The following article by Ray Schaefer ran June 5 in Ashland, KY’s Daily Independent. It is re-posted here with permission.
Play about Jean Thomas to be presented June 13 and 14 in Carter County
GRAYSON, KY — Directing grade-school plays hardly prepared Robin Waggoner for thespian writing. Waggoner, a 30-year teacher at Prichard Elementary School, wrote most of “The Traipsin’ Woman — The Jean Thomas Story,” about the life of the Ashland woman who started the American Folk Festival in 1930 and kept it going for most of the next 42 years.
Waggoner wrote the play as part of a $10,000 grant to the Grayson Gallery and Art Center from the Brushy Fork Institute in Berea. She said gallery directors Dan and Mindy Click thought a drama would be a good idea.
“We had a camp, a folk festival camp,” Waggoner said. “Through that, (Thomas’) name kept coming up, and when it came time for this year’s grant (the Clicks) wanted to do a drama, and I kinda just threw it out there, since I’d been researching her for about a year.”
Helping Waggoner were: West Carter High School music and theater teacher Bob Harris; Donna Bond Boggs of the Carter County Hoedowners, a dance group from Hitchins; Bill Robinson of the Wizards of Dance of Hitchins; and Prichard teachers Darlena Ferguson and Angie Duncan.
“The play is really taken from Jean Thomas’ books, her memoirs and the books she wrote about her experiences,” Harris said. “She tried to preserve and record Appalachia, especially Appalachian Kentucky, the music, the traditions of the people. She was very interested in that.”
Harris said Thomas was “a very good stenographer, evidently.”
“She could write down what people said or the songs that they sang as fast as they sang them,” Harris said.
For background information about Thomas, Waggoner went to Carole Prietzel, who’d worked with Thomas. Prietzel, who now teaches dance in Ashland, told Waggoner that Thomas was “very strict.”
“Very meticulous,” Waggoner said. “She, I hate to say it, didn’t have very many friends. She knew what she wanted, she knew how she wanted her festival to run, and if you didn’t go by her rules and her practices, she didn’t mind one bit to kick you out of the play.”
According to Dave Tabler, who wrote about Thomas for the website appalachianhistory.net, Jean Thomas was born Jeanette Mary Francis de Assisi Aloysius Marcissum Garfield Bell in 1881 in Ashland. She wrote eight books altogether.
“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,” Tabler wrote.
Harris directs the play and wrote two of the six scenes. One was about the time Thomas met Bill Day, a blind fiddle player from Rowan County whose name she changed to the stage name Jilson Setters.
“She fell in love with his music,” Harris said. “She eventually wound things around to the place where he became very famous. He did several performances in England at the British Folk Song Festival.”
Cheyenne Alexander, 15, a sophomore at West Carter High School, plays the title role. Like Waggoner, she’d researched Thomas online.
“I love acting,” she said. “It’s one of the things I actually take pride in doing.”
In the wedding scene, May Bell Drusella Collins (played by Morgan Casto of Wurtland) marries Ephraim Zachary Hurley (Morehead State University junior Troy Combs of Grayson). “Troy’s my boyfriend,” Casto said. “He told me about the show. You want to represent where you’re from.”
Ironically, Combs, who was born in Hazard, said it was hard speaking with a Kentucky twang.
“I had to find my inner Appalachia,” he said. “I’m from Hazard; I’m used to hearing that (accent), but I’m not used to talking that way.”
Harris said there’s not much difference between Appalachian music from Kentucky and West Virginia, Tennessee or anyplace else because it all originated from Elizabethan England. “And (Thomas) was very cognizant of that fact, the fact that most of that music was handed down by word of mouth from the 1500s and 1400s,” he said.
Harris hopes people enjoy Appalachian music’s beauty.
“Sometimes it’s haunting, sometimes it’s boisterous,” he said. “There’s the old songs that tell of tragedies, and then they all tell of love stories; it runs the gamut.”
If you go —
“The Traipsin’ Woman — The Jean Thomas Story” will be presented at 7 p.m. June 13 at East Carter Middle School, One Spirit Lane, Grayson and June 14 at 7 p.m. at West Carter High School, 365 West Carter Drive, Olive Hill. Admission is free. For more information, call (606) 571-9690.