill, somehow making it up the slope and through the brush in a pair of dress shoes, offering his assistance with any questions Richardson and Imlay might have about the site. It was neat having Lawrence there since his grandfather Melvin Kirk had helped bury Milt and Green in 1889. Steve Haley’s presence also was noteworthy in that it marked the first time, so far as we knew, that any of Ed’s family had ever been to the site. (We don’t know if Ed went there.)
As we watched Rich and Imlay probe their metal rods into the grave, we clung to their every word — every theory, question and comment. I guess it would be fair to say that we were hoping for some kind of “breakthrough revelation” from their probing…but the whole thing was over in about thirty minutes. Still, we were all electrified with excitement. For the rest of the day, we talked about every minute detail of our “probing experience:” the rods, how they worked, what they revealed and so forth. Then came all of the wild theories about what was actually down in the grave. We could hardly wait until spring.
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The next day, Brandon and I visited Reece Tackett, a banjo-picker who lived in a nice yellow house just up West Fork. Reece was born in 1909 and raised around Grayson in eastern Kentucky. His grandfather, Jim Tackett, was a fiddler from the Red River area of Arkansas who played for square dances in large farmhouses. He taught Reece’s father, John Tackett, how to play the fiddle. Reece said his father played “the old way — not flashy.” He used a homemade fiddle and “had to go to pine trees to get rosin.” He moved to a farm about nine miles from Grayson, where he made fiddles and played close to home, never as far away as Portsmouth, Ohio.
Reece said he moved to Holden in Logan County when he was sixteen to work with his uncle and brother in the coalmines. He used to watch Ed Haley and his wife play “beautiful” tunes like “Arkansas Traveler” on weekends at the Logan Courthouse. He said Ed wasn’t a big man and had fingers “about like a lead pencil.” His wife played the mandolin.
“She was pretty good on her singing,” Reece said. “She was dressed like the real old ladies. She had the long dress on and the apron.”
Ella kept a cup fastened to herself somehow.
“I’ve tossed many a nickel and dime in their cup,” Reece said.
Sometimes, people would pretend to put money in their cup and then steal from it.
Ed was usually paid about ten or fifteen cents per tune. There were no dollars and most of the coal miners were paid in company script.
Reece said he moved to Harts in 1946 and had no idea that Ed was from Trace Fork or even lived in Ashland.