Hughie Ellis

When West Virginia University professor Patrick Gainer recorded William Hughie Ellis of Logan County in 1959, he sang and played the banjo, cracked jokes, regaled the small audience in the room with his ghost stories and humorous tall tales and said that he could play two hundred and sixty-eight different banjo tunes. And when asked if he ever played the fiddle he said “I used to play a right smart fiddle.”

William Hughie Ellis was born sometime between 1883 and 1887 (accounts and documents vary) at Henlawson, Logan County, on the farm his parents owned in what is now Chief Logan State Park.  And he was raised there “right down at the head of Snap Creek” that flows into the Guyandotte River.  We know of him and his music chiefly because he was an elder brother to Aunt Jennie Wilson, the well-known Logan County banjo player; his style is quite similar to hers. The Gainer tape is the only known recording of Mr. Ellis.   In that recording he played in both clawhammer and finger-picking styles; the tunes he played included If I Were a Gambler, and the fiddle tune/breakdown Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss, which he calls My Blue-Eyed Daisy.  After playing Cripple Creek, he said that he had “danced that a thousand times.”

Mr. Ellis also spoke briefly about the kinds of work people did in his younger years.  Coal mining took hold in Logan County in 1904 but in 1910 he was a laborer in a lumber camp and when interviewed by Gainer he remembered those years in which timbering was still a dominant industry in West Virginia.  And so he spoke of digging for ginseng, cutting timber, running log rafts, and working on the boats that pushed the rafts down river.

He seemed to relish telling of his experiences making molasses from the cane he grew, beginning at the age of seventeen.  He said that “people bragged on” the molasses he made and he’d “let neighbors and friends all gang up in there and eat molasses and have a big time,” when no doubt he’d play music and they’d all dance.

In 1910 his family still had the farm and he apparently lived there at the time he was working at a nearby lumber camp, but by 1917 he had moved to Kitchen and was working as a miner for the Guyandotte Coal Company. In 1920 he listed his occupation as laborer in the Chapmanville mines but by 1930 he had left mining and noted that he was a farmer working on his own land. In 1940 he was serving as a Justice of the Peace in Chapmanville.

Mr. Ellis died on 2 February 1972 and was buried at the Maston Conley Family Cemetery at Chapmanville, very near where he lived.  Above his name on the headstone is a banjo.   [See photo below.]

—Gloria Goodwin Raheja, February 2021, with musical commentary and additional information/pictures from Chris Haddox, via conversations with Danny Ellis, February 2022.


  • Gloria Goodwin Raheja’s research for her book Logan County Blues: Frank Hutchison in the Sonic Landscape of the Appalachian Coalfields.
  • Patrick Gainer Collection, A&M 3003, Tape 119 Side 2.  West Virginia University Library, West Virginia and Regional History Center.
  • Danny Ellis, Logan, WV, conversations with Chris Haddox, February 2022. 

Finding Hughie's Grave

While many of the cemeteries in this project require some effort to find and visit, the Maston Conley cemetery--where Hughie is at rest--is nearly an in-town cemetery.  It is situated up on a hill above Hughie's homeplace in Chapmanville, WV, above the four lane highway known as Corridor G, and just a stone's throw from the big Chapmanville school complex, numerous houses, and the Evans Funeral Home.  As we learned, the road leading up to the cemetery is gated and locked as it leads to a private residence at the top of the wooded hill.  Fortunately, access was easily attained after speaking with a nice gentleman at Evans Funeral home.  He opened the gate and allowed us to drive up to visit the cemetery and in short order we found Hughie's grave. As referenced in the biography above, we do have a recording of Hughie talking with an audience where he references playing Cripple Creek quite often--a thousand times--so a little banjo rendition of that tune seemed an appropriate offering!   


Listen to Hughie Ellis entertain an audience in this sound recording made by Patrick Gainer in 1959.  

The physical setting for this conversation between Hughie and WVU Professor, Patrick Gainer, is unknown. I initially thought it might have been at the WV State Folk Festival in Glenville, WV, but the archives there have no records of Hughie Ellis having ever attended.  Given that Hughie says in the recording that "this is about as far from home as I've ever been," and "you people up here probably don't believe everything I'm saying," I'm guessing that Gainer may have arranged for Hughie to come to Morgantown, where Gainer was based at the time.  

William Hughie Ellis interview with Patrick Gainer in 1959


Go with us to Hughie's grave for a little banjo tune!  

I butcher the name of the cemetery a bit in the video introduction, saying Conley Maston/Matson.  Turns out that Maston Conley is one of the folks buried in the cemetery.  Civil War buffs will find this interesting because of Maston's Confederate solider status.  Interestingly, the gentleman who opened the gate for us referred to the cemetery as the Matheny Cemetery, and there is a Howard D. Mathena buried here.  

Hughie Ellis Grave Visit and Banjo Tune