Appalachia, Ashland, Big Sandy River, Bill Bowler, blind, Cabell County, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, Field Furniture Store, Gibson's Furniture Store, Green McCoy, guitar, Harts Creek, history, Ironton, John Hartford, Kentucky, Lawrence County, Lawrence Haley, life, Logan, Milt Haley, Mona Haley, music, Noah Haley, Ohio, Paintsville, Peter Mullins, Portsmouth, Ralph Haley, Route 23, Route 60, Russell, South Point, West Virginia, writing
Lawrence said we could go see Mona if Noah would show us the way. Apparently, Lawrence didn’t know where his own sister lived. Noah agreed to guide us there, but drove a separate car so he could leave right away. He and Mona weren’t getting along. On the way, I said to Lawrence, “Now this sister is the youngest one?” and he said, “Yeah, she’s the baby.” I said, “She’s the only sister you have, and her name is?” “Mona,” he finished. “M-O-N-A. That wasn’t what she was intended to be named. Mother intended her to be named after old Doc Holbrook’s wife — her name was Monnie.”
Mona was staying with her daughter in nearby Ironton, Ohio. At the door, before Lawrence could tell her who I was or the reason for our visit, she looked right at me and said, “Well I know you. I’ve seen you on television.” It was an instant connection. I noticed that she had a high forehead just like her father.
We went on out in the yard where she showed a little surprise that Noah had led us to her house.
“He’s mad at me,” she said before sighing, “I feel sorry for poor old Noah. So lonely. Has to buy his friendship.” Right away, she dispelled our hopes that she had any of Ed’s records.
“No, I don’t have any,” she said. “I let my part of the records get away from me. I lost mine in my travels. I left them somewhere and never did get them back. It was around ’56. I went back to get them and the lady — Dorothy Bates — had moved. And I think she’s dead. I was living here in Ironton.”
Mona seemed a little emotionless — her voice was hollow, distant, as if her mind was a million miles away. She didn’t seem to show much remorse about losing her father’s records — “I’m sorry that I did, but you know hindsight’s 20/20.”
I asked her if Ed ever talked about his father or mother and she said, “He talked about his dad getting killed. He said that he was in the Hatfield-McCoy feud and he got killed with Green McCoy. He was a friend to the McCoys, I guess. And that’s all I can tell you about that. And he never talked about his mother at all.” Mona had no idea who Ed’s mother was and knew nothing about her connection with Uncle Peter Mullins on Harts Creek. She didn’t even remember what year her father died, saying, “My memory is failing me. I was married and living at South Point.”
I noticed again how much Mona looked like her dad.
I asked her if she ever had any long talks with him and she said, “My mother and I were very close but we didn’t talk much about my dad. I’ll tell you, I loved my dad but I didn’t like him very much because he was mean.”
She laughed and said to Lawrence, “Wasn’t he?”
“Yeah, if you struck him the wrong way,” Lawrence admitted. “He never was mean to me. I can’t even remember Pop whipping me.”
Mona insisted, “He wasn’t ever mean to me either but he was mean to Mom.”
I asked her what Ed did to her mother and Lawrence said (somewhat agitated), “He was a little bit mean to Mom. He’d fight with her sometimes and we’d have to stop things like that.”
It got a little quiet — a whole new facet of Ed’s life had just opened up to me.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have said that,” Mona said, “but that’s how I feel. I sympathize with him now but he was a mean man.”
Lawrence tried to smooth it over by saying, “I put that down, part of it, to frustration with his condition. Really, I do.”
Sensing Lawrence’s dislike of the topic, I got the conversation directed back toward Ed’s music. He and Mona remembered Pop playing frequently on the streets of Ashland at Gibson’s Furniture Store, Field Furniture Store (later Sears) on 17th and Winchester and at the Ashland (later Second) National Bank on 16th and Winchester. It made sense that Ed often played on Winchester Avenue, the main east-west thoroughfare through town, currently merged with Route 60 and Route 23. I asked if Ralph ever played with Ed and Ella on the street and Mona said no — that he only played with them at home. Bill Bowler, a blind guitarist, was the person she remembered playing with her father on the street.
“He wasn’t very good,” Mona said. “When they’d get ready to set down and make music Pop would have to tune up his guitar for him.”
Ed hung around Ashland through the winter, Lawrence said, then took off around February. There was not a particular place he went first; it just depended on his mood. Mona said he was in Greenup County, Kentucky, often.
“He played in front of the courthouse there,” she said. “I’ve seen them have that whole front of the courthouse with people standing around dancing.”
She and Lawrence also remembered Pop playing in Portsmouth, Ohio; Cabell County, West Virginia; Logan, West Virginia; Lawrence County, Kentucky; Paintsville, Kentucky; and “all up and down the Big Sandy River.”
“They’d play around railroad YMCAs, too,” Lawrence said. “They had one in Ashland, one in Russell. And down on the N&W they had a big railroad YMCA in Portsmouth — New Boston, I guess. And there was a big steel mill at New Boston. Mom used to play there more than Pop, I guess. Mom used to play at the main gate.”
Mona and Lawrence gave me a great idea of how Ed dressed when on the road. She said he wore “moleskin pants and a long-sleeve shirt — sometimes a top coat when it was cold.” Lawrence said his dad always buttoned his shirt “all the way to the top button” but never wore a tie and mostly wore blue pants. For shoes, he preferred some type of slipper, although he sometimes wore “high top patent leather shoes” — what I call “old man comfort shoes.” Mona said he always donned a hat, whether it was a Panama hat, straw hat or felt hat. He also packed his fiddle in a “black, leather-covered case” — never in a paper sack as Lawrence remembered. “No,” she stressed, seeming amused at the idea of Ed having anything other than a case. Lawrence disagreed, clearly recalling to the contrary — “Buddy, I have.” He said Ed seldom had his fiddle in a case when he went through the country, usually just tucking it under his arm. “Same way with Mom. She didn’t have a case for her mandolin a lot of times. I guess that’s the reason he wore out so many, reckon?”