Appalachia, Ashland, banjo, Billy in the Lowground, Blackberry Blossom, blind, Cacklin Hen, Catlettsburg, Clark Kessinger, Clayton McMichen, culture, Curly Wellman, Curt Polton, Ed Haley, Elvis Presley, fiddler, Floyd Collins, Forked Deer, Grand Ole Opry, guitar, Hatfield-McCoy Feud, history, Horse Branch, Huntington, Ivan Tribe, John Hartford, Kentucky, Lawrence Haley, Logan County, Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round, Morehead, Mountain Melody Boys, Mountaineer Jamboree, music, National Fiddling Association, Old Sledge, Poplar Bluff, Rowan County Crew, Ugee Postalwait, Ward Hollow, WCHS, WCMT, Westphalia Waltz, writing, WSAZ
I asked Curly if he remembered any of Ed’s tunes and he said, “Ah, I remember ‘Forked Deer’ and I remember ‘Billy in the Lowground’ and I remember the ‘Old Sledge’ and I remember ‘Poplar Bluff.’ ‘Blackberry Blossom.’ The longer he played a tune, the meaner he got on it. If he got the feel, it hit him. And the more he played the better he got and the more tunes come to him. He played one waltz — ‘Westphalia Waltz’ — and that’s really the only waltz that I can recall that he played. And it was all double stop fiddle.”
Curly never heard Ed sing a note — a very surprising recollection considering the way that Ugee Postalwait had hyped Haley’s singing abilities.
“I got a copy of a song from him,” Curly said. “He had somebody to write it down. Because at this time, out at Morehead, Kentucky, they had a feud out there. And they had a shoot-out there on the steps and then somebody wrote this song called ‘Rowan County Crew.’ And Ed, they tell me, would sing that at different places throughout Kentucky. At that time, it was like Floyd Collins that was in the cave and like the Hatfields and the McCoys — only this was called the ‘Rowan County Crew.’ Well, at that time it was hot as a pistol through the state. Now evidently he sang that song, but he never sang it for me.”
Curly said, “Ed could have been as great as the Blue Yodeler or any of those people. He could have been right on those records with them but under no reason did he want to record commercially. Had he been living today and with the equipment they’ve got today, he would’ve been in more demand than Elvis Presley ever was. Nobody played ‘Cacklin’ Hen’ like him. And a very humble man. I never heard Ed down anybody else, I never heard him put anybody below him and I never had him to tell me how good he was. In fact, I wonder sometimes if he knew how good he was. But I knew it. He was a brilliant man. He’d just about keep a check up on everything during his lifetime. He knew the news, he knew the political field, he knew what was going on in the state.”
I asked Curly about the first time he ever saw Haley play.
“I played with Ed when I was a kid — twelve, thirteen years old — and we lived at a place called Horse Branch. That’s as you enter Catlettsburg, Kentucky. And I was a kid carrying an old flat-top guitar — no case — trying to learn how to play. In the evening, he’d come out on the front porch after dinner and Ralph would get the guitar and the mother would get the mandolin and the neighborhood would gather because at that time radio was just coming into being. And I’d go down there and sit and bang while they were playing. And that’s where I first heard Ed Haley.”
Curly lost track of Ed when he started playing music out on his own at the age of fifteen. Throughout the mid-thirties, he played over the radio on Huntington’s WSAZ and Ashland’s WCMT with the “Mountain Melody Boys,” then made several appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and Knoxville’s Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round with Curt Polton’s band. It was during that time, he said, around 1936, that Ed got into a contest with Clark Kessinger and Clayton McMichen at the WCHS radio station in Charleston. Clayton was the National Fiddling Champion, while Clark was the National Fiddling Association’s champion of the East. The whole thing was “built up for months — it was a showdown.” In the contest, each fiddler got to play two tunes and someone named Banjo Murphy seconded every one using a three-finger picking style on a four-string banjo. First prize was a “live baby” (a little pig) and the winner was determined by a clapping meter. Curly wasn’t sure what tunes Ed played (probably “Cacklin’ Hen,” his contest specialty) but remembered the results clearly.
“Ed Haley beat the two men on stage,” he said. “McMichen was out of it in a little bit but it took several rounds to eliminate Clark Kessinger.”
Curly returned to Ashland in the early forties and found Ed living in the bottom of a weather-boarded, two-story apartment building on 37th Street (Ward Hollow). He started visiting Haley again, usually on cold days when he knew that he’d be close to home. He’d put his D-18 flat-top Martin guitar in the trunk of his car and “go pick up a pint or a half a pint of moonshine,” then head on over to Ed’s house.
I’d go in. I wouldn’t take the guitar in at all. I’d just knock on the door and go in and I’d say, “Hi, Uncle Ed.” “Hi, Curly.” He knew me by my voice. And I’d go in and sit down, you know, and say, “How’s the weather?” and “How’s things?” and “How’s the family?” and so forth and so on. We’d sit around there and talk a little bit. I’d say, “Ed, been playing any lately?” “No, I haven’t felt like it. I just haven’t felt like it.” I’d say, “Well, how about a little nip? You think that would help?” “Well now you know you might have something there.” So I’d go on to the car and I’d get the bottle and come in and we’d sit back down and I’d pass it to him. He’d hit it. He’d sit right there a little bit you know and I’d say, “Take another little nip, Ed.” “Well, I believe I will,” he’d say. “It’s too wet to plow.” And he’d sit there and he’d rock a little bit in that chair and… Being blind, he talked a little loud. “Hey, did I ever play that ‘Old Sledge’ for you?” I’d say, “Well, I can’t remember Ed. Just can’t remember.” Well, he’d get up and he’d go over and he’d lay his hand right on that fiddle laying on the mantle of the fireplace. By that time I’d be out the door and getting the Martin. I’d come back in and he’d tune ‘er up there and feel her across you know and touch her a little bit here and there. He’d take off on it.
Curly and I got our instruments out and played a few of Haley’s tunes. He showed me the type of runs he used to play behind Ed and gave me a few more tips about his fiddling. He said Ed was “all fingers…so smooth” and could play all over the fingerboard — even in second and third positions. He “put a lot of his upper body into the fiddling” and patted one foot to keep time. If he fiddled for a long time, he put a handkerchief under his chin for comfort (never a chinrest) and dropped the fiddle down to his arm and played with a collapsed wrist.
Just before Lawrence and I left, Curly said, “I’ll tell you somebody that’s still living in Charleston and he’s a hell of a fiddle player — or was. They called him Slim Clere. He’s about 82. He knew Ed. In fact, he was the man that Clere looked up to as he was learning. And he could probably give you more information than I could because he’s followed the fiddle all of his life.”
Curly also recommended Mountaineer Jamboree (1984), a book written by Ivan Tribe that attemped to detail West Virginia’s contributions to country music. It briefly mentioned Ed: “Blind Ed Haley (1883-1954), a legendary Logan County fiddler who eventually settled in Ashland, Kentucky, repeatedly refused to record, but did belatedly cut some home discs for his children in 1946.”