From Ed Haley to Benny Thomasson




Charles Wolfe put Ed Haley in a “creative” class of fiddlers that included Eck Robertson, Clark Kessinger, Arthur Smith and Clayton McMichen. These fiddlers, according to Dr. Wolfe, felt that technique was just as important as repertoire – one of the trademarks of the Texas contest fiddling style so popular today.

“I like to flavor up a tune so that nobody in the world could tell what I’m playing,” Haley once told Skeets Williamson.

For creative fiddlers, writes forensic musicologist Earl Spielman in The Devil’s Box, “a fiddle tune is not just an ornamented melody; a melody is merely the raw, undeveloped, unprocessed material out of which a tune can grow and reach maturity. In Texas, instead of playing a repetition of the melody, the fiddler plays a variation of the original material. Each new variation can be radically different from the preceding one. The object of the fiddler is to avoid duplication and to be as innovative as possible within the limits of what is acceptable. As might be expected, any regular pattern of bowing is avoided. The bowing characteristic of Texas fiddling consists of fairly long bow strokes executed very smoothly with the bow rarely leaving the strings and with the number of notes played on each stroke varying from a single note to as many as seven or eight.”

Creation of the Texas contest style is accredited to Benny Thomasson, who competed with rival Major Franklin to such a fierce degree that he started improvising tunes and adding new parts onto them.

“Back when I started they had only two part tunes, and that was it,” Thomasson said in a 1982 interview. “In the older days when I began to come up I took these old tunes and began to build different sections to them. Like there would be two parts. Well, I’d add another. It would be the same part but in a different position. The old-timey fiddling that they try and hang onto nowadays, it’s all right. It’s good to listen to but we take those same tunes and just weave a web around them and make it come out real pretty.”

Many fiddle scholars agree that Benny Thomasson got his ideas about adding onto tunes from Texas fiddler, Eck Robertson. He was inspired enough by Robertson’s multi-part version of “Sally Gooden” (recorded in 1922) to say that Eck played it “better than anyone else in the world.” Haley was also proficient at adding parts; his “Forked Deer” had four parts, while his “Cacklin’ Hen” had eleven.

While there is no documented evidence that Ed Haley ever met Eck Robertson or Benny Thomasson, there is a link between Thomasson and Ed through Clark Kessinger and Georgia Slim Rutland. Benny borrowed heavily from Kessinger’s Haley-like early records, particularly “Tug Boat”, which Kessinger had gotten from Haley’s “Ladies on the Steamboat”. Likewise, Georgia Slim Rutland – one of radio’s top fiddlers in the 1940s – “allegedly spent one year in Ashland listening to Ed Haley play,” according to Parkersburg Landing, and was personally acquainted with Thomasson.

Because of Haley’s connection to Clark Kessinger and Georgia Slim, and their subsequent influence on Benny Thomasson, I began to formulate a theory that Haley was a “grandfather” of the Texas contest fiddling style. I must have been onto something because when I later mentioned it to J.P. Fraley, he said, “Well see, I knew Benny Thomasson and he knew about Ed Haley because I was playing at the National Folklore Festival and he wanted to know about that fella.”

One Response to “From Ed Haley to Benny Thomasson”

  1. Mark Simos Says:

    I think the idea of the “creative” fiddler as a distinct stylistic family is an interesting one but also it’s easy to miss the subtle gradations in different players’ approaches. Like Ralph Blizzard who “never played a tune the same way once”, or Buddy Thomas who would “work up” a tune. Sometimes this would result in transforming a 2-part into a recognized multi-part tune (like Irish fiddler Michael Coleman’s setting of Lord Gordon’s) that gets adopted by the community; other times it shows up in the variations just playing the tune. And some of my favorite players achieve variations in old-time playing without sounding like they’re trying to vary the tune, but rather like they’re diving deeper into the essence of the tune each time. The variations are the audible trace of that search.

    Mark Simos

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