Appalachia, Ashland, Ashland Daily Independent, Blood in West Virginia, books, Brandon Kirk, Dave Lavender, Ed Haley, Ed Haley Memorial Fiddle Contest, Empire Books, fiddlers, fiddling, Goldenseal, Greenup, Hannibal H. Holbrook, Harts Creek, Herald-Dispatch, history, Huntington, John Hartford, Kentucky, music, Poage Landing Days, Steve Haley, The Kentucky Explorer, U.S. South, West Virginia, writing
The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington, WV, and the Ashland (KY) Daily Independent have recently provided great coverage of the book and related research projects. Many thanks to these newspapers for supporting regional history. Here are the links to the stories:
I am honored that some of my writing will appear in forthcoming issues of Goldenseal and The Kentucky Explorer, two of my absolute favorite magazines. The Winter issue of Goldenseal will feature a story about Ed Haley’s background on Harts Creek and his later visits to the community. A smaller story details John Hartford’s search for Ed Haley in the Harts Creek area. The December issue of The Kentucky Explorer will feature a story about Ed Haley’s friendship with Dr. H.H. Holbrook of Ashland and Greenup.
Let me try to describe John’s hands. They were very small in every way. He had frail hands as a gentleman might have, with little hair on them. I don’t recall that his fingers were unusually long. His knuckles were slightly larger than his actual fingers, maybe because his fingers were so thin. He kept his fingernails clean and filed smooth with a file. I remember he often filed his nails while on the bus during road trips; sometimes he filed his nails when conversations barely held his interest, half-listening. He absolutely never bit his fingernails. He seldom used his hands for any type of physical work because he didn’t want to risk hurting them; they were, he said, what paid the bills. The skin on his hands was somewhat loose and pale. When you shook his hand, it was very soft, although I’m sure he had slight callouses on the ends of his left hand fingers from playing the fiddle nearly every waking minute of the day. When I first met John at Morrow Library, he shook my hand and insisted that I call him John, not Mr. Hartford. When I later visited his home in Nashville during the summer for weeks or a month, before I had moved to Nashville, he would always shake my hand before I left for West Virginia. I recall at the end of my first trip how he stood in his driveway between his house and the guest house and remarked that we shouldn’t say goodbye because we would see each other again. John did not particularly like goodbyes; he preferred until next times. At the end of his life, upon commencement of his chemotherapy, he would shake very few people’s hand. Due to the chemotherapy, he was particularly concerned about germs. At that time, we shared a laptop and I always took care to clean the keys with alcohol before passing the laptop to him for manuscript review. I did this because I did not want to pass germs and make him ill; he never asked me to do it. Actually, I recall times he told me that it wasn’t necessary, but I did it anyway. Almost always, if he met someone at an event, they would greet him with a handshake, which he had to decline. It was awkward and in a peculiar way I think he enjoyed it. I may be mistaken, but it seems as if he contemplated or did in fact wear gloves for a short time just for handshakes. On a few occasions, he complained about having shaken hands with stout men who nearly crushed his hand; he detested an unnecessarily firm handshake because he said it might affect his ability to play. Later, after I moved to Nashville and visited and stayed many days and nights in his home I observed and he said that one of his favorite things to do was to sit with Marie on the bedroom couch at night and hold her hand while the two of them watched television. These were, of course, private moments and I only intruded if I had a question about the manuscript or a related matter. John’s wrists were small. He never wore a watch on his wrist, preferring instead to keep a pocket watch – usually tucked in his overalls front pocket or in the pocket of his vest, which he nearly always wore. If I remember correctly, his watch was colored gold, not silver. When I think of his hands, I see them holding a fiddle and bow at the dining room table and on stage, I see them moving across a banjo, I see them holding a fork and knife at dinner, I see them placing tiles on a Scrabble board during our games together, I see them holding a glass of red wine late at night during our conversations, I see them holding a book or a magazine at the couch by the fireplace, I see them gripping the wheel of his Cadillac on our way to Piccadilly Cafeteria, I see them pushing PLAY and turning up the volume on his car stereo…
Arthur Smith, banjo, Ben Walker, Benny Martin, Bernie Adams, Billy Adkins, blind, Brandon Kirk, Buddy Emmons, Clayton McMichen, Doug Owsley, Durham, Ed Haley, fiddlers, fiddling, Green McCoy, Haley-McCoy grave, Harts, history, Imogene Haley, Indiana, Jeffersonville, John Hartford, Johnny Hager, Lawrence Haley, Mark O'Connor, Matt Combs, Melvin Kirk, Michael Cleveland, Milt Haley, Mona Haley, music, Nashville, North Carolina, Smithsonian, Snake Chapman, Tennessee, Texas Shorty, Ugee Postalwait, Webster Springs, West Virginia, Wilson Douglas, writing
When Ed first went out into the neighborhood with his dad’s fiddle and armed with his melodies (as interpreted by his mother) I think he probably caused not a small sensation amongst family and neighbors and his ear being as great as it was I think he picked up an incredible amount of other music really fast. I think he played with a lot of ornaments when he was a teenager and up into maybe even his thirties. Snake Chapman and Ugee Postalwait have alluded to this. Snake said the dining room recordings just didn’t sound as old-timey as he remembered Ed playing and Ugee said she remembered him and her dad talking about the little melodies between the notes. Of course Ed had to have been through a lot of subtle changes in style since that time. I think in later years he stripped a lot of the ornaments out of his fiddling in order to appeal to the Arthur Smith-Clayton McMitchen crowd who loved the radio style that was so much in vogue at that time. This might have helped make a little more money on the street. People have always liked to hear someone play and sound just like what they hear on the radio or a record. But I think if someone had asked Ed if he had done that consciously that he would have denied it and if he was in a bad mood they might have even had a fight on their hands.
I keep having this idea of Ed imitating other instruments on the fiddle because I’ve tried it myself and wouldn’t it be something that some of these great parts was really an imitation of John Hager’s banjo playing. I’d love to know where that passage is or whether it even exists.
It’s obvious that when Ed had good firm second that wouldn’t slow down for anything, he really leaned back on the beat and got in that little pocket where so many great musicians like to be. Ella and Mona really held up a good solid beat, but I’ll bet Ed was hard on them — a real taskmaster. It’s all in that rhythm section. Wilson Douglas told me one time that Ed always told him to play it real lazy. Texas Shorty, Benny Martin, and Buddy Emmons refer to it as holding on to the note as long as you can before you start the next one. This is an important part of Ed’s feel and sound and it really comes through on the dining room recordings. I get it by playing as slow as I can against a beat I hope is not gonna move, and then I swing the notes with a dotted note feel — a real lilt if I can get it — and just drag on the beat as hard as I can ’cause I know it’s not gonna slow down. I’d love to know just when Ed figured that out or if it was always there. I always think of Ed in his younger years playing on top of the beat or even ahead of it like I did when I was young and full of piss and vinegar. Actually when you’re playing alone you do hafta pretty well stay on top of the beat to hold the time or at least set it, cause you are the beat but you have to keep from rushing which we will tend do when we get to hard passages in order to get them over with. We’ll not do that no more. Mark O’Connor told me one time that while he is playing a tune he’ll play on top of and behind the beat on purpose. He described playing behind it as letting the beat drag you along…almost like water skiing. Oh, to have known what Ed and John Hager or Bernie Adams sounded like together.
I think Ed worked on his fiddling probably daily most of his life so it is fair to say that it was changing all the time. This would explain the varying descriptions of his playing that have come down. I’m sure they’re probably all accurate. Lawrence, Ugee, and Mona always said Ed played with great smooth long bow strokes and Snake Chapman always was adamant about him playing with short single strokes and Slim Clere said the same thing — that he bowed out everything — no bow slurs. Of course, in the dining room sessions you can hear both ways. It’s amazing how well Ed did without the feedback of working with a tape recorder. What an incredible ear he had. As far as I know, the only time he probably heard himself played back was the recordings we have. I hope there are others out there but I’ve come to doubt it.
Brandon and I have always had a gut feeling that if we’d dug down into the hillside a little further at Milt and Green’s grave we might have found something. We only went down five feet and then we were defeated by the rain. What if we had gone down the requisite six feet? What if, like the probe, Owsley had misjudged the bottom of the grave shaft due to the mud and water? What if it hadn’t rained and muddied up the work area? If Melvin Kirk and Ben Walker went so far as to bury the men in a deep grave, why not assume they would have gone for the standard six feet grave traditionally dug? In the following weeks, old timers around Harts kept telling Brandon and Billy, “If they didn’t dig at least six feet, it’s no wonder they didn’t find anything.” We didn’t want to question the professionalism of experts like the Smithsonian forensic team or seem like we wanted to find Milt and Green so badly that we couldn’t accept the concept that they were gone…but what if? The explanation that Doug Owsley gave us about the coal seam and underground stream made a lot of sense. Needless to say we were really disappointed. I had started to rationalize that not finding anything might indicate that they were buried in the nude and just thrown in the hole with no box or winding sheet or anything.
I was in Durham, North Carolina, the other day and I saw a fiddler on the street and I automatically found myself thinking of Ed. I didn’t have to fill in or rearrange much in my imagination to see him there playing on the street — even though this man was standing up, and played nothing like him. Of course when Ed was younger he probably stood up to play all the time like in the Webster Springs picture…dapper and wearing his derby. I always seem to picture Ed sitting down. Another great thrill for me is a young blind fiddler from Jeffersonville, Indiana, named Michael Cleveland who when he plays I can see Ed at nineteen. He stands up so straight he almost looks like he’s gonna fall over backward the way Lawrence said his dad did. When he plays I can’t take my eyes off of him thinking of Ed. Now my friend Matt Combs, who has done a lot of the transcriptions for this book, sits with me and plays Ed’s notes off of the paper, and I play off the top of my head, so in that sense it’s like playing with him.
I guess it’s time to just leave this alone and get back to my study of the fiddle. Maybe get geared up for “Volume Two.” I spend long hours here at the dining room table with my tape recorder and I can hear Lawrence and feel Ed as I try and play my way back into the past. I find that the study of Ed’s music leads me to the study of all music and the way it’s played.
For me a “tune” is a specific order of notes played by a certain person on a certain day at a certain time and given a certain name and if you want to really pin it down you could include the latitude and longitude of the event. If you were not there to personally witness this happening then the word of some one else is okay as long as you include that in the triangulation so that when you have put out this information you can lean back and say to your listener, “Now…you know as much about it as I do and you can draw your own conclusions.” This works for events and etc. Sometimes these sort of documented rumors are as close as we can get to the truth and it’s better than nothing.
I’ve been thinking about how much Ed probably wouldn’t like to think about a whole lot of what we have put in this book. For sure he didn’t like to talk about it, especially to his family. I guess I don’t blame him — he lived it. It’s easy for us to get into all of it from our totally secure positions here in 2000 knowing what we know. And from the vantage point of our research, there are probably some areas where we know things that Ed never did.
We decided to call this book “The Search for Ed Haley: Volume One” because we know that after it comes out people will be calling us saying, “Well, you didn’t call me,” and “You didn’t get that right,” and no telling what. But then that gives us fuel for Volume Two. Of course there is the chance (and it has crossed my mind) that when this book comes out that some of the old Harts Creek animosities might still be smoldering and some people might feel hurt. God, I hope not. Everybody has encouraged us and said it was time to bring out the truth.
In case you hadn’t figured it out, Brandon wrote most all of this book and I just went through and “Hartfordized” it. Even though I have my name up top, Brandon is the one who did all the work. A typical day for us would be Brandon back in the office transcribing taped interviews, making chapters out of them, and working and reworking the words. Me, I’ll be sitting at the dining room table out in the other room sawing on a fiddle. At first when Brandon would bring me a chapter I would go through it on the laptop and make corrections and reword some things. Then Brandon very quickly caught on to what it was I was after, and after awhile he would bring me chapters and I would just read them in amazement and not do anything to them, and we would just go on. It really is wonderful, ’cause even though we know every word in the book when we read it back we still learn things. “Oh, that’s why that happened that way. Well I’ll be damned.”
I’ve given this story a lot of thought and most of what I’m about to say is from instinct and gut reaction cause we didn’t necessarily have cold hard facts. I think Ed learned a lot from his mother in the period right after his dad’s death when he and her probably spent a lot of time in that cabin hid out together from the community at large and his only contact was through his mother’s family (his grandparents). Ed found a fiddle that his father had left behind (very possibly the one in the photograph which looks home made) and started sawing around on it. His mother in her grief over her late husband was probably all the time whistling and singing the old melodies, most of which he had played, and Ed picked them up much in the way that Howdy Forrester told me he picked up a lot of melodies from his mom’s whistling and singing around the house. They were the melodies Ed and his mother shared. His unusually natural technique developed because he had such a great ear and naturally not being able to see he was not in a position to pick up bad technical habits from other fiddlers. His mother probably coached him much in the same way that Lawrence coached me a hundred years later…saying things like, “That just don’t sound right.” “Pop never played that many notes.” “Pop’s groups of notes were smaller.” But then because we both could see, Lawrence also said things like, “Your bow hold don’t look like Pop’s” and “Pop held his fiddle down here and turned it.”