Writing Tunes: A Fun and Open Discussion with John Hartford
By Peter Anick, Nov. 1996 (originally published in Fiddler Magazine)
Many of us "baby boomers" remember John Hartford's appearances on the Glen
Campbell TV show in the mid-sixties. The deep-voiced composer of "Gentle on My Mind" went on to become a fixture in the folk scene, combining his prolific songwriting, instrumental virtuosity and indefatigable footwork into a one-of-a-kind one man show that cheerfully bridged the gap between old and new.
This past summer, as John was finishing up a song writing workshop at the Winterhawk Bluegrass Festival, I asked him if he would share some thoughts about writing fiddle tunes. He suggested that we actually try composing a tune and we retired to his bus to do just that.
In this interview, John intersperses his composing with his insights on a whole range of fiddlistic topics.
- How would you compare writing a song to writing a fiddle tune?
JH: Well, writing a fiddle tune is just writing a melody, and there are songs that are fiddle tunes, or of course you can play any song as a fiddle tune, I guess. About the same kinds of things apply. I jot 'em down as they come into my head. A lot of times, I wake up in the morning, I got something on my mind, or I can just start writing, put something down and see what comes out. I usually write 'em as the basic time signature note being the 16th, put 'em all in 2/4. If it's a dotted note feel, sometimes I'll write it or sometimes I'll just assume that it's there. Sometimes you have four bar repeat fiddle tunes, sometimes you have eight bar. Of course, a lot of standard fiddle tune phrasing is two bars, two bars, and four bars.
- Do you have a particular goal in mind when you write a fiddle tune?
JH: I guess I'm always trying to write "the fiddle tune", "the melody." And I don't want it to be too complicated. I just want it to be something that's memorable. The whole study of fiddle tunes and melodies and everything really probably boils down to why you like one melody over another, which is of course the 64 dollar question.
- Any guesses?
JH: No. That's the one I don't understand. Sometimes I'll be working on a melody and say, "There's no way anybody could like this." I'll change one note in it or something, and then I'll fall in love with it. Or I'll think, "Oh this is the greatest melody I ever heard," and then I'll go to play it and it won't be worth a dime. Now sometimes, what I've been doing lately, I'll get a real good idea for a first part and I'll write the first part and rather than go ahead and writing the second part, I'll get the first part and just play it a lot. After a while, you find yourself being forced to play some kind of a second part to go with it and then that'll give me a second part and I'll go write that down.
- Do you find it harder to come up with a second part than a first part?
JH: No... [picks up his pen] let's just write a tune here. This part of it I don't understand. It's just like I turn a switch and let's just see where it goes. [hums and writes. Rearranges the bar lines.] That seems to be a pickup there, which just makes it even more interesting...
[hums it over again.] What's the date today? I always date every thing. Let's call this "Fiddler Magazine." That's a good title for it. I always give everything a title if I possibly can - just give it something to hang it on. [Picks up his fiddle] All right, here's the first part. [plays] Why that's only six bars! That even makes it more interesting. [plays it again] Yeah, I like that. Let's just make up a bridge. [hums and writes] I've got enough of this in my head that it'll kinda echo... [hums] This will kinda pull you back into that first part but it will also make us want to put a third part to it. Now this might be a little hard to play, but I'm not going to censor myself right now on that. [plays what he has written.]
Now you can write that all out in 16ths like that and make a tune where if you make a little mistake or something like that, it becomes something else or you have a train wreck. I a lot of times try to write tunes in a real simple style and not use as many 16ths as I have to unless I just absolutely need it to describe the contour of the melody, which often times I do, so that it gives me more ad libbing room. But a lot of times, after I get the jist of it, after I've played it for a while and kind of get the jist of what it is, I can go back and rewrite it like that and give myself plenty of ad libbing room. And a lot of times what I'll do is, if I start liking a tune like that, playing with it, I'll kind of get it under my fingers and play it for a while away from the paper until it starts to make sense to me. And then I'll sit back down and rewrite from memory. Cause I think a lot of these old tunes have been polished and repolished by countless people playing them and the good notes and the good runs survive and the ones that aren't so good...
- Kind of an evolutionary selection. Listening to that tune, the first part has got a nice flow to it. It caught me by surprise that it was only six measures.
JH: Yeah, I never know. I've had several tunes come out where the measures were weird but they made sense and when I tried to add measures to it, they didn't, so I just leave 'em in there.
[plays it over several times.] Now just for kicks... [writes]
Now let's just reduce that down. [plays it simplified, then fills in the holes with some ad libs, makes some changes.]
There, that kind of ties it in - makes it kinda rhyme. Cause sometimes phrases almost need to rhyme. Now, as I play that, I could be smoothing it out. [plays]
- What did you do before you learned to write music? Did you use a tape recorder?
JH: Yeah, I did it all in my head, and it was terrible because I can just sit and make up tunes all day long and if I don't catch 'em on tape, I don't remember 'em. And then, if I want to learn 'em, I got to listen to the tape times and times. So it was a lot harder. [improvises a little]
You could get that and write it out and straighten it up, add and subtract, probably make a nice little tune out of that. I don't know how that part works. Since I was a little kid...
- You 've always been able to do that?
- When did you first start playing the fiddle?
JH: Five, six years old.
- Was that your first instrument?
JH: I don't know. We had a piano around the house, used to bang on a piano.
- So your parents played?
JH: Yeah, not much.
JH: No. My grandfather played the fiddle. And an uncle who played the fiddle.
- You must have had one around the house if you were playing it when you were five!
JH: Well, my grandfather had one out at his house, and I used to sneak it out, play on it. And I was sawing around pretty good on it before anybody knew I was doing it. I did it in secret.
- Your grandfather played old-time fiddle?
JH: No, I never heard him play. I think he played mostly church music on it. I never heard him play but he had it, and I was strictly told to leave it alone. And I used to sneak it out from under the coats in the back of the closet when nobody was around. I started playing with the fiddle laying in the case like this, and I'd get the bow out. And then I got where I'd do like this - I didn't know how to tune, but I could [plays].
- Did you have tunes that you wanted to play on it at that point?
JH: Yeah, I did. My mom and dad used to go square dancing and the tunes that they danced to were all in my head, so I knew what the music sounded like.
- So they'd take you when they went square dancing?
JH: Yeah, rather than get a baby sitter. Well, the kind of square dances where everybody else took their kids, too, and while they'd be dancing, why the kids would be running wild like little Indians.
- And you'd be watching the fiddler?
JH: Yeah, coupla times they would dance to records but mostly it was a live fiddler. Used to be an old one-armed fiddler named Jess Arthur, had a fiddle bow attached to the end of his arm. And then there was an old fiddler named Dr. Gray, he was a dentist.
- So that's what got you into it?
JH: I think so. Well, I think what got me into it was that I loved music and that I was Scotch-Irish descent. Now, this tune here... [plays the tune he's just written], now we can make up a bridge to that right away or we can sit and play it for a while and see if there's a natural bridge. [plays it with several possible B-parts.]
- How many tunes do you think you've written in your life?
JH: I don't know. This is Book 66.
- And each book contains hundreds of tunes?
JH: 30, 40, 50, 60, well maybe a hundred...
- How do you decide on the names?
JH: Just whatever first thing comes into my head. But also, I collect a lot of old tunes and I also write 'em out in these books, too, and whatever I need that I want to work on, stuff like that, I xerox it out and have it on paper. This is just a master list, and then I have a way of cataloging. If I say, why, a certain tune is somewhere, it'll be in B66 P23 or something, that means it's book 66, page 23.
- Do you remember all the tunes that you've written?
JH: No, no, lord no! If they're good tunes and stick with me, yeah, then I remember them. I remember a lot of tunes that I wrote, but I certainly don't remember everything, and not everything I write would be worth remembering. Periodically, tunes that I like wherever, I just xerox them and stick 'em in a folder and then when I'm just playing around, I try playing though them.
- Do you have particular ones that you've written that you feel will have a long life?
JH: I never know. I just play what I like, and if somebody picks up on them... I wrote a thing called the "Florida Rag" that a lot of people's picked up on and play. After a while, things rise to the surface. You just mess with it and after a while stuff sticks to you and other stuff doesn't - like pollen, I guess!
- Who would you say were your main influences, on your fiddling?
JH: Well, I'd have to say Gene Goforth, Benny Martin, Ed Haley, Dr. Jimmy Gray, Texas Shorty, Benny Thomasson, Major Franklin.
- Quite a range of influences. I couldn't help but notice all the variations and different bowings you put into Billy in the Lowground yesterday.
JH: That seems to be something that I can't avoid. I'm a chronic improvisor.
- When you play something like that, how much is pre-arranged and how much is on the spot?
JH: It's all off the top of my head. If I sat down and played it for you right now, it would just come out different.
- Do you think improvisation and tune writing go hand in hand?
JH: Oh, yeah, absolutely. But part of it is, you've got to be able to improvise in the language of fiddle tunes. I mean, you can't start playing bebop scales and things like that. Although I've been experimenting with a thing I really enjoy, where you start, you leave the first 16th note out as a rest, and then start. Or, instead, if you don't want to confuse anybody, you just play something there and then you start your thought process in one 16th, or two 16ths. [Demonstrates on Billy in the Lowground.] You do the same tune, everything right in place, you just put your phrase endings in funny places. I guess, to do a tune like that, improvise on it, you got to have a pretty good handle on it. I've got tunes that I can play note for note, but, if I relaxed myself, I'll usually start fussin' with it.
- What do you consider the "language" of fiddle tunes?
JH: Boy, that'd be real hard to say! It's like Clifford Hawthorne,
an old boy I grew up with, he used to say, "I may not be the best
fiddler you ever heard, but, by God, I can tell when one's a bein'
played!" I don't know how to tell you that. I can just listen to
one and tell whether it's in the ballpark or not. Benny Thomasson
and Mark O'Connor are wonderful improvisors, and it's all in the fiddle
tune language. The improvs almost sound like it was engraved in stone.
Another good exercise that I really love to do is take a tune that
doesn't have a whole lot of parts and just start making up parts as you
go, just playing it as if it had a whole bunch of parts.
- You look like you play with a light bow.
JH: I've been trying to lighten up. I work the hardest, actually,
probably on my articulation. I think the one thing that helps in
improvising is always try to play in time, even when you're working
something out, try to keep it going and try to keep it in time. Don't
stop and noodle it out, or do that as little as possible, because then
if you don't hit something, something else will come out. It'll be OK.
And then the next time around, you can go for the thing again, and if
it doesn't work, you've got something else.
- Did you ever play in square dance bands?
JH: Well, not that so much. I mean, I got that band that I'm working
with on stage, and I like to get in jam sessions. I play for a square
dance every once in a while. I play for most square dances where we
go play a show somewhere and where there'd be some room and people want
to dance, why I'll play a couple of sets.
- How'd you decide you were going to become a professional musician?
JH: I didn't decide. It just kinda took me over. I was originally
going to be a riverboat pilot and music was my second choice, and it
just wouldn't let me alone. It tortures me by not allowing me to be
quite as good as I want to be. My lifelong quest now is trying to
teach my body how to reproduce what I hear in my head.
- How much time do you devote to writing songs versus writing tunes?
JH: I can't answer that because sometimes the tunes become songs. And
I'm very fascinated by the fact that I can mix it all up. I think one
of the last frontiers of music is the ad libbing of lyrics, cause you
see lyrics and speech come out of different sides of the brain. That's
why if you sit around with somebody and sing-talk...
If you sit around and carry on a conversation
Like this and make all of your conversation in tune
Unless you practice it day to day
Or do whatever it's real hard to keep it goin'
Because after a while you start getting absent minded
And then you get off the subject
And you can't remember what it is you're gonna say.
Or you keep singing to the same tune
So then you might want to sing to another tune
Or whatever or you start feeling silly
And then you really want to tell somebody what you want to say
And you don't want to do it in melody
So the next thing you know you're back to speech
And everybody's talking in speech
And the other way to express that is to play the melody of speech,
which is non melody. [plays some sentences on the violin, mimicking
the spoken intonation.] So you can do that, and I try to do that on
stage, if I forget words or something. I say
Well, I forgot the words to that last verse
And there's no point in tryin' to remember the words now
Because we're so far into the verse
That by the time I figure out what it's supposed to be
It'll be ready to sing the chorus
And, oops, here's the chorus so let's sing it now...
I've done all kinds of things like write 'em upside down and see if
I can make heads or tails of 'em or write 'em without any time and then
go back and do it or take another melody and write it every other note
- just crazy stuff, just to see what kind of a direction I can pull
myself in if I can get some kind of a start and then take off and see
where it's gonna take me.
- Has that helped?
JH: Yeah, it's been fun. Most of the best melodies are things I wake
up in the morning with. I'll wake up and the whole tune'll be in my
head. It's just a matter of writing it down.
- If you get distracted, then, do you lose it?
JH: Yeah, or if somebody turns on a radio or starts playing an instrument
and gets another tune going, it'll wipe it out, yeah. That's suicide
to do that around me in the morning! If I come down and I've got that
blank look in my face and somebody turns the radio on, boy, they're
usually in for some trouble!
- How do you know when a tune is done?
JH: I don't think a tune is ever done. You keep playing on it and
working on it. "Billy in the Low Ground" must not be done, if I can
stand up there and improvise on it. Theoretically. I guess it is
done - it's an ironclad tune also, though. It's a tune that anybody
can get a hold of and play and you always just about know what it is.
Those are the kind of tunes I'd like to be able to write. "Sally
Goodin" is a great iron clad fiddle tune. "Old Joe Clark". Those
standard old fiddle tunes. You know, "Sally Johnson" and "Katy Hill" -
there's only a tiny little bit of difference between those two tunes,
and they have always survived as two different tunes. Part of that
is because there used to be a thing back in the country about being able
to differentiate - it was almost a challenge, well now can you tell me
whether this is "Sally Johnson" or "Katy Hill"? It's a very fine
- Pretty subtle!
JH: Yeah, but it's there. And it's been there for years and years and
countless fiddle players, so there is something to it. I've spent a
lot of time just studying the tunes. Where's this come from, what's
this part like? Where is this fragment from? It's fun, and it's also a
good practical study of the melodies and how they got that way.
- So you've done some historical research on tracking tunes back?
JH: I sure have. Well, I read through these old tune books and every
time I find a tune that sounds like something else, I try to figure out
what it is and then I make a notation on a 3X5 card and drop it in the
card file. I love the fiddle tunes of the Big Sandy River Valley and
I like the tunes from back home in Missouri, and I like the stuff in
Texas and when I hear one, I try to figure out where it's from and
what it's like. I'm starting to believe now that "Paddy on the
Turnpike" as we know it is actually an outgrowth of an old tune called
"Snowbird on the Ashbank." Because it seems like that shows up earlier.
The study of fiddle tunes is a whole lot like studying words. If you
read the Oxford dictionary and it starts talking about the history of
words, it talks about it in terms of where was the first time this word
was published, or where was the first time that we heard this word was
used in a sentence. So I kinda put that to fiddle tunes, too. And
references to "Snowbird on the Ashbank" turn up more than do references
to "Paddy on the Turnpike" as we know it.
- Do you think there's a difference between tunes that came over from the
British Isles and tunes that were written here?
JH: Yeah. The British Isles stuff is mostly real dotted. But I feel
very confident that the old time fiddling even in the Big Sandy River
Valley and in Missouri in the vintage of the War Between the States
was probably sounding a lot more Celtic than what we're used to. I
think we've had a lot of ragtime and black influence that's made it
sound like what we hear today, which I dearly love. Or it also may be
that what we're hearing might be a lot closer to the way it was
originally and that it didn't change here and it changed back there.
It was one of the two. [plays "Paddy on the Turnpike" with a dotted
feel.] Now, if you take that lilt, that dotted note feel, and just
swing it just a hair, then you're pretty close to what Ed Haley's
- So he kind of bridges the gap.
JH: Yeah... Count Basie's playing with a lilt.
- How about bluegrass fiddling?
JH: It's blues and a lot of this stuff put together. Bill Monroe was
like an old-time fiddler except that he expresses himself on the
mandolin rather than the fiddle. It's real fast. Bluegrass is radio
music. That came about as something that sounds good on the radio. A
lot of the old-timers played real slow. Major Franklin played way too
slow to dance to. So did Benny Thomasson. They hated playing for
dances. They wouldn't do it. They were contest fiddlers! Slow it
down and put a lot of stuff into it and make it swing. I think this
music, like any other kind of music, is just all different kinds of
speeds. I think some of the tunes were played fast and some of them
were played slow. And obviously when you're presenting a whole program
of these tunes, if you play 'em all the same time, then you've really
got a pacing problem. To give good pacing, you've got to play 'em in
different keys, but then it's also good to play different times, to get
some sort of variety in it. Old time fiddler'd just like to sit and
play one old tune right after another, but the women folk and the other
people who are listening in, if they're not dancing, they'd like to
hear some variety. Want to hear a waltz once in a while, or a
schottische. May want to hear a slower tune, then a real fast one, you
- Do you know much about how waltzes got into old time fiddling?
JH: I think the waltz is the German influence. Most of this country
got settled with Scotch-Irish and German. My background is
Scotch-Irish, with a little bit of German and a tiny little bit of
French and a little bit of English. Here Scotch-Irish is the main
channel, and the tributaries are the German, and Afro, and
Scandinavian. The river of music comes down through Shetland Islands
and down through Scotland and then down through Ireland and then over
to this country, and all up and down the east coast, and then into
Pennsylvania and down into the Appalachians and down through the Ohio
River Valley and up the Mississippi and down the Mississippi and out
the Missouri and then just swinging out through Texas. It's a whole
river of Celtic music. You know the fiddler Aly Bain? Aly Bain sent
me a video of this deal that they do in the Shetland Islands where they
build a replica of a Norwegian Viking ship and they fill it with all
kind of stove wood, straw and everything like that, and they put it on
the beach and then they all march around this damn thing in the middle
of the night with burning cattails and torches and bagpipes and
fiddles. And there might be two or three hundred fiddlers all playing
all these old reels and strathspeys and all that kind of stuff, and
they march around this boat and then they set it on fire and they push
it out into the bay. And it's got something to do with the coming over
from Norway. So that means there is a Norwegian influence in this
music, and almost every music has somewhere in it fiddles and bagpipes.
Russians have it. Even Africans have some kind of a bagpipe tradition,
and of course they've all got instruments that you string up and saw
with a bow. And now, now all these cultures just have straight
- Do you think there are certain major fiddle players that might have
contributed a large number of tunes to the "traditional" repertoire
we play now?
JH: Oh sure. Absolutely. [Shows me the book "The Rantin' Pipe and
Tremblin' String" by George Emmerson, 1971]. I've read it twice and
I'm a gettin' ready to read it again. I would say in the 18th century
and the 19th century that we're looking at the Gow family - several
generations of great fiddle players in Scotland; William Marshall in
Scotland; Peter Milnes... Of, course O'Carolan - we're still finding
stuff of his. These guys were prolific. They wrote volumes of stuff,
and half of what they wrote, we don't even know they wrote it and we're
- Yeah. I was wondering whether some of the tunes that are popular
JH: Well, here's the thing. In the old days, it was not fashionable
to say "I wrote that." The old timers would write 'em and then they'd
take 'em out and play 'em and they'd say, "Here's an old tune I
remember my grandfather playing." They would never own up to making it
- Why is that?
JH: I don't know. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that they
want that tune to be an "old time" tune. This business of memory in
music, and this business of "old time" and it going back and it being
that thing seems to be very important. In other words, the words "old
time" - I think you'd be real hard to get that divorced from the word
fiddling. Does that make sense? And so many fiddle sessions, old men
like to come to fiddle sessions and listen and say, "Yup. That's the
way that's supposed to go. By God, now that's the old time way of
playing that, son!" See, it's all couched in that kind of thing. I
grew up with that. It was all old time and fantasizing about, "God,
wouldn't you have loved to heard granpa play that! Wouldn't you like to
hear old so-and-so, wish he was still around. Boy, he could tear that
thing up!" You know, and everything like that.
- So did that make it tough on you as a writer who wanted to play some of
your new tunes?
JH: Well, if I wanted to, I could just write tunes and say, "Well,
here's an old tune I learned back in double-ought six!" Or whatever.
Yeah, it does. It does. A lot of fiddle players, the minute they
found out you wrote the tune, they're reluctant to play it. Bill
Monroe certainly had that problem but then he got to a point where
people were really digging on what he wrote, so they started playing
what he would write.
- It'll be interesting - a hundred years from now, people may be playing
your tunes and saying, "This is an old tune from way back!"
JH: Well, they might and they might not. The whole study is what
survives and why. Some tunes, the reason they hang around is because
they are hard to play and they become competitive pieces. Scotty
Fitzgerald, he played a tune [plays], which is "Acrobat's Hornpipe."
And that's in Bb and it's got a lot of fingering to it and everything
like that. It's not an ironclad tune, necessarily, but it's got a lot
of shit on it so that it can be competitive. It's like, "All right,
let's see you play this!" and it makes a good contest piece. A lot of
fiddling is competitive. It's centered around contests, who can beat
who, and that is part of its beauty. To a fiddler, that's beautiful.
- What exactly is your definition of an "ironclad" tune?
JH: Well, it's any tune, to me, that anybody can play and mess up
pretty bad and it'll still be that tune. As opposed to a tune where, if
somebody messes it up, it either becomes something else or it just
falls apart. [demonstrates by playing "Old Joe Clark" a dozen very
different ways]. Now the core of "Old Joe Clark" is just [plays], so
all those rhythmic hooks and everything like that, I can take any one
of those tunes and start dressing it up with rhythmic hooks, you know.
And also, too, the way you play has a lot to do with it. One guy can
take a melody and it's just, "Hmmm. I don't see anything in that." and the
next guy can play the exact same notes and you go, "God, do I love
- That's the problem with written music, I think.
JH: But it's also a problem with recorded music, because if you're
working on the cassette, you put a tune down and you're so influenced
by your performance that you can't see that worth of the tune. But if
you've got it on paper, you don't hear the performance and then you can
really judge the piece. It works both ways.
[Some months later, we continued the interview by phone. John has
reworked his "Fiddler Magazine" tune a bit, extending the 6 measure
sections to 8 measures and adding another part.]
JH: That last part, it just occurred to me it needed a part where the
notes "dwelled" a little bit. It's kind of a ragtime thing, and also
I like it when a fiddle tune has a part in there that kinda sounds like
it's the tune and then kinda sounds like somebody stole it out of an
- Are there any places where you think a specific bowing ought to be
JH: Not really, cause I don't really think of bowing that way. Maybe
I should, but I kinda improvise the bowing as I go along, and I try to
change it up, of course. I kind of agree with Mark O'Connor about not
keeping the same pattern any longer than about two bars. And I'll play
long bow and then I'll play two and three notes per stroke and then
I'll play some of that off string bowing, and then 2 and 1 1, you know
yah, dah dah, yah. I play a little bit of that sometimes.
Of course, a lot of times, after you get a handle on the melody, which
is like a joke - it's like getting a joke - once you get a handle on
the melody, you're liable not to play it exactly note for note the same
way every time you go through it, so then your bowing will probably
- How would you categorize the "style" of the "Fiddler Magazine" tune?
JH: Oh I don't know if I would. It just came out of my head. And
what's in my head is all the influences I've ever had, all the way
back to growing up with Dr. Gray and Gene Goforth, and people I played
with when I was young.
- Could you talk a little more about your interest in Ed Haley's music?
JH: Basically, I heard Ed Haley's music on that Rounder record and I just
absolutely fell in love with it. And then I began to try to find out
more about Ed and try to find more of that music, and I eventually met
Ed's son, Lawrence. And we went to where Ed was from in Harts Creek,
West Virginia, and started discovering stuff about his story and his
background. And one thing led to another and we started digging out
the history, and now Brandon Kirk and I are in the process of making a
book about it. And the book'll have a lot of transcriptions of tunes,
and it'll tell how I learned about Ed's fiddling from Lawrence.
Lawrence and I spent a lot of time sitting around the kitchen table and
I'd play something, I'd say, "Well, now, how about this?" And he'd
say, "No, that don't look right and it don't sound right. He played
more of a long bow and the note did such-and-so." And then I'd play
something and he'd say, "Well, now that's OK, but he played it faster
than that," or "He played it slower than that." Or he'd say things
like, "Well, you're using too many notes," or "You're not putting
enough umph into it," or "You're putting too much umph in it." And
eventually we just zeroed in on what I now refer to as the Ed Haley bow
stroke and bow hold. And then Lawrence let me have recordings of all
the rest of the tunes, and Bob Carlin and I are in the process of
putting all those tunes together to come out on Rounder. It's gonna be
four CD's of all the breakdowns of Ed Haley.
Bobby Taylor, from over in Charleston, West Virginia, learned a lot
from Clark Kessinger. Clark Kessinger learned a lot from Ed Haley,
and Bobby Tayor had some good clues to what the Ed Haley bow stroke
was. Also, I believe in genetic memory. I believe that you're born
with the memories of your parents and your ancestors, but you need
these little clues and little reminders to bring things out.
Now there were times when Lawrence would look at me and he'd say, "Boy,
I just don't know, cause I don't play the fiddle and I don't know music
and I don't know what to call it." And there were other times when he
would talk to me and he'd start thinking, "Well, it would seem to me
like if it was the bow pressure and little subtle pressures here and
yonder," and next thing you'd know, he'd be talking as if he were an
expert and it would be stuff that would be valid. So it's hard to say
if it was logic or genetic memory. I prefer to think that it was
probably a little bit of both and maybe you'd be surprised at how much
genetic memory it really was! After a while, I got to kidding him and
referring to him as my fiddle professor.
And then what I would do is I'd come back to the house and I'd play
onto tape and I'd listen to it and I'd compare the tape to what Ed was
doing. I've learned a lot about music playing it on tape and listening
to it back and then playing it again and trying to make it better.
I feel like when you're actually playing music that what you listen to
is a lot different than when you just listen to it, and you can't
really hear it the way you want to hear it when you hear it, so to
speak. So I think tape is real good feedback for things like that.
- Now, other than Clark Kessigner, were there many other fiddle players
that picked up things from Ed Haley?
JH: Oh, I think so, yeah. A lot of old fiddle players that we talked
to, practically every one that we talked to said that the best fiddle
player they ever heard was Ed Haley. And then we ran into people who
heard their parents talk about Ed Haley. Little Jimmy Dickens told me
one time backstage at the Grand Ole Opry that his daddy used to mention
Ed Haley as being the best fiddle player he ever heard and Kenny Baker
told me one time that his daddy had heard Ed Haley and said that he was
the best fiddler he had ever heard. The reason that his music wasn't
known was because he didn't ever record on a record label or he never
played on the radio. He only played on the street. So people that
heard him would have had to have just heard him on the street or around
a courthouse or something like that. Cause he didn't go out and play
stage shows or do anything like that. He was blind and he was
suspicious of people. So music with him was very much of a cash and
carry situation. You want to hear a tune, you put some money in the
hat and he'll play the tune for you, and play a good long version to
it. And he played dances, but he never would make any records.
- Do you know if Ed ever wrote any tunes?
JH: Yes, he only admitted to writing a couple of tunes but in
researching a lot of his tunes, I think he probably wrote more than he
actually owned up to - which is actually a very old fashioned concept.
Now, what Ed would do, Ed was known to improvise a lot. He'd take a
little two part tune and he'd improvise parts on it and he always
claimed, he said when he started one out you'd be able to know what it
was but when he got off in the middle of it, especially if it was a
tune he played for ten or fifteen minutes, he said you might not
recognize it at all. And then when he got down to the end of it, you'd
recognize it. The fiddlers of the British Isles, when they play, in
order to get variety, they play medleys of tunes. Over in this
country, Ed Haley and particularly the guys in Texas, they play the
same tune but they improvise parts on it, and that is essentially the
same thing but they group it all as the same tune. And it's
interesting because Ed Haley inspired Clark Kessinger and Clark
Kessinger inspired Benny Thomasson and Major Franklin, who are kind of
the leaders of the Texas contest movement, which is basically taking
those old two-part tunes and improvising a lot of parts to them, and
then those parts become engraved in stone and become part of the tune.
- Do you think that's one of the reasons that Ed Haley was so
respected - his ability to improvise?
JH: I think so. Yeah, he was like a jazz musician. He was like the
Charlie Parker of fiddling up there. He loved Scott Joplin, and you
can hear a real ragtime influence in lots of his tunes. But, see, the
whole thing in fiddling when you improvise is to improvise in such a
way that it doesn't sound like you're improvising. It just sounds like
old parts, or it sounds like something that was already engraved in
stone. And I think he was real good at that.
- Has your own fiddling style changed from this research?
JH: I would say definitely. Ed has become a tremendously big influence
I hear a lot of music and then I go off and the music starts
recombining itself in my head and I guess that's the improvising. I
can remember the tunes, but then the tunes all go together and start
marrying each other and producing new tunes in my head, and I don't
know where it comes from. That's probably the part of what I am and
what I do that I understand the least. It's like there's a valve in
there and I turn the valve and all this stuff comes out.