John’s epilogue 2


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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.

John’s epilogue 1


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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.”

Haley-McCoy grave exhumation (1998)


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Sometime during the next few months, we decided that the grave exhumation would take place on May 6, 1998. I rolled into the Harts Fas Chek parking lot on the 4th and hung out with Brandon and Billy until after midnight. Steve and David Haley showed up the next day, as did Jimmy and Bill McCoy and their families. It wasn’t long until Doug Owsley arrived with his crew. His team consisted of four people: Malcolm Richardson, (his former boss and) the field supervisor; John Imlay and Dale Brown, chief excavators; and Rebecca Redmond, recorder. Along to chronicle the event was Chip Clark, a professional photographer; Ted Timreck, a video documentary specialist from New York City; and Ted Park, a writer for Smithsonian magazine.

I knew right away that these guys meant business.

We all went up to the grave that evening, but “the dig” didn’t start until early the next morning.

The weather was perfect and the hillside became alive with people. In addition to myself, the Haleys, the McCoys, Brandon, and Owsley’s crew, there was Billy Adkins, Lawrence Kirk, Bill and Cheryl Bryant (the property owners), and Lara Lamarre and Joanna Wilson of the State Historic Preservation Office.

Most of the day was filled with probing, scraping, talking and then — well — more probing, scraping and talking. Within an hour, the diggers verified that it was a single-shaft grave. As the day progressed, it became obvious that the grave was deeper than the estimated two feet.

Actually, it seemed to just keep “going,” causing us realize that the probes had been a bit deceiving.

At some point, Owsley’s diggers bumped into a coal seam, which had a small underground stream beneath it. Rich said the stream was a bad find because it had probably deteriorated Milt and Green’s bodies in its seasonal cycle of drying up and trickling over the last hundred or so years. He still felt, however, that teeth and certain larger bones might be preserved.

Just before nightfall, Rich said it would be best to stop working and cover the hole because it was supposed to rain sometime in the next few hours. Owsley mentioned that we were only inches away from the shaft floor…only inches — and he was sure of it this time. We were all too excited to go to bed, so we gathered around a big fire up by the grave. The Smithsonian folks requested that I play some fiddle tunes. I played “Brownlow’s Dream” and joked to Brandon that it might help “raise” Milt out of the ground. All jokes aside: it was a little spooky up there, in spite of the twenty or so people clustered around the fire. I remember shining my flashlight up the hill toward the grave every now and then just to make sure…

After about a half an hour, rain began to sprinkle on our gathering. We filed off of the hill and settled in to bed in Harts. Brandon and three of his buddies pitched a tent near the grave and spent the night as “guards.” All were descendants of major participants in the 1889 feud: either mobsters or members of the burial party. The rain soon dissipated, creating a starry night, and left them gathered around a fire and talking about the feud that claimed the lives of Milt and Green. It was an incredible night of stories. So many things had come full circle. For Brandon, it was overwhelming to just think about how he had earlier stood at Milt’s and Green’s grave surrounded by many descendants of the feudists. Expectations and anticipation was at a high water mark. Such was the excitement that Brandon and his friends didn’t go to sleep until around 5 a.m. when a heavy rain forced them into their tent.

Unfortunately, the rain came down in buckets during the early hours of the morning and created horrible working conditions for the forensic team. Their crude covering over the grave was no match for the rain, which whipped in from all angles. Most horribly, the rain caused the underground stream to gush forth and fill the bottom of the grave shaft completely.

After only a few frustrating hours of digging through clay, mud, and several inches of water, Owsley concluded that the crew had reached the bottom of the grave. They had not located a single bone, tooth, belt buckle or bullet fragment.

Even when Brandon fetched a cheap metal detector, the diggers couldn’t come up with anything.

Milt and Green were gone.

Hart Creek 11.30.1923


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“Forget Me Not,” an unnamed local correspondent from Harts Creek in Lincoln County, West Virginia, offered the following items, which the Logan Banner printed on Friday, November 30, 1923:

Mr. George H. Adkins is still driving Charley Curry’s mules for him.

Miss Nervie Tomblin and Bill Thompson were guests at Chas. Curry’s Sunday.

Wonder why Mr. Ira Tomblin is visiting the home of Mr. Curry’s so much.

Mattie Carter and Garnett Brumfield were out looking for their boys Sunday.

Mr. Tom Brumfield and Ed. Brumfield are giving out Preacher Curry’s appointment for him.

Chapman Adkins is clerking in Robt. Robinson’s store.

Robert Dingess was calling on Josephine Robinson, Sunday.

Smithsonian preliminary description of the Haley-McCoy grave (1997)


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Just before Christmas, Brandon and I received a letter from Rich, at the Smithsonian, which provided us with some preliminary information on the gravesite:

The burial surface is a large shallow depression in the soil located on a steep slope. The depression is approximately one foot deep. The western side of the burial depression, presumably the head, is marked by two small rock cairns that feature natural upright stone slabs projecting from the tops. The opposite end (foot) is marked by two small rock cairns.

The burial appears to be shallow when probing in the deepest part of the depression, with the burial shaft floor located at a depth of approximately 2 feet. 

The shaft is of sufficient size to have accommodated two persons lying side-by-side. It is very shallow, but this may have been due to haste during excavation of the burial pit, or it could have resulted from termination of the efforts of the grave diggers when they encountered the underlying siltstone strata.

Two items that could effect bone preservation were noted: oak trees are in the vicinity of the burial, and the tannin from these leaves can elevate the acid content of the soil; and the presence of some white clay also indicates soil acidity. However, the burial is on a steep slope and located high up near the brow of the ridge. The slope and wind action at that elevation could retard a significant accumulation of leaves. The slope also prevents any significant amount of water from collecting in the burial depression.

The remoteness of the burial site will make it necessary to complete the disinterment in a single day or else provide overnight guards.


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