Ugee said Ed seldom had a fiddle case with him when he traveled into Calhoun County, West Virginia.
“Most of the time Ed had his fiddle in a twenty-four pound flour poke,” she said. “Sometimes he’d put it under his coat and sometimes up under his arm – just whichever way he felt best about it. He was very careful with it under there. Dad told him one time, ‘Why don’t you get a case so you can carry that bow without tearing it up all the time?’ Ed said he didn’t want to bother with carrying that case in his hand. Some times he might take a notion to stop and play some music somewhere on the road.”
At that instant, I had this image of Ed being so attached to his fiddle, with such an addiction, that the two were virtually inseparable. To not even want to put it away in a case made me think he always had it in his hands, feeling it, tinkering with it, trying new ways to make it work – all the time. You know, a person can get really attached to feeling an object – a ball or a pen – to where it doesn’t seem comfortable to not have it in hand. I imagine for a blind person this feeling is most intense. There’s a real comfort level to consider. This fiddle would’ve been his entire life – his passion, his breadbasket, his ticket to daily comforts and a better life in general. Then, I also pictured horrible images of him stumbling or even falling with it in his hands or tucked under his coat as he scooted along bumpy country roads.
Ugee said Ed ordered his strings from “Sears & Roebuck and places like that. You could buy strings out in them country stores. Used to be you could buy them all in a drug store.”
How did he get his bows haired?
“Horse’s tail. Dad haired it for him.”
Ugee said Ed and Laury played music at little towns called Rosedale, Grantsville and Webster Springs. I asked if Ed put a box or cup out to catch money and she said, “Oh, no. Maybe Dad would put a cigar box down. When Ed was some place and Dad was around, he’d just step up after they’d get to playing and Dad’d say, ‘If you fellers like that how about putting some money in this cigar box? This man’s got six kids. Don’t make him play for nothing’.”
Ugee had faint memories of Ed fiddling in contests with her father. One time, she said, he lost a contest in Charleston to an Indian – no doubt Natchez the Indian, the famous show fiddler. “Ed got so mad at hisself,” Ugee said, “he just about blowed up over it because he knowed the feller couldn’t play but they give it to him. He was the world champion fiddler but he couldn’t play. Ed said, ‘It’s already cut and dried.’ Ed cut a shine and said that his music wasn’t worth a damn. You never heard such cussing.”
The first time Ugee saw Ella, she was pregnant with Lawrence (circa 1927). At that time, Ella did not play the mandolin – an important thing to note considering how it was so prominently featured on the home recordings of the mid-40s.
“Now Ella, when she first come in there, she played the accordion. Dad told Ed, he said, ‘I don’t like the accordion. It drowns out your music. I’d ruther hear the fiddle.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you teach her to play the guitar or the mandolin?’ Ed laughed. He said, ‘Hell, you can’t teach her nothing.’ Ella – I can see her shut her eyes yet – said, ‘Laury, don’t you like the accordion?’ He said, ‘Oh, I like it. Ella, you’re the best in the world, but I like string music.’ Next time she come back, she was playing mandolin. Ed learned her how to second and buddy she could keep time with it, too. Dad said, ‘I like that a whole lot better, just hearing that time.’”
Ugee said, “Well, they had Lawrence and they named him after Dad. Then when they come back they had a little girl and they named her Monnie after my mother, Minnie. Ella wrote and told Mom, ‘Well, I had my baby and it’s a girl. Instead of calling her Minnie, I’m calling her Monnie, but it’s still your namesake.”
I wondered if Ed and Ella played at courthouses in that part of West Virginia and Ugee said, “Yes, yes. They played at every courthouse there was in West Virginia down there: Grantsville, Clay County, Glenville and back through that way. Gassaway, West Virginia. Sutton, West Virginia. Just any place around – all the churches and all the schoolhouses. The old Roane County Courthouse in Spencer, it used to have great big shade trees. Then they had the stock market up on the Spencer Hill back towards Arnoldsburg and Ed and them’d go over there. And they had a boarding house just before you crossed the bridge – state hospital’s across over there – and then there’s the big Miller Hotel and everybody went in there to eat. And they’d be over there playing music and people would take Ed and Ella down there to eat.”
Ugee said Ed and Ella were regulars at Arnoldsburg, a little town north of the Hicks home on Route 33 in Calhoun County. It was the first of many stories where she became the hero of her own narrative.
“My brother, Harvey, he took me down to Arnoldsburg and Ed and Ella was playing music. They had a platform to dance on and Dad was down there. Harvey said, ‘Well, let’s sit back over here and listen to them a while.’ There was some girls trying to dance. They wasn’t keeping time. You could tell right then that Ed didn’t like the noise they were making. They was some way about twisting his shoulders that he didn’t like something that was going on. I looked at Harold and said, ‘He’s gonna quit playing in a little bit.’ Me and him sat over there in the car and was laughing about it. And Ed and them wasn’t making very much money there at the time.
“So Dad happened to see us over there. He come over and said, ‘Won’t you go over and dance some?’ I said, ‘I don’t want to go over and dance.’ He went back and he told Uncle Jerry – that was Aunt Susan’s man – he said, ‘I’ll give you ten dollars if you’ll say something like, I’ll give ten dollars to see Ugee Hicks dance.’ Jerry said, ‘You give me ten dollars and I’ll put it in the box.’ Uncle Jerry said, ‘I’ll give ten dollars to see Ugee Hicks dance.’ Ed perked up like that – he’d give ten dollars too almost to hear me dance. And old Carey Smith, I never will forget it. Carey and old John both was there and they had money. ’Well,’ Carey said, ‘I’d give a twenty-dollar bill to see Ugee Hicks come in there on that board and show them girls a few things.’ I just walked over to Uncle Jerry and I said, ‘Uncle Jerry, just put your ten where your mouth is.’ And I looked down at Carey Smith and I said, ‘Carey, you put your twenty where your mouth is. Throw it in that cigar box.’
”Well, Ed went to playing ‘Carroll County Blues’. I had a pair of shoes on that had like a wooden heel on them. I hit that floor and I wanna tell you right now, you oughta heard Ed play. He just brightened up so. I don’t think I ever heard him play it better in my life. And Uncle Jerry turned around to old John, he said, ‘Well, you better put your twenty in here.’ Well, Ed made fifty dollars. Old Ed and Ella, you know they had a family. I was a pretty good dancer then. Them two girls quit. One girl stepped back and said, ‘Well, she can’t do the Charleston.’”
Ugee told me more about the pact made between her father and Ed in the early thirties.
“Now they made that pact a long time ago and they renewed it when Ed was back again. Dad told him he wanted him to play ‘When Our Lord Shall Come Again’ and he said, ‘I don’t care what you play before, fiddling pieces or anything, but when you play ‘When Our Lord Shall Come Again’, that’s when I’ll meet my Lord.’ And he said, ‘I’ll be a laying there in that grave until you sing that.’”
Ed asked Laury to play “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” and a few fiddle tunes at his funeral.
“I’ll lay there in that grave and won’t hear nothing,” Laury joked.
Ed was “kindly acting a fool” about it too and told him to let Ugee sing since he was such a horrible singer.
“Laury, we’re getting a little serious with this stuff,” Ed finally said. “I don’t know whether I can play anything or not.”
“I know,” Laury said. “I don’t know whether I can sing over you, either.”
Ugee said her father died of leukemia and stomach cancer in January of 1937 at the age of 56 years. About a month later, Ed made it to Calhoun County and played “When Our Lord Shall Come Again” at his grave. The famous Ohio River flood of ’37 delayed his trip. According to one publication, the flood crested in Ashland at 74.3 feet – nearly 20 feet above flood stage. It took one month and a half to play out, leaving residents with a large cleanup effort that lasted for six months.
“Ed went up to the grave – it’s right up on the hill from the house – and he stayed and played music all day,” Ugee said. “He played fast fiddle tunes and he played slow ones and then he’d sing. That evening, back at the house, nobody said a thing. You coulda dropped a pin in our house. Ed just come down on the fiddle and went to playing that ‘Carroll County Blues’ and I just jumped up in the floor and went to dancing. I said, ‘Well, if my dad was a living, that’s what he’d wanted me to do because I can’t hold my feet.’ Ed told me the next day, ‘If you hadn’t done that I’d a choked to death right there.’ Ella said, ‘When you hit that floor I knowed you was gonna be all right.’”