Abington Virginian, Appalachia, Big Sandy River, Cabell County, Chapmanville, civil war, Confederate Army, genealogy, Guyandotte River, history, John B. Floyd, John Clarkson, John Dils, John Letcher, Kanawha River, Kentucky, Levisa Fork, Lincoln County, Logan County, Ohio River, Pigeon Creek, Pike County, Pikeville, Prestonsburg, Smyth County, Tazewell County, Union Army, Virginia, Virginia State Line, Washington County, Wayne County, West Virginia
Confederate General John B. Floyd composed this letter detailing military activity in the Guyandotte and Big Sandy valleys in late 1862, which was published by the Abington Virginian on January 2, 1863.
OFFICIAL REPORT OF GEN. FLOYD
Headquarters Virginia State Line,
Camp Clarkson, Tazewell Co.,
December 17, 1862
His Excellencey, John Letcher,
Governor of Virginia—
SIR: After my last communication to you I prepared an expedition consisting of a strong force of Cavalry under Colonel John Clarkson, to operate against the enemy in the counties of Wayne, Cabell, &c. He set out from Chapmansville on the 14th November, in the direction of Cabell down the Guyandotte river, over a rough and difficult road. The following day he fell in with a detachment of the enemy which he quickly routed and dispersed. He continued the march until a few miles of the Ohio river, breaking up the “Home Guard” organization of the enemy, which are very numerous in all that country, and taking prisoners every day.
A strong guard of Yankee troops, acting as a guard for the Pierpont Assessor for the county of Wayne, was attacked and dispersed after a short skirmish, in which was killed and wounded some of the enemy and took a few prisoners. Col. Clarkson proceeded then, according to the previous directions given him, to the Sandy river, to attack a large and formidable organization of the enemy composed mainly of the native population, and very strong posted amidst the cliffs and forests upon the precipitous banks of that river. He succeeded in taking them by surprise completely, and after killing and wounding a number of them, took a large number of prisoners, and surprised entirely the rest of the force. This force and organization were formidable and extremely dangerous to the peace and quiet of all the country round about for many miles, the loyal people were nearly all driven from their country and all were robbed. After that, Col. Clarkson, according to previous understanding, made a junction with me at the mouth of Pigeon Creek, in Logan county, on the Kentucky border, whither I had gone with the infantry and a section of the mounted howitzer battery.
I learned from Col. Clarkson that the enemy had started a number of boats with valuable supplies, from the mouth of Sandy to a post recently established at Pikeville, a point at the head of navigation on the Louisa Fork of Sandy. These boats were in charge of a strong guard, and were intended to furnish a complete outfit for a force deemed sufficient for them, by their commander, to march upon and destroy the salt works in Smyth and Washington counties.
I determined at once to attack this train, and from its distance, being more than forty miles off, it became necessary to send mounted men. Besides this reason, I found it inconvenient to move the infantry in that direction, on account of the number of prisoners with which we were encumbered. The cavalry and mounted men were put in motion within an hour and proceeded upon the march, which was uninterrupted, day or night, until the enemy were overtaken, attacked and routed.
Our people captured ten of the enemy’s transport boats, laden with valuable supplies. A great deal of these supplies was distributed amongst the men, and much of them was brought off; but a very large amount of most valuable supplies was necessarily destroyed for want of transportation to bring them away. A train of one hundred pack mules would have brought away a very large amount of extremely valuable stores, which were committed to the fire and the river.
The night following the capture of these boats (indeed, just twelve hours after the attack upon the boats,) our forces engaged that of Col. Dils, posted in an extremely strong position on the summit of a mountain on the road leading from Prestonsburg to Pikeville. This position was taken and held without any knowledge on our part, and as the attack was made after the night, and entirely unexpected, we were taken at a great disadvantage. But our men behaved with great steadiness and resolution, received the attack and charged the enemy, driving him from his position, and dispersing them entirely. The rout was complete, and the post at Pikeville, consisting of a thousand men, was entirely broken up. The prisoners and the Union people in that neighborhood reported Colonel Dils as killed in the fight that night.
For more detailed statements of this expedition I refer you to the report of Col. Clarkson. In our operation through the country, we made a number of recruits in the counties of Cabell, Wayne, Logan, &c.
My object in this campaign was, as far as possible, to prevent the occupation by the Yankee forces, of the country between the Kanawha Valley and Kentucky border, as well as to destroy the military organization of the country under the traitor government in Wheeling. Both objects were fully attained, as long as I was able to remain in the country. The military organizations, very numerous and well appointed in every particular, were almost entirely destroyed, and the attempts to set up the spurious government were entirely failed.
I was compelled to leave the country, held by me for more than three months alone, for the want of Quartermaster’s supplies. We were without tents, or clothing, or cooking utensils, or axes; and after the inclement weather of winter set in, we could no longer remain in the field. With these stores supplied, I would have remained in that country throughout the winter months. We were able to procure food (meat and bread) in the country, nearly all of it taken from the enemy.
The campaign, from first to last, was one of hardship and privations; but they were borne without complaint by the men, who are unsurpassed in hardship, activity and capability to endure privations. They deserve great praise for their constancy and general good conduct.
The officers generally deserve commendation, but to Col. Clarkson too much credit cannot be given for his energy, activity and courage. The obstacle she encountered, of every sort, throughout these expeditions, were of the most formidable character, but they were also most gallantly surmounted.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully,
Your obedient servant,
JOHN B. FLOYD,
Maj. Gen. Commanding Va. State Line
NOTE: I bolded Gen. Floyd’s description of activity in the Guyandotte Valley that occurred between Chapmanville and the lower section of the river near present-day Huntington.
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From the Logan County Banner of Logan, WV, and the Huntington Advertiser of Huntington, WV, come the following items relating to Johnson Hatfield:
We are glad to see that Johnson Hatfield, who has been confined to his room for the last ___ weeks, is able to be on the street again.
Source: Logan County Banner (Logan, WV), 2 March 1893.
There was an unfortunate difficulty at Matewan on Sunday last in which Mr. Johnson Hatfield was severely wounded through the hand. His son had become involved with an officer which drew his father into the trouble.
Source: Southern West Virginian via the Logan County Banner (Logan, WV), 1 January 1896.
Johnson Hatfield, accompanied by his daughter, Miss Dollie, left on Monday last for a visit to friends and relatives in Mingo county.
Source: Logan County Banner (Logan, WV), 23 January 1897.
Johnson Hatfield and daughter, Miss Dollie, have returned from a visit to friends on Sandy.
Source: Logan County Banner (Logan, WV), 6 February 1897.
Johnson Hatfield, the genial proprietor of the Oakland Hotel, is visiting friends at Pikeville, Kentucky.
Source: Logan County Banner (Logan, WV), 28 August 1897.
Johnson Hatfield has returned from a visit to Pikeville, Ky.
Source: Logan County Banner (Logan, WV), 9 October 1897.
Johnson Hatfield is at Williamson this week.
Source: Logan County Banner (Logan, WV), 23 October 1897.
The many friends of Mrs. Johnson Hatfield will regret to learn of her serious illness. She has a very bad attack of rheumatism.
Logan County Banner (Logan, WV), 13 November 1897.
Johnson Hatfield and wife, of Mingo, passed through here [Chafinsville] last Sunday en route for Vanceville, where they will make their future home.
Source: Logan County Banner (Logan, WV), 21 April 1898.
TAKEN TO KENTUCKY ON A SERIOUS CHARGE–NOW IN JAIL.
Johnson Hatfield was arrested yesterday and taken to Pikesville, Kentucky, and lodged in jail on a charge of being an accomplice in the murder of Alifair McCoy on New Years night about nine years ago. This murder was committed during the feud of the Hatfields and McCoys.
Source: Huntington (WV) Advertiser, 20 July 1898.
NOTE: Not all of these stories may pertain to the Johnson “Johnse” Hatfield of Hatfield-McCoy Feud fame. For instance, items relating to the Oakland Hotel and a daughter named Dollie relate to a Johnson Hatfield (born 1837), son of George and Nancy (Whitt) Hatfield.
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Appalachia, civil war, Confederate Army, Cumberland Mountains, David Stuart Hounshell, E.H. Perry, From Youth to Old Age, history, James Stephens, John B. Floyd, Kentucky, King Salt Works, Louis Bledsoe, Prestonsburg, slavery, Thomas H. Perry, Virginia
About 1910, Rev. Thomas H. Perry reflected on his long life, most of which was spent in the vicinity of Tylers Creek in Cabell County, West Virginia. In this excerpt from his autobiography, Mr. Perry recalled his participation in Civil War activity in eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia.
After the night fight, above Prestonsburg, we knew the Federals were above us and we would have to fight if we ever got back to Dixie. The cold weather and deep snow and timber across the road and Federals to contend with, we moved very slowly. One morning we stopped, as I thought for breakfast, and as I was almost frozen I rejoiced because I thought we will all get warm and some beef, as I saw one man shoot down a cow. But just at that time the Federals run in our pickets and began shooting at us, but I was so hungry I ran to the cow and cut two or three pounds out of the hind-quarter and took it with me. We ran about one mile and there we saw Colonel Hounshal’s regiment in battle line, who held the Federals off us until we could get our breakfast. I took my beef without salt and put it on the end of my ramrod and held it to the fire and cooked an ate it, and it was good.
The next day my company was the rear guard and it was reported to the captain that the Federals had got between us and our command. The captain said: “Men, we will have to fight or we will be taken prisoners.” There was a preacher with us that day. He said: “Captain, I did not intend to fight, but rather than be a prisoner I will fight. Give me a gun.” When I saw him shoulder his gun, it did me good. I thought if a preacher could fight it was not bad for me to fight, as I was only a prospective preacher.
One very cold night I was detailed on the outer picket post, the orderly said: “You can not have fire as they are likely to slip upon you and shoot you.” I said to the orderly: “I cannot stand it without fire.” I thought I would freeze to death. The orderly said: “I cannot excuse you.” Just at that time Louis Bledsoe said to the orderly he could stand more cold than Perry could and he would go in my place and I could go in his place some other time. Never did I forget the kindness Mr. Bledsoe showed me that night.
When we were within fifteen miles of the Cumberland mountains, our army cattle, prisoners and all we had was on one creek; that creek led to the main road across the mountains into Dixie. On either side of this creek, the mountains were high and very rough and covered with snow. The Federals cut timber across the creek above us, and had a strong army below us, and held us here three days and would have captured us and all we had if General Floyd had not come with his artillery and drove the Federals away from the head of the creek, and let us out. The first night after we crossed the mountain into Dixie, E.H. Perry, one of my brothers came to my captain’s tent and said: “Captain, are my brothers all here?” He said: “Yes.” Then my brother exclaimed: “Thank the Lord for that.” Never will I forget the tone of my brother’s voice that night for he knew we had been gone for forty-one days, and it was by the hardest work that we landed back in Dixie.
Once more after this we went into winter quarters near the King Salt works, and they sent me to a farm house to nurse three sick soldiers. We had a large nice room, well furnished and the landlord was rich and good to us. He and his good wife would help me in waiting on the sick; he furnished us with everything we could ask for to eat. We stayed there more than three months. I saw in the beginning that I would not have much to do, and as I had the money and there was a book store at that place, I bought a complete set of school books and studied them hard that winter and it did me good. It helped me to keep down the roughness of a soldier’s life, and also to educate. Along the back yard there was a row of one-story brick buildings in which the negroes lived. Some nights I would go and hear them tell ghost stories, and they knew how to tell them for they had seen a great many ghosts. I deny superstition, but I noticed when these negroes had told me some of the most fearful ghost stories, if it was a very dark night I would ask some of them to go apart of the way home with me.
Mr. James Stephens, one of my patients, died; the other two got well. We left that place about the first of May. I saw then that the south could not gain her independence, and I told these negroes I thought they would soon be free and advised them to learn to read and write. I talked with a good many old men in the south about the war. They said they should have raised the “Old Flag” and contended for the constitution, and as for slavery, they said it was dying out in the south anyway.
Source: From Youth to Old Age by T.H. Perry, Chapter 8, p. 20-22.
Appalachia, Battle of Big Ugly Creek, Big Ugly Creek, Cabell County, Chapmanville, civil war, Confederate Army, From Youth to Old Age, Guyandotte River, Hamilton Fry, history, Kentucky, Lincoln County, Logan County, Mason County, Prestonsburg, Six Mile Creek, T.E. Ball, Thomas H. Perry, Union Army, Virginia, Wayne County, West Virginia, William Jefferson
About 1910, Rev. Thomas H. Perry reflected on his long life, most of which was spent in the vicinity of Tylers Creek in Cabell County, West Virginia. In this excerpt from his autobiography, Mr. Perry recalled his participation in Civil War skirmishes at the Forks of Ugly and Six Mile Creek in present-day Lincoln County, WV, and military activity around Prestonsburg, Kentucky:
In 1862 my company was ordered to move from Chapmansville down the Guyan river. About three o’clock that day we ran into a company of Federal soldiers at the forks of Big Ugly creek, and as neither company was expecting trouble at this time, we were not ready for the fight, but our captain ordered his men in line, and we marched around the hillside, fronting the creek, and the Federals formed a line up the creek, fronting us. Here we tried our bravery for a few minutes, but as we had the advantage of some timber, the Federals broke ranks and went into the woods, except ten or twelve that lay flat upon the ground, and we captured them, and all the rations the company had, such as coffee and sugar, which was a treat for us in that country. About this time another company came up and followed the Federals into the woods. I never knew what became of them until after the war. Mr. T.E. Ball, of Mason county, told me after the war that he was a member of that company of Federals, and he was in the fight at the forks of Big Ugly, and that he was in the closest place that day of any time during the war. he said he was certain there were more than fifty shots fired at him as he ran through the field, and of the eighty-four men in his company, there was not a man that returned with his gun, and but few that had hats or shoes, for they were scattered in the woods and every man looked out for himself. The next day, we had six men in the advance guard. I was one of them, and as we turned the point at the mouth of Six Mile creek, six miles above the falls of Guyan river, we ran into a squad of seven Federal soldiers, who fired into us and killed William Jefferson, one of our bravest soldiers.
The next day we crossed the river at the falls of the Guyan and went through Wayne county into Kentucky. Here we were fired into every day and night for about three weeks. It was December and we had some very cold weather. Several times I have seen men and horses lying on the side of the road frozen so stiff they could not travel.
We had about fifteen hundred men with us at that time. We had several hundred prisoners and a great deal of army supplies that we had captured, and the cold weather and the Federals and so many bushwhackers to contend with, that we had no rest day or night. Just below Prestonsburg we captured seven flat boats that were loaded with army supplies, such as clothing and food, and many of us needed both, but we paid dearly for them, for many of our men on both sides lost their lives in this fight. For two hours and thirty minutes they poured the hot lead into each other as fast as they could. The battle lines of both armies extended from the river to the top of the mountain. I was on top of the mountain when the Federals broke rank. Our major ordered his men to go down both battle lines and gather up the dead and wounded and take them to the foot of the mountain.
I went down the Federal battle line in front of our men, and when I saw the dead and wounded and the guns and blood and clothing that was scattered from the top to the bottom of that mountain, I was perfectly disgusted with war. About half way down this line we found their major; he was shot through the heart. He was a nice looking gentleman; he had a long black beard. Our men seemed to have great respect for his body, because he was an officer, and gave special directions for his burial. Some of the prisoners cried aloud like children, while others cursed and said they were see every rebel in hell before he would cry. Just how many men we had killed and wounded in this fight I never knew. Some of our wounded we took with us, and some was so badly wounded we left them in private homes. From this places we turned to the south for winter quarters. My company was the rear guard that night. We thought the rear guard would suffer more than any other part of the army, but to our surprise after we had gone a few miles above Prestonsburg we heard considerable shooting and disturbance in our front about two miles from us. It was a very dark night, and when my company came up to about where we thought the shooting was, we heard horses and men groaning. After we had gone about two miles farther, we went into camp until morning. That morning one man told me one of our men that was killed last night lived in Parkersburg. The great question with us at this time was, can we ever get back to Dixie with our cattle, goods and prisoners? The Federals were above us and below us.
Source: From Youth to Old Age by T.H. Perry, Chapter 7, p. 18-20.
Note: As of 1862, Lincoln County did not exist and the surrounding area remained a part of Virginia. Big Ugly Creek was then located in Logan County and Six Mile Creek was located in Cabell County.
Note: The “forks of Ugly” references the mouth of Laurel Fork, at or near the old Hamilton Fry homeplace.
45th Kentucky Volunteer Mounted Infantry, Albert Gallatin Jenkins, Arthur I. Boreman, Ashland, Ben Haley, Buffalo Shoals, Catlettsburg, Ceredo, Cumberland Gap, Flemingsburg, Independent Company of Scouts, James Haley, John Bowen, Kentucky, Louisa, Morgan Garrett, Mount Sterling, Prestonsburg, Saltville, Vincent A. Witcher, Virginia, Wayne County, West Virginia, William A. Haley
On June 8, 1863, Benjamin R. Haley and his son James enlisted for one year of service in the 45th Kentucky Volunteer Mounted Infantry. The 45th was organized in the summer of 1863 as a battalion (four companies) whose purpose it was the protect the Virginia front and the counties of eastern Kentucky. On October 10, the 45th was upgraded to a regiment in Ashland. At that time, Haley was made captain of Company B, while son William A. Haley was made second lieutenant.
“During the early part of 1864 the regimental headquarters were at Mt. Sterling, Ky., from which point the 45th was continually employed in constant and arduous duty, covering the entire Virginia front from Cumberland Gap to Louisa, and keeping in check, by ceaseless activity, the rebel cavalry command concentrated in and about Abingdon, Va.,” according to Union Regiments of Kentucky.
In March of ’64, the 45th moved its headquarters further north to Flemingsburg, Kentucky. Haley, perhaps wishing to remain closer to his home in Wayne County, resigned on March 17, 1864. William absented himself from command at Prestonsburg, Kentucky, on April 24, 1864 while on the march to Saltville, Virginia. James A. was mustered out on December 24, 1864 at Catlettsburg.
On April 8, 1864, John Bowen, a resident of Buffalo Shoals, wrote West Virginia governor Arthur I. Boreman to request that Ben Haley be permitted to organize a company and provide more Union protection in Wayne County.
Dear Sir I wish to inform you that Mr. Morgan Garret has declined to raise a Scouting Company for this part of our county and has gone to Kentucky. Horse Stealing is Still going on here. We need a company for this part of the county very much. They have three companeys upon Sandy and I understand they are trying to get another one. I think if their are to be another company for this county it ought to be for this part of the county. I would recommend either Benjamin Haley or William Nixson for capt. of a company and I request that one of them be commisioned to raise a company as soon as possible as we need protection badly.
Governor Boreman heeded Bowman’s request. On April 28, 1864, 46-year-old Ben Haley organized an Independent Company of Scouts for Wayne County. Some 25 men enlisted at Ceredo to serve in Captain Ben Haley’s Company for twelve months. “The members of my com were organized and Sworn in to the Servis by Abel Segar Esq the only Justice of the Peace that is in the County that will attempt to Edecute his office,” Haley wrote to the governor. On May 7, he requested 25 hats, 25 pairs of boots, 25 woolen blankets, 25 rubber blankets, 25 haversacks, 50 flannel shirts, fifty pairs of drawers and fifty pairs of stockings. He also requested 25 Colt rifles, 4000 bullet cartridges, 25 bayonet scabbards, 25 waist belts, 12 screw drivers and two ball screws, among other items. On May 10, Haley took his oath of office and then signed an oath of allegiance to the United States of America on the following day.
On June 6, Haley wrote Governor Boreman:
Sir I have the Honor of reporting the condition of my co of Independent Scouts for Wayne Co West Va. We are in Camp at present in Ceredo. The men in good condition except 3 cases of sickness disserrtions non captured two rebels prisoners one of Rebel Witcher command & the other of Jenkins turned over to the post at Catllesburg Ky please instruction what to be don with Sick also what is to be don with capturd property horses guns in consequence of the U.S. Troops being Sent to the front we are very much trobled with Strong bands of gurillas which prevents our Scouting very far in the county notwithstanding we have Scouted considerable & have lost no man I think in my next months report I shall be able to give a good account of the Service of my men as they are brace & hardy. Men all Suplied with arms in good condition.
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A few months later, I met Lawrence Haley at the Fraley Family Festival at Carter Caves State Park near Grayson, Kentucky. Lawrence and I spoke with Bill Necessary, a musician who saw Ed and Ella all over the Big Sandy Valley when he was about twenty years old. He said they rode a train up Levisa Fork to Paintsville, the seat of government for Johnson County, where they spent the day playing music at the courthouse. From there, they continued by train to Prestonsburg, county seat of Floyd County. At times, they went into the nearby coal camps of Beaver Creek and played at theatres. From Prestonsburg, they took the train to Pikeville, the county seat of Pike County, and then continued over to the Tug River around Williamson, county seat of Mingo County, West Virginia.
“Aw, they took in the whole dern country up through there,” Bill said. “By the time they made that circuit, why it’d be time for them to come again. I guess they’d tour a couple of weeks. By God, I just followed them around, son.”
Lawrence didn’t remember going to all of those places with Ed but did remember staying with Molly O’Day’s family around Williamson. Bill said Molly’s widow Lynn Davis was still living around Huntington, West Virginia.
Bill said Ed always wore a long overcoat — “rain or shine” — and even played in it. He never sang or entered contests.
“He was pretty up to date on music at that time,” Bill said. “His notes were real clear, boy.”
Back in Nashville, I worked really hard trying to figure out Ed’s bowing. There was a lot of contradictory information to consider. Snake Chapman said he bowed short strokes, indicating a lot of sawstrokes and pronounced note separation. J.P. Fraley, Slim Clere, Lawrence and Mona said that he favored the long bow approach and only used short strokes when necessary, like for hoedowns. Preacher Gore, Ugee Postalwait and Curly Wellman spoke about how smooth his fiddling was, which kind of hinted at him being a long bow fiddler. All were probably accurate in some respect. It seemed plain to me that one reason why there were so many contrasting and sometimes completely opposite accounts of how or even what Ed played was that everyone I’d talked to witnessed him playing at different times and places during his musical evolution. All along the way, he was experimenting, looking for that “right combination” or playing the style needed to create the sounds popular in a certain area. Even what I could actually hear on his home recordings was really just a glimpse into the world of his fiddling as it existed at that moment toward the end of his lifetime.
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Back in Nashville, I was knee-deep in Haley’s music, devoting more time to it than I care to admit. I talked so much about it that my friends began to tease me. Mark Howard, who was producing my albums at the time, joked that if Ed’s recordings were of better quality, I might not like them so much. As my obsession with Haley’s music grew, so did my interest in his life. For a long time, my only source was the liner notes for Parkersburg Landing, which I had almost committed to memory. Then came Frazier Moss, a fiddling buddy in town, who presented me with a cassette tape of Snake Chapman, an old-time fiddler from the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy in eastern Kentucky. On the tape, Snake said he’d heard Haley play the “old original” version of “Blackberry Blossom” after he “came in on the boats” at Williamson, West Virginia.
This was making for a great story. I was already enthralled by Haley’s fiddling…but to think of him riding on “the boats.” It was the marriage of my two loves. I immediately immersed myself in books like Captain Fred Way’s Packet Directory 1848-1983: Passenger Steamboats of the Mississippi River System Since the Advent of Photography in Mid-Continent America (1983) to see which boats ran in the Big Sandy Valley during Haley’s lifetime. Most of the boats were wooden-hulled, lightweight batwings – much smaller than the ones that plied the Mississippi River in my St. Louis youth – but they were exciting fixtures in the Big Sandy Valley culture.
“I have seen these boats coming down the river like they were shot out of a cannon, turning these bends, missing great limbs hanging over the stream from huge trees, and finally shooting out of the Big Sandy into the Ohio so fast that often they would be nearly a mile below the wharf boat before they could be stopped,” Captain Robert Owens wrote in Captain Mace’s River Steamboats and Steamboat Men (1944). “They carried full capacity loads of sorghum, chickens and eggs. These days were times of great prosperity around the mouth of Sandy. Today, great cities have sprung up on the Tug and Levisa forks. The railroad runs on both sides, and the great activity that these old-time steamboats caused has all disappeared.”
During the next few weeks, I scoured through my steamboat photograph collection and assembled pictures of Big Sandy boats, drunk with images of Haley riding on any one of them, maybe stopping to play at Louisa, Paintsville, Prestonsburg and Pikeville, Kentucky on the Levisa Fork or on the Tug Fork at Ft. Gay, Kermit, Williamson, and Matewan, West Virginia.
Finally, I resolved to call Snake Chapman and ask him about his memories. It was a nervous moment – for the first time, I was contacting someone with personal memories of Ed Haley. Snake, I soon discovered, was a little confused about exactly who I was and why I was so interested in Haley’s life and then, just like that, he began to offer his memories of Ed Haley.
“Yeah, he’s one of the influences that started me a fiddling back years ago,” Snake said, his memories slowly trickling out. “I used to go over to Molly O’Day’s home – her name was Laverne Williamson – and me and her and her two brothers, Skeets and Duke, used to play for square dances when we first started playing the fiddle. And Uncle Ed, he’d come up there to old man Joe Williamson’s home – that’s Molly’s dad – and he just played a lot for us and then us boys would play for him, me and Cecil would, and he’d show us a lot of things with the bow.”
Molly O’Day, I knew, was regarded by many as the most famous female vocalist in country music in the 1940s; she had retired at a young age in order to dedicate her life to the church.
“And he’s the one that told me all he could about old-time fiddling,” Snake continued. “He said, ‘Son, you’re gonna make a good fiddler, but it takes about ten years to do it.'”
I told Snake about reading in the Parkersburg Landing liner notes how Haley reportedly wished that “someone might pattern after” him after his death and he totally disagreed. He said, “I could have copied Uncle Ed – his type of playing – but I didn’t want to do it because he told me not to. He told me not to ever copy after anyone. Said, ‘Just play what you feel and when you get good, you’re as good as anybody else.’ That was his advice.”
I didn’t really know what to make of that comment. I mean, was Haley serious? Was he speaking from personal experience or was it just something he told to a beginning fiddler for encouragement?
After that, my conversation with Snake consisted of me asking questions – everything from how much Haley weighed to all the intricate details of his fiddling. I wondered, for instance, if Ed held the bow at the end or toward the middle, if he played with the fiddle under his chin, and if he ever tried to play words in his tunes. I wanted to know all of these things so that I could just inhabit them, not realizing that later on what were perceived as trivial details would often become major items of interest.
Snake answered my questions precisely: he said Haley held the bow “up a little in the middle, not plumb on the end” and usually played with the fiddle at his chest – “just down ordinarily.” He also said Haley “single-noted” most of his bow strokes, played frequently in cross-key, hated vibrato and used a lot of “sliding notes.” He seldom got out of first position, only occasionally “going down and getting some notes” that he wanted to “bring in the tune” and he definitely tried to play words in his music.
“The old fiddlers through the mountains here – and I guess it’s that way everywhere – they tried to make the fiddle say the words of the old tunes,” Snake said.
“Uncle Ed, he was a kind of a fast fiddler,” he went on. “Most old-time fiddlers are slow fiddlers, but he played snappy fiddling, kindly like I do. Ah, he could do anything with a fiddle, Uncle Ed could. He could play a tune and he could throw everything in the world in it if he wanted to or he could just play it out straight as it should be. If you could just hear him in person because those tapes didn’t do him justice. None of them didn’t. To me, he was one of the greatest old-time fiddlers of all time. He was telling me, when I was young, he said, ‘Well, I could make a fiddle tune any time I want to,’ but he said he just knowed so many tunes he didn’t care about making any more. He played a variety of tunes that a lot of people didn’t play, and a lot of people couldn’t play. He knew so many tunes he wouldn’t play one tune too long.”
I asked Snake about Haley’s repertoire and he said, “He played an old tune called ‘Old Sledge’ and it was one of his good ones. He played tunes like ‘Trouble Among the Yearlings’, but when he was gonna play it he called it ‘Fox in the Mud’. He made that up himself. One of the favorite tunes of mine he played was the old-time way of playing ‘Blackberry Blossom’ and he played it in G-minor. Ed could really play it good. They was somebody else that made the tune. Uncle Ed told me who it was – Garfield. He said he was a standing fiddling near a big blackberry patch and it was in bloom at the mouth of the hollow one time and this fella Garfield played this tune and he asked this fella Garfield what the name of the tune was. He said, ‘Well, I ain’t named it, yet,’ and he turned around and spit in that blackberry patch with a big bunch of ambeer and said, ‘We’ll just call it ‘Blackberry Blossom’.”
“Yeah, Uncle Ed, he had tales behind every one of them like that, but that’s where he said he got the name of it. He said he named it there…spitting in the blackberry blossom.”
Snake only remembered Haley singing “Stacker Lee”, a tune I’d heard him fiddle and sing simultaneously on Parkersburg Landing:
Oh Stacker Lee went to town with a .44 in his hand.
He looked around for old Billy Lyons. Gonna kill him if he can.
All about his John B. Stetson hat.
Stacker Lee entered a bar room, called up a glass of beer.
He looked around for old Billy Lyons, said, “What’re you a doin’ here?
This is Stacker Lee. That bad man Stacker Lee.”
Old Billy Lyons said, “Stacker Lee, please don’t take my life.
Got a half a dozen children and one sweet loving wife
Looking for my honey on the next train.”
“Well God bless your children. I will take care of your wife.
You’ve stole my John B. Stetson hat, and I’m gonna take your life.”
All about that broad-rimmed Stetson hat.
Old Billy Lyons said, “Mother, great God don’t weep and cry.”
Oh Billy Lyons said, “Mother, I’m bound to die.”
All about that broad-rimmed Stetson hat.
Stacker Lee’s mother said, “Son, what have you done?”
“I’ve murdered a man in the first degree and Mother I’m bound to be hung.”
All about that John B. Stetson hat.
Oh Stacker Lee said, “Jailor, jailor, I can’t sleep.
Old Billy Lyons around my bedside does creep.”
All about that John B. Stetson hat.
Stacker Lee said, “Judge, have a little pity on me.
Got one gray-haired mother dear left to weep for me.”
All about that broad-rimmed Stetson hat.
That judge said, “Old Stacker Lee, gonna have a little pity on you.”
I’m gonna give you twenty-five years in the penitentiary.”
All about that John B. Stetson hat.
It was one awful cold and rainy day
When they laid old Billy Lyons away
In Tennessee. In Tennessee.
Snake said Haley used to play on the streets of Williamson, West Virginia where he remembered him catching money in a tin cup. In earlier years, he supposedly played on the Ohio River and Big Sandy boats and probably participated in the old fiddlers’ contests, which Snake’s father said was held on boat landings. These impromptu contests were very informal and usually audience-judged, meaning whoever got the most applause was considered the winner. Sometimes, fiddlers would just play and whoever drew the biggest crowd was considered the winner.
I asked Snake if he ever heard Ed talk about Clark Kessinger and he said, “Skeets was telling me Ed didn’t like Clark at all. He said, ‘That damned old son-of-a-gun stands around and tries to pick up everything he can pick up from you.’ And he did. Clark tried to pick up everything from Uncle Ed. He was a good fiddler, too.”
Snake said Clayton McMichen (the famous Skillet Licker) was Haley’s favorite fiddler, although he said he knew just how to beat him. This made me think of the line from Parkersburg Landing, “In regard to his own fiddling, Haley was not particularly vain, although he was aware that he could put ‘slurs and insults’ into a tune in a manner that set him apart from all other fiddlers.” (I wasn’t exactly sure he meant by slurs and insults.)
Snake could tell that I was really into Haley.
“Try to come see me and we’ll make you as welcome as we possibly can,” he said. “I tell you, my wife is poorly sick, and I have a little trouble with my heart. I’m 71. Doctors don’t want me to play over two or three hours at a time, but I always like to meet other people and play with them. I wouldn’t have no way of putting you up, but you can come any time.”
Just before hanging up, I asked Snake if he had any Haley recordings. He said Skeets Williamson had given him some tapes a few years back and “was to bring more, but he died two years ago of cancer.” Haley had a son in Ashland, Kentucky, he said, who might have more recordings. “I don’t know whether he’s got any of Uncle Ed’s stuff or not. See, most of them old tapes they made, they made them on wire recordings, and I don’t know if he’s got any more of his stuff than what I’ve got or not.”
I told Snake I would drive up and see him in the spring but ended up calling him a week later to ask him if he knew any of Ed’s early influences. He said Ed never talked about those things. “No sir, he never did tell me. He never did say. Evidently, he learned from somebody, but I never did hear him say who he learned from.” I felt pretty sure that he picked up tunes from the radio. “Ed liked to listen to the radio, preferring soap operas and mystery chillers, but also in order to hear new fiddle tunes,” the Parkersburg Landing liner notes read. “A good piece would cause him to slap his leg with excitement.” I asked Snake if he remembered Haley ever listening to fiddlers on the radio and he said, “I don’t know. He must have from the way he talked, because he didn’t like Arthur Smith and he liked Clayton McMichen.”
What about pop tunes? Did he play any of those?
“He played ragtime pretty good in some tunes,” Snake said. “Really you can listen to him play and he slides a little bit of ragtime off in his old-time fiddling – and I never did hear him play a waltz in all the time I ever heard him play. He’d play slow songs that sound old lonesome sounds.”
Snake quickly got into specifics, mentioning how Haley only carried one fiddle around with him. He said, “He could tune right quick, you know. He didn’t have tuners. He just had the keys.”
Did fiddlers tune low back in those days?
“I’d say they did. They didn’t have any such thing as a pitch-pipe, so they had to tune just to whatever they liked to play.”
Haley was the exception.
“Well, it seemed like to me he tuned in standard pitch, I’m not sure. But from hearing his fiddling – like we hear on those tapes we play now – I believe he musta had a pitch-pipe at that time.”
I wondered if Haley spent a lot of time messing around with his fiddle, like adjusting the sound post, and Snake said, “No, I never did see him do that. He might have did it at home but when he was out playing he already had it set up the way he wanted to play.”
Surprisingly, Snake didn’t recall Haley playing for dances. “I don’t think he did because I never did know of him playing for a dance. He was mostly just for somebody to listen to, and what he did mostly was to make money for a living playing on the street corner. I seen him at a fiddling contest or two – that was back before I learned to play the fiddle. That’s when I heard him play ‘Trouble Among the Yearlings’. He won the fiddling contest.”
What about playing with other fiddlers?
“Well, around in this area here he was so much better than all the other fiddle players, they all just laid their fiddles down and let him play. The old fiddlers through here, they wasn’t what I’d call too good fiddlers. We had one or two in the Pikeville area over through there that played a pretty good fiddle. Art Stamper’s dad, he was a good old-time fiddler, and so was Kenny Baker’s dad.”
After hanging up with Snake, I gave a lot of thought to Haley reportedly not liking Arthur Smith. His dislike for Smith was documented on Parkersburg Landing, which stated plainly: “Another fiddler he didn’t care for was Arthur Smith. An Arthur Smith record would send him into an outrage, probably because of Smith’s notoriously uncertain sense of pitch. Cecil Williamson remembers being severely lectured for attempting to play like ‘that fellow Smith.'”
Haley probably first heard Smith over the radio on the Grand Ole Opry, where he debuted in December of 1927. Almost right away, he became a radio star, putting fiddlers all over the country under his spell. His popularity continued to skyrocket throughout the 1930s, during his collaboration with Sam and Kirk McGee. In the late thirties, Haley had a perfect chance to meet Smith, who traveled through southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky with the Tennessee Valley Boys. While unlikely, Haley may have met him at fiddling contests during the Depression. “In the thirties, Haley occasionally went to fiddle contests to earn money,” according to Parkersburg Landing. At that same time, Smith was participating in well-publicized (usually staged) contests with Clark Kessinger, Clayton McMichen and Natchee the Indian. Haley, however, tended to avoid any contest featuring Natchee the Indian, who “dressed in buckskins and kept his hair very long” and was generally a “personification of modern tendencies toward show fiddling.”
In the early 1940s, Haley had a perfect opportunity to meet Smith, who appeared regularly on WSAZ’s “Tri-State Jamboree” in Huntington, West Virginia. Huntington is located several miles up the Ohio River from Ashland, Kentucky and is West Virginia’s second largest city.
In the end, Haley’s reported low opinion of Smith’s fiddling was interesting. Arthur Smith was one of the most influential fiddlers in American history. Roy Acuff regarded him as the “king of the fiddlers,” while Dr. Wolfe referred to him as the “one figure” who “looms like a giant over Southern fiddling.” Haley even had one of his tunes – “Red Apple Rag” – in his repertoire. Maybe he got a lot of requests for Smith tunes on the street and had to learn them. Who knows how many of his tunes Haley actually played, or if his motives for playing them were genuine?