As soon as my schedule cleared, I loaded my car and traveled north on I-65 out of Nashville toward the home of J.P. and Annadeene Fraley in Carter County, Kentucky. I took the Bluegrass Parkway northeast to Lexington, where I boarded I-64 and drove eastward past Winchester, Mt. Sterling and Owingsville. In a short time, I was in “Ed Haley country,” passing by Morehead — birthplace of Mrs. Ed Haley — and through the northern end of the Daniel Boone National Forest. A little later, I took the Grayson exit, where I found J.P. and Annadeene at their beautiful log home in a small settlement called Denton.
In the initial small talk, J.P. told about seeing Ed Haley play on the streets of Ashland. He specifically remembered him playing at Gallagher’s Drug Store where he sat cross-legged “like an Indian” with his back against the wall “right by the doors where you go in.” Ed kept a hat out for money and knew people by the sound of their voices. In the cold months, he played inside for square dances, Kiwanis Club events, and at local beer joints like “The Wheel.” J.P. said, “Now business people treated him good but the general public, they didn’t know what they was doing.”
At that point, we got our instruments out and squared up to play some tunes. As J.P. worked through his repertoire — “Birdie” (Haley’s version), “New Money”, “White Rose Waltz” — he sang little ditties and gave some of the history behind his tunes. He played a great tune called “Maysville” and said, “Daddy played it. What it was, they wasn’t no tobacco warehouses in Morehead or Flemingsburg so they had to haul their tobacco plumb into Maysville to sell it. When they was going there, they played the tune fast because they was happy. They were going to get that tobacco check, see? On the way back, they was playing it slow because they were drunk. They all had hangovers.”
J.P. also played “Grey Eagle”, “Black Mountain Blues” and “Bonaparte’s Retreat”. His treatment of this latter piece was somewhat unique — he began it with “Dry and Dusty” (“Daddy’s introduction”) — although he really bragged on Haley’s version. “If you listen to that record you got, you can hear… It’s just like cannons going off. I mean he was doing it on the fiddle. Man he had the best version of that. Ed Haley was colorful with his fiddle tunes.”
In between all of the fiddling and reminiscing, little comments spilled out about Haley. Things like, “His fingers was like a girls.” Then more fiddling.
Some time later, J.P. and I put our instruments away and sat down to dinner. Between bites, I asked him where he remembered Haley playing in Ashland.
“His range was right along 15th – 16th Street on Winchester Avenue. When you went down between Winchester and Greenup, there was shoe shops and a saloon or two and a poolroom where mostly a congregation of men were. Then over on Greenup the women’d be shopping. Sometimes he played on Front Street, but that was a wild part of town. I don’t ever remember his wife being over in there but I seen him there when the boy was picking with him. Down by the railroad over on Front Street, there used to be stores over there — and on Greenup. I mean, grocery stores, family stores. I can remember seeing him play in front of one — had to be down there. I guess around 14th Street on Greenup. I guess hunting season was going on because wild rabbits was hung up out there for sale…with the fur still on them. And stocks of bananas. Slabs of bacon, hams. I mean they wasn’t bound up to keep the flies off of them.”
After dinner, I played some of Haley’s music on cassette tapes for J.P. He casually told how people sometimes griped about Ella’s accompaniment being too loud. He also brought up how people occasionally complained when Haley played inside Ashland businesses. J.P.’s father once confronted a store owner who had asked Ed to leave his store. “Daddy told me he’d went in that hardware store, you know, to take up for Ed,” J.P. said. “The storeowner knowed Dad. He said, ‘Now Dick, you forget about it ’cause I’d ruther for him to be out there a fiddling as all them people to come in here that’s been a complaining about him.’ It wasn’t really a problem.” I said, “So he fiddled outside the hardware store all the time?” and J.P. said, “Right in that vicinity. If it was rainy or a real hot sun, you’d find him along there playing.”
Annadeene and I made plans to visit Ed’s son, Lawrence Haley, in Ashland the following day. J.P. showed me to a guest bedroom, presumably to turn in for the night, but we were soon playing music again. He cranked out “Goin’ Back to Kentucky”, then said, “I bet you money Ed Haley played that because Asa Neal did.”
The next morning, Annadeene and I hopped onto US Route 60 and made the thirty-minute drive into Ashland, the place where Ed Haley lived the last thirty years of his life. In those days, Ashland was a somewhat affluent industrial town on the Ohio River. Today, its population has dwindled to around 20,000 and its once prominent river culture seems long gone. It is best known as the hometown of country music stars, Naomi and Wynonna Judd, as well as movie actress Ashley Judd. It was clear that the place seemed to be somewhat depressed in the way most river towns are in this section of the Ohio River, outside of a budding shopping center to the northeast.
Annadeene and I drove around town for about an hour. She pointed out all the places she remembered Ed playing and told me all about his relationship with Jean Thomas, the late Ashland folklorist. I had heard of Jean Thomas and was roughly aware of the arguments for and against her work in Ashland to preserve and perpetuate mountain culture. She was the creator of the American Folksong Festival, an annual production held at the “Wee House in the Wood.” The central character in Thomas’ festival was Jilson Setters, a blind fiddler character “from Lost Hope Hollow” who Annadeene said had been inspired by Haley. She was sure of this, having served as Thomas’ personal secretary years ago.
In The Singin’ Fiddler of Lost Hope Hollow (1938), Thomas gave an account of her first encounter with ‘Jilson’ at a local courthouse: “There under the great leafy oak in the court house yard, the sun gleaming on its wet leaves, stood an old man, tall, gaunt, with a hickory basket on his arm, a long oil cloth poke clutched in his hand. It was the poke that caught my eye. Already a crowd was gathering about him. He put down the basket, then took off his dilapidated wide-brimmed felt and placed it, upturned, on the wet grass at his feet. Carefully he untied the string on the oilcloth poke and – to my surprise – took out a fiddle! In another moment, fiddle to chin, his sightless eyes raised to heaven, he swept the bow across the strings with masterly ease…and sang in a strong, a vibrant voice for one so old. While he fiddled a measure, before starting the next stanza, I fairly flew across the road. I wanted to be close at the old minstrel’s side, lest I lose a word that fell from his lips. When the song was ended I clapped loud and long, like the rest, and like them, too, tossed a coin into the old fellow’s hat.”
Annadeene said Thomas first offered Haley the opportunity to role-play Jilson Setters but he refused. He likely agreed with writer John F. Day, who offered a scathing criticism of Thomas in Bloody Ground (1941). “The trouble with most ballad-pushers, as well as of the other ‘native culturists,’ is that they’re seeking their own exultation under a guise of working for the benefit of the mountain people,” Day wrote. “One wonders as he watches the American Folksong Festival whether it’s all for the glory of God, art, and mountain balladry, or Jean Thomas, Jean Thomas and Jean Thomas. After reading one of Jean Thomas’ books I feel ill. Everything is so lovely and quaint; so damnably, sickeningly quaint. Writers like Jean Thomas would have one believe that every-other mountaineer goes around singing quaint, beautiful sixteenth-century ballads as he plunks on a dulcimer. The people of Kentucky laugh at Miss Thomas’ stuff, but the people outside the state are willing to lap it up. Now in the first place thousands of hill dwellers know no old ballads and other thousands know the old ones but prefer the newer ones. In the second place 90 per cent of the ballads and 90 per cent of the ballad singers stink. Further, the only dulcimers left in the hills are gathering dust on the walls of the settlement schools. The mountain people found out long ago there wasn’t any music in the damned things, and so they discarded them for fiddles, banjos, and guitars.”
After Haley refused to play the part of Jilson Setters, Thomas chose Blind Bill Day, a left-handed fiddler and migrant to Ashland. At some point, she took him to play his fiddle for the Queen of England. Based on Thomas’ book, Ballad Makin’ In The Mountains of Kentucky (1939), Day met his future wife “Rhuhamie” (actually named Rosie) on Horse Branch in Catlettsburg, Kentucky.
I went to Ed Haley’s the day it was bright
I met with a woman I loved at first sight.
I asked her some questions about her past life.
She told me she was single – but had been a wife.
In deep conversation I studied her mind,
She had come down to Brushy to wait on the blind;
The labor was hard and the wages was small,
I soon saw that she did not like Horse Branch at all.
Needless to say, the entire concept of Jilson Setters went a long way in destroying Thomas’ credibility as an authentic folklorist. John F. Day wrote: “The mountaineers had to be quaint. Such determination led to hoaxes like the one Jean Thomas perpetrated with ‘Jilson Setters, the Singing Fiddler of Lost Hope Hollow.’ She took this ‘typical representative of the quaint mountain folk of Kentucky’ to New York and to London and made quite a name for herself and him. But though he might have been Jilson Setters to the New Yorkers and the English he was James William Day (nicknamed ‘Blind Bill’ Day) to the people of Kentucky who knew him. There may be a ‘Lost Hope Hollow’ – they name them everything – but nobody in the Kentucky mountains ever heard of it. There was no particular harm of course in changing Bill Day’s name to Jilson Setters if the latter sounded more poetic – or something. Names are changed every day in Hollywood. The harm came in pawning off Bill, well-coached in quaintness, as a representative of the Kentucky mountain people. But the most laughable part of the whole affair was that Bill Day had lived for years in Ashland and Catlettsburg, and of all the sections of the Kentucky mountains, that in which the two cities lie is the most modern. Ashland is an industrial city of more than 30,000 population, and Catlettsburg is almost a suburb. The Big Sandy Valley was opened up years before southeastern Kentucky, and thus if one is to find any ‘quaintness’ at all he must get out of the Big Sandy country.”
Annadeene and I drove around Ashland for about an hour discussing such things before heading to nearby Catlettsburg, Kentucky on US Route 23. According to J.P. Fraley, Catlettsburg — a former boomtown for loggers who rafted timber out of the Big Sandy River at the turn of the century — served as Ed Haley’s place of residence during the twenties and early thirties. Today, its historic and interesting downtown area — featuring the Boyd County Courthouse and other buildings that attest to its short prosperous history — is almost hidden from view due to a railroad to the south and a large floodwall to the north. Its most visible section is a modern strip along US Route 23, consisting of a slow-moving four-lane road dotted with gas stations, old dwelling houses and fast-food restaurants. A sign proclaims Catlettsburg as a town of 6000 residents and maps show it situated across the Big Sandy River from the town of Kenova, West Virginia and across the Ohio River from South Point, Ohio.
After looking over the place, Annadeene and I drove back to Ashland on Winchester Avenue and turned onto 45th Street at a large, brick Presbyterian church. We drove up a narrow and curvy street until it crested at Gartrell Street, where Annadeene pointed out the home of Lawrence Haley, an unpretentious white one-and-a-half-story residence. We parked on the street and eased out of the car toward the Haley porch. As I stood there preparing to ring the doorbell, I noticed the original picture of Ed Haley featured on Parkersburg Landing hanging just inside a window on the living room wall. I had goose bumps in realizing how much this experience meant to me. After a few rings of the bell, it was clear that no one was home.
Just as we were ready to step off of the porch, a young girl with a wonderful smile came up from next door and said that her grandparents had gone over into Ohio. I realized just then that she was Ed’s great-granddaughter and was instantly as impressed as if I’d just met the daughter of the President of the United States. A stocky man with a dark mustache followed her over and introduced himself as her father, David Haley. Annadeene and I talked with him briefly, then said we’d come back some time when his parents were home. I walked out of the Haley yard wondering if the girl or her father had inherited any of Ed’s musical talent.
Later in the day, after parting ways with the Fraleys, I drove south through the Big Sandy Valley on US Route 23 to see Snake Chapman, the fiddler who remembered seeing Ed Haley so often during his youth in Pike County, Kentucky. At Pikeville, I took US Route 119 to Snake’s mountain home up Chapman Hollow near a settlement called Canada. Snake was a retired coalminer who spent most of his time caring for his sick wife. He was very mild-spoken — almost meek — and had what seemed like hundreds of cats all over his yard (even on the roof of his house). Once we began playing music, it was clear that he was a great old-time fiddler. I had a blast with his buddies, Bert Hatfield (a relative of the feuding Hatfields) and Paul David Smith.
Snake told me a little about his father, Doc Chapman. “He was an herb doctor, Dad was. Everybody knowed him by Doc Chapman. He knowed every herb that growed here in the mountains and what they was for and doctored people all around.” Doc was also a fiddler.
Snake took up his fiddle and played several more tunes, including Haley’s version of “Birdie”. Snake was a man of few words, so most of my visit consisted of playing old-time tunes. I spent the night at Bert Hatfield’s, then left eastern Kentucky on US 119 and US 25E via the Cumberland Gap.