I spent the next two months thinking about the best way to approach Lawrence Haley. It was imperative that I made the right impression — should I call or write? Should I ease into the situation or just tell him how great I thought his father was? It was a fantastic moment — a period of time just before “contact” when I was mostly daydreaming and not nearly so swept away. In that instant, I was content to just talk with Ed Haley’s son and find out as much as I could about one of the world’s greatest fiddlers.
I finally decided to write Lawrence a letter, a perfectly natural thing to do since he was a retired postman. I had a million questions but limited myself to this:
Dear Mr. Haley,
I am deeply inspired by your father and his music. I’ve almost completely worn out the Parkersburg Landing album and have become very interested in him. I believe him to be the best as well as the most important fiddler of our time. Through his influence on Clark Kessinger and Georgia Slim who in turn influenced Benny Thomasson he could be considered the grandfather of the present Texas contest fiddling style.
I would have given anything to have heard him and seen him. I’ve read everything I can find and have talked to J.P. and Annadene Fraley at length for any little tidbit about him. I would love to meet you and hear you talk of him.
Yours very truly,
Because of my promise to Gus Meade, I was careful not to divulge the fact that I had heard any of Ed’s tunes not featured on Parkersburg Landing and had resolved that if I should be so lucky that Lawrence would at some future time play some of them I would act surprised.
A few days later, after getting the “go-ahead” from Annadeene Fraley by telephone, I gave Lawrence a call. He was extremely nice and seemed happy that I was interested in his father. He said he used to watch me on TV years ago.
“You’re the guy with the derby that danced and played the fiddle at the same time,” he said in a somewhat raspy voice.
I hesitantly asked about his father’s records. He said he had most of his dad’s original home recordings, as well as reel-to-reel copies made by the Library of Congress.
“I got four little seven-inch tapes here with some music on them,” he said, before reading the titles. I carefully wrote each title down, taking special note of the ones I had never heard of. Lawrence said his father sometimes named tunes after places where he played, like with “Catlettsburg”, a small river town near Ashland, or with “Parkersburg Landing”, a West Virginia city just below Marietta, Ohio.
“I don’t know where Pop gets all these names from,” Lawrence said, as if Ed were still alive to name them. “I think when my dad went somewhere and played, and if people liked what they heard, that’s the way he named them. Like that ‘Parkersburg Landing’, he was probably up in Parkersburg, West Virginia, playing and people liked it so that’s what he called it. I’m not sure how they got named but that’s what I’d say.”
There were other tunes like “Dunbar”, named for a small town near Charleston, West Virginia, and “Cherry River Rag”, named after a river in eastern West Virginia.
After reading Ed’s titles, Lawrence said, “Pop played quite a few more pieces than that, of course. It’s really hard to say how many of his records are out there that I don’t know about. Several years ago, this guy brought me one of his records with a tune on it called ‘Ox in the Mud’. He said he had wanted it on a record so bad he took Pop to one of these recording studios and had it made. Well, I traded him one of those Parkersburg Landing albums for it and I guess he was satisfied with that because he got quite a bit more music.”
Wow – the prospect of finding more Ed Haley records was exciting. I could just imagine digging through a box in some antique store along the Ohio River and finding Haley records mixed in with old Big Band orchestra albums and selling at a quarter each.
Putting such thoughts aside, I turned my mind back to Lawrence, who was actually holding Ed Haley records at that moment in Ashland, Kentucky. I asked him about the type of records and their general condition.
“The records are mostly Wilcox-Gay plastic records,” he said. “When I took them to the Library of Congress in Washington, some of them was in pretty bad shape. The hole where the spindle was, some of them was wore oblong and they had to put weights and everything else on them and they come up with a flutter in them. I allowed Rounder Records to make a copy of them because they said they was gonna put out a couple of albums.”
I said, “Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ve never heard anything like it. I’ve heard a lot of fiddling that was made on old records at that time and your dad was so far ahead of any of them it’s not funny. In the one sense, he’s an old-time musician. In the other, he’s modern. That knocked me out. He may be the heaviest musician I ever heard. His syncopation and his timing and his intonation… Because them old-timey notes, you know, you can’t hit them right on the head. You’ve got to shade them. And to shade them, you’ve got to really know if they’re in tune or not and not just anybody can do that. And boy, he is a master of it.”
I was obviously a little carried away and caught up in the moment.
Lawrence sort of laughed and said, “I know he was a good, fine fiddler. My dad held the fiddle out onto his left side right at the top of his bicep where his arm and chest met – the armpit, just about. It was more of a classical violinist’s stance than the old mountain fiddler holding it down towards his knee or close to his knee and right in front of him. I’ve seen him lean his chin over on the base of the violin at times. You know, like people trying to hold that fiddle up there on their shoulder and under their chin, they can’t get their fingers right if they don’t let go of the fiddle on the neck of it. Well, Pop didn’t have to dip the bow a lot of times. What he did, he’d rock the fiddle to that string to meet the bow, see? And that was tricky, too.”
I said, “I’ll tell you what, he’s got one of the best bow arms I’ve ever heard. He gets those notes out so clear.”
Lawrence interjected, “He used all the bow, too. A lot of people, they’ve got to saw the bow back and forth. My dad used every inch of the bow from one end to the other. He didn’t grab the bow up on the strings like a lot of fiddlers. You know, half way up the bow. He got right back on the bow where you tighten the string and his finger was on that tightening fret. His little finger was wrapped around that, more or less.”
I said, “It sounds like he long-bowed a lot, where he’d pull that bow down and get four or five notes on a bow stroke.”
“Yes he did,” Lawrence said without hesitation. “Pop would use every bit of that bow to get it.”
Discussing Ed’s bowing prompted me to think about Ed’s fiddle. I had looked at it many times in the Parkersburg Landing picture and wondered if it survived fifty years after his death.
“I’ve got the old fiddle,” Lawrence said, “but it’s really not playable. We lived at a place one time where we had an excess of moisture and it got to this old fiddle and it started coming apart. My son Steve took it and had some instrument re-builder to put it back together but they never could get it back together right so it’s lost all of its intonation. I’ve got it but it’s not really worth playing because it hasn’t got the resonance to it.”
I told Lawrence I was hoping to be back in Ashland in a few days and would love to visit him and see his father’s records.
“Well, if you come up and you can get a hold of some kind of portable tape player I don’t care to let you copy Pop’s records,” he said. “They will probably just set here till some kind of magnetism comes along and takes all the information off of them. But they’re here and I hope nothing happens to them.”
Well, this was an unexpected offer from someone who was reportedly so over-protective of his father’s music.
I asked Lawrence how old Ed was when he passed away and he said, “Let’s see. I was about 23 or 24. Right now, I’m an old man. I’ve had quite a bit of heart problems. I spent the biggest part of November in the hospital on a ventilator. I was having congestive heart failure. I guess you hear how my voice sounds. They rammed something down my vocal box between my vocal chords and I’ve never got my voice back right. Well, I’m more or less living one day at a time. I’m 63 now.”
I said, “Well, you’re exactly ten years older than I am.”
“Well, you’re getting up there, too, aren’t you? Not the young man we remember on TV,” Lawrence said.
Hoping to get more at the source of Ed’s music, I asked Lawrence if his dad talked about where he learned to play.
“Not to me, no,” he said. “I’ve heard some stories but just like all other legendary people whenever a story is told twice it’s been embellished quite a bit. One fella said to keep from starving to death my dad sat out and eat wild onions with a piece of cold cornbread that he’d take out of the kitchen of my great-aunt Liza’s house, who raised him. But that wasn’t true. I’ve heard Pop tell me personally that he’d take a salt-shaker and a big onion and something like that and a piece of cornbread and go out in the garden and get him a tomato and eat that. I’ve never heard him talk about eating wild onions.”
I had given little thought to Ed’s childhood and birthplace.
“Where he was raised it was kind of rough country up in West Virginia,” Lawrence said. “He come out of Logan County, West Virginia, out in a country called Harts Creek. We used to go up there quite often until I was about nine or ten years old because my dad would go back there. He’d go around courthouse days and play music out in the courthouse lawn for change and things and that’s the way he made his living. He’d go to fairs and any other activities that might draw a crowd where he could play music. That’s how him and my mother made their money and raised us kids.”
How many kids were there in the family?
“They was seven of us all together,” Lawrence said. “I was the youngest boy and then I had a sister younger than me. But I had one brother to die when he was in infancy so really there was only five boys and one girl they raised. They got us up one way or the other without jerking us too hard.”
I asked Lawrence if he remembered his father playing for dances.
“I remember one afternoon we walked from Morehead, Kentucky down to Farmers,” he said. “That’s four or five miles. At that time they didn’t have too good a roads through there so we walked the railroad tracks. I was just a kid. We went to these people’s house and they rolled back the rugs and things and Pop sat there and played all night until the sun come up. I don’t know when Pop made the arrangements. Just him and my mother.”
For the next minute or so, I really bragged on Ed’s music. I had listened to it for years and had a lot of emotion about it. Finally, Lawrence said, “Well, I’ve heard him make a sour note on a few of these records but I think he learned his violin real good.”
Lawrence said his father played the fiddle from the time he was a small child.
“The way I understood it, he become blind when he was a couple of years old and they couldn’t figure out what to do with my dad,” he said. “He was blind and living out on the farm and somebody made him a violin out of a cigar box and he started out from there and just self-taught hisself, I reckon. As he went along, he got a hold of old instruments, I guess, and showed some promise and somebody looked after him and saw that he got the right things any way.”
I was very interested in Haley’s early travels, particularly before he married and settled in Ashland.
“I guess by the time Pop was eighteen, nineteen years old — that’s back at the turn of the century — he was traveling all over West Virginia and eastern Tennessee and western Old Virginia and parts of Ohio and eastern Kentucky,” Lawrence said. “He went to White Sulphur Springs and Webster Springs — these places that were pretty well known as spas and health resorts. He went to the state capital around Charleston. I’ve heard Pop talk about when he’d be in Charleston. He said he’d guarantee if he was at the Capitol building or somewhere playing music, Clark Kessinger would be there a listening trying to learn his style. I think that’s the way that Clark Kessinger got his style of Ed Haley, just watching him around Charleston, West Virginia.”
I told Lawrence that Kessinger was a great fiddle player but that he wasn’t even close to his dad.
That seemed to delight Lawrence, who was quiet for a moment before saying, “I’m glad to hear somebody say that. That’s one reason I agreed to let Rounder Records make an album or two. I thought there might be somebody out there that would appreciate that type of music and want to preserve it some way or the other. Once bluegrass and country rock and all that took off the old mountain-type music that came over from England and Ireland and Scotland and some of the Dutch and Scandinavian countries has just about been lost.”
Easing into more musical dialogue, I told Lawrence about my theory that Haley was a grandfather of the modern Texas contest fiddling style.
“Well, I don’t know about all of that John,” he said, “but when he’d start a piece over — he’d play each piece about four or five times — he had a different variation. It would still be the same piece of music but it always seemed to vary some from the first run through to the second run through. Well, I’ve seen him vary the speed even. When he is getting toward the end — maybe the last run — he’ll speed up the tempo and things like that or make some different finger work. And that was some of the difficulties my brother had about making records with him. My brother played the mandolin or guitar and my mother played the mandolin some.”
Lawrence said his father’s blindness, as well as his distaste for the up-and-coming commercial music industry, hindered his willingness to record music.
“When radio first took off they tried to get my dad to make records, but he always felt he couldn’t do it because they had to cue him in as to when to start,” he said. “My brother had quite a bit of problems like that when he made those home-made records with my dad. And on top of that, my dad felt that recordings were just some way for somebody to take him. After so many records had been sold over a thousand, he might get two cents on the record or something like that. He felt like he’d rather get out on the street and play it for free among friends. I’ve come to the conclusion, Why not?”
I asked Lawrence if Ed played around the house and he said, “Yeah, he’d practice sometimes. I’ve seen him get out the fiddle and just play for himself. He’d listen to a piece of music… One that I can think of real good, but I don’t think he ever really come out and made any version of it for hisself was Vaughn Monroe’s ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’. I think he figured the afterlife was about like Vaughn Monroe’s ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’: what you did all your life was gonna be your hell if you didn’t do it right, if you didn’t enjoy it.”
While crediting some of Ed’s contemporaries, Lawrence seemed to regard his father as a highly gifted prodigy surrounded by mediocrity. He implied that his father humbly felt the same way, although it was an occasional source of aggravation, especially in his later years. “A lot of guys would get around Pop and aggravate him,” Lawrence said, “but I think he enjoyed music.”
I told Lawrence I would give almost anything to have seen his father play.
“Well, it’s a shame there’s no kind of video of Pop because he had an easy style of violin playing. It didn’t look strenuous to him.”
Ever conscious of genetics, I asked Lawrence if any of his family played music. He said his son Steve Haley — who lived just north of me in Hendersonville — was a former band instructor.
“He graduated from Morehead as a music major and taught high school band in Knoxville. His two daughters are taking violin lessons and are in whatever little junior symphony they have there in Hendersonville. They play semi-classical stuff.”
I asked Lawrence if Ed played any instruments aside from the fiddle and he said, “My dad was an old hammer-thumb banjo-picker like Pappy Jones. He played ‘Cripple Creek’ and ‘Sourwood Mountain’ — really just about anything he played on the fiddle. And he put just about as many notes in on the banjo as he did on the fiddle. I’m not a bragger about my dad but he was a good banjo player, too.”
This was a new twist: I hadn’t even considered that Haley might have been a multi-instrumentalist.
“I never seen Pop play a piano,” Lawrence said, “but he could set down and play a piece of music on our old pump organ. And he taught my older brother Ralph how to play the guitar. Sometimes my dad would be playing the fiddle and my brother would be trying to pick up a piece of music with him and he’d tell Ralph what chords to hit, how to change chords and all that. He could make a run between notes and my dad could, too. Yeah, Pop could play any instrument, or I guess a little bit on anything that was handy to him anyway.”
I wondered if there were any recordings of Haley playing the banjo.
“No, not a thing on the banjo. My brother Ralph, when he come out of the service — in 1946, I guess it was — he got a hold of one of these Army surplus machines that had a cutting needle on it that cut the grooves and that’s what he made all these records on. Some of them are paper with a plastic coat on them. Others are a solid plastic. But most of them are all scratched and some of the paper ones are wore completely through the plastic into the paper. I’ve tried to keep them here at home. Some parts of the records are good.”
Just before hanging up, Lawrence said, “It was kind of a surprise to us to have got your letter. Annadeene called here and told us that you’ve been trying to get a hold of us. Our daughter, when you was here, she’d just had her operation, I guess. I think they’re gonna give her some radiation treatment and we will be making some trips back up there to Ohio but we’ll try to be here if you come.”
At that point, Lawrence turned the telephone over to his wife Pat who said in a pleasant British accent, “I do invite you and whoever you’re bringing with you to stay with us overnight or whatever. I have a front bedroom with two double beds and it’s just Larry and I that live here and we appreciate you showing an interest.”