Katherine Jackson French: Kentucky’s Forgotten Ballad Collector

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Congratulations on publishing your new book, “Katherine Jackson French: Kentucky’s Forgotten Ballad Collector” (University Press of Kentucky). Who was Katherine Jackson French?

Katherine Jackson French was a remarkable woman. She was born in London, Kentucky in 1875, earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1906, and went off collecting ballads in East Kentucky in 1909. She tried to publish them as “English-Scottish Ballads from the Hills of Kentucky” in 1910 with the promise of help from Berea College President William Goodell Frost, but it never happened.

Why did you decide to write a book about her life and the ballads she collected?

I was intrigued by her story. I wanted to find out why Frost held on to her ballads for five years but in the end did not help her publish. I wanted to try to understand what might have happened if she had published first – did she find pretty much the same thing that Cecil Sharp did, or was it different? And if it was different, would that have changed the way the rest of America initially viewed Appalachian balladry, and Appalachians themselves? If she had succeeded in publishing in 1910, hers would have been the first large, scholarly Appalachian ballad collection ever published. For that alone, she should have had a place in history. I wanted to give her back that place by discovering and telling her story. 

It seems that one key lesson from French’s work is that she reveals the Appalachian musical culture she investigated to be much more feminine and more ethnically diverse than the impression made by Cecil Sharp or Olive Dame Campbell. Can you talk about the stereotypes and misconceptions they have propogated and how French’s work tells a very different story?

Well, we all know the Appalachian musican stereotype – a disheveled white guy in torn blue jeans playing banjo on a cabin porch somewhere in the mountains…That sterotype was cemented into place once the recording era hit in the late 1920’s and “hillbilly records” were found to be a marketable niche. It was reinforced through the Barn Dance radio show, the Grand Ole Opry, Hee Haw, and the movie Deliverance. In fact, every generation found a way to pass that stereotype down.

The truth is way more nuanced. We get the male part of the stereotype right away from Sharp, though, in his 1917 “English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians.”  Although 2/3 of Cecil Sharp’s informants were women, and his star informant, Jane Hicks Gentry, was a woman, there is no highlighting of that fact in his 23-page introduction.  Little bit of an omission, wouldn’t you say? In fact, he always refers to ballad singers as “he.” Jackson on the other hand dedicates her ballad collection to “The Singing Mothers of America,” and states quite clearly and at length that “to the women is the credit for the preservation of the ballads due.” She talks about the women coming nearer to the heart of the stories of the ballads, and sympathizing with the pain of the characters. She talks about mothers teaching their daughters “these songs of the ancients.” It’s a very different tone and picture. To read Sharp’s introduction, you’d think that the only musicians in the hills were men, and that is the first impression that outsiders got from reading Sharp’s book. Jackson puts the lie to that.  

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Jackson also calls her collection “English-Scottish Ballads from the Hills of Kentucky” as opposed to Sharp’s “English Folk-Songs from the Southern Appalachians.” Why is this important? Because Sharp was fixated on this idea that because these songs were here, this proved that Appalachians were pure Anglo-Saxons. It fell in line with the argument that Frost and others were making, often prompted by fear of immigrants who were coming to America at the time. In fact, you will still find articles that claim that Appalachians of the early 20th century were somehow “Elizabethan ancestors.” Little problem here: the majority of people who came to Appalachia weren’t English, they were Scots-Irish, that is, thrice-displaced Scots. Scots are not Anglo-Saxon. Their heritage is Pict, Celt, Breton, but they are neither Angle nor Saxon. (In fact, if you’d like to be punched in the nose, call a Scot an Anglo-Saxon!) So by just Jackson’s title itself, it becomes clear that we are not talking about a purely Anglo-Saxon line of practitioners.  In fact, she was herself half Scottish (McKee).  

Jackson also says that she came across two young banjo players, in a manuscript published much later when the Katherine Jackson French collection was put together in 1955 – that is also a great story, how that happened…She describes two boys playing fiddlesticks style – one doing the fingerings, and others playing rhythms with drum sticks on the strings. This is a wild thing to find in the mountains in 1909. Fiddlestick style is thought to come from the Caribbean slaves who were then transported to America. It’s found in Cajun music and in some kinds of Southern fiddling. What was this Caribbean/African-American style doing in the Cumberland Mountains in 1909? There is a story there that is now lost to time. But one thing is clear: it didn’t come from any kind of Anglo tradition.

French herself faced serious difficulties getting her work published and recognized. Why was there so much opposition to her?

She came up against an almost Wagnerian set of opposing forces – a tangle of intrigue, professional jealousies, gender roles, power structures, broken promises, and outright theft. In the end, this defeated her efforts to publish. That story forms the heart of my biography of her, and I don’t want to give it all away here except to say this: it was a web of conflicting interests that puts the best soap opera to shame.  

I will say that gender roles played a powerful role in her failure to publish – really, the only failure in her entire life. We forget just how limiting the concept of permissible public action and space were for women was in the Victorian era; permissible spaces were largely limited to the home, the church, and the school, and permissible actions were largely limited to issues related to those areas. Katherine Jackson French pushed against those limitations. Think of just the act of a single young woman sauntering off by herself to earn a Ph.D. in New York in 1903! Or into the mountains of Kentucky alone in 1909! Scandalous! Jackson French didn’t stop breaking barriers after 1910, either. After she failed to publish, she and her husband moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1917, where she co-founded the Shreveport Woman’s Department Club, an organization that provided a college-level education (without the degree) to the women of Shreveport. She also taught at Centenary College and was President of the Louisiana AAUW (American Association of University Women). French was one of a group of women who sought higher education in the north and then returned to the south, where they forged roles of influence that walked the tightrope between proper southern femininity and social action.  

There’s also the music, of course! Can you describe the ballads she collected?

Jackson went in search of old British Isle survivals, the same way Cecil Sharp and Olive Dame Campbell and other later collectors did. (Actually, it’s inaccurate to call Campbell “later;” she was collecting as early as 1907, and she tried to publish in 1910 too with the help of the Russell Sage Foundation. She too was turned down.) At any rate, the ballads that Jackson found in Kentucky were clearly derived from the same English/Scottish ones that Sharp’s were, but there were definite musical differences. More of them were in triple meter, for example, and more were based on straight major scales rather than the pentatonic mode that so fascinated Sharp. In the book, I actually analyzed the four major British collections that Sharp and Jackson referred to, and the reality is that the pentatonic was rarely used in three of them and NEVER used in one of them. It was flat out wrong for Sharp to claim that the presence of pentatonic scales here somehow proved a connection to old British tunes. It’s a claim made whole cloth out of Sharp’s Anglo-centrism. The major scale was in use in Europe by 1025 and in full swing by the 13th century! In fact, the use of the pentatonic scale in Appalachian tunes, if it proves anything, proves the presence of interaction with African-Americans from West Africa (where use of the pentatonic scale is plentiful) or with Native Americans. So ironically, this mode that Sharp held up as the symbol of whiteness probably came to Appalachia or was at least enforced by the influence of African-Americans and/or Native Americans. Nevertheless, Sharp’s pentatonic theory is one we are stuck with today, and you will find it in music text books still. On the other hand, Jackson’s ballads use plenty of pentatonic modes too, but she never spun this crazy theory that that somehow proved they were British because of it, and as I said, more of hers were in major keys.

Some of the melodies Jackson collected were entirely different than anything else I have come across. The melody for “Barbara Allen” is unique as far as I have found, and it’s gorgeous; the melody for “Cruel Mother” also, in a minor key, is unlike anything else I’ve heard. Her lyrics tell the same stories that other versions of the same ballads do, but some of the colloquialisms are unique. There’s a version she has of Barbara Allen that talks about “hickory buds a-swellin’,” I really like that. Then there’s a version of “Lovers Farewell” that goes “It makes me think when you are away/ That an hour is three and a day is ten / It makes me weep when I might sleep / And say I’ve lost a friend.” I’ve never seen that one before. Her guide, Lizane Napier, sang that to her when they said goodbye.  

Elizabeth DiSavino is an assistant professor of music at Berea College. She has presented at the Appalachian Studies Association conference and been selected as a Spoken Word winner for the Women of Appalachia Project. Her work has been published in the Paterson Literary Review, and she has received grants from the Hutchins Library Sound Archives and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. A multi-genre, multi-instrumental musician, DiSavino is one half of the acoustic duo Liza & A.J. and is a founder of Illegal Contraband. She lives in Berea, Kentucky and is the Director of the Berea College Celebration of Traditional Music.

Do you have any favorites?

I really love the version of “Barbara Allen” sung by Mrs. James Baker right here in Berea. It’s stunningly, I don’t know, right and satisfying and sets off both the story’s pathos and the eternal power of love in equal measure. The version of “Fair Marg’et and Sweet William” isn’t that different, but I love it because it was one of the first ballads she heard, and she had a real fan girl moment, her English Ph.D. geekdom recognizing the ancientness of the song and sweeping her away “with the transport of the centuries.” I like the “Three Crows” (“Three Ravens”) because it includes a refrain of “caws,” which makes it fun to sing. And I love the ditsy melody for “Lord Vanner’s Wife,” and the fact that it fits because the usually grisly ending is missing. You’re left with the image of a naked Magrove (Matty Groves) running away for his life!

Barbara Allen
Lord Randal
The Lord of the Old Country

How do you think players now can best honor the work of French and the ballads she collected?

I think that the best way to honor her work is for people to embrace and sing these songs, and give them new life and new musical homes. To me, tradition is a living thing.  If it wasn’t, we’d still be singing all 5200 verses of “Hind Horn” unaccompanied with British accents! I say on the liner notes of the CD of these songs (entitled “There Was a Fair Maid Dwelling”) that ballads bear the fingerprints of every hand that has held and lovingly shaped them. I hope other hands will lovingly hold these songs and shape them and carry them forward. And I hope that by doing so, we give Katherine Jackson French back her place in the history of American balladry.

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