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…
This history of early life in Logan County, West Virginia, was written by Howard and Daisy Adams. Howard (1906-1976) and Daisy (b.1915) were children of Major and Belle Dora Adams of Trace Fork of Harts Creek. Titled “The life of pioneers during the latter half of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the 19th century” and written in the late 1960s or early 1970s, their history marks the only known attempt by local people to reconstruct the story of pioneer life. This part of the history includes information regarding industry, clearing of land, farming, and square dances.
The chief industries in those days were farming, raising stock, and timbering. Farming began with axes, saws, and mattocks all swinging. A good piece of land was chosen and clearing it began by chopping and sawing down all the trees on it. The trees had to be trimmed up. That was cutting off all the branches as limbs and putting them in big heaps or piles. The logs of the trees had to be sawed in lengths so they could be rolled together in piles for hauling. All small bushes were grubbed up and put on the brush piles. Clearing land was done mostly during winter months as soon as the land was cleared of all trees and brush and it piled up. Then began the burning of brush and logs. This usually took two or three days and it was hard work. After the burning off was completed, a nice big field or new ground as it was called was now the farmer’s pride. Planting began by sowing seed beds and planting vegetables. Corn was planted in late April or early May. Usually it was hoed two times, once when about 8 to 12 inches high and again when it was about 24 to 30 inches high. People in those days swapped work or had “corn hoeing.” Everybody for several miles around came to help at the workings or corn hoeing. The women came along, too. They usually had quilting parties and also helped with the cooking. Boy, they sure had plenty to eat at the big workings. They had chicken and dumplings, beans, bacon, onions, and corn dodger and lots of other eats from the farm. Everybody gathered around after the day’s work was over.
As soon as supper was over and the dishes washed and put away the beds were moved out of the room called the big house. Then the young men and young women began dancing. Square dancing was a thrilling experience. Some one who knew how called out the reels. The dancers then performed the instruction of the caller. A string band consisting of a fiddle, banjo, and sometimes a guitar furnished the music for the dance. They had refreshments of wine or liquor most all the men took part in the drinking. The girls seldom ever drank. If anyone got drunk he was put out of the dancing or off the floor as they called it. Sometimes the boys would have fist fights over the girls which never amounted to much. After the dance was over, the beds were put back in the big house room and the neighbors all said good night and went home tired and sleepy. All these things happened as time moved along.
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.”
Arkansas, Arkansas Traveler, Ashland, banjo, Brandon Kirk, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, fiddle, fiddler, fiddling, Grayson, Harts, history, Holden, Jim Tackett, John Hartford, John Tackett, Kentucky, Lincoln County, Logan County, Logan Court House, music, Ohio, Portsmouth, Red River, Reece Tackett, Trace Fork, West Fork, writing
The next day, Brandon and I visited Reece Tackett, a banjo-picker who lived in a nice yellow house just up West Fork. Reece was born in 1909 and raised around Grayson in eastern Kentucky. His grandfather, Jim Tackett, was a fiddler from the Red River area of Arkansas who played for square dances in large farmhouses. He taught Reece’s father, John Tackett, how to play the fiddle. Reece said his father played “the old way — not flashy.” He used a homemade fiddle and “had to go to pine trees to get rosin.” He moved to a farm about nine miles from Grayson, where he made fiddles and played close to home, never as far away as Portsmouth, Ohio.
Reece said he moved to Holden in Logan County when he was sixteen to work with his uncle and brother in the coalmines. He used to watch Ed Haley and his wife play “beautiful” tunes like “Arkansas Traveler” on weekends at the Logan Courthouse. He said Ed wasn’t a big man and had fingers “about like a lead pencil.” His wife played the mandolin.
“She was pretty good on her singing,” Reece said. “She was dressed like the real old ladies. She had the long dress on and the apron.”
Ella kept a cup fastened to herself somehow.
“I’ve tossed many a nickel and dime in their cup,” Reece said.
Sometimes, people would pretend to put money in their cup and then steal from it.
Ed was usually paid about ten or fifteen cents per tune. There were no dollars and most of the coal miners were paid in company script.
Reece said he moved to Harts in 1946 and had no idea that Ed was from Trace Fork or even lived in Ashland.
Ashland, Brandon Kirk, Clyde Haley, Doug Owsley, Ed Haley, fiddle, Green McCoy, Haley-McCoy grave, Harts, Harts Fas Chek, Jimmy Johnson Bring Your Jug Around the Hill, Jimmy McCoy, John Hartford, Kentucky, mandolin, Milt Haley, Mona Haley, Noah Haley, Pat Haley, Salt River, Shove That Hog's Foot, Ugee Postalwait, West Virginia, writing
After the contest, we all gathered at Pat Haley’s. The dining room table was crammed with food and the refrigerator was stuffed with every conceivable drink. People filled the downstairs rooms, many even spilling out onto the front and back porches. Once the kitchen was cleared, I got my fiddle and planted myself in a hard-back chair near Clyde and Noah. I immediately gave Mona a mandolin I’d brought so she could second me with those haunting “Ella chords.” Ugee perched nearby us in a chair where she hollered out the names of tunes and lyrics and even danced when she got too excited. We kept the music going, while Pat served up the food.
There were some new musical developments, little comments here and there that were important to know. When I played “Salt River”, for instance, Mona said it was the same tune as “Shove That Hog’s Foot”. She sang:
Shove that hog’s foot further in the bed,
Further in the bed, further in the bed.
Shove that hog’s foot further in the bed,
Katy, won’t you listen to me now?
Ugee said Ed had a way of making his fiddle sound like moonshine pouring from a jug when he played “Jimmy Johnson Bring Your Jug Around the Hill”. It took me a while to figure out what she meant by that.
As music filled the kitchen, Brandon was busy with Jimmy McCoy in the TV room. Jimmy knew very little about Green’s death, although he’d heard that the Brumfields killed him because they were jealous of his music. At some point, we got Jimmy to sit for pictures with all of Ed’s grandsons, mimicking the Milt and Green picture. Everyone did it, even those who weren’t really sure why they were sitting with a stranger crossing their legs and gripping invisible jacket cuffs.
I headed back to Nasvhille the next day but Brandon went to Harts with Jimmy, where he and Billy Adkins showed him the local sites…including the Haley-McCoy grave. Brandon figured it was the first time any of the McCoys had been to the grave in at least 45 years.
A month or so later, Brandon received a letter from Doug Owsley regarding the exhumation of the Haley-McCoy grave.
“Thanks for the McCoy family permissions for the excavations at the Haley/McCoy Burial Site,” it partly read. “I think that it will be advisable for me to make a short trip to West Virginia in advance of the arrival of the field crew to meet you and Mr. Hartford and to make a quick survey of the site area.”
A few letters and telephone calls later, we learned from Owsley that he wouldn’t be able to make the preliminary trip to Harts. However, he was sending two associates, who we were to meet at the Harts Fas Chek.