Appalachia, Ashland, Billy in the Lowground, Birdie, Blackberry Blossom, blind, books, Catlettsburg, Charleston, Clovis Hurt, Columbus, Doc Holbrook, Ed Haley, fiddle, fiddler, Flannery's Dream, Forked Deer, Grayson, Greenup, history, J P Fraley, James A Garfield, John Hartford, Kentucky, Lawrence Haley, logging, Morehead, music, Ohio, Old Sledge, Parkersburg Landing, Portsmouth, Ralph Haley, Rounder Records, Route 60, Snake Chapman, Soldiers Joy, Tennessee Wagner, The Wild Rose of the Mountain, West Virginia, Wild Wagner, writing
A few days later, while re-reading the liner notes for Parkersburg Landing, I focused in on the name of J.P. Fraley as one of the informants for Ed’s biographical information. Encouraged by my success in contacting Snake, I got J.P.’s telephone number from a mutual friend and just called him up. He lived near Grayson, Kentucky, a small town southwest of Ashland and roughly mid-way between Ashland and Morehead on Route 60. I could tell right away that Ed Haley was one of his favorite subjects.
As soon as I mentioned Haley’s album, J.P. just took off. “You know, he never did make a commercial record. Those little old things, they had a cardboard center. They was home recordings. At the time, Rounder was a making the record that I did, The Wild Rose of the Mountain, and I told them about Ed Haley. And we was lucky with Lawrence, one of his boys…”
“John, I’ll tell you quickly the story of it. Lawrence was really proud of his daddy, but people around Ashland would say, ‘Aw, he was just a bum.’ Well, he wasn’t a bum. Anyway, I got a hold of Lawrence and he was dubious about even letting us make an album of the records. He was pretty well put out because his daddy never did get recognition, but I told him Rounder was legitimate. He said, ‘I’ll go with you and take them records.’ He insisted on it. He was on the verge of being a retired postman. So he went to the Smithsonian and finally come out with the album. It tickled me to death that they did it.”
J.P. paused and then said, “Well, so much for that. I’m on your nickel,” – as if what he’d just told me was something I didn’t really care to hear.
I asked him to tell me more, specifically about his memories of seeing Haley on the street. He said, “You know, he fascinated me. When I was just a kid learning to fiddle, my daddy was a merchant. He’d take me into Ashland and stand me on the street just to listen to this blind fiddler and his boy play. I was about twelve or fourteen. Well, even earlier than that I was listening to him on the street – watching him – and I swear to god, his fingers, when he played the fiddle just looked like they was dancing. It was out of this world. Now, I don’t know which world’s fair it was, but they picked him up – I think it was Mr. Holbrook, the doctor – and took him to the world’s fair and the critics in New York – might have been ’35 or somewhere in there – wrote about him. Said he was a ‘fiddling genius.’ Just what I already knew, and I was just a kid.”
In the 1940s, one of J.P.’s friends, Clovis Hurt, had a run-in with Haley at Murphy’s Ten Cent Store in Ashland. “Clovis Hurt played fiddle in a band. He discovered Ed playing on the street and it just had him washed away. So Clovis told Ed that he was a fiddler. Ed said, ‘Have you got a fiddle?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ Ed said, ‘Where’s it at?’ He said, ‘It’s in the car.’ Ed said, ‘Get it and play me a tune.'” J.P. chuckled. “Now, this happened. They was several of us around there when this took place. Clovis never did like Ed after what happened. He got his fiddle out and he played a tune called ‘Grandmaw’s Chickens’. It sounded like a whole flock of them – scared chickens. Ed said, ‘Listen, I wanna tell you something. Don’t you play the fiddle in public anymore. You’re just a learning it a little bit.’ Clovis hated him. Well, I mean he didn’t hate him, but he said he didn’t like him. Said he didn’t have any personality. I said, ‘Well, Clovis, he didn’t have to have. He made it with the fiddle.’ But he was nice enough.”
So Ed wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, even though he was blind?
“Oh, no,” J.P. said. “I’ve heard him get loud. He would actually try to fight if somebody bothered him. He’d tell them, ‘Come around here.'”
Haley apparently had a cranky side: according to Parkersburg Landing, he “was known for his irascible moods and anyone who did not properly appreciate music was liable to his scorn.
I asked J.P. about Haley’s fiddle and he said, “Well, Ed wouldn’t fool with a cheap instrument. Over the years, he had several fiddles. This doctor I told you about – Doc Holbrook – he had one of Ed’s fiddles and I got to keep it for two or three years.”
As for Haley’s technique, J.P. said he “leaned” the fiddle against his chest when playing and held the bow at its end. I wondered if he played long or short bow strokes. “He done it both. I know when he played for his own benefit he used more bow. But he played a lot for dances and as they used to say they had to play ‘quick and devilish.'”
Did he play in cross-key?
“Oh Lord, yeah.”
What about bluegrass music? Did he like it?
“I honestly don’t think Ed woulda fooled with it. He didn’t do a whole lot of double-stopping or too many minors and stuff.”
Being an avid collector of fiddle tunes, I was very curious about Haley’s repertoire. J.P. said, “Oh, Lord. I play some of his tunes: ‘Birdie’ and ‘Billy in the Lowground’. And he played tunes like ‘Old Sledge’. He played all the standards like ‘Soldiers Joy’ and ‘Forked Deer’ and all of that. ‘Wagner’. He didn’t call it ‘Tennessee Wagner’, but he called it ‘Wild Wagner’. He played a tune that I woulda loved to learned – one called ‘Flannery’s Dream’. He was limited but now he would play hymns, too – especially on the street, on account of this is the whole Bible Belt. He played some waltzes. They were crudely pretty. I don’t remember him a singing at all, but now I have heard his wife sing and him backing her on the fiddle.”
I asked J.P. if he remembered Haley playing the eastern Kentucky version of “Blackberry Blossom” and he said yes – that he played it, too. He knew a little bit about the tune’s history: “Well, General Garfield was a fiddler. A lot of people didn’t know it. I guess it had to be in the Civil War. The ‘Blackberry Blossom’ – the old one – was General Garfield’s favorite tune. Ed – I never will forget it – he told me that that was General Garfield’s ‘Blackberry Blossom’.” This “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom”, J.P. said, was a different tune entirely than the one made famous by Arthur Smith. J.P. said local fiddler Asa Neal also played the tune. “He was from around the Portsmouth area. He’s dead, and he was quite a fiddler. Now, he knew Ed. Fact of the matter, he learned a lot from Ed, but he was about Ed’s age.”
J.P. said Haley never talked about where he learned to play. “I have an idea that it was probably a lot like I learned. See Catlettsburg was a jumping off place, I call it, for loggers and coal miners and rousters and so forth, and they was always some musicians in them. And Ed had this ability – he couldn’t read – but he had an ear like nobody’s business. If he heard a tune and liked it, he’d play it and he’d just figure out his own way to do it.”
J.P. was on a roll: “See, Ed has become more or less of a legend now…and rightfully so. His range was from, say, Portsmouth, Ohio to Ashland, Catlettsburg, and up to Charleston, West Virginia. I think he was at Columbus, Ohio, and then he went to the world’s fair. He played consistently up and down the river. He made good money on the boats.”
I asked J.P. how Haley got around to all of those places and he said, “What he would do, especially when that boy was living… He drank all the time and it was easy for him with his cronies. Somebody would move him here or yonder in a car. But now, like if he was a going to Portsmouth or someplace, usually Mr. Holbrook – he lived down at Greenup – he’d take him anywhere he wanted him to. And doctored him. I mean, if he got sick or anything, he took care of him.”
Doc Holbrook “was a pretty famous doctor in the area. He was known pretty well for a pneumonia doctor, which was hard to find then.”
J.P. kept mentioning “that boy” – meaning one of Haley’s sons – so I asked him about Haley’s family, particularly Lawrence. He said, “Fact of the matter, I didn’t know Lawrence at all. I had done something. I don’t know what it was. I think I’d played at the Smithsonian and had given Ed credit for some of the tunes and Lawrence read about it. And he called me and he almost cried thanking me for recognizing his daddy for what he could do. You see, when it comes to his daddy, he’s got up like a shield. He’ll say, ‘You can come this far, but you ain’t gonna go no farther.’ But once you know him, well, he became a good friend of mine. Now Annadeene, my wife, she worked with his wife a little while at a sewing factory and she broke a lot of ice, too. They’re on good terms with us.”
I told J.P. how much I’d like to meet Lawrence and his family sometime and he said, “Well, I’ll tell you, John. You’re welcome to yell at us anytime you want to and we’ll get you in contact with them.”