Louisa Jo Killen, English Folk Singer, Dies at 79
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: August 25, 2013
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.
Brian Shuel/Redferns, via Getty Images.
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, Me., 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. Seeger’s campaign to clean up the Hudson River.
“Louis was my education about the music of the United Kingdom,” Mr. Seeger said in an interview on Wednesday. “He knew all the dialects, taught me many songs.” Mr. Seeger sang one over the phone. It was quite bawdy — another genre of traditional song in which Mr. Killen was expert.
In 1970, Mr. Killen joined the popular Irish folk singing group the Clancy Brothers. Fluent in the dialects and song catalogs of traditional Celtic, Scottish and English music, he was drafted to replace Tommy Makem, who had left for a solo career. He stayed for six years, making four albums with the group, including a two-disc “greatest hits” set “ in 1973.
In all, Mr. Killen contributed to more than 60 albums in his half-century career, including about a dozen in which he was the featured artist. Until returning to England about five years ago, he performed continuously at small clubs and was a mainstay at folk and maritime music festivals. He lectured widely on English traditional and folk music.
Louis Joseph Killen was born on Jan. 10, 1934, in Gateshead, one of four sons of Mary Margaret and Frank Killen. Both parents and all the brothers sang in the church choir and played stringed instruments or the concertina by ear.
Mr., Killen was studying carpentry at Catholic Workers’ College in Oxford when he attended his first folk concert. Enthralled by the music, he came under the influence of the traditional-music revivalists Ewan MacColl and A. L. Lloyd, and by 1961 he had quit his job making cabinets and coffins to pursue music as a career.
He described his early attraction to folk music in a 1993 interview with The Los Angeles Times. “To me,” he said, “folk music springs from the unconscious reflection a community has of itself. It’s their music, their experience. My survival is based on how the audiences respond to my singing and stories. When we ‘connect,’ I can’t even describe the charge I get.”
His decision in 2010 to live as a woman followed almost 30 years of agonizing debate with himself. Ms. Osika, who was married to Mr. Killen from 1979 to 2000, knew about the conflict early, but fans and friends were surprised, she said in a telephone interview on Wednesday, “because Louie had been a very masculine man,” known for his pub exploits and racy stories.
She is one of three former wives; the others are Shelly Estrin and Sally Jennings. A brother, Martin, also survives.
Ms. Killen told friends in her last days that she had never regretted her life as a man — or her life, however brief, as a woman. Her only disappointment was in not having acquired a more feminine voice. The singer’s trademark strapping tenor remained a constant.
“That part of the change didn’t work, I guess you might say,” Ms. Osika said.