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Ed Haley once told Skeets Williamson “I like to flavor up a tune so that nobody in the world could tell what I’m playing.”
(pardon this interruption, but I must take an opportunity to ensure that you appreciate the name “Skeets”. They just don’t make names like they used to.)
The intricate and expressive bowings of Ed Haley have bewitched many a fiddler over the years, perhaps notably John Hartford, who recorded two Grammy nominated albums of Haley’s tunes (and as if emulating his complex and technique-driven style wasn’t challenging enough, many of the existing recordings of Haley’s playing blurs the line between low fidelity and noise).
But those who’ve endured have found the struggle well worth the effort.
Born in Logan County, West Virginia in 1885, Haley lost his sight to the measles virus at the age of 3, but was ultimately able to channel that setback into a prodigious gift with the devil’s box.
He’s a legend in the world of old time fiddle, though his approach would be considered idiosyncratic compared to what’s most often heard these days. Rather than see a tune as a fixed entity, Haley used it as a launching point, a canvas upon which he could paint his own variations, and embellish with structural alterations.
Case in point, those of you who’ve learned the Boatman from the August 2014 Tune of the Week will find some notable melodic and structural departures from that version.
I first heard Haley’s Boatman on the banjo from Mac Benford, who recorded and released it as part of his album “Half Past Four.” Mac’s ambitious mission there was to re-create the nuances of Haley’s fiddling on the banjo (I highly recommend it – it remains one of my favorite banjo albums).
I’ve borrowed quite liberally from Mac with my version. If you’re going to steal, might as well steal from the best.
Ed Haley’s Boatman
gDGBD tuning (tuned low on the gourd), Brainjo level 3
Notes on the Tab
Notes in parentheses are “skip” notes. To learn more about these, check out my video lesson on the subject.
For more on reading tabs in general, check out this complete guide to reading banjo tabs.
Level 2 arrangements and video demos for the Tune (and Song!) of the Week tunes are now available as part of the Breakthrough Banjo course. Learn more about it here.
Click here for a current list of all the clawhammer songs and tunes currently available inside of The Vault