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Cambridge, Mass. 02140
"I like to flavor up a tune," fiddler Ed Haley said, attempting to explain his ornamental style to one of the city folk who discovered the old man and his music late in his life. He took pride in his ability to "flavor up" a tune so well, as he put it, "that nobody in the world could tell what I'm playing."
Haley's musicianship stood him in good stead around Logan County, West Virginia, where he was born in 1883. It carried him, blind since the age of three from an attack of the measles, all about West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. It carried him from busking in courthouse squares on court days to square dances, eking out a bare living with his wife Ella, but influencing a generation of fiddlers to come.
Never celebrated beyond the region he traveled and his home in Ashland, Kentucky, Haley acquired a huge repertoire of breakdowns, jigs, waltzes, minstrel show tunes, and show pieces. Thirty-six are recorded on these two CDs -- and, one imagines, a similar number on Rounder's unheard second volume of Haley's fiddling, Grey Eagle (Rounder 1133/34).
These 36 are dazzling examples of the older form of Appalachian fiddling, instrument to the chest (not under the chin), fiddle sometimes moving under a stationary bow. If the sonic quality is less than state of the art -- these were homemade recordings on aluminum or acetate discs ca. 1947 -- the musicianship is exceptional.
Fourteen of the tracks were offered by Rounder on a 1972 LP, with extensive notes by Gus Meade and Mark Wilson. Two decades later, and probably at the prompting of revival banjo player John Hartford, everything that could be salvaged of the original 100 home recordings has been released (the list of credits on the last page of Hartford's exemplary notes is very long, suggesting just how much effort it took to bring this project to market).
Here then is Forked Deer, Kentucky style; Cripple Creek, as favored in West Virginia; Haley's own showpiece Cherry River Rag; the aching, haunting melody of A Man of Constant Sorrow and dozens more making up the basic fiddle repertoire of the northern Appalachians. Ed Haley's fiddle, which supported his family for almost fifty years, lives on.
Ed Haley died in 1951, wistfully hoping "someone might pattern after me a little when I'm dead." Thanks to Rounder, fiddlers not born when Blind Ed Haley died will have that opportunity.
Edited by Cynthia A. Harney