blind, Charleston, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, fiddlers, history, John Spaulding, Josie Cline, Kentucky, Kermit, Martin County, Mont Spaulding, music, Norton, Virginia, Warfield, Wayne County, West Virginia, writing
John and Mary A. Spaulding were the parents of Josie Cline and Mont Spaulding, two fiddlers in Kermit, West Virginia, somehow affiliated with Ed Haley. In all, John and Mary had six children: Mont Spaulding (1860), Josephine Spaulding (c.1864), Virginia Spaulding (c.1867), Linsy Spaulding (1870), Nickiti Spaulding (c.1873) and Lizzie Spaulding (1878). In 1870, the Spauldings lived in the Lincoln District of Wayne County, West Virginia. In the late 1870s, they moved over to the Warfield area of Martin County, Kentucky. John died around 1878. In 1880, Mont was listed in census records as a blind person. In 1900, he and his mother Mary lived with his sister Lizzie Fitzpatrick in Martin County.
In 1910, according to census records, “Monterville Spaulding” lived in the Big Elk Precinct of Martin County where he was listed as a 48-year-old widowed traveling musician. Listed with him in that census were five children, including 20-year-old Dora Spaulding and 11-year-old James Spaulding. Based on this census, there was a solid (although not genealogical) connection between Ella Haley and the Spauldings. Between 1911-12, Ella received several postcards from a “Mont, Dora, and Jim Spaulding” from various places — Richmond, Virginia; Charleston, West Virginia; and Norton, Virginia. In light of the 1910 census, which gave Mont’s occupation as that of a traveling musician while listing him with two children named Dora and James, it seemed obvious that Ella knew Mont from her early years. Mont was gone from Martin County in 1920.
The next day, Lawrence, Pat, and I drove up the Tug Fork to see 80-year-old Grace Marcum in Kermit, West Virginia. I was hoping for more information on the Muncy family, who may have been connected genealogically to Haley. It was a long drive through Wayne County up the Big Sandy Valley on Route 52. There was nothing. Then we came to Fort Gay, West Virginia, an interestingly-named town at the mouth of the Tug Fork. A little further south was some of the emptiest country I have ever seen — just the Tug and occasionally the old N&W Railroad. We finally reached the village of Crum, then crossed into Mingo County and to the old railroad town of Kermit. It was completely dead, with just a shell of a strip of old businesses. Across the river was Warfield, Kentucky.
Once we located Grace, I asked her if she had ever heard of Milt Haley.
“They called him ‘Milty,’ didn’t they?” she said. “Yeah, that’s what I heard him called.”
What about Ed Haley?
“He used to play the fiddle for us down there at the square dance,” Grace said. “Daddy built a big hotel and he’d have square dances downstairs in that big dining room. He used to play the fiddle for us down there. Him and Josie Cline and her brother Mont Spaulding was awful good friends. We’d give them twenty-five dollars a night, my daddy. They played at Warfield a lot. Across the river there. Some of her people lived there, some of Josie’s people. I don’t know who it was.”
At that point, Lawrence said, “We used to ride the N&W out of Kenova up the Tug Fork here up to Williamson and all through there. And he’d play music at some of the hotels and at the courthouse and places like that up at Williamson. Coming back, he’d usually stop here and see these Muncys and we’d stay, maybe, overnight with them.”
Grace seemed to know exactly who Lawrence was talking about.
“That was Rush and Loosh and Old Man Sammy. Yeah, I can remember. Dad sold the store out to Uncle Sammy, and he run the business there a long time. Dad got paint poison, and we liked to lost him. Rush lived in Kenova for years, but his wife died and he come up here and stayed with Loosh. Rush was the oldest one.”
Lawrence said, “Well, that’s what my dad used to do for a living was to go around and play during court days. He might stay in Williamson as long as they had a court session a going. And then come back through here and stop and see — I didn’t know that they’s his kinfolk — the Muncys was any kin to him. I’ve heard him talk about Mont Spaulding.”
So wait a minute. Ed played music with someone named Mont Spaulding and Josie Cline?
“Yeah, well, Ed come in ever once in a while, but Ed was getting pretty old,” Grace said. “And he stayed with Josie and them. Wherever they played, he went with ’em. Pretty nice old man. Well, him and Loosh Muncy and Rush Muncy was close. Now, they didn’t only play for Dad. They played for other people. Let’s see, Thursday night and Saturday night down here, and then they’d go to Borderland and play up there on Thursday and Friday nights. They made it good. Let’s see, Mont Spaulding, and a Haley and Josie Cline. Them three was the ones that… I paid them off myself. I know.”
Later that night, I got back on the phone with Grace Marcum. I just had to know more about Josie Cline.
“She was a little round-faced woman…a little short, chubby woman,” Grace said. “And she wore her hair twisted up on top of her head, a little roll, you know, in a pin. Seem to me like she was blue-eyed, as good as I can remember. Josie Cline’s been dead for years. She collected bridge toll on this here… Well, it’s a free bridge now. They freed it, but when it was first built, they let Josie collect the toll. And she lived there in that little house, her and her husband. Her husband was a paralyzed man, and he couldn’t talk. I don’t know what happened to him.”
I asked Grace if Josie was supposed to be Ed’s older or younger sister and she said, “I guess she was an older sister. She was a funny old woman. She could make anybody laugh. Fine person.”
I asked her again about Josie being a fiddler and she said, “Oh yeah, her and Mont both.”
“Her and her brother Mont.”
So she had another brother?
“Oh yeah. Seemed to me like — Mont Spaulding. He wore colored glasses. He wasn’t very tall.”
How could Josie be a sister to Ed and Mont Spaulding when everyone all had different last names? Was she a half-sister?
“Well, she could’ve been, yeah,” Grace said. “But I know they was awful close. Yeah, they had a time. Mont was a pretty good fiddler, and Josie was, too. I couldn’t say which one was the best, but now they played at square dances and everything. Yeah, my dad hired them to play a many a Saturday night down there at the hotel.”
I asked Grace how often Ed came through the area and she said, “Oh, I don’t know. You know, I was just a small girl, and I couldn’t tell you nothing like that ‘cause my father had a grocery store on this side of the railroad — between the railroad and the county road — and I worked there with Dad. He put us all to work. Raised a big family of us, so we all worked, you know, we all helped out.”
After hanging up with Grace, I formulated a theory that maybe Milt Haley had Josie Cline by another woman before coming to Harts and marrying Ed’s mother. It was just a hunch, like the “Emma Jane Hager-Emma Jean Haley” thing. I also wondered if Grace hadn’t partially confused Ed with Mont Spaulding or if Ed was in fact a boyfriend to the widowed Josie.
I gave Clyde Haley a call to ask him about this Josie Cline, who was somehow connected to Ed Haley. Was it his sister, half-sister…or even a girlfriend?
“No, I don’t recall him ever having anybody by that name around the house,” Clyde said. “I’ve just heard my dad talk about her. He didn’t womanize, if that’s what you’re talking about. He didn’t bring any women around the house or anything like that.”
I mentioned that Josie Cline was supposedly Ed’s sister and he wasn’t surprised.
“He might have,” he said. “I never did get acquainted with her. Josie Cline — I recall the name real well. I don’t recall any Clines personally. We went up around Kermit and Logan and up in that area quite a bit, you know. My dad took me with him all the time. I was his pet. I wasn’t around that area too much. The only time I went over there was one time I run off from home and went over that way and scrounged, you know. I couldn’t have been over ten, eleven, twelve years old.”
I asked Clyde why he ran away and he said, “Well, mostly because I was just that type of a guy. I didn’t always stay around the home. A lot of the times when I was away from home that way, it was because I was in dutch with the law, you know. I had to get away from Ashland. And we’d go different places, you know, me and my dad.”
I asked if Ed ever got “in dutch with the law” and he said, “Not too often, not too often. The only time he ever got in dutch was one time when he was whooping us kids in school you know and he whooped me so hard using a thin, brown belt — and he was using the buckled end of it to whip me with… He wrapped that belt around my body and accidentally hit my tally-whacker you know and put me out of commission for about three months. Yeah, I remember that pretty well. He wouldn’t never whip the other boys like he whipped me. But as I look back on my lifetime, I see that he did things that he wouldn’t ordinarily have done if he had been a normal man. He was blind and he done these things to us and my mother — he beat my mother quite a bit, you know. If he could have seen like a normal person, I think he’d been an altogether different person. I forgave him a lot of that stuff but he was awful mean to my mother.”
“He’d come in drunk sometimes and beat on her and every time he’d do that, when I was big enough, I’d hit him with something. I hit him with a milk bottle one time, one of those big old heavy milk bottles. But I conked him with one of them one time and cut a pretty good gash in the top of his head. If he’d ever found out that that was me that done that, he’d a beat me half to death. But we all told him that Sarah West done that. She stayed with us. John West’s wife. John West stayed with my mother and dad a lot of times too, because I remember him pretty well. And he did things around the house that my mother and father couldn’t do. He was like a handyman. But Sarah West got the blame for that milk bottle because I blamed her. I told him, I said, ‘Pop, that was Sarah done that, hit you in the head with that milk bottle.’ And he got on her about it. And I remember she couldn’t talk real well. She had a hesitant speech. She says, ‘Mr. Haley that was Clyde did that. Wasn’t me. That was Clyde.’ Trying to tell him it as me. And he wouldn’t believe her. She took the blame for that, poor girl. I was a regular hellion.”
I asked Clyde if he remembered any of the other people who worked around Ed’s house and he said, “We had so many people stayed around in my house. My mother and father were hospitality plus. You know, anybody that came around the house they were just like family. There was a lot of them that was at my house because they knew my mother’s part of the family, like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd. Those people in that category. They were from right there in the area. Their homes were right around in Logan and West Virginia. My dad was from Logan County. They’d come and listen to my dad play the fiddle. There’s stories that I could tell you that you wouldn’t believe about my dad — those things that we done when he was away from home. Things that were mean, pertaining to the family. He wasn’t a nice person to be around. If you come down this a way and we get together and talk, I can tell you things that I wouldn’t tell you on the phone.”
Appalachia, Catlettsburg, Clyde Haley, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, fiddle, fiddlers, fiddling, Harts Creek, history, Irish lilt, Kenova, Kermit, Kevin Burke, Lawrence Haley, music, Nashville, Noah Mullins, Norfolk and Western Railroad, Patsy Haley, snap bowing, West Virginia, Williamson, writing
Nestled in Nashville, I worked obsessively on Ed Haley’s music. First, I made a real effort to transcribe it note for note and break it down “under the microscope.” Initially, I had tried to play it generally the way he did while keeping its spirit — with my own twists, of course, which is nearly impossible not to do. This time, though, I wanted to study it as you might a fabulous book — break it down, look at it mechanically… I made a huge discovery regarding Ed’s bowing during that time. With Lawrence’s help via telephone conversations, I deduced that Ed used what Scotch fiddlers call “snap bowing,” which is when you separate notes by applying pressure (“little stops”) with the bow — not by changing its direction. Of course, Ed didn’t use those patterns exclusively and mixed them with more conventional strokes.
I also spent a lot of time listening to Ed’s recordings and playing my versions of his songs into a tape recorder. One of the first things I figured out was that he used what fiddler Kevin Burke calls the “Irish lilt” to give his music a “dotted note feel.” It would be like playing a tune in triplets with the middle note taken out.
I also discovered that Lawrence was right about Ed not playing so many notes; instead, he created the illusion of doing so by phrasing his tunes in a way that gave them a nice “crooked” flavor.
Throughout these discoveries, Lawrence continued his role as my brutally honest fiddle teacher. His comments were surprisingly musical for someone who kept reminding me that he didn’t even play anything. When I played “Yellow Barber” for him over the telephone, he said, “That sounded right except when you get down to that low end, you’re doing a little skipping in there and it seemed to me like Pop played that a little bit smoother. Like he had a roll to his… And I noticed you had a few jumping notes in there that really I don’t remember hearing. Maybe you can hear them. Other than that, it sounded great to me.”
Lawrence seemed pleased with my playing of Ed’s “Catlettsburg”.
“That was good, John,” he said. “That was really good.”
I told him I didn’t know how Ed was able to get up into second position on that tune with the fiddle sitting at his shoulder.
“I always thought that he kinda controlled the violin with his thumb and the meaty part of his hand between his finger and thumb,” Lawrence said. “He could relax that up and down the neck of the violin or he could tighten that and he could still have the flexibility of his fingers, plus that give him the ability to rock that violin body underneath the bow, too.”
I was trying that and eventually got to where I could will my fingers into third position still holding the fiddle at my shoulder, which if you have to play for a long time is sure easier on the neck of the player.
I told Lawrence about talking with Clyde, especially about his memories of Ed mistreating him as a child.
“I don’t know, maybe my dad was mean to him when he was a young’n,” Lawrence said. “But I can’t remember my dad ever laying a hand on me to hurt me. I musta been a rowdy little kid ’cause it seemed like whenever Pop’d pick me up he’d call me ‘muddy duck’ because I was always dirty, I reckon, whenever he’d get a hold of me. He’d just rub my head or something like that and call me his ‘muddy duck.’ I don’t know where Clyde got his story from.”
Lawrence agreed that his dad sometimes abused his mother, although he placed a lot of blame for their marital problems on her.
“Well, he could be temperamental with my mother at times, but I think she was temperamental, too. I think my mother’s people had higher tempers than Dad’s people did. They seemed to be kinda quiet people. Noah Mullins was supposed to killed a revenuer up there at Harts. They waylaid a revenuer and they laid it on Noah, but Noah Mullins always seemed to me like just as quiet and as calm a fella as could be. But I had some of my uncles on my mother’s side, they were a little bit of a temperamental type of people. So I’d put some of the blame on my mother for her treatment of my dad. You know, a woman can upset a man and whip him quicker with words than he can whip her with his fists.”
I totally agreed, then asked Lawrence if he knew anything about the Muncys from Patsy’s genealogy.
“We’d ride the Norfork and Western train up from Kenova and stop at Kermit and stay there with Muncy people,” he said. “They lived in an apartment up over their store and filling station-type thing and they had one of them small monkeys. I went up there one day and got right at the top of the steps and was playing with that monkey and I musta made it mad and it made a rush at me and I musta jumped back and I went to the bottom of them steps. That made me remember it more than anything else. I can’t even remember that Pop played music while he was there for them. They mighta just talked. We used to stop there maybe and stay all night and Pop and Mom and me would go on to Williamson and they’d play at courthouse days or something there. Pop musta had people up in there, but he never said anything to me about it.”
Appalachia, Art Stamper, Arthur Smith, Ashland, Big Sandy River, Billy Lyons, Blackberry Blossom, blind, Charles Wolfe, Clark Kessinger, Clayton McMichen, Duke Williamson, Ed Haley, fiddle, fiddler, fiddlers, fiddling, Fox in the Mud, Frazier Moss, Fred Way, Ft. Gay, Grand Ole Opry, history, Huntington, Joe Williamson, John Hartford, Kentucky, Kermit, Kirk McGee, Levisa Fork, Louisa, Mark Howard, Matewan, Mississippi River, Molly O'Day, music, Nashville, Natchee the Indian, Ohio River, Old Sledge, Packet Directory, Paintsville, Parkersburg Landing, Pikeville, Prestonsburg, Red Apple Rag, River Steamboats and Steamboat Men, Robert Owens, Roy Acuff, Sam McGee, Skeets Williamson, Snake Chapman, square dances, St. Louis, Stacker Lee, Stackolee, steamboats, Tennessee Valley Boys, Tri-State Jamboree, Trouble Among the Yearlings, Tug Fork, West Virginia, Williamson, WSAZ
Back in Nashville, I was knee-deep in Haley’s music, devoting more time to it than I care to admit. I talked so much about it that my friends began to tease me. Mark Howard, who was producing my albums at the time, joked that if Ed’s recordings were of better quality, I might not like them so much. As my obsession with Haley’s music grew, so did my interest in his life. For a long time, my only source was the liner notes for Parkersburg Landing, which I had almost committed to memory. Then came Frazier Moss, a fiddling buddy in town, who presented me with a cassette tape of Snake Chapman, an old-time fiddler from the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy in eastern Kentucky. On the tape, Snake said he’d heard Haley play the “old original” version of “Blackberry Blossom” after he “came in on the boats” at Williamson, West Virginia.
This was making for a great story. I was already enthralled by Haley’s fiddling…but to think of him riding on “the boats.” It was the marriage of my two loves. I immediately immersed myself in books like Captain Fred Way’s Packet Directory 1848-1983: Passenger Steamboats of the Mississippi River System Since the Advent of Photography in Mid-Continent America (1983) to see which boats ran in the Big Sandy Valley during Haley’s lifetime. Most of the boats were wooden-hulled, lightweight batwings – much smaller than the ones that plied the Mississippi River in my St. Louis youth – but they were exciting fixtures in the Big Sandy Valley culture.
“I have seen these boats coming down the river like they were shot out of a cannon, turning these bends, missing great limbs hanging over the stream from huge trees, and finally shooting out of the Big Sandy into the Ohio so fast that often they would be nearly a mile below the wharf boat before they could be stopped,” Captain Robert Owens wrote in Captain Mace’s River Steamboats and Steamboat Men (1944). “They carried full capacity loads of sorghum, chickens and eggs. These days were times of great prosperity around the mouth of Sandy. Today, great cities have sprung up on the Tug and Levisa forks. The railroad runs on both sides, and the great activity that these old-time steamboats caused has all disappeared.”
During the next few weeks, I scoured through my steamboat photograph collection and assembled pictures of Big Sandy boats, drunk with images of Haley riding on any one of them, maybe stopping to play at Louisa, Paintsville, Prestonsburg and Pikeville, Kentucky on the Levisa Fork or on the Tug Fork at Ft. Gay, Kermit, Williamson, and Matewan, West Virginia.
Finally, I resolved to call Snake Chapman and ask him about his memories. It was a nervous moment – for the first time, I was contacting someone with personal memories of Ed Haley. Snake, I soon discovered, was a little confused about exactly who I was and why I was so interested in Haley’s life and then, just like that, he began to offer his memories of Ed Haley.
“Yeah, he’s one of the influences that started me a fiddling back years ago,” Snake said, his memories slowly trickling out. “I used to go over to Molly O’Day’s home – her name was Laverne Williamson – and me and her and her two brothers, Skeets and Duke, used to play for square dances when we first started playing the fiddle. And Uncle Ed, he’d come up there to old man Joe Williamson’s home – that’s Molly’s dad – and he just played a lot for us and then us boys would play for him, me and Cecil would, and he’d show us a lot of things with the bow.”
Molly O’Day, I knew, was regarded by many as the most famous female vocalist in country music in the 1940s; she had retired at a young age in order to dedicate her life to the church.
“And he’s the one that told me all he could about old-time fiddling,” Snake continued. “He said, ‘Son, you’re gonna make a good fiddler, but it takes about ten years to do it.'”
I told Snake about reading in the Parkersburg Landing liner notes how Haley reportedly wished that “someone might pattern after” him after his death and he totally disagreed. He said, “I could have copied Uncle Ed – his type of playing – but I didn’t want to do it because he told me not to. He told me not to ever copy after anyone. Said, ‘Just play what you feel and when you get good, you’re as good as anybody else.’ That was his advice.”
I didn’t really know what to make of that comment. I mean, was Haley serious? Was he speaking from personal experience or was it just something he told to a beginning fiddler for encouragement?
After that, my conversation with Snake consisted of me asking questions – everything from how much Haley weighed to all the intricate details of his fiddling. I wondered, for instance, if Ed held the bow at the end or toward the middle, if he played with the fiddle under his chin, and if he ever tried to play words in his tunes. I wanted to know all of these things so that I could just inhabit them, not realizing that later on what were perceived as trivial details would often become major items of interest.
Snake answered my questions precisely: he said Haley held the bow “up a little in the middle, not plumb on the end” and usually played with the fiddle at his chest – “just down ordinarily.” He also said Haley “single-noted” most of his bow strokes, played frequently in cross-key, hated vibrato and used a lot of “sliding notes.” He seldom got out of first position, only occasionally “going down and getting some notes” that he wanted to “bring in the tune” and he definitely tried to play words in his music.
“The old fiddlers through the mountains here – and I guess it’s that way everywhere – they tried to make the fiddle say the words of the old tunes,” Snake said.
“Uncle Ed, he was a kind of a fast fiddler,” he went on. “Most old-time fiddlers are slow fiddlers, but he played snappy fiddling, kindly like I do. Ah, he could do anything with a fiddle, Uncle Ed could. He could play a tune and he could throw everything in the world in it if he wanted to or he could just play it out straight as it should be. If you could just hear him in person because those tapes didn’t do him justice. None of them didn’t. To me, he was one of the greatest old-time fiddlers of all time. He was telling me, when I was young, he said, ‘Well, I could make a fiddle tune any time I want to,’ but he said he just knowed so many tunes he didn’t care about making any more. He played a variety of tunes that a lot of people didn’t play, and a lot of people couldn’t play. He knew so many tunes he wouldn’t play one tune too long.”
I asked Snake about Haley’s repertoire and he said, “He played an old tune called ‘Old Sledge’ and it was one of his good ones. He played tunes like ‘Trouble Among the Yearlings’, but when he was gonna play it he called it ‘Fox in the Mud’. He made that up himself. One of the favorite tunes of mine he played was the old-time way of playing ‘Blackberry Blossom’ and he played it in G-minor. Ed could really play it good. They was somebody else that made the tune. Uncle Ed told me who it was – Garfield. He said he was a standing fiddling near a big blackberry patch and it was in bloom at the mouth of the hollow one time and this fella Garfield played this tune and he asked this fella Garfield what the name of the tune was. He said, ‘Well, I ain’t named it, yet,’ and he turned around and spit in that blackberry patch with a big bunch of ambeer and said, ‘We’ll just call it ‘Blackberry Blossom’.”
“Yeah, Uncle Ed, he had tales behind every one of them like that, but that’s where he said he got the name of it. He said he named it there…spitting in the blackberry blossom.”
Snake only remembered Haley singing “Stacker Lee”, a tune I’d heard him fiddle and sing simultaneously on Parkersburg Landing:
Oh Stacker Lee went to town with a .44 in his hand.
He looked around for old Billy Lyons. Gonna kill him if he can.
All about his John B. Stetson hat.
Stacker Lee entered a bar room, called up a glass of beer.
He looked around for old Billy Lyons, said, “What’re you a doin’ here?
This is Stacker Lee. That bad man Stacker Lee.”
Old Billy Lyons said, “Stacker Lee, please don’t take my life.
Got a half a dozen children and one sweet loving wife
Looking for my honey on the next train.”
“Well God bless your children. I will take care of your wife.
You’ve stole my John B. Stetson hat, and I’m gonna take your life.”
All about that broad-rimmed Stetson hat.
Old Billy Lyons said, “Mother, great God don’t weep and cry.”
Oh Billy Lyons said, “Mother, I’m bound to die.”
All about that broad-rimmed Stetson hat.
Stacker Lee’s mother said, “Son, what have you done?”
“I’ve murdered a man in the first degree and Mother I’m bound to be hung.”
All about that John B. Stetson hat.
Oh Stacker Lee said, “Jailor, jailor, I can’t sleep.
Old Billy Lyons around my bedside does creep.”
All about that John B. Stetson hat.
Stacker Lee said, “Judge, have a little pity on me.
Got one gray-haired mother dear left to weep for me.”
All about that broad-rimmed Stetson hat.
That judge said, “Old Stacker Lee, gonna have a little pity on you.”
I’m gonna give you twenty-five years in the penitentiary.”
All about that John B. Stetson hat.
It was one awful cold and rainy day
When they laid old Billy Lyons away
In Tennessee. In Tennessee.
Snake said Haley used to play on the streets of Williamson, West Virginia where he remembered him catching money in a tin cup. In earlier years, he supposedly played on the Ohio River and Big Sandy boats and probably participated in the old fiddlers’ contests, which Snake’s father said was held on boat landings. These impromptu contests were very informal and usually audience-judged, meaning whoever got the most applause was considered the winner. Sometimes, fiddlers would just play and whoever drew the biggest crowd was considered the winner.
I asked Snake if he ever heard Ed talk about Clark Kessinger and he said, “Skeets was telling me Ed didn’t like Clark at all. He said, ‘That damned old son-of-a-gun stands around and tries to pick up everything he can pick up from you.’ And he did. Clark tried to pick up everything from Uncle Ed. He was a good fiddler, too.”
Snake said Clayton McMichen (the famous Skillet Licker) was Haley’s favorite fiddler, although he said he knew just how to beat him. This made me think of the line from Parkersburg Landing, “In regard to his own fiddling, Haley was not particularly vain, although he was aware that he could put ‘slurs and insults’ into a tune in a manner that set him apart from all other fiddlers.” (I wasn’t exactly sure he meant by slurs and insults.)
Snake could tell that I was really into Haley.
“Try to come see me and we’ll make you as welcome as we possibly can,” he said. “I tell you, my wife is poorly sick, and I have a little trouble with my heart. I’m 71. Doctors don’t want me to play over two or three hours at a time, but I always like to meet other people and play with them. I wouldn’t have no way of putting you up, but you can come any time.”
Just before hanging up, I asked Snake if he had any Haley recordings. He said Skeets Williamson had given him some tapes a few years back and “was to bring more, but he died two years ago of cancer.” Haley had a son in Ashland, Kentucky, he said, who might have more recordings. “I don’t know whether he’s got any of Uncle Ed’s stuff or not. See, most of them old tapes they made, they made them on wire recordings, and I don’t know if he’s got any more of his stuff than what I’ve got or not.”
I told Snake I would drive up and see him in the spring but ended up calling him a week later to ask him if he knew any of Ed’s early influences. He said Ed never talked about those things. “No sir, he never did tell me. He never did say. Evidently, he learned from somebody, but I never did hear him say who he learned from.” I felt pretty sure that he picked up tunes from the radio. “Ed liked to listen to the radio, preferring soap operas and mystery chillers, but also in order to hear new fiddle tunes,” the Parkersburg Landing liner notes read. “A good piece would cause him to slap his leg with excitement.” I asked Snake if he remembered Haley ever listening to fiddlers on the radio and he said, “I don’t know. He must have from the way he talked, because he didn’t like Arthur Smith and he liked Clayton McMichen.”
What about pop tunes? Did he play any of those?
“He played ragtime pretty good in some tunes,” Snake said. “Really you can listen to him play and he slides a little bit of ragtime off in his old-time fiddling – and I never did hear him play a waltz in all the time I ever heard him play. He’d play slow songs that sound old lonesome sounds.”
Snake quickly got into specifics, mentioning how Haley only carried one fiddle around with him. He said, “He could tune right quick, you know. He didn’t have tuners. He just had the keys.”
Did fiddlers tune low back in those days?
“I’d say they did. They didn’t have any such thing as a pitch-pipe, so they had to tune just to whatever they liked to play.”
Haley was the exception.
“Well, it seemed like to me he tuned in standard pitch, I’m not sure. But from hearing his fiddling – like we hear on those tapes we play now – I believe he musta had a pitch-pipe at that time.”
I wondered if Haley spent a lot of time messing around with his fiddle, like adjusting the sound post, and Snake said, “No, I never did see him do that. He might have did it at home but when he was out playing he already had it set up the way he wanted to play.”
Surprisingly, Snake didn’t recall Haley playing for dances. “I don’t think he did because I never did know of him playing for a dance. He was mostly just for somebody to listen to, and what he did mostly was to make money for a living playing on the street corner. I seen him at a fiddling contest or two – that was back before I learned to play the fiddle. That’s when I heard him play ‘Trouble Among the Yearlings’. He won the fiddling contest.”
What about playing with other fiddlers?
“Well, around in this area here he was so much better than all the other fiddle players, they all just laid their fiddles down and let him play. The old fiddlers through here, they wasn’t what I’d call too good fiddlers. We had one or two in the Pikeville area over through there that played a pretty good fiddle. Art Stamper’s dad, he was a good old-time fiddler, and so was Kenny Baker’s dad.”
After hanging up with Snake, I gave a lot of thought to Haley reportedly not liking Arthur Smith. His dislike for Smith was documented on Parkersburg Landing, which stated plainly: “Another fiddler he didn’t care for was Arthur Smith. An Arthur Smith record would send him into an outrage, probably because of Smith’s notoriously uncertain sense of pitch. Cecil Williamson remembers being severely lectured for attempting to play like ‘that fellow Smith.'”
Haley probably first heard Smith over the radio on the Grand Ole Opry, where he debuted in December of 1927. Almost right away, he became a radio star, putting fiddlers all over the country under his spell. His popularity continued to skyrocket throughout the 1930s, during his collaboration with Sam and Kirk McGee. In the late thirties, Haley had a perfect chance to meet Smith, who traveled through southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky with the Tennessee Valley Boys. While unlikely, Haley may have met him at fiddling contests during the Depression. “In the thirties, Haley occasionally went to fiddle contests to earn money,” according to Parkersburg Landing. At that same time, Smith was participating in well-publicized (usually staged) contests with Clark Kessinger, Clayton McMichen and Natchee the Indian. Haley, however, tended to avoid any contest featuring Natchee the Indian, who “dressed in buckskins and kept his hair very long” and was generally a “personification of modern tendencies toward show fiddling.”
In the early 1940s, Haley had a perfect opportunity to meet Smith, who appeared regularly on WSAZ’s “Tri-State Jamboree” in Huntington, West Virginia. Huntington is located several miles up the Ohio River from Ashland, Kentucky and is West Virginia’s second largest city.
In the end, Haley’s reported low opinion of Smith’s fiddling was interesting. Arthur Smith was one of the most influential fiddlers in American history. Roy Acuff regarded him as the “king of the fiddlers,” while Dr. Wolfe referred to him as the “one figure” who “looms like a giant over Southern fiddling.” Haley even had one of his tunes – “Red Apple Rag” – in his repertoire. Maybe he got a lot of requests for Smith tunes on the street and had to learn them. Who knows how many of his tunes Haley actually played, or if his motives for playing them were genuine?