She had hosted Susan Steele Sampson, wife of Kentucky’s governor, the previous year at her first American Folk Song Festival, held at the Traipsin’ Woman Cabin. Now, in August 1931, Jean Thomas found herself invited to the Governor’s mansion in Frankfort to discuss the creation of an American Folk Song Society and an annual festival open to the public. How did Thomas get to this point, and why did she call herself the “Traipsin’ Woman?”
Jean Thomas was born Jeanette Mary Francis de Assisi Aloysius Marcissum Garfield Bell in Ashland, Kentucky in 1881. She earned the nickname “Traipsin’ Woman” when, as a teenager in the 1890s, she defied convention to attend business school, learn stenography, and become a court reporter, traveling by jolt wagon to courts in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
Using money saved from her court reporter wages, Thomas moved to New York, where she attended Hunter College and the Pulitzer School of Journalism. She married accountant Albert Thomas in 1913, a marriage which lasted only one year. She then held a variety of jobs, including work as a script girl for Cecil B. de Mille’s The Ten Commandments, as secretary to the owner of the Columbus Senators of the National League and as press agent for Ruby “Texas” Guinan, the notorious entertainer and owner of prohibition-era speakeasies.
In 1926 Jean Thomas met William Day, a blind fiddler from Rowan County. Using the skills she had acquired as press agent and manager, she changed his name to Jilson Settles, secured recording contracts and booked him (as the “Singin Fiddler from Lost Hope Hollow”) in theaters. Day eventually played in London’s Royal Albert Hall. He was the subject of Thomas’ first book, Devil’s Ditties (1931). Thomas went on to author another seven books including the semi-autobiographical The Traipsin’ Woman (1933), The Singing Fiddler of Lost Hollow (1938), and The Sun Shines Bright (1940).
The first American Folk Song Festival was held in 1932 in Jean Thomas’ home town of Ashland, and featured 18 acts. During the early years of the American Folk Song Festival, Jean Thomas carried a camera wherever she went as she sought out musicians who would perform at the annual event.
At the 8th festival, TIME magazine (June 30, 1938) noted with amusement that the musicians were presenting not only “ballads and hymns that can be traced to Elizabethan England,” but also “ballads from yesterday’s newspaper headlines.” One such example, titled “Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Brave Engineer (to the tune of Casey Jones)” [musician not cited in article]:
Now some folks kick, say he didn’t cut his pay
Remember, he’s not fishing, he’s working every day
He gave the Republicans a mighty slam
He didn’t take twelve years to start the Coal Creek Dam
He sent word to foreign countries, both near and far
Just what to expect if they started to war
He put the mills to working under the N. R. A.
Which means shorter hours, and much more pay
He’s made his stand, and you know he’s tried
He’s made many friends on the Republican side
He’s balanced the budget with revenue
He’s brought back whiskey and the three point two
With the exception of the years 1943-1948, the American Folk Song Festival was held annually until failing health forced Thomas to retire in 1972.