And how sweet were the notes that I heard that small bird sing
I grew up listening to Killen's singing, because she performed at the Mystic Sea Music Festival almost every year and the Old Songs Festival often. She was one of the three or four best ballad singers I have ever heard. There's John Roberts, Brian Peters, Cindy Kallet, okay, and Martin Carthy and Debra Cowan and Lisa Null, and Louisa Jo Killen. No one did "The Rose in June" better than she did. She was an underappreciated expert on Tyneside coal-miners' songs (one of the obits described her as "the slightly obscure folk musician Louisa Jo Killen", sigh), she played the concertina, she had a deceptively simple, warbling singing style that was a little bit like Irish sean-nos singing. Never afraid to take it slow and give it grandeur. My father was a huge fan and we had all her recordings.
She lived to grow old, she did a ton of cool stuff in her lifetime, but it's always too early to lose someone you admire. With hindsight, I'd say her voice was like one of those single malts that seem like a single experience--one sharp blast of smokiness--but get more complex and give up more detail the more you savor them.
I'm having to remember to say "she" because Louisa Jo Killen transitioned a few years ago, and I haven't seen her since she started using female pronouns. Before that, during all my early life, she presented as a gruff old macho dude. There are people who only accepted her as "Louis Killen" all over Facebook right now, mourning the loss of a great artist while resolutely ignoring the fact that she started using "she." I used to be an ass who did similar things. One of the reasons I know better now is because of the bravery of people like Killen. She had tons of fans who had a lot invested in her identifying as a man, and yet she came out as transgendered at the age of seventy-something. (To the rage, dismay and denial of most of her older audience. My father didn't actually burn his old cassettes, but he and my mother flipped their shit.)
Anyway, I don't want to make this all about her being trans, to the exclusion of her work, but I am intrigued by the things I'll never know about her. Maybe she only ever lived as a man because trans people weren't supposed to exist back in her youth; maybe she identified as male when younger but female when older; maybe she was coming from another direction I don't grasp. I wish people could talk about her transition without being shifty and transphobic. Recall the bandmates of that one character at the end of A Mighty Wind and you'll know what I mean. Hell, I wish I could sit down with my father and remember her together, because he's the one who got me listening to her performances before I was old enough to know what all the words meant, but there's no way I am going to listen to what he'll want to say now.
There's a thread starting on Mudcat in her memory. Beware people in denial/mis-pronouning, but parts of it are excellent.
In her later years (when I was in my low double digits), she had a reputation for forgetting her oldest, most-demanded song lyrics in the middle of the song. I have always had a good memory--and I'd learned the words from her recordings--so as a kid, it was always a struggle to sit in the live audience listening to her break off in the middle of an impassioned verse, and refrain from being that one a-hole who leaps up and shouts it out. She always found the words again on her own.
I can't find a youtube clip of my favorite song she ever did, "When Fortune Turns Her Wheel," which she rescued from obscurity, or "Bruton Town," the ballad that first made me see the beauty in tragedy and sadness. (An inferior but still good version by Pentangle is here.) Instead, have Killen singing Ewan MacColl's "Shoals of Herring." (Which turns up all over the place anonymized under the heading, "Traditional Irish Song of the Sea." Thus runs the world away.)
Goodbye, lady. You shaped my life for the better.