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A few days later, I called John Lozier, a harpist in South Portsmouth, Kentucky. I could tell right away that he was feisty. When I mentioned Ed’s name, he said, “Ed Haley played so soft and so smooth you had to listen when he played. Well, that’s about all I can tell you ol’ buddy.”
Of course, I wanted more.
I pressed John by asking where he first saw Haley.
“Sitting on Market Street over here in Portsmouth, Ohio, playing for nickels and dimes back in the twenties or early thirties,” he said. “That’s the way he made a living. Raised five children. Then after that him and his wife separated. Now, can you imagine that?”
John seemed so sure of his memories that I asked him about Ed’s repertoire.
“John Harrod always had me to play one tune — nobody else played it,” he said. “My grandfather knew it, called ‘Portsmouth Airs’. I play all the fiddle tunes on a harp. My grandfather made fiddles and played fiddles but he never would allow me to pick it up. He’s afraid I’d drop and break the neck out of it. So when I was three years old I started playing fiddle tunes — so they tell me. I’m 85…or will be.”
I wondered what the secret was to getting that old and being as healthy as he sounded to be and he said, “Ah, boy. I work every day at something. I got a garden here. I’ve got out a hundred pounds of taters and I planted some beans and my cabbage is out and I move around a little bit every day.”
I had more questions.
Did Ed play a lot of waltzes?
“He could play anything,” John answered immediately.
Did you ever hear him sing?
“If he ever sung a song, I never knew it.”
How did he hold his fiddle?
“Very loosely,” John said, confirming Mona’s memory.
John asked me if I ever got up to his part of the country, then said, “Well, old buddy, I’m fixing to go to church and it’s good talking to ya. I live at South Portsmouth. If you’re ever up in here come around and let’s take a look at one another.”
One morning, in one of those unexpected surprise moments, I received in the mail from John Harrod, the Kentucky folklorist and musician, two cassette interviews regarding Ed Haley. One tape featured John Lozier, the harmonica master from South Portsmouth, speaking at a 1992 workshop in Berea, Kentucky. His memories were much more detailed on the tape than when I’d talked with him a few months ago and went a long way in helping me to understand more about Ed Haley’s Portsmouth experience.
“I started playing when I was three and a half, or so they tell me,” he said. “Well I had an uncle Walter Lozier that played a little harp. We lived in an old log house in Lewis County and he and I was sitting in this old door facing the railroad and he was playing and he handed me the harp and, so they tell me, I played ‘Red Wing’. I learned to play fiddle tunes on a harmonica from my granddad.”
John told about some of the better musicians around Portsmouth during the Depression era.
“At one time in Portsmouth, Ohio, during the thirties, there was no work,” he said. “You couldn’t get a job. And at that time, there was more good musicians in Portsmouth. They just sat around and drank a little moonshine and got good, but nobody ever made anything out of it. We had a group of fiddlers up home by the name of Keibler. They came from Germany. The old father brought the old Stradivarius fiddle and they have still got that in the family. They used to play one they called ‘Headwaters of Tygart’ and then they played one they called ‘Windin’ Down the Sheets’, then they played one they called ‘Nigger Hill’, played one they called ‘Rye Straw’, ‘Gettin’ Upstairs’, ‘Old Coon Dog’. And I learned to play fiddle tunes from the Kieblers, Ed Haley, Clark Kessinger, Harry Fry, the Mershons…”
John told about his experience with Ed.
“I met Ed Haley about 1929 or ’30,” he said. “He was a little old winked up fella with a little ol’ plug hat on. His wife sitting over here. Both blind. She played a banjo-mandolin. And he was sitting on Market Street in the lower end of Portsmouth, Ohio, playing for nickels and dimes in a hat box or whatever he had thrown down there. He had one of the boys with him. He was a fella that had little slim fingers like a woman and he played real soft and low. He wasn’t a loud fiddler. But he played so smooth and so soft you had to listen when he played. In other words, if he didn’t kindle your fire your wood was wet. I played several concerts with him and his wife. We had a fella by the name of Dinky Coffman that was on the entertaining committee at the Portsmouth N&W YMCA where people come in off the trains and slept and bought their meals. You could buy a meal for fifty cents, you could stay all night for fifty cents, and then they’d go back to Columbus or either to Williamson, West Virginia — and I’d worked there with him. I’d worked at Russell yards, one of the biggest railroad yards in the world.”
One of the tunes John said he’d learned from Ed was ‘Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom’, which he played almost note for note on the tape (minus the little ornaments and some of the “deeper” stuff that would be hard to get on a harp). He also played “Portsmouth Airs”, which he said was a Haley tune.
At that point in the tape, someone asked John about putting a lot of notes in a tune.
“Clark Kessinger could put more notes in a fiddle tune than any man I ever heard in my life and he played fast,” he said. “He was a big, tall, slim, skinny fella. Lived in Three Maples, West Virginia — right this side of Charleston, just off of I-64. I met him one time at a fiddlers’ contest back in the thirties at Portsmouth, Ohio.”
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A few days later, I called Roger Cooper, a fiddler in Lewis County, Kentucky. Roger was a protégé of Buddy Thomas, the eastern Kentucky fiddler who captured the interest and won the hearts of folklorists in the 1970s. Roger was more than happy to talk with me but said, “Really, I don’t know very much about Ed Haley. Course, I’m just like 43 years old myself so I never did see him or nothing, but a lot of guys around here knew him and would see him and stuff. I’ve heard quite a bit of talk about him. He’d come down to the Portsmouth area and play sometimes. And the Portsmouth area had lots of fiddlers around during the 20s and 30s and on up into about the 50s before they started dying off. There was stories going around about how he played.”
I asked Roger if he knew anything about Asa Neal, the famous Portsmouth fiddler.
“Asa Neal, from what they say about him, he was from down here in this county starting out and lived on a shanty boat and I guess he went on up towards Portsmouth,” Roger said. “He even made some records, I think.”
I told Roger that I figured Asa and Clark Kessinger were Ed’s two chief competitors and he said, “Well, Clark Kessinger, he gave Ed Haley a lot of credit as to learning some stuff from him himself.”
Roger felt there were a lot of other good fiddlers in the area aside from Asa Neal and Clark Kessinger.
“There was six fiddlers in South Shore — that’s just across the river from Portsmouth — all brothers — Keiblers — and there was six of them played the fiddle and they was supposed to been the best around here,” Roger said. “They was a German people. Uncle John Keibler was supposed to have been the best. The old guys around here, they say they learned from the Glenn Brothers out of West Virginia. Their names were Bob and Abe Glenn. Those Glenns would come down through here and sometimes they’d stay maybe a year with those Keiblers and they learned a lot of tunes off them Glenns. They all say that Bob Glenn was a great fiddler. I’ll tell you a little story. John Keibler was over there and Ed Haley was playing in Portsmouth, you know, like for nickels and dimes, so he went over to see him and asked Ed if he could play him a tune. And Ed let him have the fiddle and after he played the tune he thought he was Glenn playing. He went over and started feeling of him. He said, ‘Are you Glenn? You sound just like him.’ That’s what Morris Allen told me. He was a nephew to the Keiblers.”
“I wish I could tell you more about Ed Haley myself,” Roger said. “An old man and some boys named Mershon, they was awful good fiddlers. The old man Mershon, he musta been something great. One of his boys came home and said, ‘Dad, I found a fiddle player that can beat you.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll just have to go hear him.’ He said, ‘Well, come tomorrow and go with me and you can hear him.’ He took him into Portsmouth and there was Ed Haley playing for nickels and dimes and that old man watched him play for a while and said, ‘Boy, he is a great fiddler but he don’t play like I do.’ That’s all he had to say about it. Evidently, Ed really showed him some stuff. All I can hear from any of these guys around here, they just talk like there was hardly any way of describing how Ed Haley could play. They all just seem to think he was the greatest that ever was. And them old German fiddlers, it’d take something to win them over.”
Roger recommended that I contact Abraham Keibler — a nephew to “those good fiddlers” — who took up the fiddle himself when he was around 50 years old. He also suggested John Lozier, an 82-year-old harmonica player who used to watch Ed play in Portsmouth.
“He said Ed Haley was the smoothest fiddler he’d heard in his life,” Roger said of Lozier.
We talked a lot about the old tunes played in eastern Kentucky.
“A lot of those kinds of tunes I just didn’t get to get on tape or nothing and I wasn’t far enough along and my memory’s not that good, but I can tell you somebody that you really should talk to is John Harrod down there. John Harrod, he plays an awful lot of tunes and he’s researched them for years. He don’t try to be no star fiddler or nothing but he’s got a real good bow lick. He’s got bow licks down like a lot of the fiddlers in this area — the old ones. And he’s a real fine fella along with it. He researched all the old fiddlers, him and Gus Meade. I think he’s some kind of a schoolteacher. Also, he has a lot to do with Berea College.”
Roger gave me John’s telephone number just before we hung up. I put it away for later reference, trying to keep my focus on Ed Haley and not getting lost researching the fiddle music of eastern Kentucky in general.