Aunt Jenny Wilson
-photo from the West Virginia Regional and History Collection, access 11/1/2021
Virginia Myrtle Ellis Wilson (1900 – 1992), better known as Aunt Jenny (Jennie) Wilson, was inspired to take up the banjo when at the age of nine she met a young Mingo County woman named Delpha Maynard who was dating her brother; she danced and played the banjo and Jenny said she wanted to be just like Delpha, and it was Delpha who first taught her to play clawhammer banjo. Her older brothers Jesse and Hughie also helped her master the double-thumb style of playing the instrument. At a young age she began picking up banjo tunes and songs at square dances and parties, and she also learned tunes and tunings from black and white banjo players who came by the Ellis farmhouse when she was a child. At the same time, she was learning to sing ancient British Child ballads, nineteenth-century American ballads, songs derived from Black tradition, and several historical ballads about events in Logan County, where she was born and lived her entire life. She learned many of these from her mother and sisters; she would sometimes sing them unaccompanied and sometimes accompany herself on the banjo.
In her later years, Jenny spoke fondly of the dances and parties and corn shuckings and bean stringings where she’d often be called upon to play her banjo and sing and on those occasions she sometimes played with fiddlers and guitar players who would later go on to be among Logan County’s finest musicians, and who became well-known around the country and the world because of the importance of their 1920s commercial recordings; in particular she frequently spoke in interviews about Frank Hutchison and Dick Justice. Back then she also played with Ervin Williamson, of the Williamson Brothers & Curry.
In his Goldenseal article that featured an interview with Aunt Jenny, Robert Spence says this about the “discovery” of her singing and banjo playing:
“By the 1950s there was more interest in saving the traditional songs than there had been for decades. Among those in West Virginia who knew the value of that revival was the late Dr. Patrick Gainer. He is credited with ‘discovering’ Aunt Jennie Wilson, and she remembers him well:
‘In 1955,’ she said, ‘Dr. Gainer of West Virginia University taught a class in folklore over at Logan High School. He told his students that they had to bring someone who could tell the class about how things were done here when I was growing.
‘My son-in-law, Clyde Bryant, told one of our neighbors who was taking the class that if she could talk me into going with her and playing the banjer she would have it made. Now I hadn’t played the banjer in about thirty-five years, but I went to that class and it came back to me right away.’
She added that that was about the time when the arts and crafts fairs were being started all over West Virginia. People soon heard about Aunt Jennie Wilson of Logan County, and she has been in demand ever since. She has played often at the Mountain State Art and Craft Fair at Ripley, and at the Vandalia Gathering in Charleston nearly every summer.”
And as the editor of Mountains of Music pointed out in 1999, as “a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the West Virginia Department of Culture and History and the 1984 Vandalia Award, she had a folk festival named in her honor that takes place each October at Chief Logan State Park.”
We are today able to hear Aunt Jenny’s music because several traditional music enthusiasts became interested in her and her singing and banjo playing and preserved it for us on field recordings. In the late 1960s Fred Coon, a banjo player who wanted to learn from Jenny and record her music, spent many days with her, learning from her and recording her in interviews and music and storytelling sessions. And in 1972, Ray Alden and Dave Spialkia spent an afternoon with her for a recording session. Some of the results of their work can be heard on Field Recorders Collective album 408, now available on Bandcamp, entitled Aunt Jenny Wilson: Recordings from the Collection of Fred Coon. And around 1965 musician Billy Edd Wheeler met her and recorded an LP of songs, banjo playing, and stories that was released under the title of A Portrait of Aunt Jennie Wilson. Her grandson Roger Bryant, with whom she performed on many stages, also recorded some of her songs and they are archived and available for listening at the West Virginia University Library’s West Virginia and Regional History Center.
-photo from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, accessed 11/1/2021
Virginia Myrtle Ellis Wilson was born on Little Buffalo Creek at Henlawson in Logan County on 9 February 1900. She was the daughter of Hugh Bryant “Doc” Ellis and Cinderella Lockhard Ellis, and she and her family lived there on their farm until some time after 1910. In the 1880, 1900, and 1910 censuses Hugh Ellis was listed there as a farmer but in 1920, before he died at the end of that year, he was living as a widower with his son Hughie Ellis, who was a laborer in the coal mines in the Chapmanville Magisterial District of Logan County; the mines had come in and the family had lost the farm.
In 1918 Jenny married James Dewey Wilson; he had been working as a miner at Hughey in Logan County, not far from Buffalo Creek. In 1920 he was a miner in the Logan Magisterial District. In 1930 he and Jenny had four children and he was a coal mine electrician in Sharples, Logan County. On 9 August 1939 Mr. Wilson was injured in a slate fall in a mine at Peach Creek and he died from those injuries on 2 November of that year, at the age of forty-one. He is buried in the Mitchell Cemetery at Henlawson.
When Jenny’s son James Willard Wilson registered for the WW II draft he listed his mother as his nearest relative and at that time she was still living in Peach Creek, and she remained near there, on Crooked Creek, until her death on 2 March 1992. There is a plaque honoring her in Chief Logan State Park; her family’s farm had been located within the boundaries of what is now that park.
—Gloria Goodwin Raheja, March 2021.
Sources: Raheja’s research for her book Logan County Blues: Frank Hutchison in the Sonic Landscape of the Appalachian Coalfields. Important information on Aunt Jenny Wilson (sometimes called Jennie Wilson) is found in the following sources, among others.
Spence, Robert Y. 2013 (1976). Land of the Guyandot: A History of Logan County. Logan County: Woodland Press.
Spence, Robert Y. 1984. Aunt Jennie Wilson: “I Grew Up with Music.” Goldenseal 10(1). Reprinted in John Lily, ed. 1999. Mountains of Music: West Virginia Traditional Music From Goldenseal. Pp. 103-108.
-Commemorative plaque in Chief Logan State Park. Photo by Gloria Goodwin Raheja.
Listen to Aunt Jenny
Fred Coon visited with Aunt Jenny many times, learning and recording her tunes. Years later, Ray Alden and Dave Spialkia met with and recorded her singing and playing. The aforementioned Field Recorder's Collective can be found at this link: