The second woman to earn a PhD from Columbia University -- and the first from south of the Mason-Dixon Line to do so -- Kentucky native Katherine Jackson French broke boundaries. Her research kick-started a resurgence of Appalachian music that continues to this day, but French's collection of traditional Kentucky ballads, which should have been her crowning scholarly achievement, never saw print. Academic rivalries, gender prejudice, and broken promises set against a thirty-year feud known as the Ballad Wars 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 the ways her work shaped and could reshape our conceptions about Appalachia. In contrast to the collection published by Campbell and Sharp, French's ballads elevate the status of women, give testimony to the complexity of balladry's ethnic roots and influences, and reveal more complex local dialects. Had French published her work in 1910, 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.
"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
"DiSavino's meticulous scholarship delves into, exposes, and connects a wealth of primary sources to build a three-dimensional portrait of Katherine Jackson French while uncovering the mechanisms that conspired to silence this remarkable early twentieth-century scholar and ballad collector. 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 Olive Dame 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, assistant professor and Appalachian Studies faculty at Berea College
" Katherine Jackson French: Kentucky's Forgotten Ballad Collector... explores [a] popular fantasy, about unearthing living chunks of the past in some remote place.... 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. This seems to require some wishful thinking (Jackson French, too, had plenty to say on balladry as "an immemorial record of the pure ancestry of the singer . . . the spirit and sap of the stock"). Yet 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." -- Harper's Magazine