By Jim Wood | From the September-October 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Ed Haley (1885–1951) from Logan County, West Virginia, never produced a commercial recording, but here in 2022, old-time music aficionados may find themselves listening to a recently released seven-CD boxed set of his home recordings from 1946—Stole from the Throat of a Bird: The Complete Recordings of Ed and Ella Haley. At face value, the mere existence of this set may seem nonsensical, given the fact that this collection of old-time fiddle tunes and early-20th-century parlor music and pop songs has practically no commercial viability (both for the reasons that old-time fiddling is a niche market, at best, and that Haley has been deceased for 71 years). Spring Fed Records is unlikely to see a big payday for its efforts to produce this staggeringly labor-intensive omnibus, but some things are more important than money.
You should have surmised by this point that the raison d’être for this new box set is that it showcases the sheer unadulterated genius of one the most significant folk artists to emerge from the American experience. Haley performed professionally throughout the Appalachian region around Ashland, Kentucky, for nearly half a century and forged for himself a career that forever altered the landscape of American fiddle music, but the scarcity of recordings available for a wider fiddle audience has meant that his influence has primarily been via aural tradition. Not only have the number of his sides been few, but their poor sound quality has rendered them impractical in trying to reach the general fiddle fan. Until these new remasters were released into the wild, listeners really had to be gung ho to suffer through a virtually impenetrable barrier of hisses and pops in an attempt simply to hear Haley’s playing. Martin Fisher, the engineer who oversaw the restoration of the original lacquer masters from the Haley family collection, is nothing short of an alchemist, and now the world has access to this important music.
Ed Haley is one of the more substantial fiddlers in American history for several reasons, but none is more important than the fact that he helped to establish a new standard of violin technique that, for all that one can reasonably assume prior to his ascendancy, was seldom, if ever, heard in the realm of folk fiddling. Haley was not a virtuoso in that he did not play complex passages that required advanced technique (such as playing parallel double-stops or high position work), but he did play simple, monophonic lines (primarily in first position) with a power and clarity of tone, a precision of intonation and execution, and a rhythmic groove and control of the bow that few human beings are able to achieve. He played this relatively “easy” material (compared to classical violin, for instance) with a greater depth and accuracy than was the standard of his day by orders of magnitude, and nearly a century later, only a handful of fiddlers can carry his case.
Miraculously, as far as we know, he acquired this skill with no formal training. Genius sometimes emerges from the most unlikely of circumstances, and in Haley’s case, this blind (from the age of three), uneducated, impoverished orphan (his father was murdered in the infamous Hatfield–McCoy feud) found his place in the world as one of America’s most technically adept and creative fiddlers.
Given the breadth of a seven-CD boxed set, one might expect that not all of the material included would scale the heights of artistic transcendence, and this is certainly true for Stole from the Throat of a Bird, with its inclusion of a large number of rather pedestrian popular songs of the day and a fair number of vocal selections featuring Ella Haley, Ed’s wife and frequent musical collaborator. Even though these selections do not achieve the level of aesthetic success and cultural significance of the fiddle numbers, they do provide important insight into the experiences and context that helped to shape Haley’s musical mind. He was no “rustic” who lived isolated in a hollow removed from the stimulation of the contemporary musical trends of his era. He was an avid radio listener who constantly scanned the landscape for material that either inherently interested him or that he knew would be relevant to his vocation as an entertainer.
His repertory thus included a wide range of fiddle and related music; in addition to the old-time hoedowns in this collection, there are rags, polkas, waltzes, jigs, pop songs, hymns and gospel numbers, traditional folk songs and ballads, and even a Bill Monroe bluegrass original. Haley’s creativity was fueled by continual input from the music he discovered in popular culture. This fact is somewhat at odds with those who would wish to make him conform to their idealized archetype of the “natural” genius who is unsullied by the influences of a wider society. The truth of Ed Haley simply does not fit the romanticized notion of a legendary blind bard, and by acknowledging this fact, we can begin to break down both misconceptions and stereotypes about Appalachian culture and the creative process itself.
The 103-page booklet (with essays by seven different authors) that accompanies these recordings goes a long way toward rectifying the distorted perceptions of an artist such as Haley that ultimately interfere with an honest appreciation of his work. Patrick Kavanagh, the renowned Irish poet and writer, once stated that in order for an artistic endeavor to reveal universal truths and to reach an audience, it must first be relevant to a specific time and place, and Ed Haley’s art certainly attains this lofty goal. He was of his locality and era, but his work elevates the whole of human experience.
At a certain point, the rubber must meet the road, and the fundamentals of what makes Ed Haley’s fiddle playing profound need detailed examination. In addition to his aforementioned “chops,” a transcription of Haley’s version of “Half Past Four” provides the perfect vehicle for exploring his rich improvisation. He was a complete master of what is called micro-improvisation. He did not display a penchant for longform, architectural development à la J.T. Perkins or Benny Thomasson (the twin towers of modern American contest-style fiddling), but his ability to spin seemingly endless twists and turns of phrase (obviously off the cuff) that reflect his fertile imagination was basically unprecedented in the world of folk fiddling at the time when he entered the scene. The recording below demonstrates his skill at weaving a subtle but incredibly varied and coherent tapestry of musical colors that unveils the creative process at an almost spiritual level.
Haley’s probing exploration of a simple old-time fiddle tune becomes something like a musical Mandelbrot set, into which the listener can go deeper and deeper toward the building blocks of reality. He has this in common with other great artists from disparate genres who work in small-scale media (take, for example, a serious look into what Charlie Parker did with the blues in F or what Arvo Pärt does with a C major chord). This is what art is, and it can find expression not only through titans such as Bach and Beethoven but also through the creativity of an old-time Appalachian fiddler like Ed Haley.
To shine a light on what seems at first to be ineffable, take a closer look at the transcription itself. Haley freely moves through modal interchange with an ease that is deceptively difficult. He is not simply employing accidentals to create interesting colors; he is actually shifting into alternate modes in a way that would sound like musical confusion in lesser hands. His use of the Mixolydian, Dorian, and Ionian modes seems completely organic as it somehow paints a sonic portrait of Appalachia. The confluence of the music of the various ethnic groups that immigrated to this region is on full display in the microcosm of “Half Past Four.”
With the release of Stole from the Throat of a Bird: The Complete Recordings of Ed and Ella Haley, the world (as well as the larger community concerned with the aesthetic expression of Appalachian culture) now has an incredibly rich resource of music for fiddlers to study—and a great listen for anyone who enjoys and values creativity, authenticity, and significant works of art. We should all say a word of thanks to Ed Haley; to the Haley family, who have curated his legacy; to John Hartford, the man most responsible for bringing Haley’s music to the light of day in the 21st century; and to the team at Spring Fed Records at the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University for their herculean efforts to make this project a reality.
Jim Wood won 15 state fiddle and mandolin championships, including his home state’s Tennessee State Fiddle Championship five times, making him one of the most decorated contest fiddlers in history. His training is varied, including classical viola, and he studied jazz theory at Berklee College of Music. Wood has years of recording experience in Nashville studios and now owns and operates Tennessee Studios. His latest endeavor is his Jim Wood Online Acoustic Music Academy.
Notes about the Transcription
The process of transcribing music is not an exact science (especially given the amount of background noise in these recordings), and the notes and rhythms in this score are simply guides that get the ball rolling. You need to use the sheet music in conjunction with listening carefully to the source material. Given the difficulty of hearing Ed Haley’s bowing, the patterns that I have provided may or may not be exactly what he played, but they are all grounded in solid principles that are congruent with the style.
Like many fiddlers, Haley is not playing strictly in the even-tempered scale, and oftentimes notes sit in between the notes of a piano. The subtle nuance of his intonation is one of the chief characteristics of his style and technique, and his masterful microtonal shading of the notes of the modes helps to paint a portrait of his cultural milieu. Sometimes I might have chosen to write a G and sometimes a G#, but if you listen closely enough, you will hear that this is not definitive.
With the accompaniment banging away, there are places where I simply cannot hear exactly what Haley is playing, and in these cases, I have written something that makes sense to me. Under such circumstances, hearing can be a little more subjective, and someone might hear a particular passage differently from what I have written. If this is the case when you begin working through this music, then use your own judgment.
Finally, the accompaniment chords that I have provided do not exactly reflect what is on the original recording; what I have written here is more sympathetic to Haley’s fiddling and better reinforces his melodic content. Simply because certain chord choices were made in the 1940s by Haley’s accompanists does not mean that we have to be married to them. Fiddle-music accompaniment in the early days of recording generally fell somewhere between a little on the primitive side and totally off-kilter. With this having been said, this is folk music, and you should play what you like. —JW