Musical Folklore of Ashland, KY
It’s true eastern Kentucky has a unique heritage when it comes to music and artistic expressions. The sounds of our region can be quite distinct with the flavor of guitar, banjo, and fiddle, melancholy and joy, modern influences like rock n roll, and a flow of emotions and truth. In Ashland, Kentucky, we take pride in our musical heritage. Our city sits right on “Country Music Highway 23,” a trail dedicated to the hometowns of many of our best music talents and one of the most beautiful drives you can take in the country.
It’s wonderful to reflect on the artists from our eastern Kentucky hometowns and be reminded that dreams can come true. As Ashland folk, many of us are familiar with the prominent musicians from our city such as The Judd’s and Billy Ray Cyrus. What is also fascinating to learn about Ashland’s history is the somewhat hidden slate of local music and arts legends, several of whom have stories that could come straight out of a movie. There are four distinct local legends of the Ashland, Kentucky area that have made incredible impacts on our local history and are worth learning more about.
1. Jean Thomas, “The Traipsin Woman”
Let’s start with “The Traipsin Woman,” Jean Thomas. What exactly does “Traipsin’” mean, and how did she get that nickname? As someone who lived to be 100 years, she had plenty of amazing experiences. Her story begins when she was a teenager training for a job as a court stenographer, from which she travelled throughout the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia in an old-fashioned jolt wagon. During this time, she would record the stories of all the local folk she met, thus “Traipsin’” around as her nickname declares. A single woman traveling independently was not common as she did during the early 1900’s, but she was never shy to defy conventions.
Jean Thomas authored many books and had a knack for capturing the spirit of Appalachian culture through her use of regional dialects, inventions of characters and storytelling. One of her more well-known publications, “Devil’s Ditties,” is a biography of KY fiddler player Jilson Setters. Along with being a stenographer, Jean spent her early life in a variety of jobs such as working as a script girl for the Cecil B. Demille film “The Ten Commandments” and lived a bohemian lifestyle in New York City in the 1910’s. Despite enjoying the wide-open world, she decided to settle back to her home in Ashland, KY and began the “American Folk Song festival,” also known as “The Singin’ Gatherin’,” running from 1930-1969.
Performances for her festivals took place outdoors, often in log cabin settings and sometimes her own backyard, and included fiddlers, ballad singers, and skits. Many of our local folk can probably recall themselves or their family being a part of these performances, and some of the field recordings can still be found through University of Louisville and Berea archives. It’s hard to succinctly summarize the accomplishments of “The Traipsin’ Woman,” but the fact is she helped promote and contribute to the folk heritage of Ashland and Appalachia.
Click HERE to watch a re-enactment of Jean Thomas telling her life story
2. Jilson Setters, “The Singing Fiddler of Lost Hope Hollow”
Jilson Setters was a man of many names. He was born James William Day in 1861 in Catlettsburg, Kentucky. He received the monikers “Jilson Setters” and “The Singing Fiddler of Lost Hope Hollow” from Jean Thomas (mentioned above), who acted somewhat as his press agent, and featured his talent as the star attraction to her folk festivals. Jilson was also known as “Blind Bill Day,” though he wasn’t born blind, acquiring a condition in his youth that would later be corrected in his forties with cataract removal surgery, somewhat restoring his vision.
Jilson was a unique musician in many ways, one being his left-handed fiddle playing, and another being his expansive memorization and performance of vocal ballads, even composing his own originals such as “The Rowan County Troubles.” Recordings of his fiddle playing are some of the oldest to exist in America, distributed through the Victor label in the 1920’s. With Jean Thomas, Jilson Setters would travel across the Atlantic Ocean by boat to visit England to perform at the Royal Albert Hall and also for a royal audience with the King and Queen in the 1930s. He continued to perform locally in Ashland throughout the rest of his life, up into the 1940s. As much of a fable character he may seem, he was a real person and true talent from our area who made a significant contribution to fiddle and old-time music.
Click HERE to hear Jilson Setters play/sing “The Rowan County Troubles.”
3. Ed Haley, “A Man of Constant Sorrow”
There was another blind fiddle player in Ashland that is somewhat of a myth, even being characterized in a poem by famed Kentucky author Jesse Stuart. Ed Haley was an accomplished musician and source of obsession for many old-time music lovers past and present. Being blinded by a bout of measles at age three, he grew up learning to play from fiddlers around home in Logan, West Virginia, before later settling into Ashland, making a living playing his fiddle on the streets, near the courthouse, at county fairs, and house parties. He was married to woman named Martha, also a blind musician from Morehead, Kentucky, who played and taught instruments such as the piano and accordion. Together they raised six children in Catlettsburg.
Ed Haley wasn’t too keen on being recorded and distrusted the music business. The recordings that do exist have made a huge impact on introducing new tunes and variations to old time and Bluegrass music. You may have heard of the Bluegrass song “Man of Constant Sorrow,” made popular in the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou?”- Ed Haley penned this song initially as a slower, mournful solo on the fiddle, a version that is also featured in the film played by John Hartford. Plenty of folks from our area could probably still remember meeting Ed Haley or hearing him play on the streets or at a square dance. His legacy and fiddle playing are still celebrated today, and a fiddle contest in his memory is scheduled each year as part of the Poage Landing Days festival in Ashland.
Click HERE to hear Ed Haley’s fiddle tune “Man of Constant Sorrow,” played by John Hartford for the film “O Brother Where Art Thou.”
4. Bill Williams, “The Colonel”
This last figure is an understated music legend right from our own backyard. When you think of Greenup County, Kentucky, you may not think of it as being home to a great blues guitar man, but “Colonel Bill Williams” (titled for his status as a Kentucky Colonel) fit the bill as one of the best and originals. He made Greenup his home after hitching a ride in a random freight train, going on to make a living working on the C&O Railroad in Russell, staying in Greenup for the rest of his life.
Like Ed Haley, Colonel Bill Williams was also hesitant to record and participate in the music business. He does have two official albums to his credit, “Blues, Rags, and Ballads” and “Low and Lonesome,” and played at numerous local events and festivals. While his Blues repertoire could stand next to any of the guitar greats, Colonel Williams was different in that he also played variations on local fiddle tune arrangements, combining elements of the old-time music of the eastern Kentucky area in his interpretation of blues guitar. His legacy continues to be celebrated today with Greenup County events such as “The Colonel Bill Williams Blues” and “Singin’ Gatherin’” festivals.
Click HERE to watch Colonel Bill Williams perform at the Greenup, KY fairground in 1970
In conclusion, the memory of all four of these legends are kept alive today through our local festivals. The Highland’s Museum in Ashland has one of the best displays of Jean Thomas which includes her costumes and rare artifacts from her days as a Traipsin’ Woman. The “Singin’ Gatherin’ Old Time Music Day” festival occurs each year in June at the Greenup County McConnell House, and performances include plenty of old timey music, reenactments of Jean Thomas, and tributes to Jilson Setters and Bill Williams. The annual Ed Haley Fiddle Contest happens at Ashland’s Poage Landing Days festival every year in September. You don’t have to enter the contest to participate, many spectators come just to hear all the different fiddle players who travel from all over America to compete. It’s amazing to reflect on all of the incredible talent that comes from our home town.
Janet Thompson is Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator for the Medical Information Technology at ACTC. A lifelong Boyd County resident, Janet is also a graduate of Ohio University Southern and Marshall University, majoring in Electronic Media, Communication, and Adult Education. As an avid music lover of all styles and genres, she actively plays traditional, folk, country, and contemporary music with her partner Michael Garvin in the bands Blue Vine and Kentucky Memories.