Bill Duty, Billy Adkins, Chloe Mullins, Durg Fry, Ed Haley, fiddlers, genealogy, Green McCoy, history, Hollena Brumfield, John Wesley Berry, Jupiter Fry, Mayme Ferrell, Milt Ferrell, Milt Haley, music, writing
I asked Mayme who her father’s favorite fiddler was and she laughed and said, “I suppose my daddy’s favorite fiddler was a man named Jupiter Fry. He married my daddy’s aunt.”
Billy asked, “Was he a brother to Durg Fry?”
“Yes,” she said. “You smart people. He went to New York one time and won a fiddling contest. He used to live down the creek here on the Laurel Fork of Big Ugly. My daddy used to go around there to Uncle Jupiter’s — they didn’t have much — and they would play poker all night long with just two or three pennies. They were very, very poor. Not many people were very well off. You wouldn’t think it by looking at this dilapidated place now but we had quite a bit. All the buildings are torn down. We had plenty — enough for us. We had some money here all the time. But Uncle Jupiter was the best fiddler in the country at one time.”
I asked Mayme if Jupiter was a right- or left-handed fiddler and she said, “Oh goodness, I don’t know. I don’t remember Uncle Jupiter. I remember Durg. He played some, too. He was right-handed. Durg would play and dance while he played. He did the hoedown. He did enjoy dancing.”
I asked Mayme if she remembered hearing any talk about Milt Haley and Green McCoy and she said, “Heavens, yes. Why didn’t I listen? Daddy talked about them. There was a great deal said but I just dismissed it from my mind. I didn’t try to remember it. Did Hollene Ferguson come in there in any way? She was a real kind person. I was there a few times. Incidentally, my mother’s daddy built that house.”
What was his name?
“John Wesley Berry. He was a riverboat captain and a carpenter from Guyandotte.”
I said, “I know Hollene put people up for the night and I’ve heard that Ed Haley had gone through there and stopped off and played the fiddle.”
“Well, Ed Haley frequented the place in this area,” Mayme said. “He’s been on this creek, too.”
She wasn’t sure if her father ever met Ed but she heard him talk about him.
Brandon figured they knew each other based on some interesting genealogical connections: one of Milt Ferrell’s uncles married Money Makin’ Sol Mullins’ granddaughter, while another uncle married a sister to Chloe Mullins (Ed’s grandmother).
I got kinda excited about Mayme confirming Ed’s trips through Big Ugly.
“Well see, we knew that he’d been to see Bill Duty a lot,” I said. “And we have found that Milt Haley, his father, was actually living in Bill Duty’s household at one time.”
“Milt Haley lived with Bill Duty before Bill Duty ever moved here, when he was still down in Logan County,” Brandon said, “and we think Milt may’ve moved up this way with Bill when he moved up here.”
“Well, I think maybe he did,” Mayme said quickly. “I think maybe he did. You’re awakening some old memories. I think he lived with them.
“Was there music in Bill Duty’s household?” I asked.
“I don’t know about that,” Mayme said. “Bill Duty married my daddy’s aunt.”
“Let me ask you a question,” I said to Mayme. “In the community back when you were a little girl did most people talk about the Haley-McCoy affair, or did they try not to talk about it for fear that somebody might hurt them or something?”
“I don’t think that there was any fear of being hurt,” she said. “They were not quite as notorious as the Hatfields and McCoys were.”
Just before we left, Mayme “made” me promise to come back and play for her in the fall.
I asked her for a favor: Could I go up into the old part of her house?
“Sure,” she said, “Just be careful.”
When I opened the door from the living room leading into the original cabin, I was so overwhelmed with sights and smells of the nineteenth century that it chilled me to the bone. It was dark, except for a little light streaming through a window, and everything was dilapidated, dusty, damp — and in most cases, ruined. A lot of the furniture had just rotted or collapsed to the floor and there were piles of papers everywhere at my feet. It was as if the people living there fifty years ago had just walked out, blew out the candles and never went back. Upstairs was the same. The whole experience made such an impression on me that I later began packing a picture of Mayme’s cabin in my fiddle case and eventually used it as a graphic on one of my albums.
Big Ugly Creek, Bill Duty, Charley Brumfield, Clarence Lambert, Clinton Ferrell, Doska Adkins, Eunice Ferrell, fiddlers, fiddling, Fulton Ferrell, history, Jeff Duty, Jim Lucas, Mayme Ferrell, Milt Ferrell, Rector, writing
At Broad Branch, we found that Bill Duty’s old one-story log house was completely gone. We wanted to go to the family cemetery just across the creek and up the hill but didn’t because it was overran with giant weeds.
We were all just kinda hanging out there, crammed in the car, when Doska said, “Milt Ferrell could play a fiddle. He was a first cousin to my daddy.”
Wait a minute — another fiddler? I’d spent quite a bit of time trying to track down the names of the old fiddlers around Harts. All of a sudden, they were falling from the woodwork.
Milt Ferrell — a man related to the Dutys and with the first name of Ed’s father. I said, “Now who was he?”
“Mayme’s daddy,” Eunice said, as if that helped. “Mayme lives down there.”
“She’s bad off,” Doska added. “One of her lungs has collapsed.”
I just had to see this Mayme Ferrell, although I didn’t want to impose on her if she was in poor health.
Doska and Eunice said she would love the company…and she just lived down the road.
On the way to Mayme’s someone mentioned that she lived at the old Rector Post Office, a settlement from earlier in the century. We soon turned over a little bridge and pulled up to the only structure left in “Rector proper”: Mayme’s incredible two-story log cabin. It was ancient and leaning, with an old cemetery just behind it on the hill. The whole scene was like something from a dream.
We got out of the car and walked up to a small back porch where Eunice pecked at the screen door and hollered, “Mayme? It’s Eunice.”
In no time at all, Mayme Ferrell was peeking back out at us. She was frail, half-blind and hooked to a breathing machine — and very surprised to see us all on her porch with fiddles, cameras, and notebooks.
Mayme invited us on inside where we sat down in the living room and started talking like old friends. She was well acquainted with Eunice and Doska and knew a lot about Billy and Brandon’s families. It was clear after a few minutes of interchange that her life had went beyond school teaching — she was an educated woman of the modern world, who’d spent twelve years in Los Angeles and San Francisco. She got me to play her a few tunes and the next thing I knew she was singing lyrics that she remembered from her childhood, like “Nigger looky here and nigger looky yander. The old gray goose is flirting with the gander.” Or things like: “I had a piece of pie and I had a piece of puddin’. I give it all away for to sleep with Sally Goodin.” Or this: “Old Aunt Sal, if you don’t care I’ll leave my liquor jug sitting right here. If it ain’t here when I come back we’ll raise hell in the Cumberland Gap.”
Eunice remembered “Cluck old hen, cluck and sing. Ain’t laid an egg since way last spring.” Doska said her father Jeff Duty used to play the tune.
I said to Mayme, “So your father was a fiddler? Tell me about him.”
She was immediately nostalgic.
“Daddy was named for a poet, but I don’t think his parents knew it,” she said. “John Milton Ferrell. He was a great guy. He was a wonderful person. My daddy’s people were just easy going. Most of them were musicians. My daddy, he would lead the songs in church. He was a board member for three terms and the last term he was the president of the board. They would meet over at Harts and those Brumfields — I’ll tell you what — most people were afraid to go through there. Charley Brumfield shot his daddy and killed him. His daddy was beating his mother and he made him leave, so I understand, and then when he came back — I guess he was drunk…”
Mayme looked at Brandon and said, “Those Brumfields were rough then, son. Good people. If they liked you they liked you, and if they didn’t you better leave them alone. They were ambitious people. They just got to feuding among themselves, but it wore out after a while. But my daddy was a good friend to all of them. Charley Brumfield would’ve done anything for daddy. They’d get in a poker game after they had their meeting and they’d all drink. Well daddy would come home with a pocket full of money. One time he came home drunk and he couldn’t hang his hat up. Of course, the older children laughed and I cried, but he sang, ‘Hey hey rushin’ the rabbit. Into the brush and then you’ll habit.’ Didn’t say ‘have it.’ I don’t know what they were getting in that brush. He was a very, very humble person and he was witty.”
Milt Ferrell, Mayme said, played the fiddle around election time, at weddings, at schools or on Friday at all-night dances.
“We’d have barn-raisings,” she said. “After they got the roof over the barn and put the second floor in — the floor where you put your fodder and hay — they’d have a barn dancing. They’d dance all night.”
Milt played with the fiddle under his chin, as did Jeff Duty.
Mayme cried when I played one of her father’s tunes, “Over the Waves”.
She said her father’s older brothers Clinton Ferrell and Fulton Ferrell were also fiddlers. Clint was the smoothest fiddler in the family but would only occasionally pick up Milt’s fiddle and play “Mississippi Sawyer”. Their cousin Jim Lucas was also good.
“Uncle Jim was an excellent fiddler,” she said. “He didn’t jiggle. A real smooth player.”
She didn’t recall any banjos or mandolins on Big Ugly in the old days, although her brother-in-law Clarence Lambert was a great guitarist (“as good as Chet Atkins”) who played Hawaiian music and tunes like “Guitar Rag”.