On Katherine and Me

Katherine Jackson French:  Kentucky’s Forgotten Ballad Collector

University Press of Kentucky, 2020

I met Katherine Jackson French deep in the belly of the Hutchins Library Special Collections and Archives at Berea College.  It was the winter of 2012.  She wasn’t there of course; she died the year I was born, but I met her through what she left behind.  Such is the magic of words and music.

I was working there on a fellowship study with my husband that compared northern and southern Appalachian music, and suddenly, there she was, in the quick and competent hands of archivist Harry Rice.  He introduced me to her.  She was just a box full of manuscripts and pictures and musical manuscripts and a truncated and gap-filled biography when I met her, just a hint of a mystery and song.  But that box once opened seemed to whisper, “Tell my story.”

So I did. 

But first I had to discover what that story was.

The bare bones were already there in that box:  a childhood in London, KY, a good education, a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1906, a ballad collecting trip to East Kentucky in 1909 with an attempt to publish in 1910.  A second act as a professor and Womans Department Club founder in Louisiana.  But much was missing, and the more I looked, the more questions I had.  Especially puzzling was the fact that Berea College had promised to help her to publish in 1910, yet the publication never happened.  It only seemed right that I should investigate that promise, and as a Berea College professor, deliver on it if possible.  (The old saw “better late than never” comes to mind.)  It was clear to me that she deserved a place in the history of Appalachian balladry.  It became clear as I progressed that she deserved a place in the history of women’s clubs as well.

My quest included much of what researchers expect to do:  pore over old dusty old parchment  paper in libraries and historical associations, visit places associated with her, learn the songs she left behind, and construct timelines piecing together information about different stages of her life.  But it was when I discovered Katherine’s granddaughter through the miracle of online genealogy tools that the story took off.  Granddaughter Kay had an entire roomful of diaries, writings, letters, and photographs.  That voice that I had heard in the archives gained corporeality with each sentence Katherine had written, each photograph that emerged, each letter written to her.  Slowly, bit by bit, she became a fully developed figure, one who lived the sort of remarkable life that women in the early 1900’s didn’t generally have.  My admiration for her grew, and while she, like all of us, was not a perfect being, she was pretty dang close – a remarkable example of kindness, intelligence, grace, determination, faith, adaptability, and courage.

It has been a long and wondrous journey to this point, punctuated by long stretches of editorial tedium and stress the and the death of my mother (who I so very much wish could have seen this) and sleepless nights and searches for the perfect and magic combination of words, those fleeting symbols which after all only imperfectly impart meaning at best.  I have wrestled with them to the best of my ability.  I hope I have been triumphant in that regard.  I’m especially proud that this book finally publishes Katherine Jackson’s “English-Scottish Ballads from the Hills of Kentucky,” marking the completion of a 110-year-old promise.

It is my distinct honor and privilege to present to you, through the University Press of Kentucky, Katherine Jackson French:  Kentucky’s Forgotten Ballad Collector.

Published by Liza D

Teacher, musician, writer

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