Ed Haley was born in August 18851 on the Trace Fork of Big Harts Creek in Logan County, West Virginia. His father, Thomas Milton Haley, was a well-known fiddler in the Guyandotte and Big Sandy Valleys. His grandfather, Benjamin R. Haley, was an active Unionist in the Big Sandy River Valley during the American Civil War, as well as a fiddler. Ed's mother, Imogene Mullins, was a daughter of Andrew Jackson and Chloe (Gore) Mullins, and a descendant of "Money Makin' Sol" Mullins, the famous counterfeiter of eastern Kentucky. Ed was an only child.
Ed Haley contracted measles when he was about three years old, and subsequently lost his eyesight. Local tradition blames his father for his blindness. Reportedly, Milt dipped Ed head-first into ice cold water when he was crying from fever.
In September 1889, Milt Haley was accused along with Green McCoy of shooting Al Brumfield and his wife in Harts, Lincoln County, West Virginia. In mid-October, 1889, Haley and McCoy were captured in Martin County, Kentucky. They were returned to West Virginia and murdered by a mob at Green Shoal on October 24, 1889.
Ed Haley's mother died around 1892. Thereafter, he was raised by his maternal grandfather, Jackson Mullins, and uncle, Peter Mullins, on Trace Fork. In 1898, according to county commission records, he was placed in the care of Harrison Blair, a neighbor.
Uncle Peter Mullins supposedly gave Ed Haley his first fiddle when he was a child. Ed showed great skill with the instrument and traveled throughout the Guyandotte and Big Sandy Valleys as a young man with other local musicians. He was basically gone from Harts by 1910 but returned to visit family and friends for the remainder of his life.
Ed grew up to be a professional fiddler who traveled widely throughout West Virginia, Ohio, eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia. He had a huge repertoire of old-time music that included breakdowns, jigs, waltzes and show tunes, which he performed at square dances, fairs, street corners, fiddle contests and courthouse squares.
In the late teens, Ed married Martha Ella Trumbo, a blind piano teacher from Morehead, Kentucky. Her parents had been involved in the Martin-Tolliver Feud in Rowan County, Kentucky. Ella was educated at the Kentucky School for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky. She played mandolin and accordion with her husband for many years.
Ed Haley was one of the best known fiddlers in his region of Appalachia. He traveled frequently and performed in a variety of venues. He played over WLW in Cincinnati and made occasional studio recordings for friends, such as for Doc Holbrook in Greenup, Kentucky. He seldom recorded commercially because he was worried that record companies would take advantage of a blind man. Late in life, he made recordings for the family on a Wilcox-Gay disc-cutting machine brought home from the service by his son Ralph. The recordings feature Ed, Ella, Ralph (on guitar) and daughter Mona (vocals). Ralph eventually distributed the recordings among his five siblings. Eventually about a one-half to one-third of those recordings were released to Rounder Records. It is estimated that two thirds of Haley's recordings are still missing, lost, destroyed or unreleased by family members.
Beginning in 1990, Bluegrass and folk musician John Hartford began researching the story of Haley's life and music. Generally, Hartford spent the last years of his life promoting Haley and his significance in the world of music. He learned a number of Haley's tunes and recorded them on the Grammy-nominated albums, "Wild Hog in the Red Bush" and "Speed of the Old Long Bow: A Tribute to Ed Haley". Hartford performed Haley's arrangement of "Man of Constant Sorrow" for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? movie. Hartford and Brandon Kirk, a Harts-area historian and genealogist, collaborated on a Haley book project from 1995 until Hartford's death in 2001. The manuscript is still unpublished.
In 1975, Rounder Records released a 14-track vinyl LP of Haley's work. In 1997, after several years of promotion by John Hartford, Rounder released many of Haley's songs on two double CD sets: "Forked Deer" and "Grey Eagle", which featured expanded annotations by John Hartford and Brandon Kirk.
1 1900 Census Schedule for Logan County, West Virginia (Chapmanville District). Also, family genealogical notes taken directly from Mr. Haley and his wife.
- Wilson, Mark and Meade, Guthrie T. Ed Haley: 1883-1951 - East Kentucky/West Virginia, Old-Time Fiddlers' Hall of Fame.
- Royko, David. July 24, 1998. John Hartford follows heart to Ed Haley, Chicago Tribune (retrieved via writer's site on October 9, 2010).