Appalachia, Arkansas Traveler, Ashland, Battle of New Orleans, Beautiful Ohio, Birdie, blind, culture, Down Yonder, Dry and Dusty, Ed Haley, fiddler, fiddling, Fire on the Mountain, Flop-Eared Rule, genetic memory, Goin' Up the River, history, John Hartford, Kentucky, Lawrence Haley, Midnight Serenade, Mississippi Sawyer, music, Sally Will You Marry Me, Soldiers Joy, U.S. South, Wagner, Whispering Hope
Hoping to stir Lawrence’s memory further, I got my fiddle out and played some tunes. He said Ed played something like my version of “Dry and Dusty”. He whistled a tune his dad played that resembled “Goin’ Up the River”. I asked him how many of Pop’s tunes he could name from memory and he called out several titles (many of them not among the records): “Mississippi Sawyer”, “Arkansas Traveler”, “Soldier’s Joy”, “Down Yonder”, “Midnight Serenade”, “Beautiful Ohio”, “Sally Will You Marry Me”, “Battle of New Orleans”, “Flop-Eared Mule”, “Wagner”, “Fire on the Mountain”, “Birdie” and “Whispering Hope”.
At some point, I asked him if there was anything in my fiddling that reminded him of his father and he said rather dryly that I sounded pretty good but, if I really wanted the truth, I didn’t play at all like him. Not even a little bit. My bowing was all wrong, he said, and I played way too many notes.
I really wanted to pick his brain about Ed’s technique, so I spent an hour just playing and asking, “Well, did he do this?” or “How about this?” He’d just shake his head no and tell me the difference between what I was doing and what Ed did. At times, I tried to triangulate the answer by asking the same questions in many different ways. It was somewhat frustrating for Lawrence. He kept pointing out that he had never been a musician and would never really be able to describe how his dad played.
I disagreed, though, based on my belief in what I call “genetic memory” — that we inherit our ancestors’ memories in our DNA or in our body’s chemicals somehow. Little commonplace clues and reminders can jar this knowledge loose or make it pop out like deja-vu. It made perfect sense to me that in addition to all of Lawrence’s conscious memory of Ed playing the fiddle, he might also have a genetic memory of it. I told him how I thought he had a lot of secrets locked away back in his mind that he didn’t even know he had and that with the right signals and clues maybe we could access that information. He had an “okay, whatever” attitude about the whole thing.
Lawrence and I mostly discussed Ed’s bowing. He said Pop held the bow at its very end and sometimes used so much of it (“one end to the other”) that it appeared as if he might “draw it right off and shove the tip end of it under the strings.” He “used every bit of that bow,” except when he wanted to “put a little force or drive into it or a slur” — then he “might work the bow.” Lawrence said, “Not many people can get that kind of music and do it at the speed and the purity that my dad played. I don’t think he was trying to make a big show of it. He was just trying to play the music and get it done.” Lawrence figured that his dad had to use his imagination in developing his style of bowing, since he “couldn’t see anybody else’s bow.”