Alan Jabbour, Appalachia, Ashland, Bill Monroe, blind, Boulder, Cherokee Polka, Cherry River Rag, Colorado, Dunbar, Ed Haley, fiddler, fiddling, Flatt and Scruggs, Flower of the Morning, Forked Deer, history, Humphrey's Jig, John Hartford, Kentucky, Lawrence Haley, Library of Congress, Man of Constant Sorrow, music, Nashville, Parkersburg Landing, Ralph Haley, Signal Corps, Skillet Lickers, West Virginia
In 1981, roughly thirty years after Ed Haley’s death, my search to know everything about his life and music began at a second hand music store in Boulder, Colorado. While thumbing through a box of records by early radio stars and bluegrass artists with such familiar names as The Skillet Lickers, Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs I saw this certain green and yellow album cover. On its front was a picture of a blind fiddler buttoned up in an overcoat. On its back was a drawing of a steamboat landed at a wharf. Nearby the drawing was a brief note: “This album consists of home recordings made in 1946 by Ed Haley, a blind Kentucky fiddler who never made a commercial record. The original discs were prepared by his family in order to preserve some of their father’s music and were never intended for public use.”
The album was titled Parkersburg Landing, an apparent geographical reference to the small city by that name on the Ohio River. “Even twenty-five years after his death, anyone researching fiddle music in West Virginia or eastern Kentucky is certain to learn of Ed Haley,” the album cover proclaimed. I had never heard of anyone named Ed Haley, but I bought the album and mailed it home to Nashville anyway. I knew that part of the country was a traditional hotbed of great musicians.
Some time later (I forget exactly when – it’s difficult to recall now), I rediscovered Parkersburg Landing filed away on one of the crowded shelves in my office. I put it on the record player and as soon as the title track started, I thought, “Uh oh. This is pretty good.” I turned up the volume knob and slumped down in my chair. I sat there stunned for the next twenty or so minutes listening to Haley plow through tunes with names like “Humphrey’s Jig”, “Cherokee Polka” and “Cherry River Rag”. By the time I reached out to flip the album to Side 2, my fingers were trembling and I was almost breathless. I tried to focus on every nuance as Haley played “Flower of the Morning”, “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Dunbar”. Then, when he took off on “Forked Deer”, I almost fell out of my chair. It was a profound experience…the kind that pulls you away from everything you’ve done up to that moment and sends you off into another direction. I don’t even remember listening to the rest of the album, although I’m sure I did.
Where did these recordings come from?
“The present recordings were made by Ralph Haley, who also plays guitar on several selections,” I read in the album liner notes. “Ralph had served in the Signal Corps during the war and used a home disc-cutting machine of the Wilcox-Gay type. After Ralph’s death in the late forties, the collection of discs were evenly divided among the five remaining children. It is estimated that the 106 sides presently accounted for represent approximately one third of the original total. Most of these records were preserved by Lawrence Haley of Ashland, who kindly gave us permission to issue them here. The discs were transferred at the Library of Congress under the supervision of Larry Haley and Alan Jabbour and were remastered at Intermedia Studios in Boston.”
I spent the next several years glued to Parkersburg Landing. I talked about Haley constantly. Every now and then I would call up friends and play some of the album, saying, “Now, that’s how it’s supposed to go.” No one had a clue who Ed Haley was; most seemed unimpressed. But to me, the scratchy recordings were like old faded photographs and I was so excited by what I heard that the imperfections in recording technique quickly disappeared to my ear.