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Katherine Jackson French: Kentucky’s Forgotten Ballad Collector
A young woman named Katherine Jackson ventured into the mountains of Eastern Kentucky in 1909. Her quarry: the old ballads from England and Scotland that had survived in the Southern mountains. She collected over sixty ballads by some accounts, and attempted to publish them in 1910.
Kentucky native Katherine Jackson French broke boundaries. She was the second woman to earn a Ph.D. from Columbia University—and the first from south of the Mason-Dixon Line to do so. Her research kick-started the resurgence of Appalachian music that continues to this day. But what would have been French’s crowning scholarly achievement, the aforementioned collection of traditional Kentucky ballads, never saw print. Academic rivalries, gender prejudice, and broken promises fell victim to a thirty-year feud known as the “Ballad Wars,” which denied French her place in history and left the field to northerner Olive Dame Campbell and English folklorist Cecil Sharp, setting Appalachian studies on a foundation marred by stereotypes and misconceptions.
Katherine Jackson French: Kentucky’s Forgotten Ballad Collector tells the story of what might have been. Drawing on never-before-seen artifacts from French’s granddaughter, Elizabeth DiSavino reclaims the life and legacy of this pivotal scholar by emphasizing ways her work shaped and could reshape our conceptions about Appalachia today. In contrast to the collection published by Campbell and Sharp, French’s ballads elevate the status of women, testify to the ethnic complexity of Appalachian musical traditions, and reveal more complex local dialects. Had French published her work in 1910 as intended, stereotypes about Appalachian ignorance, misogyny, and homogeneity may have diminished long ago. Included in this book is the first-ever publication of Katherine Jackson French’s English-Scottish Ballads from the Hills of Kentucky.
WHAT OTHERS HAVE TO SAY ABOUT KATHERINE JACKSON FRENCH: KENTUCKY’S FORGOTTEN BALLAD COLLECTOR:
“(Jackson) gave far more credit to Appalachian women for preserving and performing the music…Had Jackson French succeeded in publishing her results, DiSavino argues, the study of Appalachian balladry might have been redirected from mythologizing about racial purity into something more accurate and inclusive…the counterfactual scenario DiSavino invokes, in which mountain women and African-American string bands were granted their rightful, central place in early country music, is heartening to entertain.” – LIDIJA HAAS, Harpers Magazine
“DiSavino’s wealth of research contributes to an understanding of the cultural and historical life of our nation, glimpsed through the window of our national song as recorded by Dr. Katherine Jackson French’s keen ear and discerning intellect.”—RON PEN, director emeritus of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music and author of I Wonder as I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles
“Meticulously researched, this fascinating unveiling of the life and work of a minor character in the early twentieth century “Ballad Wars” seems like it was a true labor of love for Berea College music professor Elizabeth DiSavino. The book is divided into three parts. The first part is a biographical sketch of Katherine Jackson French’s life. This section painted a picture of a determined and intelligent woman pursuing a career in a field of academia dominated by men. It also made me wonder if Miss Jackson’s “Fortnight of Balladry” was also a labor of love .” RICK JACKOFSKY, The Homegrown String Band, Amazon/Goodreads review
“DiSavino analyzes and compares the ballads collected by Cecil Sharp and Olive Dame Campbell with the French collection in terms of music, style, and representation of singers. French can now take her place alongside Emma Bell Miles and Campbell as a strong woman chronicling life in the Appalachian region just after the turn of the twentieth century, sometimes at odds with institutions and traditional expectations.”—Deborah J. Thompson, Kentucky Historical Society, former assistant professor and Appalachian Studies faculty at Berea College
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Specialty areas: traditional music from the Catskill Mountains and Southern Appalachia; women in traditional music
Multi-instrumentalist and songwriter. Performs nationally with A.J. Bodnar
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About the author
Elizabeth DiSavino is 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. She lives in Berea, Kentucky.