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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 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
During the time I was in touch with Lawrence Haley, I received a letter in the mail from Maxine McClain of Newton, West Virginia.
“When I was 12 yrs. old there was a blind Ed Haley and blind wife Ella, would travel from Ashland, Ky. to our region in Roane Co. and spend a lot of time with my family,” she wrote. “They were wonderful people and we loved them dearly. They had a son Ralph who traveled with them. I am 76 years old now so that has been a long time ago but I remember them very well.”
I gave Maxine a call and she said, “I always loved music and I do still. My daddy, Lindsay Morris, was a musician and he used to travel in Clay County and he fiddled at what they called fiddlers’ contest.”
I asked her if Ed ever played with her father and she said, “Yes, he would play with him there at home. Ed would have me to sit down by him and he’d want to feel my fingers and he always told me I had fiddling fingers, but I don’t believe I did for I never could fiddle very much. They’d stay for days you know and my dad and mom would take them around. Back then, people would gather at the old country store at a place called Elana. People would come for miles to hear them because it was just sort of unusual to have someone that way in the neighborhood. They wasn’t room in the store to dance. I remember Ella singing ‘Are You From Dixie’? We was kinda raised up with music.”
Ella provided most of the family entertainment.
“Pop never tried to sing any songs to us,” Lawrence said. “Mom sang songs. She had one she called ‘The Coo Coo’s Nest’. A lot of religious songs, little nonsense songs and rhymes, like ‘The Watermelon’. She had a principal, I guess, or the headmaster of the school — Dr. Huntington, or something like that — he’d come into the class and he’d have a reading session with them. Read them a story and he would read all the parts in different voices. And my Mom kinda got to using inflections a lot more than any of us would. Like, she used to read us Robin Hood from her Braille magazine.”
I wondered if Ed ever entertained the kids with stories.
“Ah, maybe a ghost story or two,” Lawrence said. “He’s telling one time about somebody a riding a… I guess it was a story he heard when he was a kid, too. Somebody was coming down Trace Fork from somewhere riding a horse way up above where Aunt Liza and them lived. Said they began to hear this rattling kind of sound, this guy did. And they said he began to speed up his horse a little bit, and this rattling kept getting louder and louder and he’s a going faster and faster. Said all at once this thing jumped right up on the horse behind him and locked its arms up around him and just stayed with him forever it seemed like. And just all at once got off. Pop could tell stories like that, now. Those stories kinda filled our lonely days, too. That was the thing that they did back in them days, I guess, was tell stories, but Aunt Liza never told any stories like that, or Uncle Peter didn’t.”
I asked Lawrence if Ed “worked on” tunes at home and he said, “Well, yeah, he’d kinda play the general outline and then maybe start working on some of the real, I guess, it would be the depth of a piece of music that he wanted to put in there. Depth or body to it. He’d add to it. But mostly he might just hear a piece of music and maybe just hit every fifth or sixth note or something just to get an outline of how he wanted to play it.”
I don’t think Lawrence realized what an important and sophisticated piece of musical insight that was. What he meant by saying that Ed hit “every fifth or six note” was that he was coming down on the big accent notes that made up the “spine” of the tune. I later wondered if Lawrence’s statement was based on observations or genetic memory or both.
I asked him about Ed playing for dances, but he said those memories had left his mind years ago.
“I was walking from Clay over to Clay Junction there that one night and there was nothing but the moon — it was a full moon — but it was a hazy… It had a big ring around the moon. It was the first time I ever noticed that. Now I can’t remember where we came from, but I know that they had their instruments with them. I guess we’s a gonna go back up on Stinson up there to Aunt Minnie’s. I think this was after the time of Laury’s death, so I guess we’s heading back that way. And if we could get to Clay Junction there, we’s supposed to get a ride or something, I think. Like I say, I can’t remember what kind of function we’d come from, and what we did after that. My recollection of that was walking down this highway — a dark night, except for a hazy, ringed moon. Now that hazy ringed moon kept that in my mind all these years. The rest of it I don’t know. So there’s a lot of stuff that you forget and you never remember.”
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In mid-summer of 1994, I was back in Ashland visiting Lawrence Haley. Lawrence, I noticed right away, was indeed in poor health. His overall appearance wasn’t good; actually, he seemed convinced that he probably wouldn’t get any better. Pat was ever so cheerful, saying that he would be back to his old self soon enough. Lawrence’s son Steve had driven in from Hendersonville, Tennessee, to serve as his replacement on any “Ed Haley trips.”
Early the next morning, Steve Haley and I left Ashland to see Wilson Douglas, the old-time fiddler who remembered Ed Haley in Calhoun County, West Virginia. We drove east on I-64 past Charleston, West Virginia, where we exited off onto a winding, two-lane road leading to Clendenin, an old oil town on the Elk River. We soon turned onto a little gravel driveway and cruised up a hill to Wilson’s nice two-story home. We parked and walked up to the porch where we met Wilson and his banjo-picker, Kim Johnson. Inside, he told me more about seeing Ed at Laury Hicks’ home. He was a great storyteller, so we naturally hung onto his every word.
“Laury Hicks got in touch with Ed Haley,” he began. “So, in them days, you come to Charleston by train and from Charleston to Clay Court House by train. All right, when you got to Clay Court House, you caught the B&O train on up to Otter, which is Ivydale. Well, the word would come out and they’d be somebody there in an old car or something to pick him up and take him about fifteen, 20 miles over to Hicks’ in Calhoun County. Well, the word’d get around, you know, and my god, it was just like a carnival a coming to town. And my dad had an old ’29 model A Ford pick-up truck. Well, gas was 11 cents a gallon. So, what we’d do, we’d take our pennies or whatever we had, we’d get us that old truck up — had a big cattle rack on it — and everybody’d load in that thing. Say, ‘Well, Ed Haley’s over at Laury Hicks’. Let’s go, boys!’ Everybody would grab their loose pennies, which were very few, and we’d get over there.
“Well, it’d be probably dark, or a little before, when he would start fiddling — about maybe eight o’clock — and last until three in the morning. And he would never repeat hisself unless somebody asked him. We just sat and never opened our mouth and he’d scare [them other fiddlers]. I’d sit there till I’d get so danged sleepy, I’d think I couldn’t make it. He’d start another tune and it’d just bring me up out of there. And that Chenneth on that banjo. And then they was a fellow, he lived down the road about seven or eight miles, a fellow by the name of Bernard Postalwait. And this man was a “second Riley Puckett” on the guitar. Well, Ed’d send for him. By god, they’d never miss a note. Ed had a little old tin cup sitting there. Everybody’d put some money in it, you know. And they was some rich feller, but I can’t think of that danged guy’s name, he liked fiddle music. He’s the only man in Roane County that had any money. Well, he’d give a few one-dollar bills, you know, and he’d mention a tune. Well, if he give him a dollar, he’d play it for fifteen minutes. Well, by the time the night ended, he’d have five or six dollars, which was equivalent to fifty now. Well the next night, we’d go over — all of us’d work that day. Next night, the same thing: we’d be right back over.”
Wilson said Ed would get drunk with Bernard Postalwait and “disappear” to some rough establishments. Bernard was with Ed when he played his fiddle at Laury Hicks’ grave.
Ed also ran around with a casual fiddler named Benjamin F. “Doc” White (1885-1973) of Ivydale. Doc was a banjo-picker, veteran of the Indian Wars, schoolteacher, midwife, doctor, photographer, local judge and dentist (he even pulled his own teeth). He took Ed to “court days” and other events where he could make money.
“I was around old Doc a lot,” Wilson said. “God, he was a clown. He had kids all over West Virginia. He couldn’t fiddle much but he tried.”
Doc asked Ed one night, “Ed, how do you play them tunes without changing keys?” and Ed said, “Well Doc, I change them with my fingers!”
Wilson said Ed wasn’t being sarcastic.
It seemed like Wilson knew a lot of stories about Ed’s “running around days” with guys like Postalwait and White — which would have been great to hear to get a better understanding of him — but he refused to be very specific. He did tell one story:
They went over to a place called Minnora. That’s over where Laury Hicks lived. Doc White and Ed. Somebody else was with them, I think that Bernard Postalwait. They went down there to a Moose Lodge or something and they had a little fiddle contest or something. Well, now, Ed said, “I ain’t gonna play in this contest.” Said, “I’d ruther be a judge.” Now Old Doc White, you know, he had quite a bit of money. I don’t know, they’s four or five fiddlers that played. Old Doc played a tune, you know. They said, “What do you think, Ed?” Well, Ed said, “Boys, I hate to say it. By God, old Doc’s gotcha all mastered.” Course Ed was wanting a drink of liquor, you know. After it was over, by God, they got drunk, all of them. Doc couldn’t play much, but Ed said, “Well, that old Doc’s got you boys bested.”
That evening, I called Lawrence to tell him about speaking with the Holbrooks. When I mentioned them having one of Ed’s records, he reminded me about Ugee Postalwait’s half-brother Russell Shaver, who supposedly had others. Russell died several years ago, but his only grandson James Shaver lived in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
I got his number from directory assistance, then dialed him up. As soon as I mentioned Ed’s name and the records, James said, “He played the violin, right? Well, I remember hearing the record when I was a kid. I’m 41 and I was just a young kid — my grandfather raised me — and I remember listening to the record of Ed Haley playing the violin. I don’t know if it’s still around or not. I’d have to search the house and find out. Ed Haley, he was blind. I remember my grandfather talking about him. He used to come over to their house. I’m trying to think where my grandfather lived in the thirties. They lived up in Gilmer County or Clay County, the central part of West Virginia.”
James promised to try and locate the record.
The next day, I called Georgia Slim Rutland’s widow in Valdosta, Georgia to see if she knew anything about Slim staying with Ed in Ashland around 1938. Mrs. Rutland very emphatically said, “No, huh-uh, no. That’s not true, ’cause Slim was just in Ashland about a week. That’s all. He was there performing for about a week and that was it. He didn’t live there.” I told Mrs. Rutland that several people had told me he was enamored of Ed’s playing, as was Clark Kessinger, and she said, “Now, I’ve heard him speak of Clark Kessinger, yes. Lots of times. But now, I’ve never heard him mention a blind fiddle player. I’m sorry.”