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.