Louisa Jo Killen, 79, Folk Singer Known for Lyrical Tenor

By Vitello, Paul | International Herald Tribune, August 27, 2013 | Go to article overview

Louisa Jo Killen, 79, Folk Singer Known for Lyrical Tenor


Vitello, Paul, International Herald Tribune


The English folk singer known for most of his life as Louis Killen was a bawdy, bearded pioneer of the 1950s British folk revival, a member of the Clancy Brothers and a soloist of traditional ballads.

The English folk singer known for most of his life as Louis Killen was a bawdy, bearded pioneer of the 1950s British folk revival, a member of the Clancy Brothers and a soloist admired for giving voice to forgotten miners and sailors in traditional ballads.

In 2010, when he was 76, Mr. Killen surprised his fans and many of his friends by resolving to give voice to another sort of lost life. He began living openly as a woman, performing in women's clothing and a wig. In 2012, he underwent a sex-change operation.

Adopting the name Louisa Jo Killen, she continued to perform for almost two years, by most accounts winning over most of Louis Killen's fans and all of his friends. She died at 79 on Aug. 9 at her home in Gateshead, England, from a recurrence of a cancer diagnosed six years ago, said the singer's former wife, Margaret Osika.

As Louis, Ms. Killen had been among the most influential voices of England's postwar folk music scene, as both a collector and performer of 19th-century ballads and folk songs chronicling the working lives of seamen, coal miners, mill workers and laborers. Folk archivists still consider the dozen recordings made by Louis Killen in the late 1950s and early '60s for the British folk label Topic Records to be the definitive versions of traditional English songs like "The Shoals of Herring," "Black Leg Miners," "Pleasant and Delightful," "The Flying Cloud" and "The Ship in Distress."

Singing a cappella or accompanying himself sparsely on the concertina, Louis Killen was known for his lyrical tenor -- a "terrifying decibel rate," as one British critic described it -- and a haunting ability to capture the aching loss at the heart of many traditional songs.

"A lot of his songs are not of the jolliest in content," a reviewer for The Living Tradition, a traditional-music magazine published in Scotland, wrote in 2002. "But in his hands, you are impressed by the dignity, rather than the misery."

Moving to the United States in 1966, Mr. Killen met and became friends with his fellow folk singer and archivist Pete Seeger, with whom he performed often over the years. In 1969, he was enlisted as a member of the maiden crew -- along with Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Len Chandler, Don McLean and a half-dozen other singers -- on the first voyage of Mr. Seeger's Hudson River sloop, Clearwater. During the seven-week journey from South Bristol, Maine, where the sloop was launched, to the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan, performances by Mr. Seeger and the crew basically paid off the mortgage on the boat, which has since become the floating soapbox and standard-bearer of Mr. …

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