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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.”
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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.”
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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.”
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Brandon and I also called Bob Bryant, a son of the infamous French Bryant, who lived with his son at the mouth of Piney Creek on West Fork. Billy Adkins had encouraged us to call Bob, saying that he would probably tell us what he knew of the Haley-McCoy murders. When we called Bob, his son said we were welcome to talk with his dad, although he warned us that his memory wasn’t very good.
Bob said he was born on Piney in 1911.
When I asked him about French Bryant he said he knew very little about him because his dad “was pretty old” when he was born. He said he did remember his father talking “some” about the Haley-McCoy affair.
“Milt and Green were pretty rough fellers who got in a lot of trouble all the time,” Bob said. “They were bad to drink. Milt Haley and Green McCoy was fiddlers — I think so. Maybe they was. Yeah, I almost know they was. One of them picked the banjo, I believe, but I don’t know for sure.”
Bob said Hugh Dingess, who was “kind of an outlaw,” organized a posse to fetch Milt and Green after they shot Al and Hollena Brumfield. They found them over around Wolf Creek in Martin County, Kentucky.
“Them Dingesses up there killed them,” Bob said. “It didn’t take much to get them to shoot you back then. People’d shoot you just to be a doing something.”
I asked Bob if he ever heard anything about who took part in what he kept calling “the shooting” and he said, “Hugh Dingess and four or five more.”
He paused, then said, “A few of them I wouldn’t want to tell you.”
We were just waiting for him to say his father’s name when he said, “Short Harve Dingess was pretty rough. Seems like he was in that bunch some way.”
Some of the others were: Al Brumfield, Charley Brumfield, Fed Adkins, and Burl Farley.
Bob never identified his father as a member of the mob but mentioned that his father was a friend to the Dingesses on Smokekouse.
He said he remembered seeing Ed play at the schoolhouse above the mouth of Piney when he was nineteen years old.
“He was a real fiddler,” Bob said.
In subsequent weeks, Brandon and I went through most of our information — processing it, sorting it, discussing it. We thought more about the story of Milt causing Ed’s blindness by dipping him in ice water and wondered how anyone would have ever equated those as cause-effect events. I got on the phone with Dr. Tom Holzen, a doctor-friend of mine in Nashville, who said Milt’s dipping of Ed in ice water, while a little crude, was actually the right kind of thing to do in that it would have lowered his fever. Based on that, Milt seems to have been a caring father trying to save Ed’s life or ease his suffering. Was it the act of a desperate man who had already lost other children to disease?
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By the spring of 1997, Brandon and I were at a reflective point in our research efforts. We had begun to lose our edge. After all, how many times could we ask, “Now, how did Ed Haley hold the bow?” or “Do you remember the names of any tunes he played”? We decided to step away from interviewing people and focus on writing what we knew about Ed’s life and music. I spent long hours in Nashville at my dining room table listening to Ed’s recordings and working with the fiddle, while Brandon — in his three-room house in Ferrellsburg — transcribed interviews, re-checked facts, and constructed a manuscript. This went on for quite some time.
Eventually, Brandon came to visit and we decided to telephone a few people and ask more questions. Our first call went out to Edith Dingess, the only surviving child of Ed’s uncle, Peter Mullins. Andy and Dobie Mullins had told us about her several months earlier when we visited them on Harts Creek. Edith, they said, had recently moved from her home on Mud Fork in Logan to stay with a daughter in Columbus, Ohio. When we dialed her up, her daughter said, “She might be able to give you some information. Her memory is pretty bad. She’s 81 years old and she’s had a couple of real major heart attacks.”
I first asked Edith if she knew about Ed’s mother — her aunt — who apparently died in the early 1890s. Unfortunately, Edith didn’t know anything about her. As a matter of fact, she said she barely remembered Ed, who we knew had been practically raised by her father. She said he was a “nice person, likeable” who would “laugh and joke and go on.”
“I know Ed Haley used to come to our house with Mrs. Haley and they had a little girl. Might’ve had some boys — older,” Edith said. “I believe they lived down around Huntington. They’d come up home when my dad was a living and we was all home — I was young then — and they’d play music and we’d have company. We used to have some square dances at our house. We had some good times when he come up there.”
Edith said Ed’s children led him around, but he also got around using a cane.
Before we hung up, Edith gave us the telephone number of her niece, “Little Liza,” who lived with a daughter in Lancaster, Ohio. This was wonderful; I had first heard about Little Liza from Lawrence and Pat Haley in 1991. Little Liza had grown up in Uncle Peter’s home and was a featured face in family photographs. Prior to this lead, I wasn’t even sure if she was still alive.
When we called Liza, we first spoke with her daughter, Ora Booth, who gave the familiar introduction: “I don’t know if you’ll get too much out of her or not. She’s kinda forgetful and she repeats herself a lot. All I can do is put her on the phone and see what you get out of her. She’s seventy-six and her mind just comes and goes on a lot of things.”
I told Liza that I was good friends to Lawrence and Pat Haley, had heard a lot about her, and was very interested in Ed’s life. She said Ed used to stay a week or two with Uncle Peter — who she called “Poppy” — before heading back to Ashland. To our surprise, she had no idea exactly how Ed was related to her family.
“It’s been so long and you know I’ve been sick and everything and been operated on for cancer and stuff and I just don’t feel good,” she said. “When you get old, your mind just comes and goes.”
Just when I thought Liza’s memories of Ed had all but disappeared, she said, “I tell you, he was awful bad to drink all the time. Lord, have mercy. Anything he could drink, he’d drink it. That might have been half what killed him. He was a mean man. Just mean after women and stuff. I don’t know whether he could see a bit or not, but you’d get and hide from him and he’d come towards ya. I was scared of him.”
I asked Liza who Ed played music with when he visited at Peter’s and she said, “He just played with his wife. He didn’t have nobody else to play with. Lord, him and her’d get into a fight and they’d fight like I don’t know what.”
I wondered if Ed fought with his kids.
“Yeah, they liked to killed Ed Haley one time up there,” she said. “They’d just get into a fight and the kids’d try to separate their mommy and daddy and it’d just all come up. I had to holler for Ewell to come down there and get them boys off’n Ed Haley ’cause I was afraid they’s a gonna kill him. I didn’t want that to happen, you know? He got down there and buddy he put them boys a going. They was mean. I guess they took that back after Ed Haley. Yeah, he’d come up there and go here and yonder. After Mommy and Poppy got so bad off, people’d bring him down there and set him off and I had to take care of them, so Poppy just told him, said, ‘Ed, she has to wait on us and she can’t wait on you. You’ll just have to go somewhere else.’ He did.”
That was a horrible image.
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Meanwhile, plans were underway for an “Ed Haley Fiddle Festival” in Ashland. The whole idea was conceived by Pat Gray, a local real estate agent who’d been inspired by an article in the Ashland Daily Independent regarding our interest in Ed’s life. Pat incorporated the “festival” (which was actually a fiddling contest) into Ashland’s Poage Landing Days, a citywide carnival-like celebration centered on the downtown area. The fiddle contest was scheduled to take place in the basement/auditorium of a Presbyterian church in Ashland. Pat declared me the “Grand Marshall” of the Poage Landing Parade, booked my band and I for an evening show and even offered to put us up at her place.
We pulled into Ashland on September 20th, 1996 and parked the bus in a church parking lot just down the hill from Pat Haley’s. Mike Compton, my mandolin player, and I walked up to Pat’s for breakfast (at her invitation) where I found her entertaining Mona and Patsy (Jack’s wife). Mona had written out the words to some of Ed’s songs for me, like “My Happy Childhood Days Down on the Farm”:
When a lad I used to dwell
In a place I loved so well
Far away among the clover and the bees.
Where the morning glory vine
‘Round our cabin door did twine
And the robin red breast sang among the trees.
In my happy boyhood days down on the farm.
There was a father old and gray
And a sister young and gay
And a mother dear to keep us from all harm.
There I passed life’s sunny hours
Running wild among the flowers
In my happy boyhood days down on the farm.
It was obvious that Mona had been thinking a lot about Ed’s music, so I didn’t waste any time getting my fiddle out for her. She caught me a bit off guard when she asked me if she could accompany me using Mike’s mandolin. The next thing I knew, she was playing right along with me — scarily like her mother. After we’d finished a tune everyone got really quiet, then Patsy looked at Mike and said, “You’ve just lost your job.”
Several tunes later, I asked Mona about Ed’s bowing style. There was a lot of conflicting information on that, so I wanted to get her opinion again. She said Ed “mixed things up,” or more specifically, that he varied his bowing between long and short strokes.
I had kinda figured that was true and had even come to think that maybe he had “area bowings,” much like his “area tunes.” It’s really a very natural thing. I play different tunes and different ways when I’m with the Goforths and Hawthornes in Missouri than when I’m with Earl Scruggs and Benny Martin in Nashville, or Fletcher Bright, or Jim Wood, or Bruce Molsky and Brad Leftwich, or Charlie Acuff, or Buddy Spicher, or Hoot Hester.
I should say here that all this business of bow holds, short and long bow strokes, and whether Ed held the fiddle under his chin or not, should never be taken as Scripture. In my own experience, I’ve held the fiddle under my chin, on my arm, on my chest, with all kinds of chin rests, no chin rests, shoulder rests, and used different kinds of bows. (I even used to tape a tin penny nail or two on the bow shaft for weight when I pulled it for long square dances so I wouldn’t have to press down with my index finger.) I’ve bowed heavy, light, long strokes, short strokes, off-string, on-string, and so forth. I’m sure that Ed’s technique — like mine or probably any musician — was constantly changing. What I have tried to document with Ed is who saw him play a certain way, where and when. It’s important to keep that in mind so as to not get lost in the contradictions.
A little later, just before I left, Ugee said, “John, we’re gonna give you that fiddle. That fiddle’s yours. I want to give it to you. It’s no good for it to lay around.”
Harold said, “She gave it to me and I’m gonna give it to you ’cause I don’t play it and there’s no use for it sitting in there on the shelf coming apart at the seams.”
I couldn’t believe it, but she and Harold insisted that I have the Laury Hicks fiddle. I regarded it as a real honor considering how much Ugee loved her father.
I told Harold, “I’ll treasure it as long as I live. I’ll put it right there with Ed’s fiddle and I won’t take it on the road.”
Ugee said, “Aw, play it.”
Harold’s wife said, “If you ever find out how old it is, we’d like to know.”
I said, “Well, it’s probably a German fiddle. It’s got a Stradivarius label in it.”
Ugee said, “That fiddle I know has got to be old ’cause I’m 88 years old and as fer back as I can remember Dad had that fiddle. I don’t know whether Ed Haley brought that fiddle in the country or not — you know, way back. Dad always had two or three fiddles and they’d trade around. Ed was always wanting that fiddle. Ed always did say this fiddle had a better tone than his. Every time he come home with one, why he wanted to trade with Dad to get that fiddle.”
I said, “I know why Ed wanted this fiddle — it’s a better fiddle than his. I mean, I love that one of his because it was his fiddle but this one is better.”
Harold showed me a bone tailpiece that used to be on Laury’s fiddle.
“Dad made this out of a bone,” Ugee said. “Granny had a cow by the name of ‘Old Flower’ and she died. Dad took a bone and he whittled that out of the bone from her. Granny said, ‘What are you doing Laury?’ and he said, ‘I’m trying to keep a piece of Old Flower. I got a piece of old Flower’s leg.’ Granny thought so much of that cow and she laughed. Granny said, ‘I don’t have an idea you’ll ever get it done, Laury.'”
When I got home, I went over Laury’s fiddle as closely as I had with Ed’s fiddle a few years before. I first noticed that it was worn in all of the same places as Ed’s, perhaps indicating a similar playing style. It had an incredibly deep bass tone, although it wasn’t a particularly loud instrument. Somewhere “back inside” was a little echo that wasn’t present in my other fiddles. Even though Ugee had told me to just play it, I couldn’t get past its history. It was Laury’s favorite fiddle — the one he had most of his life — the one Ed always tried to trade him out of — and one Ed surely played on.
How could I play it a lot?
I decided to put it on a shelf near Ed’s fiddle. Periodically, I refer back to it for clues.
Appalachia, Calhoun County, Cincinnati, Ed Haley, fiddlers, fiddling, Grand Ole Opry, Great Depression, Harold Postalwait, history, John Hartford, Laury Hicks, Minnie Hicks, music, Nashville, Ohio, Ugee Postalwait, West Virginia, Wilson Douglas, writing
I said, “Now when they played, would they play at the same time?”
“Oh yeah,” Ugee said. “Sometimes they played at the same time. Then one time maybe one would be a playing and the other would be a listening. Say, ‘Oh, you pulled that bow the wrong way.’ ‘Now that didn’t sound right to me. Go back over that again.’ They’d sit maybe not for ten minutes but for hours at a time when I was a growing up. Trying to out-beat the other. Which could make the best runs and which could do this. They never was mad at each other or anything like that, but they’d argue about it. ‘I know I beat you on it.’ ‘Well, you put that run in it at the wrong place.’ But Ed Haley is the only man I ever heard in my life second the fiddle. Dad’d play the fiddle and he’d second his with the fiddle. Like if you’re playing the ‘fine,’ why he might be playing the bass. That’s the prettiest stuff ever you heard. I heard Dad try to do it but Dad never got that good on it.”
I asked her if Ed ever played “Flannery’s Dream” and she said, “Oh, yeah. I’ve heard that.”
When I played “Wild Hog in the Red Brush”, she said Ed definitely played it, although she didn’t remember it having that title.
Just before I played another tune, Ugee said, “This is my birthday gift. My birthday’s the 19th. I’ll be 88 years old. Oh, I do pretty good, I reckon, for the shape I’m in. I remember pretty good but I’ve got trouble on this here voice box.”
“You remember pretty good, like your mother,” Harold said. “She was a hundred years old and she remembered when every kid was borned in that part of the country.”
Ugee said, “Mom delivered over five hundred children. She knowed every one of them and their name.”
Harold said, “And where they come from and up what hollow she had to walk and everything else. She never forgot nothing, that woman.”
Ugee said, “I don’t want to be that old. It’s all right if you can walk and get around. But if you’re down sick in the nursing home, let the good Lord take me away. I don’t wanna be there. My dad had leukemia and cancer of the stomach when he died. And it’s hard to see someone suffer like that.”
I told Ugee what Wilson Douglas had said about people gathering at her father’s home and listening to music on the porch and she said, “Sure, you ought to have seen my home. We had one porch run plumb across the front of the house. Ed and Dad just sat right along behind the railing.”
She pointed to the picture of John Hicks’ house and said, “Our house was even bigger than that. It was plank. But I remember when they all come over there and they’d gang around on that porch. Everybody. When Ed Haley was in the country, they come from miles around to our house. Word would get out that Ed was there or Ed was gonna be there a certain day.”
Inspired by Ugee’s memories, I got some paper from Harold and tried to sketch the Laury Hicks place. Ugee said things like, “It didn’t have no fireplace — we had gas then. And over on this end the steps went plumb down the hill to the road. That’s after they put the paved road down there, you see. Our house sat almost in a curve. Garage is down there at the road.”
I said, “So people gathered in front of the porch to hear all the music?” and Harold said, “They didn’t have much room. The yard only went out there maybe thirty or forty feet and then it dropped off down to the road. A pretty steep bluff — fifteen-, eighteen-, twenty-foot drop. On this side of the house was the garden spot and out the other end the yard didn’t go very far.”
Were there shade trees around the house?
“Yeah, three or four big oak trees over to one side and then we had apple trees on the other side,” Ugee said.
I asked if the crowds came at day or night or only on weekends and Ugee said, “They’d come through the day and Dad and Ed would play music all day and half the night. Weekends, why, it was always a big crowd. I’ve studied about them so much, about how good a friends Ed and Dad was. And always was that way. And they’d have the most fun together.”
Ugee said Ed never put a cup out for money.
“I never seen him put a cup out in my life. Maybe they’d be somebody to come around and put a cigar box to the side and everybody would go through and put money in it. Course when he was playing in the city — Cincinnati or some place like that — why he’d make quite a bit of money there. Whenever he played them religious songs, the hair’d stand on your neck. You’d look at two blind people sitting and singing.”
I interrupted, “Did he play Cincinnati a lot?”
Ugee said, “He played Cincinnati a lot. He went to Cincinnati to make records one time, too. That’d a been in the thirties. He fell out with them. They wanted to pick the tunes. Ain’t nobody picked tunes for Ed — Ed picked his own tunes. When he found out what they was trying to hook him on, he quit right then. Ed went down to Nashville once. I don’t know that he went to the Grand Ole Opry but he went to Nashville. When he found out what they done, he didn’t have no use for that.”