After his return to West Virginia, Johnny Hager took immediate notice of the large number of musicians who lived in the head of Big Harts Creek. His first cousin, Jefferson “Jig-Toe” Baisden (1879-1970), was a dancer and banjo-picker. J. E. “Ed” Belcher (1889-1970), who played several instruments, and Robert Martin, an Arthur Smith-style fiddler, were other significant musicians in the area. Ed Haley (1885-1951), a blind fiddler from Trace Fork, particularly caught Hager’s attention. Johnny’s desire to absorb Haley’s music was understandable because, as Jess Chambers stated, “It was a badge of honor to have played with Ed Haley.” Jeff Baisden, a cousin to both men, may have introduced the pair.
Johnny could supposedly play any instrument and his trip out to Kansas allowed him to soak up a variety of western tunes and playing styles which were completely new to folks in Logan County. Both of these qualities, his diverse musical capabilities and his unique musical background, ensured that he an Ed Haley had many intense music sessions. According to Turley Adams, Johnny’s great-nephew, Hager encouraged Ed to take his show on the road and volunteered to serve as Haley’s “eyes” on such trips. This willingness to travel, coupled with his apparent competence as a musician, made Johnny a perfect sidekick to Ed. Haley and Hager were both unmarried, a convenience which allowed them to roam the country with few cares or responsibilities.
Johnny and Ed traveled to various places in West Virginia but are particularly remembered up around the Calhoun-Clay County area north of Kanawha County. Aside from being populated with rural folks similar to Hager’s neighbors in Logan and Boone Counties, the area was also endowed with a host of great musicians. Haley and Hager wintered there as young men with a fiddler named Lawrence “Laury” Hicks (1880-1937). Ugee (Hicks) Postalwait of Akron, Ohio, a daughter of Laury Hicks, said that Ed and Johnny first came and visited her father in the early 1910s. Hager was a tall, slim banjo-picker. When Ed and Johnny left Laury’s home in the spring, with Johnny leading the way, Ugee and her brother stood on the bank by the house and “hollered and cried after them.”
Most agree that Johnny’s travels with Ed Haley ended around 1914 when Haley married Ella Trumbo, a blind music instructor from Morehead in Rowan County, Kentucky. Haley’s habit of cursing and drinking also helped end the partnership. Hager did not care for it.
For the most part, Johnny spent the remainder of his life playing music while boarding with his Baisden kinfolk on the North Fork of Big Creek. Irene Hager, a daughter of Hubert E. and Mary (Pauley) Baisden, remembered Johnny playing music on her father’s front porch in the late 1920s. Her father, a banjo-picker, lived at Greenview and the Big Branch of Spruce River in Boone County. Hubert Baisden was Johnny’s first cousin. Hager boarded with him for several weeks at a time. One of Hager’s chores at the Baisden home was to keep wood in the stove. Irene said that Johnny often talked about his early travels with Ed Haley.
Johnny Hager was a man with little roots and family, a fellow who never had a real home. Many from Harts Creek remember that Hager was simply from the “the North Fork of Big Creek.” Dave Brumfield, a great-nephew, said that Hager stayed in that vicinity with a Thomas family. No doubt, this Thomas family was headed by Sampson Thomas who married Dicy Adams, a sister-in-law to Johnny’s sister Victoria Adams. Incidentally, just over the mountain from North Fork was the Broad Branch of Big Ugly Creek where lived a fiddler named Jefferson “Jeff” Duty (born about 1877). During Hager’s stay on the North Fork, he probably visited this musician (and any others in this locality) to learn a few new licks.
Hager also stayed with Simon and Bertha (Baisden) Bias on Bias Branch in Boone County. Mrs. Bias’ grandfather, Riland Baisden, was a brother to Johnny Hager’s mother. He spent a lot of time on the Garretts Fork of Big Creek with the Barkers before leaving them to stay with Wilson Craddock’s family on Hewitts Creek in Boone County. Mr. Craddock’s widow has a necklace which Johnny gave her during his time there. Lydia (Adkins) Johnson of Powderly, Texas, recalled that Hager lived with her mother and father during her “growing up years at home” in the late 1920s and 1930s. Johnson “was born (around 1923) and raised in Boone Co. just over the hill from Chapmanville.” Hager was a hard worker and was very efficient at “old-time” carpentry jobs and such tasks as digging wells. According to Johnson: “[Johnny] was a handy man, & a fiddle player. (Sometimes) a neighbor would need him to come live with them, to build them an out house for them. He was noted for the best out houses, he earned his keep by living with & helping others.”
Lydia Johson described Johnny as “a very neat man” and Dolly Bell agreed, stating that he always kept his hair cut and his face shaved. He never wore suits and never dated women so far as any of his family knew. In Irene Hager’s words, he “was a pretty straight fellow” and Dave Brumfield said he never drank when visiting his father’s home on Harts Creek.
NOTE: Originally published in “Kith and Kin of Boone County, West Virginia” Volume XXII
Published by Boone County Genealogical Society
Madison, West Virginia, 1997
Dedicated to the late Dolly (Hager) Bell