Katherine Jackson FrenchKatherine Jackson French in about 1910By Elizabeth DiSavino

Have you heard of Katherine Jackson French? Raise your hand. No? Katherine Jackson French deserves as prominent and inspirational a place in the history of Appalachian music as Olive Dame Campbell, Florence Reece and Jean Ritchie—yet no one knows her name.

Except for a short and incomplete summation of her life by undergraduate Sidney Saylor Farr in the 1970s, little interest has been expressed in Jackson’s life and work. Yet Jackson attempted to publish the very first large, scholarly collection of Southern Appalachian balladry in 1910. Had she succeeded, hers would have been the first such collection ever published, preceding Cecil Sharp and Olive Dame Campbell by seven years.

This fact begs several important questions. Who was this unusual woman who journeyed unaccompanied into the mountains of East Kentucky in 1909 to collect ballads? Why did her publication attempts fail? Had she succeeded in publishing first, would the outside world’s first crucial impression of Appalachian balladry, and Appalachians themselves, been different?

London, KY, circa 1875London, KY, circa 1875Katherine Jackson was born in 1875 in a cabin at Raccoon Springs, KY, just outside the frontier town of London. She had an unusually good education for a late 19th century woman, earning a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1906. In 1909, she collected ballads in the Cumberland Mountains and secured the promise of help in her publication efforts by Berea College President William Goodell Frost. In the end, Jackson’s publication efforts fell victim to the Ballad Wars, an intriguing stew of professional jealousies, gender role limitations, power structures, broken promises, and outright theft.

That is our loss, especially since Sharp’s 1917 English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, while a remarkable work, depicted a number of incorrect stereotypes and musical falsehoods that continue to be propagated today. At least some of this might not have been the case had Jackson published first.

First, there’s a reason people still incorrectly assume Appalachians and their music to be purely Anglo-Saxon. It’s because Cecil Sharp, William Goodell Frost, Josiah Combs, and other early like-minded people said so. Frost in particular pushed the image of Appalachians as English Elizabethans, “our contemporary ancestors,” despite the fact that most of the settlers of Appalachia were Scots, displaced to Northern Ireland, then to Pennsylvania from 1710-1800, then to Appalachia. Ulster Scots are neither Angles nor Saxons. Their ancestry is Pict and Celtic and Scotti, but not Anglo-Saxon. Yet the pure blood myth still exists.

Katherine Jackson French in cap and gownJackson in cap and gown, 1906Jackson, on the other hand, named her collection English-Scottish Ballads from the Hills of Kentucky. Just by Jackson’s title itself, it becomes clear that we are not talking about a purely Anglo-Saxon art form or line of practitioners. In fact, she was herself half Scottish (McKee). Like Sharp, Jackson was seeking British Isle ballads. But there are hints as to the diverse roots of Appalachian music sprinkled throughout her writings. For one thing, Jackson describes two boys playing banjo fiddlesticks style—one doing the fingerings, and others playing rhythms with drumsticks on the strings. This is a strange thing to find in the Kentucky mountains in 1909. Fiddlesticks style is thought to come from enslaved people in the Caribbean 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 here that is now lost to time. But one thing is clear: it didn’t come from any kind of Anglo tradition.

Second, 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 Jackson’s were in triple meter, for example, and more were based on major scales rather than the pentatonic mode that so fascinated Sharp. In a careful analysis of the three major British collections that Sharp and Jackson referred to (William Chappell’s "Popular Music of the Olden Time,” James Johnson’s "Scots Musical Museum," and John Playford’s "The Dancing Master"), as well as in Bertrand Bronson’s "The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads," we find that the pentatonic was rarely used in three of them and NEVER used in one of them (Playford). Pentatonic scales do not prove a connection to old British tunes. 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 indigenous people of eastern North America. So ironically, this mode that Sharp held up as the symbol of whiteness probably came to Appalachian music by influence of decidedly non-white people. Nevertheless, Sharp’s pentatonic theory is one we are stuck with today. On the other hand, while many of Jackson’s ballads are in pentatonic modes, she never pushed the incorrect theory that this mode somehow proved the songs were British, and, as stated, more of hers were in major keys as well to begin with.

Finally, we come to the role of women, and we find that Sharp is really not all that interested in talking about that. 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. In fact, Sharp 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 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, one might 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.

Overall, Jackson stresses the role of women and spends less time glorifying an Anglo connection. It is impossible, of course, to know for certain what would have happened if Jackson had published first. Since Sharp was a man, and because his overall collection (which included “Native” ballads and children’s songs) was larger than hers, he might have overshadowed her anyway. But it is not too late to give Jackson back her place in the history of American balladry, an esteemed position which she greatly deserves.

The following is one of the ballad variants collected by Jackson that has no musical counterpart in Sharp.

17. A Barbara Allen: Barbara Allen’s Cruelty"Barbara Allen" music

  1. In Scarlet Town, where I was born,
    There was a fair maid dwelling
    And ev'ry youth cried "Well-a-day,"
    Her name was Barbara Allen.

  2. All in the merry month of May,
    When green buds they were swellin';
    Young Jemmy Grove on his death-bed lay,
    For love of Barbara Allen.

  3. And death is painted on his face,
    And o'er his heart is stealin';
    Then haste away to comfort him,
    Oh lovely Barbara Allen.

  4. So slowly, slowly she came up,
    And slowly she came nigh him;
    And all she said when there she came,
    "Young man I think you're dying."

  5. He turned his face unto her straight,
    With deadly sorrow sighing;
    "Oh, pretty maid, come pity me,
    I'm on my death-bed lying."

  6. "If on your death-bed you do lie,
    What needs the tale you're telling?
    I cannot keep you from your death,
    Farewell," said Barbara Allen.

  7. He turned his face unto the wall,
    And death was with him dealin';
    "Adieu, adieu, my friends all,
    Adieu to Barbara Allen."

  8. As she was walking o'er the fields,
    She heard the bells a-knellin';
    And every stroke did seem to say,
    "Unworthy Barbara Allen."

  9. She turned her body round about,*
    And spied the corpse a-comin';
    "Lay down, lay down the corpse," she said,
    "That I may look upon him."

  10. With scornful eyes she looked down,
    Her cheeks with laughter swellin';
    Whilst all her friends cried out anain,
    "Unworthy Barbara Allen."

  11. The more she looked, the worse she felt,
    She fell to the ground a-cryin';
    Sayin', "If I'd done my duty today,
    I'd a saved this young man from dyin'."

  12. (Incomplete verse:
    "She got in one mile o'town...")**

  13. When he was dead and in his grave,
    Her heart was struck with sorrow;
    "Oh, mother, mother, make my bed,
    For I shall die tomorrow.

  14. "Hard-hearted creature, him to slight,
    Who loved me so dearly;
    Oh, that I'd been more kind to him,
    When he was alive and near me."

  15. She on her death-bed as she lay,
    Begged to be buried by him;
    And soon repented of the day
    That she did e'er deny him.

  16. "Farewell," she said, "ye virgins all,
    And shun the fault I fell in;
    Henceforth take warning by the fall
    Of cruel Barbara Allen."

  17. Sweet William*** died on Saturday night,
    And Barbara died on Sunday;
    Their parents died for the loss of the two,
    And were buried on Easter Monday.

  18. They buried him on one side of the church,
    And he was buried nigh her;
    And on his grave they planted a rosie bush,
    And on hers a green briar.

  19. They grew and they grew, till they grew so high
    That they could grow no higher;
    They lapped and tied in a true love knot,
    The red rose and the briar.****

* Alternative start of verse 9:
"She looked to the east, she looked to the west."

** Verse 12 is incomplete in all versions.

*** "Jemmy Grove" does not carry throughout the lyric, but switches here to "Sweet William." I have not corrected it here but duplicated it just as she wrote it.

**** Alternative ending:

She was buried in the old church yard,
And he was buried a nigh her;
On Sweet William's grave there grew a red rose,
On Barbara's a green briar.

They grew and they grew, till they grew so high
They could not grow any higher
They lapped and tied in a true love knot,
For all true lovers to admire.

(Lyrics: KJF v. 1, 2, 3, 4; Melody: v. 2; KJF's musical manuscript, lyrics, and melody, also found in Jameson.)

Elizabeth DiSavinoKatherine Jackson French book coverElizabeth DiSavino is an associate professor of music at Berea College, where she directs the Berea College Celebration of Traditional Music. 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 been awarded 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 co-founder of the innovative contra dance band Illegal Contraband. She is the author of a trilogy based on the work and life of Katherine Jackson French: a biography entitled Katherine Jackson French: Kentucky’s Forgotten Ballad Collector (University Press of Kentucky, 2020), a CD of Jackson’s ballads entitled There Was a Fair Maid Dwelling, and a commemorative edition of Jackson’s ballad collection English-Scottish Ballads from the Hills of Kentucky, published through Berea College.

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