James Howes

Mr. James Howes was born in 1928 at Sarah Ann, in Logan County, WV.  He is the grandson of Frank Marcus Howes (1875-1928). Frank Marcus Howes, born on May 2, 1875 in Boyd County, Kentucky, was a champion fiddler in Catlettsburg, Kentucky. Mr. Howes said, “My grandfather Frank Howes died when I was an infant but he was a champion fiddler around Catlettsburg, Kentucky, back in his time. But I never heard him play. After he grew up he never would play no more. He just quit playing. But my father told me he was a champion fiddler. Frank Marcus Howes. My grandfather died in 1931 or ’33.” Mr. Howes said his grandfather came to Logan County as a carpenter foreman for the coal company. He married Mary Hatfield (1873-1963), a daughter of Devil Anse Hatfield. Mr. Howes’ father, James Anderson “Anse” Howes, was born on May 13, 1903 in Logan County. F.A. Howes, grandfather to Mr. Howes, died at Stirrat in Logan County on October 13, 1928 and was buried in Hatfield Cemetery at Sarah Ann. Mr. Howes said, “He died up there. He was a carpenter and a boiler maker. He come up, you know, with the coal camps. He was a carpenter foreman.” Mr. Howes’ father, Anse Howes, died on January 5, 1939 in a coal mine accident in Logan County. He is also buried in Hatfield Cemetery.

Mary Jane (Hatfield) Howes, wife of Frank Marcus Howes and grandmother to Mr. Howes, was a daughter of Devil Anse Hatfield. She was born in 1873 and died in 1963. Of his grandmother, Mr. Howes said: “Well yeah, she always carried a pistol. She could shoot a snake’s head off. She was good.” She loved her dad (Devil Anse). Mr. Howes knew or heard about Devil Anse’s sons Tennis, Joe, Willis, Cap, and Johnse—but not Bob. He said: “Uncle Joe Hatfield, he said I looked like Johnse.” Mr. Howes said Devil Anse’s kids “got along real well” with one another. He said of Tennis Hatfield: “Tennis was sort of a, he liked the ladies and he liked to drink. He lost a fortune. He lost all of Devil Anse’s property.” He owned the Hatfield homeplace when it burned. “I think he had the insurance on it,” Mr. Howes said.

Regarding Devil Anse’s military service during the Civil War, he said: “Devil Anse was a captain in the Confederate Army and him and McCoy served together. And then Harmon McCoy, he got on the other side, and got crippled. I guess they discharged him. And he come home. And the McCoys, his own people, outcast him because he fought for the wrong side. And some claim that Devil Anse killed him, but he never. It was Uncle Jim.” This is the story handed down in the family, Mr. Howes said—it’s not from a book. He added of Devil Anse: “There’s a lot that gets connected to a person like Devil Anse that he didn’t do.”

Regarding the Hatfield-McCoy feud, Mr. Howes said: “It started when the McCoy boys killed Ellison.” When asked if his grandmother told stories about the feud, he said, “Oh yes. She told a lot of them.” He said some of what is in the books is true…and some of it is not true. His grandmother told stories that no one knows now except for Mr. Howes. He said, “She participated. See, during that feud, men couldn’t work out in the fields because they’d get ambushed and the women had to do the work. She plowed a many a day with a .30.30. Because if a man stepped out, he was gone. I guess they would stay in the house all day and of a night slip out. Get out, walk around, or whatever.”

When asked if the Hatfields were musical people, Mr. Howes said: “The Hatfields didn’t play too much music. There was one Hatfield, I think he played the fiddle. I can’t think of his name. Johnsie would dance all night when they played music. He was a woman chaser.” The fiddler, Mr. Howes said, was maybe a son of Devil Anse’s brother. Mr. Howes said: “Wall Hatfield was a great singer, him and some of his siblings. He was a brother to Devil Anse. They put him in prison and he didn’t participate in the killing but they put him in prison because he was a Hatfield. He died there.” Two Mahons married Wall’s daughters. Mr. Howes pronounced their name as May-hon.

When asked about the Blue Goose Saloon on Cow Creek (once operated by Tennis Hatfield and Don Chafin), he said, “They carried money out of there.”

Dingess Ancestry

Lee Dingess (1865-1931) of Harts Creek in Logan County was Mr. Howes’ grandfather. He was a lawyer on the West Fork of Harts Creek. His first wife was a Gore; they had three children. Then he married Mary Dingess. “My grandparents were third cousins, I believe,” Mr. Howes said. He said that his mom took him to visit on West Fork “quite often.” They rode the train from Logan to Chapmanville and then walked to West Fork. Mr. Howes remembers some of the eccentric characters on West Fork: Auglin Bryant and Po and Dow Dingess. Regarding Auglin: “My mother said he would wear all kinds of clothes in the wintertime. Liked to eat a lot.”

Mr. Howes is the son of Hattie (Dingess) Howes (1904-1951), the daughter of Lee. His mom was a schoolteacher and came from Harts Creek to Sarah Ann to teach school; she subsequently met her future husband (Mr. Howes’ father). He said, “Well, she was a schoolteacher. She came up there to teach school.  And she stayed with my grandfather. And that’s how they met. And they got married.” She originally taught below Sarah Ann, then later was transferred to Sarah Ann. She was postmaster at Sarah Ann. She played multiple musical instruments, including a fiddle. He said: “She played real low. She played ‘Barbara Allen.’ Sometimes she’d sing but she didn’t sing when she played. Of the night she’d sing to us children. She could keep a tune.” Mr. Howes still has her fiddle. “Me and her went in it together. We didn’t have no money. I went to work. That $18 fiddle from Montgomery Ward. I’ve still got it. It’s still playable. She could play about anything she wanted to play.”

Mr. Howes’ Fiddling Background

He bought his fiddle from a Marcum on Mud Fork in the 1950s by trading him two dollars of wine; he didn’t want to give Marcum’s first name because the story involved wine. Marcum was a guitar player.

“Red River Valley” was the first tune that Mr. Howes learned.

Po and Dow Dingess used to beat on Mr. Howes’ fiddle strings while he played the fiddle. He said, “I played the fiddle and they beat on the fiddle with sticks. They were a little bit off.”

Mr. Howes learned how to play “Ragtime Annie” from a Clark Kessinger record. Later in the interview he said he never learned from records. He plays “Ragtime Annie” in G.

He remembers hearing Arthur Smith play on the radio. Mr. Howes never learned tunes from the radio.

Mr. Howes plays his fiddle in church but said he hadn’t been playing much lately.

Local Fiddlers and Musicians

Mr. Howes was born at Sarah Ann. He’s still there. He said: “We didn’t hear many fiddle players. The first time I really heard somebody playing fiddle was from over in Mingo County: the Hatfield group [at Beech Creek]. Boy, it really turned me on. Well, there was a Hatfield group. Had one woman in it. About three. One of them played the fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and so on. I think the fiddle player’s name was Marion Hatfield. He was good. I was about just a teenager when I heard that. He played bluegrass. They was a good band. First time I heard a band.”

Mr. Howes said that Delmer Adkins was the best local fiddler. Adkins was a left-handed fiddler who lived in Logan during the mid-1940s. Mr. Howes has a fiddle made in Germany. He said that Delmer Adkins used to play it.

Mr. Howes said that Ed Haley was pretty good. He liked some of his tunes. Mr. Howes said: “Oh, yeah. He was older when I saw him. I remember him. He used to, him and his wife, there at the courthouse, outside. He didn’t talk much. He just played mostly. He was playing and the coroner fellow, he played that ‘Ragtime Annie’ and that coroner couldn’t remember what the name of it was and he said, ‘Play that little tune called ___.’ Of course, Ed knew what he said. Him and his wife sang. She mostly sang. More in the summertime. He’d sit there in front of the courthouse. Mostly him and her. She was heavyset and he was at that time.” Mr. Howes doesn’t remember how Ed Haley bowed a fiddle—he just saw him. People were good to Ed. “Nobody insulted him or anything. People would gather around and throw a bit of money in a cup. He spent a lot of time on the West Fork.” Mr. Howes said he didn’t see the Haley kids. He added: “I used to listen to him there on the streets in Logan, him and his wife. She was blind, too.” He also said: “He was good. Don’t get me wrong. There was some tunes I couldn’t relate, you know.”

Ed Belcher, whose business was located in West Logan, was a good fiddler. He came to tune a piano once for Mr. Howes and he played the fiddle. Mr. Howes said: “He tuned a piano for me years ago. Yeah, he played… When he come and tuned a piano for me, he played the fiddle. He played good. He played double notes and stuff. He was more like country. He knew his music. He was the only guy, I guess, in Logan who could tune pianos.””

Clark Kessinger played “Lost Indian.” Mr. Howes said: “You know, him and Haley played together a lot.”

Chris played a tune on his banjo and Mr. Howes said: “I grew up around a guy by the name of Frank Slagle and that’s the style he played. He was from Tennessee originally. Worked in the mines. Got crippled up.”

Mr. Howes does not remember any fiddle contests in Logan.

Dealer Dave Dingess, a brother to Lee Dingess, of Harts Creek could play three tunes—at least, that’s all that Mr. Howes ever saw him play. “I heard him play three songs. My dad had an old fiddle and Sherman Gore at Holden repaired it for him. Didn’t do a very good job. So my dad took that fiddle down to Harts Creek and got Dave to play. He played three tunes. He said that’s all I can play. He didn’t use much bow.” Mr. Howes doesn’t recall where Dealer Dave held the fiddle (under chin or on chest) but he said he didn’t use much bow when playing.

When asked about a fiddler known as Dirty John, Mr Howes said he wasn’t too good on the fiddle because he tried to cut it short, to play like the old timers, but he could play a bass, banjo, and mandolin well.

Bill Adkins from here in the Logan area was a good caller.

-Interview conducted by Brandon Ray Kirk and Chris Haddox, August 7, 2020, Chief Logan State Park


Videos of Mr. Howes playing tunes with Chris Haddox

Videos of Mr. Howes fiddling