Arts and Culture

Katherine Jackson French died in 1958 at the age of 83. 

She’s buried in a cemetery off a busy road in London, Ky. Her headstone is a modest rectangular slab.

“I kind of love this because it almost sums up her life, this unobtrusive, small headstone,” Elizabeth DiSavino, associate professor of music at Kentucky’s Berea College, said as she stood near the gravesite. 

“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,” DiSavino said.

Stephanie Wolf | wfpl.org

Katherine Jackson French’s headstone in the AR Dyche Cemetery in London, Kentucky on Oct. 30, 2020.

Jackson French was born in the mountains near the small eastern Ky. town of Lily. The list of those “remarkable things” she did included earning a doctorate from Columbia University in 1906 — records in the Columbia University Archives indicate that she was the second woman to earn a PhD in English at the university — becoming a leader of the American Association of University Women and collecting some 60 songs from the Kentucky mountains in 1909.

Outside the inner circles of academia 

Jackson French tried to get her ballad collection published, asking Berea College for help in late 1910. But it never happened. 

“There was this tangle of intrigue of professional jealousies and broken promises, and gender role limitations,” DiSavino said.

Had she succeeded, DiSavino continued, 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, who co-published a major collection of Appalachia balladry with folklorist Olive Dame Campbell in 1917.

But other scholars were allowed to sample from Jackson French’s work, and as more scholarly work on balladry was published, she “lost primacy,” DiSavino said. 

Courtesy Kay Tolbert Buckland

Katherine Jackson French

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. 

“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,” DiSavino said. 

Jackson French was not a part of these inner circles, DiSavino added. Yet, what she collected from Kentucky was significant. She took meticulous notes from her time in the mountains, “giv[ing] 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,” DiSavino said. 

In her notes, she wrote that it was primarily the women who kept these ballads. In fact, she dedicated her ballad collection to the women of these mountains. The communal spirit and the role of women wasn’t emphasized as much in later collections, DiSavino said. 

A discovery in an attic in South Carolina 

In May 2020, DiSavino published a biography on Jackson French, titled “Katherine Jackson French: Kentucky’s Forgotten Ballad Collector,” with the help of a hidden treasure trove discovered in an attic in South Carolina, boxes of letters and photos that had sat unopened for years.

Through a free trial on an ancestry site, DiSavino searched for living relatives of Jackson French and “came up with a name and South Carolina.”

“So, I called all the people of that name in South Carolina, until finally someone picked and I said, ‘I’m doing research on a woman named Katherine Jackson French,” DiSavino said. “There was a pause and the woman on the other end said, ‘Oh, well, she was my grandmother.’”

The woman on the other line was Kay Tolbert Buckland, who said she knew just a bit about her grandmother’s work growing up.

“At one point, my mother said, ‘Well, your grandmother collected ballads, and she gave me a little brochure that grandmother had done and I think I used that to write a paper,” Tolbert Buckland said. 

Tolbert Buckland invited DiSavino to come down to South Carolina and go through all of those boxes. She’s grateful her grandmother’s story is finally being told.

“I was in tears, reading the book,” Tolbert Buckland said. “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.”

Fulfilling a promise more than a century later

About 110 years after Jackson French first approached Berea College, the school fulfilled its promise to her, and published her ballad collection.

“It’s a tremendous honor to be part of this moment of both reckoning and also celebration,” Chris Green, director of Berea College’s Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, said. 

Stephanie Wolf | wfpl.org

Elizabeth DiSavino, associate professor of music at Berea College, stands near Katherine Jackson French’s gravesite in the AR Dyche Cemetery in London, Kentucky on Oct. 30, 2020.

Throughout her research, Elizabeth DiSavino kept stumbling upon “bits of synchronicity that kind of kept me coming back to her story,” such as their interest in folk music and ballads, their careers in academia. 

“She died the year I was born… there were just a lot of synchronicities that made me feel like I was supposed to be the one to tell the story,” she said.

Ultimately, she wants Jackson French’s contributions to Appalachian music to be recognized and she hopes people will learn 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,” DiSavino said. “So I would hope that maybe one thing that comes out of this is that people start asking those questions about what are the stories that we don’t know?”

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.