History of "Train on the Island"

Train on the Island

Train on the Island is an old-time/bluegrass banjo and fiddle tune originally found in North Carolina, Virginia and Tenessee. The first recording was a field recording made in a make-shift studio in Bristol, Tenessee by Ralph Peer for Victor records during the famous 1927 Bristol Sessions (Victor 21070) on August 1, 1927 of J.P. Nestor (J. Preston Nestor, banjo) and Norman Edmonds, fiddle.

Nester and Edmonds:

John Preston Nester (J.P. Nestor) was born Nov. 26 1876 Hillsville in Carroll County Virginia (died in 1967). Norman Edmonds was born Feb. 9, 1899 in Wythe County, Virginia (died in 1976). Both men played together many year before the recording session.

With the release of the now famed Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music featuring "Train on the Island" many scholars and collectors became aware of a valuable cross-section of great folkmusic masterpieces recorded during the 1920s and 1930s by commercial record companies. However, as happens with any art form, some pieces among this collection (six LPs’ worth) of great pieces stood out above others. Among these standouts was a tune played and sung with fiddle and banjo. This tune, “Train On The Island,” has been considered a classic in every sense of the word by collectors. The singer played great mountain-style banjo and sang with much fervour. His name was J.P. Nestor, and this is the only name to be found on the original 78, and consequently, on the LP reissue. Little has been learned about him other than that he died a few years ago, and his middle name was Preston. He apparently went by the nickname of “Pres.” After recording four numbers on August 1, 1927, in Bristol, Tennessee, for the Victor company, Nestor and the accompanying fiddle-player were offered paid transportation to New York City to make more records [another account says they were offered a chance to record again when Peer came back to Bristol]. Unfortunately, Nestor flatly refused to leave the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Hillsville, Virginia, area, and was never recorded again, Thankfully, two of the songs recorded at the 1927 session were released. These were “Train On The Island” and “Black Eyed Susie,” released on Victor 21070. There has been some speculation that the remaining two songs recored at this session, “Georgia” and “John, My Lover,” were damaged – the masters – in shipment from Bristol to Camden, New Jersey.

Fortunately, the fiddle-player who recored with Nestor in 1927 presents a different picture from the one just painted for Nestor himself. The fiddle-player was Norman S. Edmonds. Since the original recording Norman (or “Uncle Norm” as he is called by his many admirers and friends) has appeared at numerous old fiddlers’ conventions in the Virginia-North Carolina area. Several of the tunes performed by Norman and his band The Old Timers have been featured on LPs made at these events. Norman Edmonds was born February 9, 1889, in Wythe County, Virginia (the Hillsville-Galax area). His fiddling is done in the true mountain style, holding the fiddle on his chest rather than under the chin. His repertory includes a vast number of tunes, most of which are traditional classics. However, a number of them are little known, and a few have been heard only seldom outside the Galax-Hillsville area. A great deal of this rich tradition has been preserved over the years by Mr. Edmond’s son Rush. According to Rush Edmonds, Norman’s fiddle-playing was learned from his father, who, in turn, learned from his father. Norman, therefore, represents 100 years or more of traditional mountain fiddling. It is interesting to note that his grandson, Jimmie Edmonds, although only 15 years old is already a very talented fiddle-player, thus carrying on the fiddling tradition of the Edmonds family.

Jimmie took up the fiddle when he was about five years old, which is about the same age his grandfather began to learn to play. Following the death of Uncle Charlie Higgins, Jimmie took over the position of fiddler with Wade Ward’s well known Buck Mountain Band. Recently, after Wade’s untimely death, Jimmie has formed this own group and is actively carrying on the tradition of Blue Ridge Mountain Music that has been a part of his family for such a long time.

Although Norman Edmonds is now in his 80s he is still an active fiddler. He was a special guest at the 1970 Galax Old Fiddlers Convention, and one of the best fiddle-players to appear even though he played solo. The song he played, “Monkey On A String,” was strong, well played, and a fine example of the knowledge gained in over 75 years of fiddle-playing.

Other Recordings
In 1927 Crockett Ward and his Boys also made a recording.  Ward used the melody of June Apple, which also borrows lyrics from Train on the Island. Other recordings include:

String Band/Country: The Iron Mountain String Band (FW 2473c); Tommy Jarrell (CTY 778d); The Kimble Family (RND 0057a); Walt Koken (RND 0337c); Velma Nester (LC recording AAFS1343B1); The New Ballard's Branch Bogtrotters (HRT 109d); The New Lost City Ramblers (FW 2496c, VF 9003a); Matokie Slaughter (RND 0331c, MMC 9028d); Stephen Wade (CTY 2721c); The Ward Brothers (FW 3832c); The Wildcats (MMC 9015d).

Bluegrass: as Train on the Island: Ash and W (REB 1686c); Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard (SF 40065c, FW 31034c); Todd Phillips (Gourd Music 122d)).

Folksong revival: as Train on the Island: Atwater and Donnelly (Beacon 10133c); The Mother Bay State Entertainers (ELK 292a); The Double Decker String Band (MMC 9021d); Joe Hickerson (FL 39d); Peggy Seeger (His Masters Voice 1174 a).

From Folk Index: Duncan, Josh & Ethel Raim (eds) / Anthology of American Folk Music, Oak, Sof (1973), p 96 Davis, Luther. Old Time Way, Heritage (Galax) 070, LP (1986), trk# 8 [1981/03/09] Double Decker String Band. Evolution Girl, Marimac 9021, Cas (1988), trk# 11 Edmonds, Norman. Train on the Island, Davis Unlimited DU 33002, LP (197?), trk# 2 Flat Mountain Girls. Flat Mountain Girls, Flat Mountain --, CD (2003), trk# 13 George, Franklin/Frank. Reflections of the Past, Roane RR 104, Cas (1995), trk# 1.02 Harold and Abe. Cornbred, Molasses and Sassafras Tea, Heritage (Galax) 023, LP (1978), trk# 1 Hart and Blech. Devil of a Row, Swing Cat 1618, CD (199?), trk# 9 Hazel And Alice. Won't You Come and Sing for Me, Folkways FTS 31034, LP (1973), trk# 6 Hickerson, Joe. Joe Hickerson, Folk Legacy FSI-039, LP (1970), trk# A.07 Jarrell, Tommy. Pickin' on Tommy's Porch, County 778, LP (1984), trk# 10 Jarrell, Tommy. Appalachia, The Old Traditions, Vol. 2, Home Made Music LP-002, LP (1983), trk# B.05 [1983/05/15] Kimble, Taylor. Old Originals, Vol. 1, Rounder 0057, LP (1978), trk# 22 Koken, Walt. Banjonique, Rounder 0337, CD (1994), trk# 5 Molsky, Bruce; and Big Hoedown. Bruce Molsky and Big Hoedown, Rounder 0421, CD (1997), trk# 14a Mother Bay State Entertainers. String Band Project, Elektra EKS 7292, LP (1965), trk# B.06 Nestor, J. P.. Anthology of American Folk Music, Smithsonian/Folkways SFW 40090, CD( (1997), trk# 82 [1927/08/01] Nestor, J. P.. Round the Heart of Old Galax, Vol 3., County 535, LP (1980), trk# A.02 [1927/08/01] New Lost City Ramblers. Rural Delivery No. 1, Verve/Folkways DW-90705, LP (197?/1964), trk# 9 Sampson, Harvey; & the Big Possum String Band. Flat Foot in the Ashes, Augusta Heritage AHR 004, LP (1986), trk# 1.08 Slaughter, Matokie; and the Back Creek Buddies. Saro, Marimac 9028, Cas (1990), trk# 10 Slaughter, Matokie; and the Back Creek Buddies. Old Time Music on the Air, Vol. 1, Rounder 0331, Cas (1994), trk# 13 Wild Cats. Galax International, Heritage (Galax) 067, LP (1988), trk# B.04 [1987/03/22] Train on the Island Prausnitz, Stephanie. Silberberg, Gene (ed.) / Complete Fiddle Tunes I Either Did or Did Not.., Silberberg, Fol (2005), p199 J.P. Nestor Recorded Bristol, TN: August 1, 1927-J. Preston Nestor, banjo; Norman Edmonds, fiddle Originally released on Victor 21070
RECORDING INFO “June Apple”: Brody, David (ed.) / Guitar Pickers Fakebook, Oak, Sof (1984), p 87 Alterman, Ned; and Richie Mintz. Alterman, Ned; and Richie Mintz / Bluegrass Bass, Oak, sof (1977), p55 Baugus, Riley (Alvin). Life of Riley, Yodel-Ay-Hee 038, CD (2001), trk# 6 Biehl, Chuck. Some for Love and Some for laughs, Biehl END 201, LP (1983), trk# A.04a Buck Mountain Band. Devil's Riding Horse. 44th Annual Old Time Fiddler's Convention, Union Grove SS-2, LP (1978), trk# A.07 Burris, Otis; and Fortune. Otis Burris and Fortune, Heritage (Galax) 073C, Cas (1989), trk# 9 Camp Creek Boys. Camp Creek Boys, County 709, LP (1967), trk# 7 Cockerham, Jarrell and Jenkins. Down to the Cider Mill, County 713, LP (1968), trk# 3 Crabtree, David. Fourteenth Annual Old Time Fiddlers' Contest, Green Mountain GMS 1056, LP (1976), trk# 21 Cutler, Marty. Brody, David (ed.) / Banjo Picker's Fakebook, Oak, Fol (1985), p 88 Dutch Cove Old Time String Band. Fiddler's Grove. Old Time Fiddler's & Bluegrass ... 1975. Vol. 6, Galaxie, LP (1975), trk# 31 East, Earnest; & the Pine Ridge Boys. Old Time Mountain Music, County 718, LP (1969), trk# 10 Feldmann, Peter. How to Play Clawhammer Banjo, Sonyatone STI-104, LP (1975), trk# 4 Fink, Cathy; and Duck Donald. Kissing Is a Crime, Likable 01, LP (198?), trk# B.04 (Train on the Island) Flippen, Benton. Old Times, New Times, Rounder 0326, Cas (198?), trk# 12 Flippen, Benton. Old Time Herald, Old Time Herald, Ser, 5/1, p42(1995) Gellert, Dan; and Shoofly. Forked Deer, Marimac 9000, Cas (1986), trk# A.04b Haas, Brittany. Brittany Haas, Ook CD 001, CD (2004), trk# 7 Hellman, Neal. Dulcimer Player News, Dulcimer Player News, Ser, 2/1, p21(1976) Herald Angels. You've Been a Friend to Me, Herald Angels HA1001, Cas (1994), trk# 9 Higgins, Uncle Charlie; and Wade Ward. Southern Journey. Vol. 2: Ballads and Breakdowns, Rounder 1702, CD (1997), trk# 8 [1959/08/31] Humphreys, Pete. Old-Time Banjo Anthology, Vol. 2, Marimac AHS 5, Cas (1991), trk# 14 [1989/07] (Wooden Legs) Jarrell, Tommy; and Kyle Creed. June Apple, Mountain 302, LP (1972), trk# 1 Krassen, Miles. Krassen, Miles / Appalachian Fiddle, Oak, sof (1973), p34b Levenson, Dan. Light of the Moon, Buzzard 2001, CD (1997), trk# 1 Marion, Carlie. Going Across the River to Hear my Banjo Ring, Marimac 9018, Cas (1988), trk# 4 Mearns, Molly. Hellman, Neal / Dulcimer Songbook, Oak, Sof (1977), p40b Michels, Amy. Fowl Farmer, Michels, CD (2002), trk# 12 Muller, Eric. Muller, Eric & Barbara Koehler / Frailing the 5-String Banjo, Mel Bay, Sof (1973), p74 Parrish, Pete. Galax International, Heritage (Galax) 067, LP (1988), trk# C.04 [1985/08] Perlman, Ken. Perlman, Ken / Fingerpicking Fiddle Tunes for Finger Style Guitar, Chappell, Sof (1978), p30 Pine River Boys with Maybelle. Wild Hog in the Woods, Heritage (Galax) 021 (XXI), LP (1978), trk# B.03 Pleasant Family. Old Time String Band, Pleasant --, CD (2005), trk# 15 Prisland, John. Hellman, Neal / Dulcimer Songbook, Oak, Sof (1977), p81b Red Clay Ramblers. Brody, David (ed.) / Fiddler's Fakebook, Oak, Sof (1983), p153 Reeltime Travelers. Reeltime Travelers, Yodel-Ay-Hee 034, CD (2000), trk# 14 Rizzetta, Sam. Dulcimer Player News, Dulcimer Player News, Ser, 31/1, p45(2005) Roth, Kevin. Kevin Roth Plays the Dulcimer, Folkways FA 2367, LP (1975), trk# 6 Sapoznik, Hank (Henry). Brody, David (ed.) / Banjo Picker's Fakebook, Oak, Fol (1985), p 87 Silberberg, Gene. Silberberg, Gene (ed.) / Complete Fiddle Tunes I Either Did or Did Not.., Silberberg, Fol (2005), p 99 Sisco, Carthy. Silberberg, Gene (ed.) / Complete Fiddle Tunes I Either Did or Did Not.., Silberberg, Fol (2005), p 99 Smith, Glen (West Va). Say Old Man, Marimac AHS 3, Cas (1990), trk# A.04 Smith, Glen; & the Mountain State Pickers. Fiddler, Bluetick BTR 101, LP (197?), trk# A.04 Smith, Hagger. 1941 Old Fiddlers Convention, Galax, Virginia, Voyage Beyond, CD (200?), trk# 10 [1941] (Red June Apple) Smokey Valley Boys. Smokey Valley Boys, Rounder 0029, LP (1974), trk# 11 Smokey Valley Boys. Brandywine '83. The 10th Anniversary Celebration of the Brand..., Heritage (Galax) 054, LP (1984), trk# 15 Trischka, Tony. Trischka, Tony / Melodic Banjo, Oak, Sof (1976), p109 Tuttle, Jack. Fiddler Magazine, Fiddler Mag., Ser, 1/4, p33(1994) Ward, Wade. Clawhammer Banjo, County CD 2716/701, CD/ (2002/1966), trk# 1 [1964/10] Ward, Wade. Banjo Songs, Ballads and Reels from the Southern Mountains, Prestige International INT 25004, LP (196?), trk# 7 [1959] Ward, Wade. Uncle Wade. A Memorial to Wade Ward, Old Time Virginia Banjo ..., Folkways FA 2380, LP (1973), trk# 13 Ward, Wade. Burke, John / Book of Old Time Fiddle Tunes for Banjo, Amsco, sof (1968), p18

RELATED TO: June Apple (melody of Ward versions); Wooden Legs;

OTHER NAMES: June Apple (melody of Ward versions);

SOURCES: Ceolas; Mudcat Forum; Rec.music old-time; Prausnitz, Stephanie. Silberberg, Gene (ed.) / Complete Fiddle Tunes I Either Did or Did Not.., Silberberg, Fol (2005), p199; Duncan, Josh & Ethel Raim (eds) / Anthology of American Folk Music, Oak, Sof (1973), p 96.

JUNE APPLE SOURCES: Red Clay Ramblers (N.C.) [Brody]; Uncle Charlie Higgins (Galax, Va.) [Krassen]; Allan Block and Andy May [Spandaro]; W.B. Reid/M. Gaponoff [Silberberg]; Carthy Sisco [Silberberg]. Brody (Fiddler’s Fakebook), 1983; pg. 153. Johnson (Old-Timey Fiddle Tunes for Hammer Dulcimer, Fiddle, etc), No. 2, 1982/1988; pg. 6. Krassen (Appalachian Fiddle), 1973; pg. 34, 35. Phillips (Fiddlecase Tunebook), 1989; pg. 24. Phillips (Traditional American Fiddle Tunes), 1994; pg. 130. Silberberg (Tunes I Learned at Tractor Tavern), 2002; pg. 79 (two versions). Spandaro (10 Cents a Dance), 1980; pg. 37. Chubby Dragon CD1008, Brad Leftwich, Bruce Molsky et al – “Mountairy.usa” (2001). County 713, Cockerham, Jarrell, and Jenkins"Down to the Cider Mill" (Tommy Jarrell learned the tune from his father, Ben Jarrell). Folkways FTS 331038, Roger Sprung and Hal Wylie "Bluegrass Blast." Heritage 054, Smokey Valley Boys "Brandywine '83: Music of French America" (1984). Marimac AHS #3, Glen Smith – “Say Old Man” (1990. Learned from Tommy Jarrell). Marimac 9000, Dan Gellert & Shoofly, "Forked Deer" (1986. Learned from Tommy Jarrell). Tennvale 002, Red Clay Ramblers "Galax '73."
NOTES: “Train On The Island” by J. Preston Nestor (banjo and vocal) and Norman Edmonds (fiddle) from Hillsville, Virginia (Galax area) is a compelling and intriguing old-time breakdown. "Train on the Island" has become a favorite tune in the Virginia/North Carolina region largely due to the influence of Nestor's recording.

One of the Child ballads "Mattie Groves" or "Little Musgrave" is well known in the region and is similar in form and melody to “Shady Grove” and Nestor’s “Train on the Island.”

Train on the island, since I heard it squeal
Go tell my true love, I can’t hold the wheel
I can’t roll the wheel, love, it’s I can’t hold the wheel.  [JP Nestor]

The stark image of a train on an island symbolizes a journey that is restricted. A train can’t go far on an island. The singer also has no control over the train and “Can’t hold the wheel.” The other recording from 1927 by Crockett Ward is sung to a different melody- “June Apple.” The mixolydian melody harkens to a Scottish lineage but the tenor of the lyrics is still one of isolation:

Train on the island don’t you hear it blow,
Go tell my darlin’ I’m homesick and can’t go. [Ward Version]

From Paul Brown’s Liner notes: Train on the Island is a tune that surfaces primarily in the area between Hillsville, VA., Galax, VA. and Mt. Airy, NC. Tommy's version is similar to that recorded in 1927 by J.P.Nestor and Norman Edmonds of Galax - reissued on the Smithsonian Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music (SFW CD 40090) and Yazoo CD 2028 - though different from the version that was once played by Wade Ward and his family, who were also from the Galax area. In this latter case, Wade Ward and his family set the words to what was basically the tune for June Apple (see the version played by Benton Flippen on this CD set). Matokie Slaughter plays a good version on Marimac CD 9028.

J. Preston Nestor recorded four songs in Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927 and never recorded again. Not much is known of him other than he was already dead by the 1970s when the fiddler on this track, Norman Edmonds, was interviewed by Stephen Davis and Robert Mobley (Old Time Music 9 (1973)). Nestor was invited to a second session in New York, but refused to leave his Hillsville, Virginia home. His fiddler, Edmonds, (1889-?) did continue to play. Nicknamed "Uncle Norm," he played with The Old Timers, a string band from the Galax, Virginia area. "Train on the Island" has become a favorite tune in the Virginia/North Carolina region due to the influence of Nestor's recording.

Both June Apple (which uses floating lyrics from "Train on the Island" and “Cindy”) and Train on the Island date back to the late 1800’s and the term "Train on the Island" might have been from an older unknown song.

“Edden Hammons, who recorded “Train on the Island” was born about 1874. Louis Watson Chappell recorded him in mid-August 1947, making him about 73. Note that the birth year is an approximation.” Kerry Blech

From Ceolas: Old-Time, Breakdown and Song. USA, western North Carolina, southwestern Va. (Galax, Round Peak). A Major (not D Major as has been said of Nestor and Edmonds' version): G Major (Kimble/Molsky). AEAE (Tommy Jarrell) or DGDG (Taylor Kimble, Bruce Molsky). AABB. A common "band tune" characteristic of Carrol and Patrick Counties, southwestern Va., say Tom Carter and Blanton Owen (1976), who remark, "this piece surfaces in the space between Hillsville and Meadows of Dan." J.P. Nestor, an early source for the tune who recorded it for Victor in 1927, lived near Laurel Fork, Carroll County, southwestern Virginia. In his book When We Were Good, Robert Cantwell suggests the name of the tune was adapted (by Nestor?) from the Irish reel "Lady of the Island." The title has become "distressed" among a few fiddlers, and has been heard as "Training Island."

NOTES “June Apple”: A Mixolydian. Standard or AEAE (Tommy Jarrell). AABB. A June apple is an early ripening variety of apple, maturing in the Spring in the southern United States. It tends to be smaller and more tart then later-ripening apples. The lyrics associated with “Cindy” are sometimes sung to the 'B' part. Tommy Jarrell learned the tune from his father, Ben Jarrell. Joel Shimberg points out that the lyrics to “Train on the Island” scan for the “June Apple” melody and are sometimes sung to it as ‘floating verses.’

Here are the lyrics to “Train on the Island” by J.P. Nestor:


Train on the island, since I heard it squeal
Go tell my true love, I can’t hold the wheel
I can’t roll the wheel, love, it’s I can’t hold the wheel.

Thought he heard it blow love, He thought he heard it blow

Train on the island, since I heard it blow
Go tell my true love, sick and I can’t go………sick, and I can’t go,
(instrumental) and I can’t roll the wheel

Train on the island, since I’ve heard it squeal
Go tell my true love, how happy I do feel
Thought he heard it blow, love, Thought he heard it blow

Train on the island, since I‘ve heard it blow
Go tell my true love, long as I can go
Long as I can go

Lord, he thought he heard it blow

Train on the island, since I‘ve heard it blow
Go tell my true love, sick and I can’t go
Sick, and I can’t go, love, sick and I can’t go

Thought he heard it blow, love, Thought he heard it blow


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