Akron, Appalachia, Asa Neal, Ashland, books, Calhoun County, Catlettsburg, Clay County, Clyde Haley, Columbus, Doc Holbrook, Doc White, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, feud, fiddle, fiddler, fiddlers, fiddling, Greasy George Adams, Greenup, Greenup County, Harts Creek, Ivydale, J P Fraley, Jack Haley, John Hartford, Kentucky, Laury Hicks, Lawrence Haley, Minnie Hicks, music, Noah Haley, Ohio, Over the Waves, Parkersburg Landing, Pat Haley, Ralph Haley, Sanitary Dairy, Ugee Postalwait, West Virginia, writing
Eight days later, I was with Lawrence Haley in Ashland looking at Ed Haley’s fiddle and holding old family photographs while he talked as if he’d just seen his father the day before. Pat was gone for the day, so it was just Lawrence and I, talking carefully in the kitchen with funeral home silence in the background. Lawrence — or Larry, as his wife called him — was a short, stocky man with thinning hair and a very straightforward manner. I could tell that he was a no-nonsense kind of guy and that it would serve me best to walk on pins and needles for a while. I also had the impression that in talking with me he hoped to correct some of the errors in the Parkersburg Landing liner notes. He was very careful with his words. Occasionally one of the Haley grandchildren would come in and sit nearby as quiet as a mouse before leaving to play in the yard.
In the initial small talk, I looked over Ed Haley’s fiddle, which appeared to be of an inexpensive Czech variety. It was stained brown and was without strings and a bridge. According to Lawrence, his father acquired it during the early 1940s. He confirmed that it was the one used to make the home recordings featured on Parkersburg Landing but was not the one pictured on Parkersburg Landing. He said Ed used “regular old steel strings — no cat-gut at all” and remembered that he always kept his fiddle on an old “pump-type” organ at home. He had the bridge somewhere around the house in a drawer, which he promised to find.
“If you ever find that bridge, we ought to rig that thing up and put some strings on it,” I said.
Lawrence reached me Ed’s bow, which he said was the same one he used the last ten years of his life. “He just used the same bow,” he said. “Whenever he got another fiddle, he’d change the bow.” I looked it over and noticed that it was as heavy as a log.
I started questioning Lawrence slowly with important but seemingly mundane questions about Ed’s music. I wondered if Ed knew what key he was playing in and Lawrence said, “Sure. Well, when my brother Ralph first started playing, Pop’d tell him which key to change to in a piece of music. He’d just lean over to Ralph and tell him.”
I asked Lawrence if he remembered the names of Ed’s favorite fiddle players and he said, “I couldn’t tell you, John. He’s mentioned a few fiddle players but I couldn’t tell you their name now.” Lawrence said he didn’t even remember many of Ed’s local fiddling buddies because he was a kid “wanting to get out and do something else.”
“I don’t even remember Doc White as far as that goes,” he said. “But I remember Laury Hicks up in Calhoun County, which is the next county right against Clay County there.”
I had read about Haley’s friendship with fiddler Laury Hicks on Parkersburg Landing. Hicks was a veterinarian in Calhoun County, West Virginia.
“One of Ed’s lifelong friends was an Ivydale physician named Laury Hicks,” it read. “Shortly before he died, Hicks requested that he be able to hear Ed Haley one more time. Ed arrived too late and it is said that he played over Laury’s grave for hours into the night.”
I asked about Asa Neal, the great Portsmouth fiddler. “Yeah, Asa Neal,” Lawrence said. “I’ve heard my dad talk about him. But I never seen the guy to my knowledge.”
He seemed to know the most about a local physician and casual fiddler named Doc Holbrook, whose name J.P. Fraley had mentioned to me. “They was long-time friends,” Lawrence said. “Doc Holbrook was a physician that practiced medicine in the county seat of Greenup County, which is also named Greenup. He was a fiddle buff and apparently a pretty good one because my dad wouldn’t a fooled with him if he hadn’t showed a lot of promise in playing the violin.”
This was a little confusing. Ed apparently had several doctor friends: Doctor Laury Hicks, Doc White and Doc Holbrook.
“They tell a tale about how Pop would come down to Greenup County and he’d go to where Doctor Holbrook had his practice. He had it in part of his home — had a riverfront home there. When Dad would go over to visit Doctor Holbrook, regardless of how many patients Doctor Holbrook had in his office, he’d shut his office up — he might have a half a dozen patients sitting out there — and him and Pop’d go in and play the fiddle half the day. That’s hear-say, but that’s what they tell me.”
I really liked that image.
Lawrence said his father made a recording for Doc one time, which he assumed was in the hands of Holbrook family descendants.
“Doctor Holbrook wanted this particular piece of music called ‘Over the Waves’ and he bundled my dad and mother up one day and, since there was no recording studios around this area, he took them to Columbus, Ohio where they had a good soundproof recording studio and had them make this piece of music. Now, whether they was other pieces of music made at the same time, I really don’t know. There probably was.”
In addition to giving Doc records, Ed also gave him a fiddle. “Pop had a real good copy of a Stradivarius, and it had a real good mellow tone and a real good solid deep resonance to it,” Lawrence said. “I think it was the one that he give to Doc Holbrook.” Lawrence said it was also still in the Holbrook family. “Doc had a son who had an office down at the Second National Bank Building and he inherited that fiddle,” he said. “J.P. Fraley was supposed to’ve taken that fiddle to the Smithsonian or at some kind of a centennial or something. But that was Pop’s fiddle.”
I asked Lawrence if his father had perfect pitch.
“Yes,” he said. “He never used a pitch pipe or anything. He tuned the fiddle by ear. One of his fiddles, I think had that little tuner on that high key. I never seen one on every string, though. It took him maybe four or five thumps on his strings to get them in tune. You know, them keys would get awful dry and squeaky in their pegs — in their holes — and they’d strip a lot of times and if it was a real dry season or something and it wasn’t holding in tune, he’d blow moist breath on them pegs to get them to hold in place.”
Lawrence had no idea where Ed got any of his tunes, except for one song.
“My dad and mother used to say they played a certain piece of music they heard from this old fella by the name of Greasy George. I won’t say his last name. Greasy George had apparently stolen a pig from somebody and had put it in a small pen close to the house. And two or three days later, he was sitting on the porch playing the fiddle and he saw the sheriff coming up the drive and he began to play a piece of music my dad plays. I don’t know the name of it, except that it went something like this: ‘Shove that hog’s foot further in the bed, further in the bed, further in the bed. Shove that hog’s foot further in the bed. Katy, can’t you understand me now?’ And his purpose in singing those words was trying to get his wife to hide that pig under a blanket, I think. Or that’s what my dad and mother inferred to me — that he wanted his wife to hide that pig somewhere. Mom was telling me about it.”
I asked Lawrence how Ed met his mother.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “Pop was either in Catlettsburg or somewhere around here close. My grandfather on my mother’s side, he moved from Morehead up here to Ashland. People followed work wherever they could get it. My granddad was an old timber man, I guess. They mighta been some work around here for him. In fact, I’m pretty sure at the time my dad met my mother, my grandfather was working at an old stave mill over here — where they make barrel staves. I guess Pop was playing and somebody heard him and told my mother that she ought to come hear him play. Somebody thought that my mother — which was supposed to be a trained musician — they wanted her to hear this old fiddle player. And they got them together that-a-way, I guess. Just a chance-type meeting. They got together and raised a family.”
Lawrence tried to describe the extent of Pop’s travels, a crucial detail in ascertaining the extent of his influence as he was primarily a non-recording, non-radio fiddler. “His travels, as far as being too enormously wide, was restricted to about a three state area, I guess. But apparently his influence got around eventually. Like you say, he might be the granddaddy of Texas style contest music. Far be it from me to dispute it. I really think if he’d been around during the sixties when old-time fiddling was coming back and everybody was wanting to hear this fiddle music, I think he could’ve been worth something. I think he could’ve made a little bit of money at that time. And he might not’ve wanted to do that, see. He didn’t want to do it back in the twenties when they was making recordings around.”
I said, “Well, he’d been on the street. He knew what was going on out there. That’s where life is lived.”
Lawrence said, “Well, that’s why he always steered away from these commercial record companies. The way I feel about my dad, if somebody wants to learn about his music or play it, maybe it might not be completely forgotten. I don’t want to make a dime out of it. If there’s any money anywhere to be made out of it that might come to Pop, turn it over to the Foundation for the Blind. I don’t want to make anything off of my dad. He brought me into this world and raised me up and I’ve had a pretty good life.”
I asked Lawrence what Ed did when he was sitting around home and he said, “He liked to chew tobacco. He’d take this old twist — Stader’s twist, they called it — and he’d take his pocketknife and cut that up and put it down in his pocket. It was picked right off a farm. In fact, that picture of him on the front of that album, I think he had a chew of tobacco in his mouth then. He always carried a vegetable can with him to spit in. Mom never did like it but it was just almost a part of him when he was around the house, except when he’d get out on the porch — then he’d spit out in the yard.”
Lawrence said his dad liked to play music on the porch.
“We lived down on 17th Street and he’d get out on the front porch with that banjo or fiddle and he’d sit on the front porch and play. He’d cross his legs and sit up on the banister where he could spit easy or he’d just sit down with a banjo and play it.”
Lawrence had no clue what happened to Ed’s banjo. “It was one of those things that left when I was in the service, I guess. And Mom’s mandolin disappeared. The accordion my mother had, she let Aunt Minnie have it because Aunt Minnie played the organ some and she wanted to try that accordion. They took it up there and she left it up there for Aunt Minnie and then the house burnt down. It was not a very expensive accordion.”
Aunt Minnie, Lawrence said, was Laury Hicks’ widow in Calhoun County, West Virginia. Lawrence mentioned that I should get in touch with their daughter, Ugee (Hicks) Postalwait, in Akron, Ohio. “I guess she must be close to 81 or 82,” he said. “She was a young woman when I was just a kid. She would dance around Pop when he played and while he was noting the fiddle she’d be up there hitting them strings that he was noting. It had a real nice little ring to it. She heard him like these people hear you right now. She heard him live, danced around it and played on it and everything else. She said all that scratch on the records didn’t sound like Ed Haley. It’s not the same.” I said I would call Ugee when I got back to Nashville.
Lawrence told me a little about his childhood trips to Harts Creek — the place of Ed’s birth. “Most of the time we’d ride the train up there and get off at Harts and then maybe walk and it seemed to me like it took us half the day to get up Harts Creek. You’d ford that creek half a dozen times and the road was in the creek half time time.”
I asked him if Ed carried his fiddle all the way up there and he said, “Most of the time he carried the fiddle. I’ve seen him carry nothing but a fiddle — not even a case a lot of times. He’d carry it out in the open.” He said Ed never played it or thumped on it while walking — “he’d tuck it under his arm and go.” What if it rained? “That’s another thing,” he said. “I can’t remember any instance like that, but I imagine he’s had instances like that. But I know he has went around with a fiddle with no case — just a fiddle and a bow. Same way with Mom. She didn’t have a case for her mandolin.”
At that point, Lawrence showed me several family photographs, including a wonderful picture of his family just before his birth in 1928.
“I was born just a year before the Depression hit,” he said. “They was two of us just babies when the Depression started. Ralph, Clyde, Noah and Jack were stepped from five to fifteen. A lot of times it was skimpy eating and at other times it was pretty good. We never starved or anything. We’d go down to an old dairy just below us called Sanitary Dairy and get a big lard bucket full of buttermilk for a dime, and I could take a piece of cornbread and a glass of buttermilk and make a meal out of it. I’ve done that a lot. I’ve taken ten cents when Mom could scrape up a dime and us kids would all walk downtown to one of them ten-cent movies and stay all day and be starving to death when we came home and there wouldn’t be nothing but cold cornbread and pinto beans or something like that. That’s the way our life went, during the Depression anyway.”
There was another remarkable photo of Ed and his family just after the Depression started. “Everybody can tell you about hard times in the Depression,” Lawrence said. “I know in my second summer Mom said she fed me fresh corn and I took the trots and liked to wasted away from diarrhea. That was about 1930. We made it anyway.”
As Lawrence showed me a few family pictures, his wife Pat showed up with a few of her “bingo buddies.” Pat was a very polite English lady with dark hair and a small frame who wore large glasses. We said our “hellos” and I played a few tunes.
Once the guests left, I spoke more about Ed Haley with Pat and Lawrence in the kitchen. With Pat’s presence, Lawrence’s demeanor was a little different. I could tell that he wanted to present his dad to me in just such a way and he almost openly resented any input from Pat. There was a slight tension in the air. At one point, Lawrence said to Pat, “Go ahead Pat. You tell it. You know more about it than I do.” Pat took it all in stride. She just wanted to be helpful. In any case, Lawrence gave me the impression — and this was very important — that if I did or said anything to his disfavor I would be more than welcome to hit the road. Ironically, and contrary to what I had heard, he seemed more over-protective of his father’s story than his music. Needless to say, it took me a while to get up enough nerve to pull out my tape recorder and record his memories.