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Annadeene Fraley, Beverly Haley, Calhoun County, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, fiddlers, fiddling, French Carpenter, history, John Hartford, Johnny Hager, Laury Hicks, Lawrence Haley, life, music, Pat Haley, Sol Carpenter, Ugee Postalwait, West Virginia, writing
Ugee also remembered French and Sol Carpenter coming to her father’s house. They were regarded by many as two of the best fiddlers in central West Virginia, so I had to ask, “How did your Dad and Ed regard the Carpenters?”
“There wasn’t nobody as good as Ed and Dad,” she said quickly. “They’d say, ‘Oh, you’re good,’ to the Carpenters and brag on them. Then get away from them and Ed’d say, ‘They didn’t come up with you, Laury,’ and Dad’d say, ‘They didn’t come up with you, either.'”
Ugee said a lot of fiddlers wouldn’t play in front of Ed. When they did, he would usually “listen a while, chew that tobacco and spit and wouldn’t say a thing” — then “cuss a blue streak” after they left. If the fiddler was really bad, though, or “if somebody was a playing something and they butchered it up a little bit — one of his tunes — he’d jump on his feet and stand straight up and say, ‘Goddamn! Goddamn!,'” Ugee said. “You knowed right then that there fella wasn’t playing it to suit him.” Laury would just die laughing over it and say, “Boy, he’s good ain’t he, Ed?”
I wondered if any fiddlers ever asked Ed for tips on how to play and Ugee seemed shocked. “Why, he wouldn’t a showed one how to play,” she said. “He learned music like I did — just a fooling with it.”
I asked Ugee about Johnny Hager, the banjo player she remembered coming with Ed to her father’s house when she was a small girl. I wondered if he was a good banjoist and she said, “Well, he was good for then, about like Grandpa Jones. Dad had a first cousin, Jasper McCune. Me, Dad and Jasper used to go and play music at pie suppers.” Banjos provided most of the second back then, she said. Some of the better players were Willie Smith of Ivydale and Emory Bailey of Shock. Guitars were rare.
I pulled out some of the Haley family photographs, which caused Ugee to ask about Pat Haley, who was coping with Lawrence’s death, her own poor health, and her daughter Beverly’s kidney cancer.
“Well Beverly is in a coma now,” I said. “Pat said she’ll wake up a little bit in the evening and she’ll kind of recognize them a little bit. So in other words, they’ve lost her but she’s still alive. The doctor thinks she’s got about two more weeks. Pat says, ‘We’re taking it one day at a time.’ And Annadeene Fraley, the one who introduced me to Pat, she’s got cancer.”
Ugee said she didn’t know how Pat was making it through all of the grief.
“‘Aunt Ugee,’ she calls me. She’s a fine woman. She’s a strong woman. Well, she had to be strong. She come over to this country married to Lawrence and he didn’t tell her his parents was blind until she got to New York. He said, ‘Well, I’ve got something I’ve got to tell you. My dad and mother is blind and if you want to go back I’ll pay your way back.’ She said, ‘I’ll stay.’ He went to Ed and Ella’s and Lawrence said he was starving to death for a mess of pinto beans. She said she never tasted beans. She didn’t know what they was. They cooked the beans and she tasted them and she thought they was brown mud. Said it tasted just like mud to her. Said they was just eating them beans and bragging on them and she wouldn’t touch them. They made fun of her over it.”
Annadeene Fraley, Appalachia, Ashland, banjo, Benny Thomasson, blind, books, Catlettsburg, Charleston, Cherry River Rag, Clark Kessinger, Cripple Creek, DC, Dunbar, Ed Haley, fiddler, fiddling, Georgia Slim Rutland, Gus Meade, Harts Creek, history, J P Fraley, John Hartford, Kentucky, Lawrence Haley, Library of Congress, life, Liza Mullins, Logan County, Marietta, music, Ohio, Ox in the Mud, Parkersburg, Parkersburg Landing, Pat Haley, Ralph Haley, Rouder Records, Sourwood Mountain, Steve Haley, Washington, West Virginia, Wilcox-Gay, writing
I spent the next two months thinking about the best way to approach Lawrence Haley. It was imperative that I made the right impression — should I call or write? Should I ease into the situation or just tell him how great I thought his father was? It was a fantastic moment — a period of time just before “contact” when I was mostly daydreaming and not nearly so swept away. In that instant, I was content to just talk with Ed Haley’s son and find out as much as I could about one of the world’s greatest fiddlers.
I finally decided to write Lawrence a letter, a perfectly natural thing to do since he was a retired postman. I had a million questions but limited myself to this:
Dear Mr. Haley,
I am deeply inspired by your father and his music. I’ve almost completely worn out the Parkersburg Landing album and have become very interested in him. I believe him to be the best as well as the most important fiddler of our time. Through his influence on Clark Kessinger and Georgia Slim who in turn influenced Benny Thomasson he could be considered the grandfather of the present Texas contest fiddling style.
I would have given anything to have heard him and seen him. I’ve read everything I can find and have talked to J.P. and Annadene Fraley at length for any little tidbit about him. I would love to meet you and hear you talk of him.
Yours very truly,
Because of my promise to Gus Meade, I was careful not to divulge the fact that I had heard any of Ed’s tunes not featured on Parkersburg Landing and had resolved that if I should be so lucky that Lawrence would at some future time play some of them I would act surprised.
A few days later, after getting the “go-ahead” from Annadeene Fraley by telephone, I gave Lawrence a call. He was extremely nice and seemed happy that I was interested in his father. He said he used to watch me on TV years ago.
“You’re the guy with the derby that danced and played the fiddle at the same time,” he said in a somewhat raspy voice.
I hesitantly asked about his father’s records. He said he had most of his dad’s original home recordings, as well as reel-to-reel copies made by the Library of Congress.
“I got four little seven-inch tapes here with some music on them,” he said, before reading the titles. I carefully wrote each title down, taking special note of the ones I had never heard of. Lawrence said his father sometimes named tunes after places where he played, like with “Catlettsburg”, a small river town near Ashland, or with “Parkersburg Landing”, a West Virginia city just below Marietta, Ohio.
“I don’t know where Pop gets all these names from,” Lawrence said, as if Ed were still alive to name them. “I think when my dad went somewhere and played, and if people liked what they heard, that’s the way he named them. Like that ‘Parkersburg Landing’, he was probably up in Parkersburg, West Virginia, playing and people liked it so that’s what he called it. I’m not sure how they got named but that’s what I’d say.”
There were other tunes like “Dunbar”, named for a small town near Charleston, West Virginia, and “Cherry River Rag”, named after a river in eastern West Virginia.
After reading Ed’s titles, Lawrence said, “Pop played quite a few more pieces than that, of course. It’s really hard to say how many of his records are out there that I don’t know about. Several years ago, this guy brought me one of his records with a tune on it called ‘Ox in the Mud’. He said he had wanted it on a record so bad he took Pop to one of these recording studios and had it made. Well, I traded him one of those Parkersburg Landing albums for it and I guess he was satisfied with that because he got quite a bit more music.”
Wow – the prospect of finding more Ed Haley records was exciting. I could just imagine digging through a box in some antique store along the Ohio River and finding Haley records mixed in with old Big Band orchestra albums and selling at a quarter each.
Putting such thoughts aside, I turned my mind back to Lawrence, who was actually holding Ed Haley records at that moment in Ashland, Kentucky. I asked him about the type of records and their general condition.
“The records are mostly Wilcox-Gay plastic records,” he said. “When I took them to the Library of Congress in Washington, some of them was in pretty bad shape. The hole where the spindle was, some of them was wore oblong and they had to put weights and everything else on them and they come up with a flutter in them. I allowed Rounder Records to make a copy of them because they said they was gonna put out a couple of albums.”
I said, “Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ve never heard anything like it. I’ve heard a lot of fiddling that was made on old records at that time and your dad was so far ahead of any of them it’s not funny. In the one sense, he’s an old-time musician. In the other, he’s modern. That knocked me out. He may be the heaviest musician I ever heard. His syncopation and his timing and his intonation… Because them old-timey notes, you know, you can’t hit them right on the head. You’ve got to shade them. And to shade them, you’ve got to really know if they’re in tune or not and not just anybody can do that. And boy, he is a master of it.”
I was obviously a little carried away and caught up in the moment.
Lawrence sort of laughed and said, “I know he was a good, fine fiddler. My dad held the fiddle out onto his left side right at the top of his bicep where his arm and chest met – the armpit, just about. It was more of a classical violinist’s stance than the old mountain fiddler holding it down towards his knee or close to his knee and right in front of him. I’ve seen him lean his chin over on the base of the violin at times. You know, like people trying to hold that fiddle up there on their shoulder and under their chin, they can’t get their fingers right if they don’t let go of the fiddle on the neck of it. Well, Pop didn’t have to dip the bow a lot of times. What he did, he’d rock the fiddle to that string to meet the bow, see? And that was tricky, too.”
I said, “I’ll tell you what, he’s got one of the best bow arms I’ve ever heard. He gets those notes out so clear.”
Lawrence interjected, “He used all the bow, too. A lot of people, they’ve got to saw the bow back and forth. My dad used every inch of the bow from one end to the other. He didn’t grab the bow up on the strings like a lot of fiddlers. You know, half way up the bow. He got right back on the bow where you tighten the string and his finger was on that tightening fret. His little finger was wrapped around that, more or less.”
I said, “It sounds like he long-bowed a lot, where he’d pull that bow down and get four or five notes on a bow stroke.”
“Yes he did,” Lawrence said without hesitation. “Pop would use every bit of that bow to get it.”
Discussing Ed’s bowing prompted me to think about Ed’s fiddle. I had looked at it many times in the Parkersburg Landing picture and wondered if it survived fifty years after his death.
“I’ve got the old fiddle,” Lawrence said, “but it’s really not playable. We lived at a place one time where we had an excess of moisture and it got to this old fiddle and it started coming apart. My son Steve took it and had some instrument re-builder to put it back together but they never could get it back together right so it’s lost all of its intonation. I’ve got it but it’s not really worth playing because it hasn’t got the resonance to it.”
I told Lawrence I was hoping to be back in Ashland in a few days and would love to visit him and see his father’s records.
“Well, if you come up and you can get a hold of some kind of portable tape player I don’t care to let you copy Pop’s records,” he said. “They will probably just set here till some kind of magnetism comes along and takes all the information off of them. But they’re here and I hope nothing happens to them.”
Well, this was an unexpected offer from someone who was reportedly so over-protective of his father’s music.
I asked Lawrence how old Ed was when he passed away and he said, “Let’s see. I was about 23 or 24. Right now, I’m an old man. I’ve had quite a bit of heart problems. I spent the biggest part of November in the hospital on a ventilator. I was having congestive heart failure. I guess you hear how my voice sounds. They rammed something down my vocal box between my vocal chords and I’ve never got my voice back right. Well, I’m more or less living one day at a time. I’m 63 now.”
I said, “Well, you’re exactly ten years older than I am.”
“Well, you’re getting up there, too, aren’t you? Not the young man we remember on TV,” Lawrence said.
Hoping to get more at the source of Ed’s music, I asked Lawrence if his dad talked about where he learned to play.
“Not to me, no,” he said. “I’ve heard some stories but just like all other legendary people whenever a story is told twice it’s been embellished quite a bit. One fella said to keep from starving to death my dad sat out and eat wild onions with a piece of cold cornbread that he’d take out of the kitchen of my great-aunt Liza’s house, who raised him. But that wasn’t true. I’ve heard Pop tell me personally that he’d take a salt-shaker and a big onion and something like that and a piece of cornbread and go out in the garden and get him a tomato and eat that. I’ve never heard him talk about eating wild onions.”
I had given little thought to Ed’s childhood and birthplace.
“Where he was raised it was kind of rough country up in West Virginia,” Lawrence said. “He come out of Logan County, West Virginia, out in a country called Harts Creek. We used to go up there quite often until I was about nine or ten years old because my dad would go back there. He’d go around courthouse days and play music out in the courthouse lawn for change and things and that’s the way he made his living. He’d go to fairs and any other activities that might draw a crowd where he could play music. That’s how him and my mother made their money and raised us kids.”
How many kids were there in the family?
“They was seven of us all together,” Lawrence said. “I was the youngest boy and then I had a sister younger than me. But I had one brother to die when he was in infancy so really there was only five boys and one girl they raised. They got us up one way or the other without jerking us too hard.”
I asked Lawrence if he remembered his father playing for dances.
“I remember one afternoon we walked from Morehead, Kentucky down to Farmers,” he said. “That’s four or five miles. At that time they didn’t have too good a roads through there so we walked the railroad tracks. I was just a kid. We went to these people’s house and they rolled back the rugs and things and Pop sat there and played all night until the sun come up. I don’t know when Pop made the arrangements. Just him and my mother.”
For the next minute or so, I really bragged on Ed’s music. I had listened to it for years and had a lot of emotion about it. Finally, Lawrence said, “Well, I’ve heard him make a sour note on a few of these records but I think he learned his violin real good.”
Lawrence said his father played the fiddle from the time he was a small child.
“The way I understood it, he become blind when he was a couple of years old and they couldn’t figure out what to do with my dad,” he said. “He was blind and living out on the farm and somebody made him a violin out of a cigar box and he started out from there and just self-taught hisself, I reckon. As he went along, he got a hold of old instruments, I guess, and showed some promise and somebody looked after him and saw that he got the right things any way.”
I was very interested in Haley’s early travels, particularly before he married and settled in Ashland.
“I guess by the time Pop was eighteen, nineteen years old — that’s back at the turn of the century — he was traveling all over West Virginia and eastern Tennessee and western Old Virginia and parts of Ohio and eastern Kentucky,” Lawrence said. “He went to White Sulphur Springs and Webster Springs — these places that were pretty well known as spas and health resorts. He went to the state capital around Charleston. I’ve heard Pop talk about when he’d be in Charleston. He said he’d guarantee if he was at the Capitol building or somewhere playing music, Clark Kessinger would be there a listening trying to learn his style. I think that’s the way that Clark Kessinger got his style of Ed Haley, just watching him around Charleston, West Virginia.”
I told Lawrence that Kessinger was a great fiddle player but that he wasn’t even close to his dad.
That seemed to delight Lawrence, who was quiet for a moment before saying, “I’m glad to hear somebody say that. That’s one reason I agreed to let Rounder Records make an album or two. I thought there might be somebody out there that would appreciate that type of music and want to preserve it some way or the other. Once bluegrass and country rock and all that took off the old mountain-type music that came over from England and Ireland and Scotland and some of the Dutch and Scandinavian countries has just about been lost.”
Easing into more musical dialogue, I told Lawrence about my theory that Haley was a grandfather of the modern Texas contest fiddling style.
“Well, I don’t know about all of that John,” he said, “but when he’d start a piece over — he’d play each piece about four or five times — he had a different variation. It would still be the same piece of music but it always seemed to vary some from the first run through to the second run through. Well, I’ve seen him vary the speed even. When he is getting toward the end — maybe the last run — he’ll speed up the tempo and things like that or make some different finger work. And that was some of the difficulties my brother had about making records with him. My brother played the mandolin or guitar and my mother played the mandolin some.”
Lawrence said his father’s blindness, as well as his distaste for the up-and-coming commercial music industry, hindered his willingness to record music.
“When radio first took off they tried to get my dad to make records, but he always felt he couldn’t do it because they had to cue him in as to when to start,” he said. “My brother had quite a bit of problems like that when he made those home-made records with my dad. And on top of that, my dad felt that recordings were just some way for somebody to take him. After so many records had been sold over a thousand, he might get two cents on the record or something like that. He felt like he’d rather get out on the street and play it for free among friends. I’ve come to the conclusion, Why not?”
I asked Lawrence if Ed played around the house and he said, “Yeah, he’d practice sometimes. I’ve seen him get out the fiddle and just play for himself. He’d listen to a piece of music… One that I can think of real good, but I don’t think he ever really come out and made any version of it for hisself was Vaughn Monroe’s ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’. I think he figured the afterlife was about like Vaughn Monroe’s ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’: what you did all your life was gonna be your hell if you didn’t do it right, if you didn’t enjoy it.”
While crediting some of Ed’s contemporaries, Lawrence seemed to regard his father as a highly gifted prodigy surrounded by mediocrity. He implied that his father humbly felt the same way, although it was an occasional source of aggravation, especially in his later years. “A lot of guys would get around Pop and aggravate him,” Lawrence said, “but I think he enjoyed music.”
I told Lawrence I would give almost anything to have seen his father play.
“Well, it’s a shame there’s no kind of video of Pop because he had an easy style of violin playing. It didn’t look strenuous to him.”
Ever conscious of genetics, I asked Lawrence if any of his family played music. He said his son Steve Haley — who lived just north of me in Hendersonville — was a former band instructor.
“He graduated from Morehead as a music major and taught high school band in Knoxville. His two daughters are taking violin lessons and are in whatever little junior symphony they have there in Hendersonville. They play semi-classical stuff.”
I asked Lawrence if Ed played any instruments aside from the fiddle and he said, “My dad was an old hammer-thumb banjo-picker like Pappy Jones. He played ‘Cripple Creek’ and ‘Sourwood Mountain’ — really just about anything he played on the fiddle. And he put just about as many notes in on the banjo as he did on the fiddle. I’m not a bragger about my dad but he was a good banjo player, too.”
This was a new twist: I hadn’t even considered that Haley might have been a multi-instrumentalist.
“I never seen Pop play a piano,” Lawrence said, “but he could set down and play a piece of music on our old pump organ. And he taught my older brother Ralph how to play the guitar. Sometimes my dad would be playing the fiddle and my brother would be trying to pick up a piece of music with him and he’d tell Ralph what chords to hit, how to change chords and all that. He could make a run between notes and my dad could, too. Yeah, Pop could play any instrument, or I guess a little bit on anything that was handy to him anyway.”
I wondered if there were any recordings of Haley playing the banjo.
“No, not a thing on the banjo. My brother Ralph, when he come out of the service — in 1946, I guess it was — he got a hold of one of these Army surplus machines that had a cutting needle on it that cut the grooves and that’s what he made all these records on. Some of them are paper with a plastic coat on them. Others are a solid plastic. But most of them are all scratched and some of the paper ones are wore completely through the plastic into the paper. I’ve tried to keep them here at home. Some parts of the records are good.”
Just before hanging up, Lawrence said, “It was kind of a surprise to us to have got your letter. Annadeene called here and told us that you’ve been trying to get a hold of us. Our daughter, when you was here, she’d just had her operation, I guess. I think they’re gonna give her some radiation treatment and we will be making some trips back up there to Ohio but we’ll try to be here if you come.”
At that point, Lawrence turned the telephone over to his wife Pat who said in a pleasant British accent, “I do invite you and whoever you’re bringing with you to stay with us overnight or whatever. I have a front bedroom with two double beds and it’s just Larry and I that live here and we appreciate you showing an interest.”
Annadeene Fraley, Appalachia, Ashland, Ballad Makin' in the Mountains of Kentucky, Bert Hatfield, Bill Day, Birdie, Black Mountain Rag, Bloody Ground, Bonaparte's Retreat, books, Canada, Catlettsburg, David Haley, Dick Fraley, Doc Chapman, Dry and Dusty, Ed Haley, fiddler, fiddlers, fiddling, Gallagher's Drug Store, Grey Eagle, history, Horse Branch, J P Fraley, Jean Thomas, Jilson Setters, John F. Day, John Hartford, Kentucky, Lawrence Haley, Maysville, music, New Money, Paul David Smith, Pikeville, Snake Chapman, The Singin' Fiddler of Lost Hope Hollow, The Wheel, Wee House in the Wood, White Rose Waltz, writers, writing
As soon as my schedule cleared, I loaded my car and traveled north on I-65 out of Nashville toward the home of J.P. and Annadeene Fraley in Carter County, Kentucky. I took the Bluegrass Parkway northeast to Lexington, where I boarded I-64 and drove eastward past Winchester, Mt. Sterling and Owingsville. In a short time, I was in “Ed Haley country,” passing by Morehead — birthplace of Mrs. Ed Haley — and through the northern end of the Daniel Boone National Forest. A little later, I took the Grayson exit, where I found J.P. and Annadeene at their beautiful log home in a small settlement called Denton.
In the initial small talk, J.P. told about seeing Ed Haley play on the streets of Ashland. He specifically remembered him playing at Gallagher’s Drug Store where he sat cross-legged “like an Indian” with his back against the wall “right by the doors where you go in.” Ed kept a hat out for money and knew people by the sound of their voices. In the cold months, he played inside for square dances, Kiwanis Club events, and at local beer joints like “The Wheel.” J.P. said, “Now business people treated him good but the general public, they didn’t know what they was doing.”
At that point, we got our instruments out and squared up to play some tunes. As J.P. worked through his repertoire — “Birdie” (Haley’s version), “New Money”, “White Rose Waltz” — he sang little ditties and gave some of the history behind his tunes. He played a great tune called “Maysville” and said, “Daddy played it. What it was, they wasn’t no tobacco warehouses in Morehead or Flemingsburg so they had to haul their tobacco plumb into Maysville to sell it. When they was going there, they played the tune fast because they was happy. They were going to get that tobacco check, see? On the way back, they was playing it slow because they were drunk. They all had hangovers.”
J.P. also played “Grey Eagle”, “Black Mountain Blues” and “Bonaparte’s Retreat”. His treatment of this latter piece was somewhat unique — he began it with “Dry and Dusty” (“Daddy’s introduction”) — although he really bragged on Haley’s version. “If you listen to that record you got, you can hear… It’s just like cannons going off. I mean he was doing it on the fiddle. Man he had the best version of that. Ed Haley was colorful with his fiddle tunes.”
In between all of the fiddling and reminiscing, little comments spilled out about Haley. Things like, “His fingers was like a girls.” Then more fiddling.
Some time later, J.P. and I put our instruments away and sat down to dinner. Between bites, I asked him where he remembered Haley playing in Ashland.
“His range was right along 15th – 16th Street on Winchester Avenue. When you went down between Winchester and Greenup, there was shoe shops and a saloon or two and a poolroom where mostly a congregation of men were. Then over on Greenup the women’d be shopping. Sometimes he played on Front Street, but that was a wild part of town. I don’t ever remember his wife being over in there but I seen him there when the boy was picking with him. Down by the railroad over on Front Street, there used to be stores over there — and on Greenup. I mean, grocery stores, family stores. I can remember seeing him play in front of one — had to be down there. I guess around 14th Street on Greenup. I guess hunting season was going on because wild rabbits was hung up out there for sale…with the fur still on them. And stocks of bananas. Slabs of bacon, hams. I mean they wasn’t bound up to keep the flies off of them.”
After dinner, I played some of Haley’s music on cassette tapes for J.P. He casually told how people sometimes griped about Ella’s accompaniment being too loud. He also brought up how people occasionally complained when Haley played inside Ashland businesses. J.P.’s father once confronted a store owner who had asked Ed to leave his store. “Daddy told me he’d went in that hardware store, you know, to take up for Ed,” J.P. said. “The storeowner knowed Dad. He said, ‘Now Dick, you forget about it ’cause I’d ruther for him to be out there a fiddling as all them people to come in here that’s been a complaining about him.’ It wasn’t really a problem.” I said, “So he fiddled outside the hardware store all the time?” and J.P. said, “Right in that vicinity. If it was rainy or a real hot sun, you’d find him along there playing.”
Annadeene and I made plans to visit Ed’s son, Lawrence Haley, in Ashland the following day. J.P. showed me to a guest bedroom, presumably to turn in for the night, but we were soon playing music again. He cranked out “Goin’ Back to Kentucky”, then said, “I bet you money Ed Haley played that because Asa Neal did.”
The next morning, Annadeene and I hopped onto US Route 60 and made the thirty-minute drive into Ashland, the place where Ed Haley lived the last thirty years of his life. In those days, Ashland was a somewhat affluent industrial town on the Ohio River. Today, its population has dwindled to around 20,000 and its once prominent river culture seems long gone. It is best known as the hometown of country music stars, Naomi and Wynonna Judd, as well as movie actress Ashley Judd. It was clear that the place seemed to be somewhat depressed in the way most river towns are in this section of the Ohio River, outside of a budding shopping center to the northeast.
Annadeene and I drove around town for about an hour. She pointed out all the places she remembered Ed playing and told me all about his relationship with Jean Thomas, the late Ashland folklorist. I had heard of Jean Thomas and was roughly aware of the arguments for and against her work in Ashland to preserve and perpetuate mountain culture. She was the creator of the American Folksong Festival, an annual production held at the “Wee House in the Wood.” The central character in Thomas’ festival was Jilson Setters, a blind fiddler character “from Lost Hope Hollow” who Annadeene said had been inspired by Haley. She was sure of this, having served as Thomas’ personal secretary years ago.
In The Singin’ Fiddler of Lost Hope Hollow (1938), Thomas gave an account of her first encounter with ‘Jilson’ at a local courthouse: “There under the great leafy oak in the court house yard, the sun gleaming on its wet leaves, stood an old man, tall, gaunt, with a hickory basket on his arm, a long oil cloth poke clutched in his hand. It was the poke that caught my eye. Already a crowd was gathering about him. He put down the basket, then took off his dilapidated wide-brimmed felt and placed it, upturned, on the wet grass at his feet. Carefully he untied the string on the oilcloth poke and – to my surprise – took out a fiddle! In another moment, fiddle to chin, his sightless eyes raised to heaven, he swept the bow across the strings with masterly ease…and sang in a strong, a vibrant voice for one so old. While he fiddled a measure, before starting the next stanza, I fairly flew across the road. I wanted to be close at the old minstrel’s side, lest I lose a word that fell from his lips. When the song was ended I clapped loud and long, like the rest, and like them, too, tossed a coin into the old fellow’s hat.”
Annadeene said Thomas first offered Haley the opportunity to role-play Jilson Setters but he refused. He likely agreed with writer John F. Day, who offered a scathing criticism of Thomas in Bloody Ground (1941). “The trouble with most ballad-pushers, as well as of the other ‘native culturists,’ is that they’re seeking their own exultation under a guise of working for the benefit of the mountain people,” Day wrote. “One wonders as he watches the American Folksong Festival whether it’s all for the glory of God, art, and mountain balladry, or Jean Thomas, Jean Thomas and Jean Thomas. After reading one of Jean Thomas’ books I feel ill. Everything is so lovely and quaint; so damnably, sickeningly quaint. Writers like Jean Thomas would have one believe that every-other mountaineer goes around singing quaint, beautiful sixteenth-century ballads as he plunks on a dulcimer. The people of Kentucky laugh at Miss Thomas’ stuff, but the people outside the state are willing to lap it up. Now in the first place thousands of hill dwellers know no old ballads and other thousands know the old ones but prefer the newer ones. In the second place 90 per cent of the ballads and 90 per cent of the ballad singers stink. Further, the only dulcimers left in the hills are gathering dust on the walls of the settlement schools. The mountain people found out long ago there wasn’t any music in the damned things, and so they discarded them for fiddles, banjos, and guitars.”
After Haley refused to play the part of Jilson Setters, Thomas chose Blind Bill Day, a left-handed fiddler and migrant to Ashland. At some point, she took him to play his fiddle for the Queen of England. Based on Thomas’ book, Ballad Makin’ In The Mountains of Kentucky (1939), Day met his future wife “Rhuhamie” (actually named Rosie) on Horse Branch in Catlettsburg, Kentucky.
I went to Ed Haley’s the day it was bright
I met with a woman I loved at first sight.
I asked her some questions about her past life.
She told me she was single – but had been a wife.
In deep conversation I studied her mind,
She had come down to Brushy to wait on the blind;
The labor was hard and the wages was small,
I soon saw that she did not like Horse Branch at all.
Needless to say, the entire concept of Jilson Setters went a long way in destroying Thomas’ credibility as an authentic folklorist. John F. Day wrote: “The mountaineers had to be quaint. Such determination led to hoaxes like the one Jean Thomas perpetrated with ‘Jilson Setters, the Singing Fiddler of Lost Hope Hollow.’ She took this ‘typical representative of the quaint mountain folk of Kentucky’ to New York and to London and made quite a name for herself and him. But though he might have been Jilson Setters to the New Yorkers and the English he was James William Day (nicknamed ‘Blind Bill’ Day) to the people of Kentucky who knew him. There may be a ‘Lost Hope Hollow’ – they name them everything – but nobody in the Kentucky mountains ever heard of it. There was no particular harm of course in changing Bill Day’s name to Jilson Setters if the latter sounded more poetic – or something. Names are changed every day in Hollywood. The harm came in pawning off Bill, well-coached in quaintness, as a representative of the Kentucky mountain people. But the most laughable part of the whole affair was that Bill Day had lived for years in Ashland and Catlettsburg, and of all the sections of the Kentucky mountains, that in which the two cities lie is the most modern. Ashland is an industrial city of more than 30,000 population, and Catlettsburg is almost a suburb. The Big Sandy Valley was opened up years before southeastern Kentucky, and thus if one is to find any ‘quaintness’ at all he must get out of the Big Sandy country.”
Annadeene and I drove around Ashland for about an hour discussing such things before heading to nearby Catlettsburg, Kentucky on US Route 23. According to J.P. Fraley, Catlettsburg — a former boomtown for loggers who rafted timber out of the Big Sandy River at the turn of the century — served as Ed Haley’s place of residence during the twenties and early thirties. Today, its historic and interesting downtown area — featuring the Boyd County Courthouse and other buildings that attest to its short prosperous history — is almost hidden from view due to a railroad to the south and a large floodwall to the north. Its most visible section is a modern strip along US Route 23, consisting of a slow-moving four-lane road dotted with gas stations, old dwelling houses and fast-food restaurants. A sign proclaims Catlettsburg as a town of 6000 residents and maps show it situated across the Big Sandy River from the town of Kenova, West Virginia and across the Ohio River from South Point, Ohio.
After looking over the place, Annadeene and I drove back to Ashland on Winchester Avenue and turned onto 45th Street at a large, brick Presbyterian church. We drove up a narrow and curvy street until it crested at Gartrell Street, where Annadeene pointed out the home of Lawrence Haley, an unpretentious white one-and-a-half-story residence. We parked on the street and eased out of the car toward the Haley porch. As I stood there preparing to ring the doorbell, I noticed the original picture of Ed Haley featured on Parkersburg Landing hanging just inside a window on the living room wall. I had goose bumps in realizing how much this experience meant to me. After a few rings of the bell, it was clear that no one was home.
Just as we were ready to step off of the porch, a young girl with a wonderful smile came up from next door and said that her grandparents had gone over into Ohio. I realized just then that she was Ed’s great-granddaughter and was instantly as impressed as if I’d just met the daughter of the President of the United States. A stocky man with a dark mustache followed her over and introduced himself as her father, David Haley. Annadeene and I talked with him briefly, then said we’d come back some time when his parents were home. I walked out of the Haley yard wondering if the girl or her father had inherited any of Ed’s musical talent.
Later in the day, after parting ways with the Fraleys, I drove south through the Big Sandy Valley on US Route 23 to see Snake Chapman, the fiddler who remembered seeing Ed Haley so often during his youth in Pike County, Kentucky. At Pikeville, I took US Route 119 to Snake’s mountain home up Chapman Hollow near a settlement called Canada. Snake was a retired coalminer who spent most of his time caring for his sick wife. He was very mild-spoken — almost meek — and had what seemed like hundreds of cats all over his yard (even on the roof of his house). Once we began playing music, it was clear that he was a great old-time fiddler. I had a blast with his buddies, Bert Hatfield (a relative of the feuding Hatfields) and Paul David Smith.
Snake told me a little about his father, Doc Chapman. “He was an herb doctor, Dad was. Everybody knowed him by Doc Chapman. He knowed every herb that growed here in the mountains and what they was for and doctored people all around.” Doc was also a fiddler.
Snake took up his fiddle and played several more tunes, including Haley’s version of “Birdie”. Snake was a man of few words, so most of my visit consisted of playing old-time tunes. I spent the night at Bert Hatfield’s, then left eastern Kentucky on US 119 and US 25E via the Cumberland Gap.
Writings from my travels and experiences. High and fine literature is wine, and mine is only water; but everybody likes water. Mark Twain
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