By Dave Tabler
Jean Thomas called him the “first primitive, unlettered Kentucky mountain minstrel to cross the sea to fiddle and sing his own and Elizabethan ballads in the Royal Albert Hall in London.” She presented to the American public a man she said spent his life in the mountains, never to come into contact with the modern world, still retaining vestiges of his English ancestry.
James W. Day (1861-1942), from Rowan County and Ashland KY, went by many names in his life… known in childhood as Willie, then later as “Blind Bill Day” because he was blind. He often went by J.W. Day as an early adult, but after he was ‘discovered’ by Jean Thomas, who became his agent, he became best known by his stage name of Jilson Setters, the Singin’ Fiddler of Lost Hope Hollow.
The left-handed Setters played his fiddle for many years in the American Folk Song Festival held in Ashland, composed tunes such as ‘The Rowan County Troubles,’ a popular local ballad, and recorded on the RCA Victor label in the late 1920s. He also recorded in the 1930s for folklorist John A. Lomax, whose collection is now in the Library of Congress.
In February 1930 Jean Thomas, who said she was a circuit court stenographer, wrote “Blind Jilson: The Singing Fiddler of Lost Hope Hollow” for American Magazine. The article describes how Thomas arranged for an operation that gave him sight, and how he appeared on a radio broadcast from New York City. It ends: “Jilson Setters, whose Elizabethan ballads broadcast over a hook-up from coast to coast and relayed half way around the world, delighted millions last night…Jilson Setters is a modern survival of the ancient minstrel. Who knows but that his primitive tunes have paved the way for American grand opera.”
In 1931 Thomas took Setters to London, where he performed in the Albert Hall at a folk song festival. On his return, Harvard professor George Lyman Kittering pronounced Setters’ composition “London Town” ‘a classic of American folk song.’ By 1934 Thomas was affecting Elizabethan garb, and Setters had become the featured performer at the National Song Festival organized by Thomas under the umbrella of her American Folk Song Society, which included on its board Carl Sandberg and Ida M. Tarbell.
Thomas had first asked another Kentucky fiddler, Ed Haley, to take on the persona of a character she was creating, Jilson Setters. When Haley refused, Thomas turned to J.W. Day. He wasn’t blind from birth as she’d said, but his sight had failed while he was young, and Thomas had arranged to have the cataracts removed from his eyes. (more…)