Archive for the ‘Ed Haley’ Category

“Uh oh. This is pretty good.”

May 14, 2015


edited from Brandon Ray Kirk (

I rediscovered Parkersburg Landing (Ed Haley’s Rounder LP) filed away on one of the crowded shelves in my office. I put it on the record player and as soon as the title track started, I thought, “Uh oh. This is pretty good.”

I turned up the volume knob and slumped down in my chair. I sat there stunned for the next twenty or so minutes listening to Haley plow through tunes with names like “Humphrey’s Jig,” “Cherokee Polka” and “Cherry River Rag.” By the time I reached out to flip the album to Side 2, my fingers were trembling and I was almost breathless.

I tried to focus on every nuance as Haley played “Flower of the Morning,” “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Dunbar.”  Then, when he took off on “Forked Deer,” I almost fell out of my chair. It was a profound experience…the kind that pulls you away from everything you’ve done up to that moment and sends you off into another direction. I don’t even remember listening to the rest of the album, although I’m sure I did.

Where did these recordings come from?

“The present recordings were made by Ralph Haley, who also plays guitar on several selections,” I read in the album liner notes. “Ralph had served in the Signal Corps during the war and used a home disc-cutting machine of the Wilcox-Gay type. After Ralph’s death in the late forties, the collection of discs were evenly divided among the five remaining children. It is estimated that the 106 sides presently accounted for represent approximately one third of the original total. Most of these records were preserved by Lawrence Haley of Ashland, who kindly gave us permission to issue them here. The discs were transferred at the Library of Congress under the supervision of Larry Haley and Alan Jabbour and were remastered at Intermedia Studios in Boston.”

I spent the next several years glued to Parkersburg Landing. I talked about Haley constantly. Every now and then I would call up friends and play some of the album, saying, “Now, that’s how it’s supposed to go.” No one had a clue who Ed Haley was; most seemed unimpressed. But to me, the scratchy recordings were like old faded photographs and I was so excited by what I heard that the imperfections in recording technique quickly disappeared to my ear.

It was only natural that I would want to know more about this man who had such a strong grip on me. I first turned to a brief biography written on the Parkersburg Landing album cover. Right away, his life interested me almost as much as did his music.

“James Edward Haley was born in 1883 on Hart’s Creek in Logan County, WV. When he was quite young, his mother was killed in an altercation with the Hatfield and McCoy feud. He was subsequently raised by his Aunt Liza. An attack of the measles when he was three left him completely blind. He received no formal schooling [and] on occasion food was so scarce that his dinner would consist of nothing but a bunch of wild onions washed in a nearby stream.”

For more biographical info see here, here, here, and here.


Ed Haley inducted to WV Music Hall of Fame

April 13, 2015


from http://www.herald-dispatch:

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Music Hall of Fame is proud to announce its inductees for 2015 – and celebrate its upcoming 10th anniversary.  Among them,

James Edward Haley (1885-1951),  from Hart’s Creek (Logan County).
Blind from the age of three, fiddler Ed Haley influenced many great artists both before and after his death – including the great Clark Kessinger. Haley traveled widely throughout West Virginia and Kentucky, performing his repertoire of old-time music – which included breakdowns, jigs, waltzes and show tunes – at square dances, fiddle contests, and courthouse squares.

During the ’20s and ’30s, Haley also made and sold his own records, and played on the radio in Cincinnati. His wife Martha Ella Trumbo, also blind, accompanied Haley on mandolin and played on many of his recordings. Martha’s son Ralph Payne recorded Ed and his mother’s playing on a home disc-cutting machine and many of those recordings were eventually released by Rounder Records.

One of those influenced by Haley’s playing was the late John Hartford. Hartford studied and sang about Haley’s life, performed his music and recorded it on his albums. Among those songs is “Hell Up Coal Holler,” in which Hartford sings about Haley’s travels in WV and eastern KY, playing on trains and in smokehouses. He played one of Haley’s fiddle tunes, “Shove That Hog’s Foot Further in the Bed” as well as Haley’s arrangement of “Man of Constant Sorrow” on the “Down from the Mountain concert.” At the time of his death, Hartford was researching and writing a book on Haley’s life.

Old World Tunes

January 19, 2015


by Mike Yates (

There are various ways of judging just how popular old-world tunes were in America.  One way would be to analyze American printed tune-books.  Another way, and I think that this is a better way, is to consider the repertoire of just one mountain fiddler, namely the blind fiddler Ed Haley (1883 – 1951).

Ed was born in Logan County, WVA, and played around the eastern Kentucky-western West Virginia region for most of his life.  During the period 1946 – 1947 Ed’s son, Ralph Haley, recorded his father on a home disc-cutting machine.  In 1997 Rounder Records issued sixty-five of these recordings on two double CD sets – Ed Haley: Forked Deer, CD1132 – 33, and Ed Haley: Grey Eagle, CD1134 – 35 – and I would estimate that over a quarter of these tunes (30% actually) can be traced back to old-world sources.  These are:

Forked Deer Known in America as early as 1839, the ‘fine’ strain of Forked Deer is similar to an old Scotch-Irish tune called Rachael Rae, which is believed to have been composed in 1815 by a Scottish composer called Joseph Lowe.  O’Neill called it The Moving Bogs.
Indian Ate the Woodchuck The second strain of this superb tune is clearly related to the tune Such a Getting Upstairs, which is also known as The Fife Hunt.
Humphrey’s Jig A version of Bob of Fettercairn which can be found in the 18th century Scots Musical Museum.
Love Somebody A version of My Love She’s But a Lassie Yet printed in 1757 as Miss Farquharson’s Reel in Bremner’s Scots Reels.
Salt River Seems to be related to the Irish tune Carron’s Reel, which, according to Francis O’Neill, became attached to the Scots poem The Ewe wi the Crooked Horn.
Jenny Lind Polka Composed by a German composer Anton Wallerstein c.1850.
Chicken Reel Not the usual tune by this name, but possibly one based on an older, and untraced, Scots melody.
Wake Up Susan Known in Ireland as The Mason’s Apron.
Grey Eagle Tune 1214 in O’ Neil’s “Music of Ireland”, where it is titled The First Month of Summer.  In Scotland it is known as The Miller of Drone.
Wilson’s Jig Known under various old-world titles, including Harvest Home, Dundee Hornpipe, Cliff Hornpipe, Ruby Lip, Kildare Fancy and Cork Hornpipe.
Bonaparte’s Retreat Possibly based on an old British tune.
Money Musk Believed originally titled Sir Archibald Grant of Monie Muske’s Reel and possibly composed by Daniel Gow in 1776.  Apparently once used in Ireland to accompany the Highland Fling. 
CD 4
Cumberland Gap A tune which resembles Skye Air (Gow # 559).
Parkersburg Landing A Variation of the well-known Schottische The Rustic Dance.  Also similar to Mrs Kenny’s Barndance as recorded by Michael Coleman.
Cuckoo’s Nest (1) Similar to All Aboard Reel in Ryan’s Mammoth Collection.
Cuckoo’s Nest (2) Known in Ireland under a number of different titles, including Peacock Feathers, Forty Pounds of Feathers, In a Hornet’s Nest, Jacky Tar or Jolly Jar Tar With Your Trousers On.
Paddy on the Turnpike Based on The Bell of Claremont Hornpipe, with a second strain which sounds like Johnny Cope and which is probably based on a tune for The Gaberlunzie Man.
Fire in the Mountains Known in Eastern Europe under a number of titles.  It also turned up in Riley’s Flute Melodies of 1815, as Free on the Mountains (Vol.1, p.87,# 317).
Pumpkin Ridge Also called Marmaduke’s Hornpipe.  According to some sources, Irish fiddler Michael Coleman recorded a version of the tune, although I am unable to trace this recording.
Mississippi Sawyer Possibly based on an old-world tune, The Downfall of Paris.


Wilson Douglas on Ed Haley

April 16, 2014
Wilson Douglas

Wilson Douglas


Douglas:  “I knew him way back in ’38, ’39. As you know, he was a resident of Ashland, Kentucky, and he was born in Logan County, West Virginia. Well, he would come up to Ivydale, West Virginia, by train and then he would ride over on up into Calhoun County with the mail carrier. And he would get a ride with somebody over to Laury Hicks’, like with an old gentleman who used to be a country doctor, Dr. White. And while he was up in Calhoun County and Clay County, we’d go ever night – if we could get there anyway – and he’d play that fiddle about four or five hours at a time. Well, he’d go back to Ashland and stay a couple of months. I guess he was playing somewhere around in Kentucky. And then along in the fall he’d come back and maybe stay a month and then he’d catch the train to Logan County.”

I asked Wilson if he played a lot with Ed and he said, “Oh, well. No, I didn’t play a lot with him. I was just beginning to fiddle, you know, and he was my idol of a fiddler player. He mostly inspired me to fiddle, him and David French Carpenter of Clay County, West Virginia. I’m going to tell you, that there album [Parkersburg Landing] don’t give him credit.”

I asked Wilson if he remembered any of Ed’s tunes and he said, “Oh god, he played all the old tunes. Well, as you know, they all played the ‘Billy in the Lowground’, the ‘Tennessee Wagner’. I play one of Haley’s tunes: he called it the ‘Morning Flower’. Played in the key of A. I’ll have to think. Well, as you know, he called the ‘Stony Point’, the ‘Gilroy’. I learned that off of him. You know, all these tunes has got four or five different titles. And I played a little bit of his ‘Devil’s Dream’. He would play that to get warmed up.”

Did you ever hear him play “Blackberry Blossom”? I asked.

“Oh, by god yeah,” he said. “I remember him playing that. You know, Ed Haley told me he could hear a tune twice and play it, and I believe it.”

I said to Wilson, “Now, Ed Haley improvised a lot, didn’t he? Like take a tune and play it different kinda ways.”

“Well, he could play it about any way,” he said. “I’ll tell you what. He’d do a lot of that to show his skill, I think, but when you settled him down he didn’t vary the bow from one time to another. Now where they’s a gang of fiddlers around, you know, a little distant to him, trading tunes and messing around, he would show them up. I don’t think he did it just to be smart: he did it to show them that he could do it, you know. And what I liked about him: if he heard somebody play a tune, they’d say, ‘Well now Ed, am I getting it?’ And he’d say, ‘No, you’re not getting it.’ And if you were to get it, he’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s good enough. Drop it. Don’t try to do it no better than that.’ I liked that. He went straight to the point, and he told it like it was. If a fiddler got to fiddling too fast, he’d say, ‘Well, you’re losing the soul.’ Oh, he’d just cuss. Only tune to my knowledge that he really played fast was ‘Forked Deer’.”

I asked Wilson what he remembered about Ed’s bowing and he said, “Now, he played a long straight bow, but he put in the bow whatever the tune required. Every tune requires a different bow technique, as you know. Oh God, he played a long shuffle bow. I always thought he had the longest fiddle bow I’d ever seen. You know, he could tell if a fiddler was playing the short bow. He’d say, ‘Well son, don’t hold your bow up in the middle. Catch back on the frog of the bow. By god, you need to have bow if you’re gonna play that kind of music.’”

I asked Wilson if he thought Vassar Clements’ bowing was anything like Ed’s and he said, “No, no. By god, no. No, not in my book. Now, you know everybody’s entitled to his own opinion.”

Did Ed play with a tight or loose bow?

“He played a half-tight bow. He didn’t want any bouncing or want any wobbling.”

From Ed Haley to Benny Thomasson

January 22, 2013



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.”

Fraley on Haley

January 15, 2013

Ed Haley and family

edited from Brandon Kirk:

J.P. Fraley: “You know, Ed Haley fascinated me. When I was just a kid learning to fiddle, my daddy was a merchant. He’d take me into Ashland and stand me on the street just to listen to this blind fiddler and his boy play. I was about twelve or fourteen. Well, even earlier than that I was listening to him on the street – watching him – and I swear to god, his fingers, when he played the fiddle just looked like they was dancing. It was out of this world. Now, I don’t know which world’s fair it was, but they picked him up – I think it was Mr. Holbrook, the doctor – and took him to the world’s fair and the critics in New York – might have been ’35 or somewhere in there – wrote about him. Said he was a ‘fiddling genius.’ Just what I already knew, and I was just a kid.”

As for Haley’s technique, J.P. said he “leaned” the fiddle against his chest when playing and held the bow at its end. I wondered if he played long or short bow strokes. “He done it both. I know when he played for his own benefit he used more bow. But he played a lot for dances and as they used to say they had to play ‘quick and devilish.’”

I asked J.P. if he remembered Haley playing the eastern Kentucky version of “Blackberry Blossom” and he said yes – that he played it, too. He knew a little bit about the tune’s history: “Well, General Garfield was a fiddler. A lot of people didn’t know it. I guess it had to be in the Civil War. The ‘Blackberry Blossom’ – the old one – was General Garfield’s favorite tune. Ed – I never will forget it – he told me that that was General Garfield’s ‘Blackberry Blossom’.” This “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom”, J.P. said, was a different tune entirely than the one made famous by Arthur Smith. J.P. said local fiddler Asa Neal also played the tune. “He was from around the Portsmouth area. He’s dead, and he was quite a fiddler. Now, he knew Ed. Fact of the matter, he learned a lot from Ed, but he was about Ed’s age.”

J.P. said Haley never talked about where he learned to play. “I have an idea that it was probably a lot like I learned. See Catlettsburg was a jumping off place, I call it, for loggers and coal miners and rousters and so forth, and they was always some musicians in them. And Ed had this ability – he couldn’t read – but he had an ear like nobody’s business. If he heard a tune and liked it, he’d play it and he’d just figure out his own way to do it.”

J.P. was on a roll: “See, Ed has become more or less of a legend now…and rightfully so. His range was from, say, Portsmouth, Ohio to Ashland, Catlettsburg, and up to Charleston, West Virginia. I think he was at Columbus, Ohio, and then he went to the world’s fair. He played consistently up and down the river. He made good money on the boats.”

Snake Chapman on Ed Haley

January 5, 2013

Ed Haley

edited from an article by Brandon Kirk:

Snake Chapman said Haley held the bow “up a little in the middle, not plumb on the end” and usually played with the fiddle at his chest – “just down ordinarily.” He also said Haley “single-noted” most of his bow strokes, played frequently in cross-key, hated vibrato and used a lot of “sliding notes.” He seldom got out of first position, only occasionally “going down and getting some notes” that he wanted to “bring in the tune” and he definitely tried to play words in his music.

“The old fiddlers through the mountains here – and I guess it’s that way everywhere – they tried to make the fiddle say the words of the old tunes,” Snake said.

I asked Snake about Haley’s repertoire and he said, “He played an old tune called ‘Old Sledge’ and it was one of his good ones. He played tunes like ‘Trouble Among the Yearlings’, but when he was gonna play it he called it ‘Fox in the Mud’. He made that up himself. One of the favorite tunes of mine he played was the old-time way of playing ‘Blackberry Blossom’ and he played it in G-minor. Ed could really play it good. They was somebody else that made the tune. Uncle Ed told me who it was – Garfield. He said he was a standing fiddling near a big blackberry patch and it was in bloom at the mouth of the hollow one time and this fella Garfield played this tune and he asked this fella Garfield what the name of the tune was. He said, ‘Well, I ain’t named it, yet,’ and he turned around and spit in that blackberry patch with a big bunch of ambeer and said, ‘We’ll just call it ‘Blackberry Blossom’.”

Snake laughed.

“Yeah, Uncle Ed, he had tales behind every one of them like that, but that’s where he said he got the name of it. He said he named it there…spitting in the blackberry blossom.”

Snake said Haley used to play on the streets of Williamson, West Virginia where he remembered him catching money in a tin cup. In earlier years, he supposedly played on the Ohio River and Big Sandy boats and probably participated in the old fiddlers’ contests, which Snake’s father said was held on boat landings. These impromptu contests were very informal and usually audience-judged, meaning whoever got the most applause was considered the winner. Sometimes, fiddlers would just play and whoever drew the biggest crowd was considered the winner.

I asked Snake if he ever heard Ed talk about Clark Kessinger and he said, “Skeets was telling me Ed didn’t like Clark at all. He said, ‘That damned old son-of-a-gun stands around and tries to pick up everything he can pick up from you.’ And he did. Clark tried to pick up everything from Uncle Ed. He was a good fiddler, too.”

Snake said Clayton McMichen (the famous Skillet Licker) was Haley’s favorite fiddler, although he said he knew just how to beat him. This made me think of the line from Parkersburg Landing, “In regard to his own fiddling, Haley was not particularly vain, although he was aware that he could put ‘slurs and insults’ into a tune in a manner that set him apart from all other fiddlers.”

Man of Constant Sorrow: Southern Marvel #3

January 14, 2012

Ed Haley

edited from and

Richard Burnett, of the duo Burnett and Rutherford, is sometimes credited as the composer of the “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which he called “Farewell Song.”   He was born in 1883, married in 1905, and blinded in 1907. The second stanza of  his “Farewell Song” mentions the singer has been blind six years, which would date it at 1913. In later years, Richard Burnett was asked about the song. He himself could not remember, at that time, if he had composed it, or copied it, or — perhaps most likely — adapted it from something traditional.

Charles Wolfe:  What about this “Farewell Song” — “I am a man of constant sorrow” — did you write it?’

Richard Burnett:  No, I think I got the ballet [sic] from somebody — I dunno. It may be my song…”

According to Charles Wolfe, the melody of  “Man Of Constant Sorrow” was based on an old Baptist hymn, “The Wandering Boy.”

Another recording artist Emry Arthur, who was friends with Burnett, also claimed to have written, “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Emry was the first to record the song in 1928 for Vocalion.

Ed Haley recorded a sublime fiddle version of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Haley was born in 1883 on Hart’s Creek in Logan County, West Virginia. He was a blind professional fiddler, and never recorded commercially during his lifetime; he was afraid that the record companies would take advantage of a blind man. However, there were recordings made by Haley’s son Ralph on a home disc-cutting machine. When Ralph died, the recordings were evenly divided among the five remaining children. It is believed that the 106 sides which remain are only about one third of those recorded.

Ed Haley’s solo fiddle version of the tune can be heard here: