If you read my last blog about the story of my father’s first guitar, and my quest to replace it, then you might have picked up on how that adventure sparked an interest in vintage guitars for me. As an admirer (and low-budget collector) of guitars, I had spent a lot of time scrubbing the internet for cool guitars of yesteryear. I had also kept a close eye on some auction and classified websites for potential additions to my own collection. I stumbled upon this guitar, and thought it was a pretty neat story. I placed the opening bid, and honestly expected for it to sell for well out of my price range. But somehow, the auction ended without any competing bids. I suppose it was meant to be, passing from one guitar-picking veteran to another.
Let’s start with a little history, and turn back the clock to the late 1930’s in St. Louis.
St. Louis was home to the first broadcast station west of the Mississippi River, WEW, which was licensed in 1922. By the late 1930’s, St Louis had grown into a haven for hillbilly music and cowboy culture. Two competing furniture stores; Uncle Dick Slack’s Furniture, and Carson-May-Stern Furniture had both started sponsoring Cowboy radio shows as means of advertisement. Uncle Dick Slack’s Barn Dance on KMOX, and Carson’s Melody Makers performing on 3 different radio stations (KWK, WEW and KSD) every Saturday morning.
One of the members of Carson’s Cowboys was a man named James Thomas Wigington, better known as Cowboy Jake. Jake also had his own radio show called ‘The Cowboy Jake Hour’ on WEW in the late 30’s and early 40’s
. Jake was born in the hills of Georgia in 1909, but migrated west into Oklahoma and Missouri as a young adult. He was known as one of the few real cowboys on the radio that could actually ride a horse, and knew which side to milk a cow. I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to find details about this man, but there is very little available as compared to several of the other radio cowboys of this era. I did find some information on his military career.
Cowboy Jake was also Corporal Wigington when he served in the Army Air Corps. Cpl. Wigington was assigned to the Armament and Ordnance Section of the 511th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy) of the 351st Bombardment Group, 94th Bombardment Wing, 1st Air Division of the 8th Army Air Force. They were responsible for loading bombs and ammunition on to the Squadrons’ B17s prior to the missions. The group was based at Polebrook Airfield in Northamptonshire, England between 15 Apr 1943 and 10 Jun 1945, with a total of 279 B-17 Flying Fortresses on charge.
Probably one of the most interesting facts about Jake’s service was that his unit was also home to 1st Lieutenant Clark Gable, who was attached to the 351st to film the documentary with his 6-man motion-picture unit specially crafted by the Army Air Corps. The Army Air Corps filmed a few documentaries about this unit, highlighting the bombers, missions, and crews. Although Jake’s job wasn’t part of the flight crew, but to arm the bombers with munitions prior to each mission, he still managed to sneak into a couple of these documentaries.
Combat America: Not only do we get to see Jake here, but we get to see him playing a guitar and singing!
The Memphis Belle: A Story Of A Flying Fortress: Jake is riding on the front bomb of the trolley playing the harmonica. (This movie was filmed without sound, but later added by Hollywood so the audio is not really him unfortunately)
So now that you’ve gotten to know our buddy Cowboy Jake, and have gotten a sense of the popular cowboy culture of the time, I’ll move on to the guitar I purchased. Jake returned home WWII in 1945, and I haven’t found much documented history of him after this point. I’d imagine he went back to doing what he enjoyed, being a cowboy musician on the radio. At some point in Jake’s life, no earlier than 1947 obviously, he purchased this 1947 Silvertone Archtop guitar. He signed the pickguard with his famous radio persona, ‘Cowboy Jake’. Perhaps he used this guitar in the late 1940’s and into the 1950’s on the air, or at local events.
The guitar came in its original case which was in considerably good condition, a rarity for guitars this old. Included in the case was an old yellow document-size envelope with 3 original promotional photos that Jake would hand out to his fans (pictured above with the guitar). It was a bit dusty, but the finish on the guitar was in very good condition. There were a couple flaws, which are quite common for Harmony/Kay/Silvertones of this era. The celluloid tuning buttons had shrunk and crumbled over time, but I replaced them with a new set of reproduction buttons. I had to reglue a bit of binding on the neck by the nut that was loose. The biggest issue on these models is the neck setting. These guitars do not have truss rods or adjustable necks. They are hand set and glued, which after 60+ years they commonly shift, causing the strings to distance themselves from the fretboard (high action). The neck on this guitar has only moderately stretched, as the strings are perhaps 1/4″ off the fretboard at the 12th fret, but below the 7th fret is still fairly playable. I intend to get the neck reset by a professional luthier eventually, but that is usually a pricey repair. In the mean time I will just strum ‘cowboy chords’ on the few occasions I play it. Primarily I see it as a collectible piece of art and history.
Cpl. James Thomas Wigington, ‘Cowboy Jake’, was buried 16 Dec 1964 at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis in Plot E-0-369. His wife Mary now rests beside him. I’m very interested in learning more about James Thomas Wigington, so if any readers happen to know anything about this man, please leave a comment!
Now for the pictures of the guitar during the restoration process.