In search of blind fiddler Ed Haley

Posted by | December 3, 2012

Please welcome guest author Brandon Ray Kirk. Kirk, an instructor of American history at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, is a scholar on Appalachian feuds and Southern violence. He possesses an M.A. degree in history from Marshall University and has written more than fifty articles on Appalachian-themed topics for regional newspapers and books. Through his close association with the late John Hartford, he authored a biography on musician Ed Haley. The following piece on Haley can be found on Kirk’s blog, where he shares in depth his ongoing exploration of Ed Haley’s life.


In 1981, roughly thirty years after Ed Haley’s death, my search to know everything about his life and music began at a second hand music store in Boulder, CO. While thumbing through a box of records of early radio stars and bluegrass artists with familiar names like The Skillet Lickers, Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs I saw this certain green and yellow album cover. On its front was a picture of a blind fiddler buttoned up in an overcoat. On its back was a drawing of a steamboat landed at a wharf. Nearby the drawing was a brief note: “This album consists of home recordings made in 1946 by Ed Haley, a blind Kentucky fiddler who never made a commercial record. The original discs were prepared by his family in order to preserve some of their father’s music and were never intended for public use.”

The album was titled Parkersburg Landing, an apparent geographical reference to the small city by that name on the Ohio River. “Even twenty-five years after his death, anyone researching fiddle music in West Virginia or eastern Kentucky is certain to learn of Ed Haley,” the album cover proclaimed. I had never heard of anyone named Ed Haley, but I bought the album and mailed it home to Nashville anyway. I knew that part of the country was a traditional hotbed of great musicians.

Some time later (I forget exactly when – it’s difficult to recall now), I rediscovered Parkersburg Landing 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.”

Like most Americans, I was somewhat familiar with the Hatfield-McCoy feud. I knew the names Devil Anse Hatfield and Randolph McCoy. I remembered hearing about some kind of trouble over a pig. But after looking through a few books about the feud, I could find no reference to any Haleys killed in it. Actually, maps showed Harts Creek – the place of Haley’s birth – situated a significant distance from feud sites. Haley was born in the Guyandotte Valley of northern Logan County, while the Hatfield-McCoy Feud occurred primarily in the Tug Fork Valley of western Logan County (now Mingo County).

I wondered about Haley’s family life. What happened to his father? How old was he when his mother was murdered? And what influences did either parent have on his life? Did he have any siblings? And who was “Aunt Liza”?

I was also fascinated by Haley’s blindness. There is a long history of blind musicians, from Turlough O’Carolan, the famous eighteenth century Irish harper, to Doc Watson, the legendary guitar player from North Carolina. Surely, the optic perception and visual hallucinations of a blind man are much more intense and interesting than what sighted people see. There’s no telling what incredible pictures Haley saw in his mind when he played music, when he was in the “zone,” seeing the colors and smelling the smells. I found it interesting that Haley, unlike most of the blind musicians I knew, had not been born blind. According to Parkersburg Landing, he lost his eyesight at the age of three. It was possible, then, that he possessed faint memories of sight. Did he remember his mother’s face? His father’s hands?

Parkersburg Landing revealed that measles caused Haley’s blindness. In the late nineteenth century, measles constituted a serious childhood disease. Its initial symptoms, as per Household Cyclopedia of General Information (1881), were “inflammatory fever, drowsiness, pain in the pit of the stomach, pain in the back [and] vomiting.” On the third day, little red points resembling fleabites appear on the face, neck and breast. Two days later, “little round vesicles filled with a transparent fluid appear on the top of each pimple. The eruptive fever now declines. On the ninth day the pustules are perfectly formed, being round and filled with a thick, yellow matter, the head and face also swelling considerably. On the eleventh day the matter in the pustules is of a dark yellow color, the head grows less, while the feet and hands begin to swell. The secondary fever now makes its appearance. The pustules break and dry up in scabs and crusts, which at last fall off, leaving pits, which sufficiently mark the cause.”

Ed Haley likely contracted a particularly terrible case of measles, called “the confluent.” In that case, according to Household Cyclopedia, “all the symptoms are more violent from the beginning. There is delirium, preceded by great anxiety, heat, thirst, vomiting, etc. The eruption is irregular, coming out on the second day in patches, the vesicles of which are flatted in; neither does the matter they contain turn to a yellow, but to a brown color. Instead of the fever going off on the appearance of the eruption, it is increased after the fifth day, and continues throughout the complaint. The face swells in a frightful manner, so as to close the eyes; sometimes putrid symptoms prevail from the commencement.”

While there were various treatments for measles, Household Cyclopedia recommended the victim be placed “in a cool, airy room” and “lightly covered with bed clothes. Purge him moderately with salts, and give him thirty drops of laudanum every night. The diet should consist of panada, arrow-root, etc., and his drink consist of lemonade or water. If from any cause the eruption strikes in, put him into a warm bath, give a little warm wine whey, or the wine alone, and apply blisters to the feet. Obstinate vomiting is to be quieted by the effervescing draught, with the addition of a few drops of laudanum. If the eyes are much affected, it will be necessary to bathe them frequently with warm milk, and to smear the lids with some simple ointment.”

Measles can cause corneal blindness through several mechanisms, including acute vitamin A deficiency, exposure keratitis, herpes simplex keratitis, secondary infection and harmful traditional remedies. Vitamin A deficiency, a common condition today among poor people of the world, begins with night blindness. If untreated, it causes the conjunctiva, the mucous membrane lining the inner surface of the eyelids and extending over the forepart of the eyeball, to dry. Thereafter, the cornea shrivels up and becomes ulcerated. Triangular gray spots may appear on the white of the eye. Finally, total and irreversible blindness results due to inflammation and infection in the interior of the eye.

I could just picture little Ed Haley, suffering from measles, stumbling and grasping in an ever-darker world without the words to express himself. And all he may have needed to save his sight was a strong diet of liver, eggs, milk and carrots.

2 Responses

  • Susan Riley says:

    Posting the 1900 Census on Edward Haley which shows him being raised by his maternal Grandfather. His mother was not killed in the Hatfield and McCoy feuds, she died of illness in 1892. His father however, was killed by a mob along with a man by the name of Green McCoy for the killing of a couple which they were accused of. Below is the census showing Ed at the age of 14 at home with his grandparents.

    1900 United States Federal Census about James E Haley
    Name: James E Haley
    Age: 14
    Birth Date: Aug 1885
    Birthplace: West Virginia
    Home in 1900: Chapmanville, Logan, West Virginia
    Race: White
    Gender: Male
    Relation to Head of House: Grand Son
    Marital Status: Single
    Father’s Birthplace: Virginia
    Mother’s Birthplace: West Virginia
    Occupation: View on Image
    Neighbors: View others on page
    Household Members:
    Name Age
    Jackson Mullins 55
    Chloe A Mullins 65
    James E Haley 14

  • Brandon Kirk says:

    Susan. You are correct. Our story, or “search,” begins with what we initially learned from Parkersburg Landing and continues on with our many new discoveries about Ed’s life and music. To follow our research, which we mostly compiled between 1991-2001, please see my blog at

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