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Katherine Jackson French's Ballad Collection Published 110 Years Later


Katherine Jackson French traveled the Kentucky mountains in the early 1900s, searching for traditional ballads that were disappearing. Her attempt to publish her work failed, in part because she was a woman and in part due to something called the Ballad Wars. Stephanie Wolf, of member station WFPL, reports that Jackson French's story is finally being told.

STEPHANIE WOLF, BYLINE: Katherine Jackson French died in 1958 at the age of 83. She's buried in a cemetery off a busy road in London, Ky.


WOLF: Her headstone is a modest rectangular slab.

ELIZABETH DISAVINO: I kind of love this because it almost sums up her life, this unobtrusive small headstone.

WOLF: That's Elizabeth DiSavino, associate professor of music at Kentucky's Berea College.

DISAVINO: Katherine Jackson did remarkable things in her life, but she didn't do it in a very ostentatious way, which I think is part of the reason that no one has really heard of her.

WOLF: Katherine Jackson French became a leader of the American Association of University Women. And she collected some 60 songs from the Kentucky mountains in 1909.


DISAVINO: (Singing) There was a lord lived in the old country - bow down. There was a lord lived in the old country. These vows were given to me...

WOLF: Jackson French tried to get her ballad collection published, asking Berea College for help, but it never happened.

DISAVINO: There was this tangle of intrigue, of professional jealousies and broken promises and gender role limitations.

WOLF: Had she succeeded, DiSavino says Jackson French would have easily beat out the scholars who did get the credit for this kind of Anglo-American musical fieldwork, like Cecil Sharp. He co-published a major collection of Appalachia balladry in 1917. DiSavino says other scholars cribbed from Jackson French's research. Then there was this feud that became known as the Ballad Wars; basically, an ivory-tower squabble between factions of scholars arguing over how ballads got written.

DISAVINO: What began to happen was that experts on ballads began to gather acolytes and students, and these people vested their own careers in the expertise of the people that they followed.

WOLF: Jackson French was not a part of these inner circles, DiSavino says. Yet what she collected from Kentucky was significant. And she took meticulous notes.

DISAVINO: She really gives us a picture of what life was like for people of those mountains, both the poverty and also the tremendous communal spirit shared in particular by the women.

WOLF: That was often glossed over in later collections - the communal spirit, the role of women. Jackson French wrote that it was primarily women who kept these ballads. In fact, she dedicated her collection to these women.


DISAVINO: (Singing) In Scarlett Town, where I was born, there was a fair maid dwellin'. And every youth cried, well, a-day. Her name was Barbara Allen.

WOLF: DiSavino published a biography on Katherine Jackson French, with the help of a hidden treasure trove discovered in an attic in South Carolina - boxes of letters and photos that sat unopened for years.

KAY TOLBERT BUCKLAND: Kay Tolbert Buckland is my name. And I'm Katherine Jackson French's granddaughter.

WOLF: Tolbert Buckland says she knew just a bit about her grandmother's work growing up.

BUCKLAND: At one point, my mother said, well, you know, your grandmother collected ballads. And she gave me a little brochure that grandmother had done. And so I think I used that to write a paper.

WOLF: She's grateful her grandmother's story is finally being told.

BUCKLAND: I was in tears reading the book. I think I've read it two or three times. And I need to read it again because every time I read it, I learn more (laughter).


DISAVINO: (Singing) Oh, where have you been to, Lord Randall, my son? Oh, where have you been to, my sweet pretty one? Over high hills and mountains, Mother, make my bed soon. For I'm sick to the heart, and I want to lie down.

WOLF: That's Elizabeth DiSavino singing a ballad from Katherine Jackson French's collection, included in a two-disc set released in conjunction with the book.


DISAVINO: (Singing) What did you eat for supper, Lord Randall, my son? What did you eat for your supper, my sweet pretty one? Fried eels and fresh butter, Mother, make my bed soon. For I'm sick to the heart, and I want to lie down.

I want her contribution to Appalachian music known. I hope people pick up these songs and sing them. Beyond that, I think it's important that we start talking frankly about the fact that our history, as we learn it, is one of cultural erasure.

WOLF: Berea College is finally fulfilling its promise to Katherine Jackson French, publishing her ballad collection 110 years later.

For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Wolf in London, Ky.


DISAVINO: (Singing) What do you will to your father, Lord Randall, my... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephanie Wolf