31 January, 2010

"The Wild Wagoner" - J.W. Day (Jilson Setters)

Set Two: Social Music; Disc One; Track Two: "The Wild Wagoner (Frolic Tune)" performed by J.W. Day (Jilson Setters). "Violin solo with guitar." Recorded in New York on February 27, 1928. Original issue Victor 21353A (42485).

The story of James William Day, a.k.a. J.W. Day, a.k.a. Blind Bill Day, a.k.a. Jilson Setters is vague and littered with half-truths. Here are the facts that we know: Born in 1861, Day was a self-taught fiddler from Catlettsburg, Kentucky. Day was blind, although whether he was born blind or was blinded is not known. During his youth, Day performed locally at dances and parties. He also occasionally supported himself by begging on the street while performing. He was known as Blind Bill Day during this period. At some point around 1906, Day had an operation that restored his sight. In 1926, Day met Jean Thomas, a folklorist and impresario who later ran the American Folk Song Festival near Ashland, Kentucky from 1931 to 1972. Thomas was impressed with Day's skill as a fiddler and with his repertoire of English folk ballads. Moreover, Thomas was convinced that the rural folk of the American southeast possessed traits that had been passed down from their Elizabethan English forebears almost unaltered. Thomas decided to manage Day. She changed his name to Jilson Setters and presented him as an old man who had lived in isolation in the mountains. She also claimed that the eye surgery that restored Day's sight had been only recently performed and that Day (now Setters) had been shocked by the modern world. Day was taken to New York to perform and record. He made ten sides for Victor, including this recording of "The Wild Wagoner," a staple of the standard fiddle repertoire. Day was also taken to England where he performed at the Royal Albert Hall for the King and Queen. He continued to perform throughout the 1930s and into the '40s at folk festivals, as well as recording for the Library of Congress. Jean Thomas wrote a heavily fictionalized biography of Day titled The Singin' Fiddler of Lost Hope Hollow. He died in 1942.

Here is a quote from a 1928 article written by Thomas about Day in which she provides a heavily romanticized picture of the man:

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, 1928

"The Wild Wagoner" is the second of seven tracks in a row that feature the fiddle, either solo or in combination with various instruments. As mentioned above, it is a standard part of the fiddle repertoire, most often performed at dances or "frolics." On this recording, the fiddle plays the melody line while a guitar (played by an unknown hand) keeps the rhythm. The song is in the key of C, a less common key for old time fiddle music than A, G, or D. The title of the song often varies according to the location of the musician playing it, e.g. "The Kentucky Wagoner" or "The Missouri Wagoner."

While it is tempting - especially on a set as laden with meaning as the Anthology - to search for some sort of sub-textual import for each song, not every song has to have a meaning. The purpose of the songs on this volume, after all, was to be played at social functions for dancing. That's all. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It is important to remember that none of the songs on the Anthology were thought of as "art" by the people who performed them. All of these songs had a function. The songs on the "Ballads" set told a story. The songs on the "Social Music" set are either songs for dancing or for worship. The songs on the "Songs" set are simply designed to amuse. It is only relatively recently that popular songs were supposed to do something more than act as diversions. It is therefore somewhat ironic when people complain that - for example - Lady Gaga's music is "just" music for dancing. While Uncle Bunt Stephens and J.W. Day would probably not responded to her music, I can't imagine that they would object to the message when Lady Gaga sings "It'll be okay...just dance."

The Shameless Plug Department - The Omen: Check out the long awaited(?) fourth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. On this all-blues episode, you'll hear New Year's greetings from Lightin' Hopkins and Mary Harris, as well as Delta Blues by Son House, Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. You'll also hear recordings by more obscure figures like Geeshie Wiley, Blind Joe Reynolds, William Harris, and more. Also available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you don't miss a single episode. It's free and it doesn't hurt. Who can ask for more?

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Who is mountnmonkey? Is it one guy? Is it the whole group? Who ARE these guys? Well, they're good, whoever they are! Here they are performing a variation of "The Wild Wagoner" titled "Tennessee Wagoner" on fiddle with mandolin and at least three guitars. Good stuff!

Download and listen to J.W. Day (Jilson Setters) - "The Wild Wagoner"


  1. J.W.Day was married to my grgr grandmother Rosie Day who also sang for Jean Thomas

  2. Iam been playing the guitar for a little bit
    and I like you’re the song that you play on youtube
    “Little old log cabin in the lane” and “Life’s railway to heaven”
    could you e mail me the chords to those songs so that I could play along with you
    Thank you: littleronm@aol.com

  3. @Anonymous who posted in September: That is VERY cool. I'd love to hear if there are any family stories about Day or your great-great-grandmother. Please e-mail me if you read this.

    @Anonymous who posted in March...I don't perform in any of the videos linked here. In fact, apart from a year of piano lessons when I was ten, I don't play any instrument at all. If anyone has the information on either of these songs, please contact the poster at the above address...

  4. Alexander: My mother's maiden name is Day; she is one of the granddaughters of J.W. Day. The Day descendants are many and have a large family reunion in Ashland KY around every 4th of July. My brother and I (great-grandchildren of J.W.) have done extensive genealogy and have tracked down many living relatives. There were over 75 attendees at the last reunion, coming from over 10 states. My brother and I also have an extensive photo gallery, a collection of books and records, and many documents from the family of J.W. Day, as well as Jean Thomas. There is a gentleman writing a biography about J.W., as well. If you want to know more, I'm happy to put you in touch with my brother, Jim. Please go to www.jilsonsetters.com and fill out a "contact us" form from the menu. This is a web site I began, but have not fleshed it out yet. Looking forward to hearing from you. ~Pam

  5. The "unknown hand" who backed Mr. Day on guitar for his Victor sessions was the well-known Carson Robison, who acted as a studio musician as well as had a humongous performing career.

    "The Wild Wagoner" has a unique melody and chordal structure compared to all the other "Wagoner/Wagner" tunes in the key of C. These other tunes were descended from a "Wagner" tune first published in 1838 or 1839 under that title, in honor of a race horse by the name of "Wagner" who competed in a match race about that time at the Oakland Race Track in Louisville, KY against a horse named "Grey Eagle". Mr. Day's tune apparently was named in honor of a steamship called "The Wild Wagoner" that plied the waters of the Big Sandy River from Tug Fork to Catlettsburg at the mouth at the Ohio River.

    I think that Rosie Day was born Rosie Hicks and was the younger sister of fiddler Lora Hicks of Clay Co. or Braxton Co., WV and close friend to fiddler Ed Haley. I was friends years ago with Rosie's cousin Rector Hicks who also was a fiddler and learned from Lora Hicks and Ed Haley. Rector lived in Akron, Ohio when I met him. He also said the the Days lived "next door" to the Haleys in Ashland, though it might not have been that close, but they lived nearby. Wasn't JW Day's father's name "Jilson Day?" I believe he also was a fiddler.