Appalachia, Arkansas Traveler, Ashland, Blackberry Blossom, blind, Chillson Leach, Ella Haley, fiddler, fiddlers, fiddling, Fisher's Hornpipe, J P Fraley, John Hartford, Kentucky, Lawrence Haley, Mt. Sterling, music, Ralph Haley, Turkey in the Straw, U.S. South, Virgil Alfrey, West Virginia, Williamson
Later that evening, Lawrence and I went to see J.P. Fraley. On the way, he told me more about his father’s recordings.
“Well, he depended on my brother Ralph to tap him on the shoulder when he wanted him to start, and when he was getting near the end of the disc he’d tap him again, see? And Pop, sometimes he’d stop right then, cut it off real short, and then sometimes he’d go to the end of that run and hit that shave and a haircut at the end of it. Sometimes it sounded like he was gonna quit, see? Ralph hadn’t give him the signal that they was close to the end of the recording, so you can hear a little bit of hesitation at times. I thought Mom was getting ready to stop, too.”
Lawrence figured the records were made in the daytime but wasn’t sure of the time of year. “I guess the good part of maybe one spring or something because I was in the service and I wasn’t home.”
At the time of the recordings, Ed was no longer playing professionally. “He’d go out, like I say, a few times. Somebody’d come and get him, take him somewhere. He thought, ‘Well, if they’re gonna have a good time, I’ll go up and play for them and have a good time with them.’ As time went on, the older he got, the harder it was to get him to go. I guess he was having more trouble with his circulatory system.”
At J.P.’s, we met Virgil Alfrey and Chillson Leach, two old-time fiddlers from around Ashland. Virgil began playing the fiddle as a boy of twelve in the early thirties, around the time he used to see Ed in Williamson, West Virginia. The last time he saw him there he reached Ed a dollar and requested “Fisher’s Hornpipe”. Haley recognized his voice, played the tune then tried to give his dollar back because he liked him.
Chillson Leach, an 83-year-old retired rigger from Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, had been playing the fiddle since he was nine years old.
“Uncle Ed was one of the best fiddlers in this country,” he said. “He would get an audience in front of him and he kinda knowed that they was a lot of people by the sound of the money they throwed in his cup. And he’d say, ‘People, they’s a mental strain and a physical strain on playing the violin.’ Now that’s what he would tell them. He wanted them to know that he was earning his money when he was a playing that violin. And lord, when he would pull that bow across that fiddle he’d get some of the prettiest notes that ever you heard in your life. His fingers was long and slim and as nimble right up I reckon till he died.”
Lawrence, who was taking all of this in, said, “Pretty close. He slowed down the last five or six years.”
Chillson said, “Yeah but when I knowed him, my goodness, he’d get way down on that neck. Any position you wanted him to play. He was wonderful. It’s a shame that a person has to die. I’d give him a quarter and I’d say, ‘Play that ‘Blackberry Blossom’ and he played that for me and man he could just make your hair stand on your head. And then he played a lot of reels, you know. He could play anything you’d ask him: ‘Turkey in the Straw’, ‘Arkansas Traveler’.”
Chillson was obviously a fan.
“I just thought the world of him because he entertained everybody in Ashland,” he said. “He had a blind fellow that played the guitar with him and this blind fellow would sit there and man they’d make some pretty music.”
On the way home, Lawrence told me that his father hated to play “Turkey in the Straw”.