29 “The Wild Wagoner” by J.W Day (Jilson Setters)


October 22, 2009 by gadaya

J.W Day’s World

“In a windowless cabin, hidden away in a high cranny of the Kentucky mountains, lived Jilson Setters, who, for all his sixty-five years, had never seen a railroad. Neither had he heard a phonograph nor a radio. His home-made fiddle and his ‘ballets’ were good enough for Jilson Setters and mountain folk.”

from: “The Last Minstrel” by Jean Thomas, The English Journal, December, 1928909

The story around Kentucky old-time fiddler James W. Day  is an interesting case of mystified folkore. Born in 1861 in Rowan County, Kentucky, J.W Day was a blind fiddler and singer, often living as a beggar musician in the small towns around Kentucky. At the end of the twenties, a young woman interested in folklore named Jean Thomas “discovered” him as she was collecting songs and stories in Kentucky. Fascinated by the way mountain people  preserved  traditions of the British Isles, notably the singing of the old ballads, Thomas created the “American Folk Song Festival” to present authentic perfomers of mountain music. The feestival was held every year in Kentucky from 1930 to 1972. When she met J.W Day, she had the idea to present him as the archetype mountain fiddler,”The singin fiddler of Lost Hope Hollow” (Title of the book she wrote about him) and she built a whole story , part true, part purely her own fantasy, to promote him and his music around the country. Under the name of “Jilson Setters”, she arranged for Day concerts and recording sessions and she even took him to play before the King of England. We don’t know how Day himself reacted to all this fuss around him, as on the pictures Thomas took of him, he looked like a dignified old country man, surely proud of the venerable old tunes he could play on his fiddle, but also had to make a living, be an entertainer, the only way to survive  for a blind musician during those years… His fiddle style was very unique also, as he was left-handed but played without re-stringing his instrument, with the strings upside down.. Like Elizabeth Cotten on the guitar, it gave him a unique style that is hard to duplicate. He recorded  for the Victor Record Company and also for The Library Of Congress in 1930.

Go here (Wikipedia page) to read more about Jean Thomas (she was nicknamed “The Traipsin’ Woman”) and the American Folk Song Festival

On this page, you can browse the beautiful collection of photographs she took in the mountains, and among them, many of J.W Day

-I’ve compiled all the sides i have by J.W Day including two sides recorded for the Library of Congress (very noisy, you’ll be warned)

1.The Wild Wagoner 905

2.Grand Hornpipe

3.Forked Deer

4.Way Up On Clinch Mountain

5.Black-eyed Suzie

6.The Arkansaw Traveler

7.Little Boy Working On The Road

8.No Corn on Tigert (LOC recording)

9.Dr Humphrey’s Jig(LOC recording)



The Wagoner’s Variations

“Wagoner” is a very popular fiddle tune, a square dance’s favorite of the old days and maybe every old-time fiddler knows a version of it. It’s a tune in the key of C, a key less played than the regular A,G and D but if a fiddler knows one or two tune in C, it’s probably “Wagoner” or “Billy in the Low Ground”. All around the South, fiddlers calls it depending from the region they come from: Tennessee Wagoner,Nashville Wagoner, Texas Wagoner, Georgia Wagoner, North Missouri Wagoner, or just Wagner. I’ve compiled for you 28 versions, could have put many more, but it would have been a bit boring as the melodic contours of the tune remains very similar from one fiddler to another, apart maybe for J.W Day’s unique version, with a very unusual B part that modulate from C to D and John Morgan Salyer’s  who fiddle a very unique “Wagoner”. The first part of the tracks were selected from the Digital Library of Appalachia web site, a unique resource for fiddle tunes.

(In the pictures, John Morgan Salyer from Magoffin County, Kentucky and a group of square-dancers)

Part 1: Home and Field recordings from the Digital Library of Appalachia

  1. Wagoner one-step Isham Mondaysalyer
  2. Wagoner Emma Lee Dickerson
  3. Wagoner Bill Hatton
  4. Wagoner John Salyer
  5. Wagoner Glen Smith
  6. Wagoner Walter McNew
  7. Wagoner Glen Fannin
  8. Wagner Jewel Middleton
  9. Tennessee Wagoner Ray Sosbee
  10. Tennessee Wagoner J.L. Burke
  11. Tennessee Wagoner Tommy Magness
  12. Tennessee Wagoner Walker Johnson
  13. Tennesse Wagoner Robert “Georgia Slim” Rutland
  14. Tennessee Wagoner Lewis & Donna Lamb


Part 2: 78rpm records, Bluegrass, String Bands, Cajun, etc…

  1. Georgia Wagner Fiddlin John Carson Fiddlin John Carson Vol. 3 1925 – 1926square
  2. The Waggoner Fiddlin’ Doc Roberts Fiddlin Doc Roberts Vol. 3 (1930-1934)
  3. Texas Wagoner Eck Robertson Old Time Texas Fiddler (1922-1929)
  4. Georgia Waggoner The Skillet-Lickers The Skillet-Lickers Vol. 5 (1930-1934)
  5. Nashville Wagoner Clarence ‘Tater’ Tate Great American Fiddle Collection
  6. Tennessee Wagoner Casey Jones Three Fiddlers from the Show-Me State
  7. Tennessee Wagoner Don Reno & Red Smiley On The Air
  8. Waggoner Solomon Family The Solomon Family – Three Generations of Champion Texas Fid
  9. North Missouri Wagner Nile Wilson Tiehacker Hoedown
  10. Tennessee Wagoner Mac Traynham & Shay Garriock Turkey in the Mountain
  11. Wagoner This Big String Band The Next Small Thing…
  12. Wagoner Jim Taylor And Friends The Civil War Collection Volume Two
  13. Tennessee Wagoner Norman Blake & Rich O’Brien Be Ready Boys
  14. Wagoner Linzay Young Linzay Young & Joel Savoy




2 thoughts on “29 “The Wild Wagoner” by J.W Day (Jilson Setters)

  1. Brenda Parker says:

    I have a picture of people at James William Day’s grave site the only 3 I recognize are my great grandma Nora Martin, my great great grandma Rosie Day and Jean Thomas. Can I email u a copy of the pic and maybe u might know some of the people.

    • As the co-author of the Ed Haley biography (with the late John Hartford), I would be very interested in seeing this photograph. John and I gathered a lot of information on Blind Bill Day, Rosie Hicks, and the Martin family — mostly from interviews with Ugee (Hicks) Postalwait, the daughter of Laury Hicks. Please email me information: brankirk@yahoo.com. Thanks!

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