Arthur Smith, banjo, Ben Walker, Benny Martin, Bernie Adams, Billy Adkins, blind, Brandon Kirk, Buddy Emmons, Clayton McMichen, Doug Owsley, Durham, Ed Haley, fiddlers, fiddling, Green McCoy, Haley-McCoy grave, Harts, history, Imogene Haley, Indiana, Jeffersonville, John Hartford, Johnny Hager, Lawrence Haley, Mark O'Connor, Matt Combs, Melvin Kirk, Michael Cleveland, Milt Haley, Mona Haley, music, Nashville, North Carolina, Smithsonian, Snake Chapman, Tennessee, Texas Shorty, Ugee Postalwait, Webster Springs, West Virginia, Wilson Douglas, writing
When Ed first went out into the neighborhood with his dad’s fiddle and armed with his melodies (as interpreted by his mother) I think he probably caused not a small sensation amongst family and neighbors and his ear being as great as it was I think he picked up an incredible amount of other music really fast. I think he played with a lot of ornaments when he was a teenager and up into maybe even his thirties. Snake Chapman and Ugee Postalwait have alluded to this. Snake said the dining room recordings just didn’t sound as old-timey as he remembered Ed playing and Ugee said she remembered him and her dad talking about the little melodies between the notes. Of course Ed had to have been through a lot of subtle changes in style since that time. I think in later years he stripped a lot of the ornaments out of his fiddling in order to appeal to the Arthur Smith-Clayton McMitchen crowd who loved the radio style that was so much in vogue at that time. This might have helped make a little more money on the street. People have always liked to hear someone play and sound just like what they hear on the radio or a record. But I think if someone had asked Ed if he had done that consciously that he would have denied it and if he was in a bad mood they might have even had a fight on their hands.
I keep having this idea of Ed imitating other instruments on the fiddle because I’ve tried it myself and wouldn’t it be something that some of these great parts was really an imitation of John Hager’s banjo playing. I’d love to know where that passage is or whether it even exists.
It’s obvious that when Ed had good firm second that wouldn’t slow down for anything, he really leaned back on the beat and got in that little pocket where so many great musicians like to be. Ella and Mona really held up a good solid beat, but I’ll bet Ed was hard on them — a real taskmaster. It’s all in that rhythm section. Wilson Douglas told me one time that Ed always told him to play it real lazy. Texas Shorty, Benny Martin, and Buddy Emmons refer to it as holding on to the note as long as you can before you start the next one. This is an important part of Ed’s feel and sound and it really comes through on the dining room recordings. I get it by playing as slow as I can against a beat I hope is not gonna move, and then I swing the notes with a dotted note feel — a real lilt if I can get it — and just drag on the beat as hard as I can ’cause I know it’s not gonna slow down. I’d love to know just when Ed figured that out or if it was always there. I always think of Ed in his younger years playing on top of the beat or even ahead of it like I did when I was young and full of piss and vinegar. Actually when you’re playing alone you do hafta pretty well stay on top of the beat to hold the time or at least set it, cause you are the beat but you have to keep from rushing which we will tend do when we get to hard passages in order to get them over with. We’ll not do that no more. Mark O’Connor told me one time that while he is playing a tune he’ll play on top of and behind the beat on purpose. He described playing behind it as letting the beat drag you along…almost like water skiing. Oh, to have known what Ed and John Hager or Bernie Adams sounded like together.
I think Ed worked on his fiddling probably daily most of his life so it is fair to say that it was changing all the time. This would explain the varying descriptions of his playing that have come down. I’m sure they’re probably all accurate. Lawrence, Ugee, and Mona always said Ed played with great smooth long bow strokes and Snake Chapman always was adamant about him playing with short single strokes and Slim Clere said the same thing — that he bowed out everything — no bow slurs. Of course, in the dining room sessions you can hear both ways. It’s amazing how well Ed did without the feedback of working with a tape recorder. What an incredible ear he had. As far as I know, the only time he probably heard himself played back was the recordings we have. I hope there are others out there but I’ve come to doubt it.
Brandon and I have always had a gut feeling that if we’d dug down into the hillside a little further at Milt and Green’s grave we might have found something. We only went down five feet and then we were defeated by the rain. What if we had gone down the requisite six feet? What if, like the probe, Owsley had misjudged the bottom of the grave shaft due to the mud and water? What if it hadn’t rained and muddied up the work area? If Melvin Kirk and Ben Walker went so far as to bury the men in a deep grave, why not assume they would have gone for the standard six feet grave traditionally dug? In the following weeks, old timers around Harts kept telling Brandon and Billy, “If they didn’t dig at least six feet, it’s no wonder they didn’t find anything.” We didn’t want to question the professionalism of experts like the Smithsonian forensic team or seem like we wanted to find Milt and Green so badly that we couldn’t accept the concept that they were gone…but what if? The explanation that Doug Owsley gave us about the coal seam and underground stream made a lot of sense. Needless to say we were really disappointed. I had started to rationalize that not finding anything might indicate that they were buried in the nude and just thrown in the hole with no box or winding sheet or anything.
I was in Durham, North Carolina, the other day and I saw a fiddler on the street and I automatically found myself thinking of Ed. I didn’t have to fill in or rearrange much in my imagination to see him there playing on the street — even though this man was standing up, and played nothing like him. Of course when Ed was younger he probably stood up to play all the time like in the Webster Springs picture…dapper and wearing his derby. I always seem to picture Ed sitting down. Another great thrill for me is a young blind fiddler from Jeffersonville, Indiana, named Michael Cleveland who when he plays I can see Ed at nineteen. He stands up so straight he almost looks like he’s gonna fall over backward the way Lawrence said his dad did. When he plays I can’t take my eyes off of him thinking of Ed. Now my friend Matt Combs, who has done a lot of the transcriptions for this book, sits with me and plays Ed’s notes off of the paper, and I play off the top of my head, so in that sense it’s like playing with him.
I guess it’s time to just leave this alone and get back to my study of the fiddle. Maybe get geared up for “Volume Two.” I spend long hours here at the dining room table with my tape recorder and I can hear Lawrence and feel Ed as I try and play my way back into the past. I find that the study of Ed’s music leads me to the study of all music and the way it’s played.
For me a “tune” is a specific order of notes played by a certain person on a certain day at a certain time and given a certain name and if you want to really pin it down you could include the latitude and longitude of the event. If you were not there to personally witness this happening then the word of some one else is okay as long as you include that in the triangulation so that when you have put out this information you can lean back and say to your listener, “Now…you know as much about it as I do and you can draw your own conclusions.” This works for events and etc. Sometimes these sort of documented rumors are as close as we can get to the truth and it’s better than nothing.
I’ve been thinking about how much Ed probably wouldn’t like to think about a whole lot of what we have put in this book. For sure he didn’t like to talk about it, especially to his family. I guess I don’t blame him — he lived it. It’s easy for us to get into all of it from our totally secure positions here in 2000 knowing what we know. And from the vantage point of our research, there are probably some areas where we know things that Ed never did.
We decided to call this book “The Search for Ed Haley: Volume One” because we know that after it comes out people will be calling us saying, “Well, you didn’t call me,” and “You didn’t get that right,” and no telling what. But then that gives us fuel for Volume Two. Of course there is the chance (and it has crossed my mind) that when this book comes out that some of the old Harts Creek animosities might still be smoldering and some people might feel hurt. God, I hope not. Everybody has encouraged us and said it was time to bring out the truth.
In case you hadn’t figured it out, Brandon wrote most all of this book and I just went through and “Hartfordized” it. Even though I have my name up top, Brandon is the one who did all the work. A typical day for us would be Brandon back in the office transcribing taped interviews, making chapters out of them, and working and reworking the words. Me, I’ll be sitting at the dining room table out in the other room sawing on a fiddle. At first when Brandon would bring me a chapter I would go through it on the laptop and make corrections and reword some things. Then Brandon very quickly caught on to what it was I was after, and after awhile he would bring me chapters and I would just read them in amazement and not do anything to them, and we would just go on. It really is wonderful, ’cause even though we know every word in the book when we read it back we still learn things. “Oh, that’s why that happened that way. Well I’ll be damned.”
I’ve given this story a lot of thought and most of what I’m about to say is from instinct and gut reaction cause we didn’t necessarily have cold hard facts. I think Ed learned a lot from his mother in the period right after his dad’s death when he and her probably spent a lot of time in that cabin hid out together from the community at large and his only contact was through his mother’s family (his grandparents). Ed found a fiddle that his father had left behind (very possibly the one in the photograph which looks home made) and started sawing around on it. His mother in her grief over her late husband was probably all the time whistling and singing the old melodies, most of which he had played, and Ed picked them up much in the way that Howdy Forrester told me he picked up a lot of melodies from his mom’s whistling and singing around the house. They were the melodies Ed and his mother shared. His unusually natural technique developed because he had such a great ear and naturally not being able to see he was not in a position to pick up bad technical habits from other fiddlers. His mother probably coached him much in the same way that Lawrence coached me a hundred years later…saying things like, “That just don’t sound right.” “Pop never played that many notes.” “Pop’s groups of notes were smaller.” But then because we both could see, Lawrence also said things like, “Your bow hold don’t look like Pop’s” and “Pop held his fiddle down here and turned it.”
Ben Walker, Blood in West Virginia, Chapmanville, Ed Haley, Green McCoy, Green Shoal, Grimes Music Store, Harts Creek, history, John Hartford, Lincoln County, Lincoln County Feud, Logan, Logan County, Low Gap, Milt Haley, music, Nashville, Robert Ellis, Walker Family Cemetery, West Virginia, writing
That night, I left Harts and headed toward Nashville, where I soon called Robert Ellis, a Logan County man who supposedly had some Haley records.
“Ed used to play some music with my oldest brother that passed away in January,” Robert said. “He’d been to our house a lot of times, where we lived here in Chapmanville, and I’d heard him play a lot on the streets in Logan and around through the county here in different places. He was a good fiddler. One of the best.”
I asked Robert if he was a musician and he said he used to be but gave it up after a hand injury during World War II. He was pretty sure he had some of Ed’s records.
“I believe I do,” he said. “One or two of his records. My grandmother used to buy them here in Logan at the old Grimes Music Store in Logan.”
I never heard anything about Ed selling records like that…but who knows?
Robert surprised me when he started talking about Milt Haley’s murder.
“About where Milt and Green McCoy were buried down there at Harts Creek, a feller told me some time ago that it was there at Low Gap,” he said. “How come me to know about that, we used to do military funerals a lot and we had a flag-raising at that Walker Cemetery there. I asked this feller if we were close to where those men were buried. He said, ‘Yeah, right back up yonder those fellers are buried.’ And this Carver that was with us that day, his grandfather was in with the ones that buried these people.”
Robert heard about the Haley-McCoy murders from his grandmother.
“These Brumfields, they killed these fellers and left them in a big two-story house there at the mouth of Green Shoal,” Robert said. “That two-story house is torn down now. Somebody was supposed to be left to guard them and they all got drunk and carousing around, so someone slipped in — so my grandmother told me — and chopped the boys up with an axe. Some of them found out about it and they said, ‘These men’s gotta be buried.’ So some of the Brumfields — at that time they was a lot of them down in there and they were tough — and they said, ‘Leave them where they’re at.’ This Carver, his grandfather said, ‘We’re gonna bury them. That’s all I’m gonna say and I’ve told you we’re gonna bury them.’ So them Brumfields evidently knew him and wouldn’t bother him and they went up there and buried those boys.”
Alabama, Arnoldsburg, Ashland, Bill Day, Brandon Kirk, Buttermilk Mountain, Calhoun County, Catlettsburg, Cincinnati, Doc White, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, England, fiddlers, fiddling, George Hayes, Grand Ole Opry, Great Depression, Harvey Hicks, history, Jean Thomas, Jilson Setters, John Hartford, Kentucky, Laury Hicks, Minnie Hicks, Mona Haley, music, Nashville, Nora Martin, Rogersville, Rosie Day, Sweet Florena, Ugee Postalwait, West Virginia, writing
I asked Ugee if Laury ever listened to the Grand Ole Opry and she said, “Yes. He got to hear it the year before he died. He got a radio. Let’s see, what is his name? George Hayes. We had Hayeses that lived down at Arnoldsburg. And he brought Dad up a little radio when Dad was down sick.”
Now, did Ed Haley ever hear the Grand Ole Opry?
“Oh, yes. He heard it down in Kentucky.”
Did he like it?
“No. He went to Cincinnati one time. They was a gonna make records — him and Ella — but they wanted to pick out the one for him to play. Nobody done him that a way. So he said, ‘I’ll pick my own.’ He went to Nashville once. I don’t know as he went to the Grand Ole Opry but he went to Nashville. Somebody drove him, took him down. But when he found out what they done, he didn’t have no use for that.”
Ugee made it clear that she had missed out on most of Ed’s wild times. She knew nothing about his running around with people like Doc White or chasing women. She did say he was bad about telling “dirty jokes.”
“Many a time he’s told me, ‘All right, Ugee. You better get in the kitchen. I’m gonna tell a dirty joke.’ And he’d tell some kind and you could hear the crowd out there just a dying over it. Ella’d say, ‘Mmm, I’ll go to the kitchen, too.'”
I asked Ugee about Ed’s drinking and she told the story again about her brother Harvey giving him drinks to play “Sweet Florena”. She sang some of it for me:
Oncest I bought your clothes, sweet Florena.
Oncest I bought your clothes, sweet Florene
Oncest I bought your clothes but now I ain’t got no dough
And I have to travel on, sweet Florene.
After finishing that verse, Ugee said, “That’s part of the song. And Ella didn’t like to hear that song. I think it reminded her of some of his old girlfriends or something. And she didn’t like for him to play ‘Buttermilk Mountain’, either. He’d throw back his head and laugh. She’d say, ‘Don’t play that thing. I don’t want to hear that thing.’ But she’d second it. She’d draw her eyes close together.”
Brandon asked Ugee about her aunt Rosie Hicks, who was Laury’s sister and a close friend to the Haley family. She said Aunt Rosie was working in Ed’s home in Catlettsburg when she met Blind Bill Day (her sixth husband) during the early years of the Depression. It was a rocky marriage, according to Rosie’s only child, Nora (Davis) Martin.
“I was gonna tell you about him hitting Aunt Rosie,” Ugee said. “He came through the house and Aunt Rosie was upstairs quilting and all at once — Nora said she was in the kitchen cooking — and she heard the awfulest noise a coming down the stairs and said, ‘Mommy had old Bill Day by the leg and was bringing him bumpety-bump down the stairs, dragging him. Got him in the kitchen. He just walked up and hit her with that left hand right in the mouth. She just jerked his britches off of him and started to sit his bare hind-end on the cook stove — and it red hot.’ And Nora said, ‘Oh, Mommy, don’t do that. You’ll kill him.’ She said, ‘That’s what I’m a trying to do.’ And she grabbed her mother and him both and jerked them away from there.”
Ugee was more complimentary of Day’s colleague, Jean Thomas.
“I’ve got cards from her and letters and pictures,” she said. “I’ve been to her house — stayed all night with her. She was nice. She was too good to Bill Day. She spent money on him and give him the name of Jilson Setters. Sent him to England and he played for the queen over there.”
Brandon wondered if Bill Day was a very good fiddler.
“Well, I’m gonna tell ya, I stayed all night with Aunt Rosie and Bill Day one time,” Ugee said. “They lived on 45th Street in Ashland, Kentucky. My brother took me and my mom down there and he hadn’t seen Aunt Rosie for a long time. She’d married again and she lived down there in Ashland, Kentucky. And we aimed to see Ed and Ella, but they was in Cincinnati playing music. That’s who we went to see. So Harvey, he filled hisself up with beer. That’s the first time I ever seen a quart bottle of beer. Anyway, we went up there to hear Uncle Bill play. Harvey laid down on the bed like he was sick. He wasn’t sick: he wanted me just to listen to that fellow play that fiddle. He knowed I’d get sick of it. And he played that song about the Shanghai rooster. I never got so tired in my life of hearing anything as I did that. He only played three pieces. Harvey laid there, he’d say, ‘Play that again. I love it.’ And I had to sit there and listen to it, ’cause I didn’t want to embarrass him by getting up and walking out. I walked over to Harvey and I said, ‘You’re not sick and you’re not tired, so you get up.’ Said, ‘Ugee, I’ve got an awful headache. I drove all the way down here.’ I said, ‘That bottle that you drank give you the headache, so you get up and you listen to your Uncle Bill.’ He went to the toilet. I said, ‘I’m telling you right now — you’re gonna listen to Uncle Bill if I have to listen to him.’ Harvey said, ‘I’m not listening to him no longer. I’ve heard all I want to hear of Uncle Bill.’ I got Harvey up and then I run and jumped in the bed and I covered my head up with a pillow. But we stayed all night and Aunt Rosie went home with us. She told him she’s a going up to Nora’s, but she went to Calhoun with us in the car, and I reckon while she’s gone old Bill tore up the house. I don’t think they lived together very long after that ’cause it wasn’t very long till she come back home. It was home there at my dad’s.”
Brandon asked if Day ever played with Ed in Calhoun County and Ugee said, “Oh, no. If he had, Dad woulda kicked him out.”
Okay, I thought: so Laury had no tolerance for lesser fiddlers. What about Ed?
“Ed Haley, if somebody was playing a piece of music and they wasn’t hitting it right, he’d stick his hands in his pockets and say, ‘Goddamn, goddamn,'” Ugee said. “Dad’d say, ‘Boy, ain’t he good?’ Ed would cuss a blue streak. Then after the man was gone, whoever it was, Dad and Ed would go to mocking him. Dad and Ed Haley was like brothers. They loved each other. Ella and Mom, too. Jack was the baby the first time I seen Ed after he was married. They was expecting Lawrence, so they named him after my dad. Then when she had Mona, why instead of calling her Minnie, she named her after Mom.”