Braxton County, Brooks Hardway, Calhoun County, Emery Bailey, Frank Santy, French Carpenter, Gerry Milnes, history, music, Sol Carpenter, Ward Jarvis, West Virginia, Willie Santy, writing, Yew Piney Mountain
Later that fall, I met Gerry Milnes, an old-time West Virginia fiddler and banjo-picker, at the Tennessee Banjo Institute in Cedar of Lebanon State Park near Nashville. Gerry said he’d heard a lot about Ed Haley through his interviews of older musicians in central West Virginia. It was obvious that he was some type of folklorist but I didn’t realize to what degree until a few months later when I received a letter in the mail declaring him to be the coordinator of the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia. In his letter, he wrote about his suspicion of Ed learning tunes from Jack McElwain (1856-1938), who he called “the premier fiddler in the state of West Virginia around the turn of the century.” He felt there were clues in Haley’s repertoire: his “Old Sledge” was a McElwain specialty and his “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom” was very much like McElwain’s “Yew Piney Mountain”.
A few months later, Gerry sent me a cassette tape of a 1988 interview with Brooks Hardway. Brooks was an old-time banjo player who knew first hand about all of the old musicians in north-central West Virginia – “Laury Hicks country.” He also knew about Ed Haley. On the tape, he gave a little bit of information about his own life, important to note in order to keep his stories in context.
”I’m 81 today,” Brooks said. “I was born at Walnut, West Virginia. Walnut is in Calhoun County. I was seven years old when we moved over to the Left Hand Fork of West Fork. My daddy bought a store at Gip. So there’s where I grew up from seven until I got married at the age of 32. Grandpa Santy moved from Walnut to Gip when we did and he lived in a little country Jenny Lynd house where we did. And he had a boy named Willie Santy. He was a clawhammer banjo-picker. I would give the world if I could do it like he did. But he had a hook with his thumb that I never could learn. That is, to get down and hit that second string and walk it back up with his thumb. My goodness, he could put the double shuffle on them tunes.”
Brooks’ maternal family, the Santys, was a key player in the musical history of Calhoun County. Aside from his uncle Willie Santy, who was apparently an accomplished banjo player, his great-uncle Frank Santy was a popular left-handed fiddler.
”When I was a boy – ten, twelve, fourteen – he played for dances on the West Fork,” Brooks said. “He’d fiddle all night and they’d charge fifteen cents a set and he’d have the next morning five or six dollars. Frank Santy could fiddle ‘Piney Mountain’ so good it’d bring chills of hilarity throughout your body. It’s an old Clay County number. I think he learned it from old Sol Carpenter – one of the original old-time fiddlers. Old Senate Cottrell, that was his favorite tune.”
Ward Jarvis, a son of Jim Jarvis who lived in the head of Walnut in Braxton County, was a good banjo picker and fiddler.
”I practically stayed at Jim Jarvis’ and played with Ward,” Brooks said. “Will played a banjo and I played a banjo and guitar. We’d cut wood of a daytime and burn it up of a night a playing the fiddle, banjo and guitar. Ward Jarvis is the origin of my clawhammering the banjo. Ward Jarvis was one of the best. He played the banjo for a while while he was a young man. And Ward Jarvis played the banjo with Frank Santy and then he got to picking Frank’s fiddle up and he learned to play that fiddle and he got better than Frank was. Frank got jealous of him and dropped him.”
Emery Bailey was a top fiddler in Calhoun County, according to Brooks.
”Emery Bailey was the top of the tops at that day and time,” he said. “Emery Bailey fiddled 50 years ahead of his time. Emery lived just below where we did and he had a brother named Homer. Now they was at the top of the list in their day in fiddling and banjo-picking. They had a contest at Sutton one time – old time fiddlers’ contest – and Emery went. That woulda been back in the late 20s or early 30s. When Emery come back I asked him what he did. ‘Plum honor Brooks, they didn’t let me play. They wouldn’t let me enter the contest.’ I said, ‘Did you play a tune or two for them, Emery?’ Emery said, ‘Plum honor I fiddled ‘Sally Goodin’, Brooks. They said I didn’t fit in an old-time fiddlers’ contest.’ I said, ‘What was wrong?’ Emery said, ‘I think I put too much diddle on the bow.’ Now Emery’d been laying the leather to ‘Sally Goodin’.”
How did Emery Bailey compare to Ward Jarvis?
”Now Ward Jarvis always was more of an old-time, old-fashioned fiddler,” Brooks said. “He had a different lick to what Emery had. Wherever Ward played in a contest in that day and time he took first place. He had the best shuffle I believe I ever heard.”
Brooks was also familiar with French Carpenter, one of the most well-known fiddlers from Clay County.
I never heard Solly Carpenter play but I’ve heard his son French Carpenter play. I was at my grandpa’s house… I was ten or eleven, twelve years old and looked down the road and seen a man coming up the road with a flour poke in his hand and we watched him till he got up in front of Grandpa’s house and it was French Carpenter with the fiddle in a flour poke and about four inches of the neck of it sticking out the top of that poke and he had his hand around that fiddle neck. Well, Grandpa never let a man with a fiddle or a banjo pass the house without stopping him and bringing him in so he halted French Carpenter and French Carpenter stayed all night with Grandpa Santy and they had music and the house was full of people that night. First time I’d ever seen French Carpenter and he was the first man that we in that part of the country ever heard sing with the fiddle. And he played some of the sweetest tunes that I ever listened to and sung them and fiddled till twelve or one o’clock in the night and held the attention of them people. You could have heard a pin drop a listening to French Carpenter sing them pretty songs.