Satisfied that we’d taken up enough of Andy’s day, we drove up Trace Fork to see Wirt Adams, an older brother to Joe Adams. Wirt was busy installing a waterbed but took a break to talk with us. “Well, come on in boys, but I’ve only got a few minutes,” he seemed to say. Inside, however, after I had pulled out my fiddle and he had grabbed a mandolin, he seemed ready to hang out with us all day.
I told Wirt that I was trying to find out about Haley’s life. He said old-timers in the neighborhood used to tell stories about Ed playing for dances on Saturday nights with Johnny Hager, a banjo-picker and fiddler. Ed eventually left Harts Creek and got married but came back to stay with his cousins every summer.
Wirt said he sometimes bumped into him in local taverns:
“It was in the forties,” he said. “About ’47, ’48, ’49, ’50 — along there somewhere. We called it Belcher’s beer garden. It was a roadhouse over on Crawley Hill. Well, I just come in there from the mines and Ed was there and he heard somebody say that I was there and he said, ‘Come on over here Wirt and play one.’ I think the fella that’d been playing with him had got drunk and passed out. Well I played one or two with him and then Charley Conley and them boys come in and Charley says, ‘C’mon over here Wirt and get in with us.’ Ed said, ‘Don’t do that, you’re playing with me.’ I really wasn’t playing with him. I had my mine clothes on. I just come in there and picked up Bernie Adams’ old guitar. If you was playing they’d sit you a beer up there — no money in it. Mostly for fun, we thought. We’d gang up on Saturday night somewhere and play a little. Sometimes they’d dance.”
Wirt felt that Ed was “a good fiddler, one of the best in that time.”
I asked him about Ed’s bowing and he said, “It didn’t look like he moved it that far over the whole thing [meaning very little bow usage] but he played tunes where he did use the long stroke. But most of it was just a lot of movement but not no distance. Just hacking, I call it. Him and Johnny Hager were the only two fellas I know who done that.”
Brandon wondered about Ed’s tunes.
“Well, he played that ‘Blackberry Blossom’ — that was one of his favorites — and then he played ‘The Old Red Rooster’ and he played ‘Raggedy Ann’ and ‘Soldiers Joy’. He had one he called ‘somethin’ in the shucks’. I forget the name of it. Anyhow, it was one of the old tunes. And ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’, I’ve heard him play that.”
I asked if Ed played “Birdie” and he said, “Yeah. Now, that’s one of Charley’s favorites. ‘Chinese Breakdown’, that was one of Ed’s. ‘Down Yonder’.”
Wirt told us more about Johnny Hager and Ed Belcher.
“Johnny Hager was a banjo player but he could play the fiddle, too. He played the old ‘overhand’ [on the banjo]. He was a good second for somebody. Now Ed Belcher was a different thing altogether. He played all kinds of stuff. He played classical, he could play hillbilly. He played a piano, he played accordion, he played a banjo, he played a guitar. He was a good violin player. He tuned pianos for a living. Well, I’d call him a professional musician. They had talent shows in Logan. He’d sponsor that. He’d be like the MC and these kids would go in and play. He was a head musician. He was good. He could do ‘Spanish Fandango’ on the guitar and make it sound good. He could play all kinds of tunes. I never could play with him but then he could take the piano and make it talk, too. He was just an all-around musician.”
Brandon asked Wirt if he knew the story about how Ed came to be blind.
“Milt Haley was Ed’s dad,” Wirt said matter-of-factly. “They said his dad was kind of a mean fella and he took Ed out when he was a little kid — held him by the heels — and ducked him in the creek. He had some kind of a fever in wintertime. I’ve heard that, now. Ed never would talk about it. I never heard him mention his dad.”
Wirt had only heard “snippets” about Milt’s death.
“It was pretty wild times,” he said. “I understand the whole thing was over timberworks. These people, they’d have a splash dam on this creek and they’d get their logs and haul them in this bottom at the mouth of Trace — this was one of them. They had a splash dam and when the water got up they’d knock that dam out and that’d carry the logs down to Hart and they had a boom and them Brumfields owned the boom. They charged so much a log. Some way over that, there was some confusion. But I’ve seen Aunt Hollene. She was supposed to been riding behind old man Al Brumfield, her husband, and they shot at him and hit her.”
After Milt was caught, he made a last request.
“They said they asked him if he wanted anything and he wanted them to bring him a fiddle,” Wirt said. “He wanted to play a tune. Now this is hearsay but I’ve heard it several times. They said he played the fiddle and they hung him.”