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“Quousquo Tandem,” a local correspondent at Dingess in present-day Mingo County, West Virginia, offered the following items, which the Logan County Banner printed on August 13, 1891:
Presuming upon the absence of any regular correspondent from this place I will give your readers the happenings at Dingess.
For the last few days there has been dearth of rain.
Health in general is good, except among some of those engaged in hard work and addicted to the too free use of water. An indisposition is prevalent at present, something akin to dysentery.
William Mullins, who was lately injured at the sawmill, is rapidly recovering.
Dingess now boasts of a string band, composed of a number of our Italian citizens, who are at present engaged in working in the tunnel, and “oft through the still night” may be heard the dulcet strains of the mandolin and violin cello ringing in harmony as they are gently wafted above.
Commodore Andrew Perry’s mill is running full time and things are speeding along nicely. Although not a large man, Commodore has a heart as big as the whole county, and he deserves all the success he is having.
Peter Dingess is hauling for the Perry mill and keeps an abundant supply of logs in the yard.
Jack Dingess has developed into a full-fledged “Boniface.” He has at present stopping with him some twelve or more men engaged in arching the tunnel. He sets a good table and has pleasant accommodations. At night, after the inner man has been refreshed all adjourn to the front porch, where an open air concert is rendered by the “string band,” in the delectation of all within hearing distance.
“Uncle” Jim Spaulding, son and daughter, and Jack Mounts left for a brief visit to their homes in Wayne county, last week.
Lias Perry is again with us looking well and hearty after his visit home.
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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.
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Around that time, Brandon and I received confirmation from Doug Owsley at the Smithsonian that he was interested in exhuming the Haley-McCoy grave. Doug gave us instructions on what we needed to do before his office could actually become involved — most importantly, to get permission from the state authorities, as well as from Milt’s and Green’s descendants. We felt pretty good about our chances of getting support from the family but weren’t sure what to expect from “officials.” For some guidance in that department, we called Bobby Taylor and Deborah Basham at the Cultural Center in Charleston, who told us all about exhumation law and codes in West Virginia. They felt, considering the interest of the Smithsonian, that we would have no trouble on the bureaucratic end of things.
Meanwhile, Rounder Records was in the final stages of releasing a two-CD set of Ed’s recordings called Forked Deer. The sound quality was incredible on the re-masters although to the uninitiated ear some of the music still sounded like it was coming from behind a waterfall in a cellophane factory. In addition to Forked Deer, Rounder was slated to release two more CDs of Ed’s music under the title of Grey Eagle in the near future.
I was very excited about all of these tunes getting out because I had fantasies of some “young Turk” fiddler getting a hold of them and really doing some damage.
In July, I called Pat Haley to tell her about the CDs, but we ended up talking more about her memories of Ed.
“I know when we lived in 1040 Greenup — when I first came over here — Pop would play very little. Only if he was drinking and maybe Mona would get him to play. I never knew of Pop ever playing sober. I didn’t hear Pop play too much but then his drinking days were just about over. But Mom would play. They had a mandolin and might have been a banjo and Mom would play a little bit. I didn’t know their brother, Ralph. He passed away, I believe, in ’46 or ’47 and I didn’t come into the family until ’48 — when I met Larry — but we married in ’49.”
Pat and I talked more about Ed’s 1951 death.
“Larry and I lived with Mom and Pop on 2144 Greenup Avenue and little Ralph lived with us,” she said. “Clyde had just come home from San Quentin, and a couple of months before Pop died Patsy was due to have Scott and so she moved into the house with us. Her and Jack had the front living room as their bedroom so that Patsy could be close to the hospital. Scott was born January 4th. My Stephen was born January 27th. We were all in the same house when Pop died. But about three days before Pop died, Clyde decided to rob his mother and came in in the middle of the night and stole her sweeper and radio while we were sleeping and he was picked up by the police and he was in jail when his daddy died. He didn’t get to come to his daddy’s funeral. His mother’s either, actually. He was in a Michigan prison when his momma died.”
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Meanwhile, plans were underway for an “Ed Haley Fiddle Festival” in Ashland. The whole idea was conceived by Pat Gray, a local real estate agent who’d been inspired by an article in the Ashland Daily Independent regarding our interest in Ed’s life. Pat incorporated the “festival” (which was actually a fiddling contest) into Ashland’s Poage Landing Days, a citywide carnival-like celebration centered on the downtown area. The fiddle contest was scheduled to take place in the basement/auditorium of a Presbyterian church in Ashland. Pat declared me the “Grand Marshall” of the Poage Landing Parade, booked my band and I for an evening show and even offered to put us up at her place.
We pulled into Ashland on September 20th, 1996 and parked the bus in a church parking lot just down the hill from Pat Haley’s. Mike Compton, my mandolin player, and I walked up to Pat’s for breakfast (at her invitation) where I found her entertaining Mona and Patsy (Jack’s wife). Mona had written out the words to some of Ed’s songs for me, like “My Happy Childhood Days Down on the Farm”:
When a lad I used to dwell
In a place I loved so well
Far away among the clover and the bees.
Where the morning glory vine
‘Round our cabin door did twine
And the robin red breast sang among the trees.
In my happy boyhood days down on the farm.
There was a father old and gray
And a sister young and gay
And a mother dear to keep us from all harm.
There I passed life’s sunny hours
Running wild among the flowers
In my happy boyhood days down on the farm.
It was obvious that Mona had been thinking a lot about Ed’s music, so I didn’t waste any time getting my fiddle out for her. She caught me a bit off guard when she asked me if she could accompany me using Mike’s mandolin. The next thing I knew, she was playing right along with me — scarily like her mother. After we’d finished a tune everyone got really quiet, then Patsy looked at Mike and said, “You’ve just lost your job.”
Several tunes later, I asked Mona about Ed’s bowing style. There was a lot of conflicting information on that, so I wanted to get her opinion again. She said Ed “mixed things up,” or more specifically, that he varied his bowing between long and short strokes.
I had kinda figured that was true and had even come to think that maybe he had “area bowings,” much like his “area tunes.” It’s really a very natural thing. I play different tunes and different ways when I’m with the Goforths and Hawthornes in Missouri than when I’m with Earl Scruggs and Benny Martin in Nashville, or Fletcher Bright, or Jim Wood, or Bruce Molsky and Brad Leftwich, or Charlie Acuff, or Buddy Spicher, or Hoot Hester.
I should say here that all this business of bow holds, short and long bow strokes, and whether Ed held the fiddle under his chin or not, should never be taken as Scripture. In my own experience, I’ve held the fiddle under my chin, on my arm, on my chest, with all kinds of chin rests, no chin rests, shoulder rests, and used different kinds of bows. (I even used to tape a tin penny nail or two on the bow shaft for weight when I pulled it for long square dances so I wouldn’t have to press down with my index finger.) I’ve bowed heavy, light, long strokes, short strokes, off-string, on-string, and so forth. I’m sure that Ed’s technique — like mine or probably any musician — was constantly changing. What I have tried to document with Ed is who saw him play a certain way, where and when. It’s important to keep that in mind so as to not get lost in the contradictions.
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That night, Brandon and I congregated at Billy Adkins’ house in Harts Bottom. In ensuing conversation, Billy told us about Marshall Kelley, an old-timer in the community who remembered Ed. He dialed Marshall up, then put me on the telephone. Marshall said he was seventy-three years old, had been born and raised about three miles up Harts Creek and was the son of a Baptist preacher. He was great: I didn’t have to prod him with questions. He just took off, beginning with a story about seeing Ed walking up toward Dood Dalton’s.
“I was about two or three blocks away from him,” Marshall said. “I lived in a house about 100 yards from the road and I could see the people going and coming up and down the road. And I saw a man — a little bit short — going, walking. It looked like he was carrying a guitar — might have been a mandolin — in one hand and his fiddle in the other hand. Somebody said they believed that was Ed Haley and he was being led by a young man that was just a little taller than him. In other words, this man was holding onto his arm. They were walking side by side. And he went down there and went up a hollow then about half a mile — maybe three quarters of a mile — to the home of Dood Dalton. They were acquainted with each other. Ed played the fiddle the biggest part of the afternoon.”
I asked Marshall if he remembered anything specific about Ed’s fiddling.
“I heard him play the ‘Cacklin’ Hen’ on the fiddle and made her cackle,” he said. “Buddy, he could make that sound just almost exactly like a chicken cackling. And I noticed the sound of that fiddle. And down in those little grooves — places where you could look down in the head of his fiddle — I could see some letters down in there, like a little sticker, that said, ‘Made in Germany.’ And his fiddle looked old cause it didn’t have much varnish on it. Dood made mention about putting new varnish on it and he said he didn’t want to. He said they played better — had a better sound — without any varnish on it. None of them sounded just like his fiddle and he wouldn’t change.”
Marshall said he saw Ed play at Logan and Huntington, too.
Then I heard him two or three times in Logan up around the courthouse singing and playing. One time they was a woman with him somebody said was his wife and she was also blind. I believe she was playing a mandolin. Then the next thing, I grew up a little bit and I went to Huntington. And I was a going down one of the streets and I heard a fiddle a playing. It was far enough away that I couldn’t tell what direction it was in. I stopped once and listened. And after a while, I went on down there and here was a gang of people ganged up and there was him and his wife again a playing. And I thought as I went walking down that way, ‘That sounds just like Ed Haley.’ And sure enough it was.”
Just before Marshall and I hung up, he told me what he knew about the Haley children.
“I only got acquainted with the one named Clyde,” he said. “And I saw him there at Dood Dalton’s house. Just talked with him a little bit. Me and him was approximately the same age. He got to sparking Dood’s girl and I was trying to take her away from him and whenever I seen I couldn’t make no headway I just walked away and left and then she quit him.”
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The next day, after a few hours of sleep at Wilson’s house, Brandon and I drove to see fiddler Slim Clere in South Charleston, West Virginia. Slim was born in Ashland around the time of the First World War and knew a lot about Ed. We were parked behind his two-story house and were unloading our “gear” when he appeared out of a back door and led us inside his house (past some type of home recording studio) and up a flight of stairs. We sat down in the living room where we met his wife, a vivacious middle-aged woman who fetched several scrapbooks at Slim’s request. We flipped through the pages while Slim told us about some of his early experiences.
“I knew Jesse Stuart in 1934,” he said. “He lived at South Shore, Kentucky, across the river from Portsmouth, Ohio. He went to Vanderbilt. I believe he did play football. He used to date Theron Hale’s daughter that used to be at WSM at the Grand Ole Opry. I thought maybe he might marry her but he didn’t. Well anyway, I went away. I left my home and went to Atlanta. Well I went to Gary, Indiana, and everywhere, and worked with Bert Layne and Riley Puckett and some of those old-timers. I knew old Fiddlin’ John Carson. I never did meet Lowe Stokes. He lost an arm in a hunting accident. At one time he was a better fiddle player than McMichen. But Mac come out of it. He really could play. I patterned a lot of my style after him.”
Slim pointed to a picture of himself in his youth and said, “That’s back when I had hair and teeth.”
I was anxious to talk about Ed, so I asked Slim if he could remember the first time he ever saw him.
“I grew up knowing him,” Slim said. “He used to come down to the Ashland Park there every Sunday and sit around and fiddle for nickels and dimes on a park bench and I’d sit on there and watch him play.”
Slim said Ed Haley, Ed Morrison, and Bill Day were his primary influences during his younger days in Ashland.
“He was hot stuff,” Slim said of Haley.
He described Ed as a “loner” but said his wife was always with him.
“The old lady chorded a taterbug mandolin,” he said.
Ed played on a little yellow fiddle, which he wouldn’t let anyone “get a hold of,” and kept a cup between his legs for money. Down at his feet on the ground was his old wooden case, “made like a coffin.”
How much would you have to put in the cup to get him to play a tune?
“Didn’t matter,” Slim said.
Could he tell how much you dropped into the cup?
“He’d know just to the tee what it was,” he said. “He could tell the difference between a penny and a dime.”
Would the length of how long he played the tune depend on how much you dropped in the cup?
“No, he liked to play.”
Slim and I got our fiddles out and played a lot of tunes — or parts of tunes — back and forth for about a half an hour. I wanted to know all about Ed’s technique and repertoire. Slim said he “cradled” his fiddle against his chest (“all the old-timers used to do that”) and held the bow way out on the end with his “thumb on the underneath part of the frog.” He moved very little when playing.
“The only action he had was in that arm…and it was smooth as a top,” Slim said. “He fingered his stuff out. He didn’t bow them out. He played slow and beautiful and got the melody out of it. Now, he could play stuff like ‘Dill Pickle Rag’ where you had to cross them strings and that ‘Blackberry Blossom’ was one of his favorites. He played ‘Goodnight Waltz’, ‘Wednesday Night Waltz’. I don’t think ‘The Waltz You Saved For Me’ had been invented yet. He played ‘Over the Waves’ and ‘Sweet Bunch of Daisies’. He didn’t double-stop it, though.”
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I wondered if Ed had other accompaniment aside from Curly.
“Most of the times that I saw Ed, why, he would be by hisself,” Curly said. “Ed played a whole lot by the church up at 16th Street and across from Lawrence Drugs. I don’t know of him ever playing in a bar. Ed was a fellow that would follow these big court days because there was a lot of people on the ground. Morehead, Kentucky, was one of the places where Ed never missed on court days and he wrote a song about Morehead, Kentucky. It was called ‘The Rowan County Crew’. ‘It was in the town of Morehead on one election day…’ It was like in English minors. And that’s the only song I ever heard him try to sing, and Ralph would be playing. Never heard him sing nothing other than that because he wrote it and because the people wanted to hear it.”
Well that was a new twist: I never heard that Ed wrote “The Rowan County Crew”. Actually, most attributed the song to Bill Day.
I asked if Ed composed any other tunes aside from “The Rowan County Crew” and Curly said he made “Catlettsburg”. He was sure of it.
“Well, Ralph and I talked, you know, later, and Ralph told me, he said, talking about ‘Dad playing so-and-so last night. Well, he wrote that tune,’ something like that,” Curly said. “I know that he wrote it without a doubt. He wrote that while he was on Horse Branch.”
I’d never considered that Ralph might have told Curly anything about Ed’s music. He and Curly were about the same age. I asked about Ralph. What was he like? Curly thought for a few seconds, then said, “Ah, Ralph was different from the rest of the family. Ralph was a little more… I don’t know how to put it. He wasn’t a bad person but he kindly drifted out. He wasn’t a homebody like the rest of the children, I’ll say that. I never remember Ralph being on the street with them.”
I told Curly that Ralph wasn’t really Ed’s son — that he was Ella’s by a previous relationship — and he said, “Oh, I never did know that. He left home pretty early.”
Curly didn’t remember Ed’s other kids very well, except for Mona.
“I do remember Mona but I think I remember Mona from being with her mother when she would play on the streets,” he said. “Mona was never with her father — just her mother — as far as I saw. She would stand beside of her while her mother played the mandolin. Mona held the cup but usually the cup was on the head of the mandolin with a piece of wire or something that hooked it on there.”
What about Ella?
“I used to watch Ella, that poor old soul, out here in town,” Curly said. “She always carried one of them little fold-out canvas bottomed chairs and played about every Saturday night at Jack’s Auto on the 13th Street block on Winchester Avenue. At that time Jack’s Auto handled material like Sears today. They had a variety of all different kinds of stuff and there was a lot of people on Saturday nights that went in and out of that place. And she played terrific chords on the mandolin. Her timing was good. And you know she didn’t sing or anything.”
I pressed Curly for more details about Ed’s music.
“Just about every fiddle player that I talk to — including Big Foot Keaton — they all talk about the long bow that he pulled and how many notes that he would get from the length of the bow,” Curly said. “How many notes was in there with the finger work. It’s very amazing to have watched him. It’s a shame that you didn’t get to see the man or hear him.”
I said, “Well, I stayed with Lawrence, you know, and we worked and talked and everything like that and we discovered quite a bit. I want to show you some of what we discovered and see if it rings bells.”
I got my fiddle out and started playing — holding the bow way out on the end and using the Scotch snap bowing. Curly got excited and said, “There you go. That’s it! Well, you’ve completely changed your bow arm from the last time I’ve saw you. Well now, you’ve got the bow arm down. It’s just like looking at him dragging the bow again.”
Curly added that Ed played a lot of double stops because they gave a tune “more volume, more life.”
I asked him what kind of guitar playing Ed liked behind his fiddling and he took his guitar and played something he called “Riley Puckett style.”
Curly said he remembered that Ed packed his fiddle in a case that looked like “a square box.”
His memories seemed to be right on target so I asked him very specific questions, like who repaired Ed’s fiddle.
“There was an old man here just about that time that did most of the work,” Curly said. “I don’t say that he did the maintenance on Ed’s fiddle. I’m trying to think of that old man’s name. He was supposed to have played for the king and queen of England.”
“Bill Day,” I suggested, even though I figured it unlikely.
“Bill Day worked on fiddles,” Curly confirmed. “Blind man. And there was another old man by the name of Jason Summers that made fiddles. He coulda done Ed’s work. And he lived in this area — either Coal Grove, Ohio, or over in here. That was before my time. I didn’t know Bill Day — never met him in my life — nor Jason Summers, either one.”