ONE DAY IN 1909, a literary scholar in London, Kentucky, back home from teaching at Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr College, climbed aboard a mule-drawn wagon plodding eastward into the mountains that are separated from town life by sharp ridges, deep V-shaped hollows, and a veil of mystery and sometimes misery.

Her name was Katherine Jackson French and with her was a mountain woman, the 60-year-old widow Lizane Napier, carrying merchandise on this consequential three-day journey to her home in Dryhill, Kentucky, sometimes called Hell for Certain.

Jackson French was in search of a peculiar treasure: the “British Isle ballad escapees” that originated in 13th- to 17th-century England and had been sung nearly unchanged by mountain people. She knew only one ballad, “Barbara Ellen” (often rendered as “Barbara Allen”), taught to her by her nursemaid. But she found an able informant beside her on the wagon. Napier’s family included many balladeers, and she would go on to take Jackson French to quilting bees and family gatherings across Southeastern Kentucky where they collected about two dozen songs of magic and murder.

The mountain people Jackson French “discovered” remain sources of wonder and also of bullshit, their mountain habitats a Garden of Eden for white people who wish to find their origins not in capitalism, slavery, and imperial conquest, but in a primitive simplicity. Jackson French’s own mythical land of wonder was Old England, transported seamlessly from the shires to the hollow, without any slave ships or American Indian massacres to tarnish things.

The roots of this Albion myth run deep through American politics and letters, coursing through former United States Senator Jim Webb’s Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (2004) to J. D. Vance’s claptrap Hillbilly Elegy (2016). It takes a hardy soul to wade through the bullshit. Elizabeth DiSavino is a mostly reliable (if sometimes eccentric) guide in her Katherine Jackson French: Kentucky’s Forgotten Ballad Collector.

A music professor at Kentucky’s Berea College, DiSavino directs the college’s folk roots ensemble, and has previously edited songbooks, played French horn at Carnegie Hall, and performed with many musicians, including Pete Seeger. What she understands is that the quest for ballads had little to do with the mountain people and a lot to do with United States cultural and intellectual life. Exhausted with other stories, white people turn to the folk for something new to say about themselves.

DiSavino’s task is one no biographer would lightly take on.Dour and intensely driven, Jackson French was determined not to be ignored and was one of the first women to earn a PhD from Columbia University. But her writings left little hint of her personality. Her only hint of mischief emerged at her annual Christmas morning party when she honored her home commonwealth’s roots in both prohibitionism and drunkenness by serving a “Henry Clay” eggnog composed of “two dozen eggs, a lot of milk, and a lot of cream plus a quart of bourbon and a quart of rum.” While her solemn teetotaling guests got unwittingly drunk, Jackson French “never said a thing about” the liquor they’d downed. A cold willingness to observe others makes for a fine folklorist and also for a tough subject for a biographer.

For some, the mountains were a place to contemplate the savagery of poor white people. But Jackson French granted the mountain people nobility by associating them with the British ballads that she and literary scholars adored. A generation earlier, Harvard University professor Francis James Child made the ballads academically respectable. His successor George Lyman Kittredge investigated their survivals in the United States, presided over the American Folklore Society, and trained folklorists, including John Lomax. While DiSavino sometimes protests otherwise, Jackson French took the field into fantasy escapism, convincing herself that she had found an ancient Anglo-Saxon life in the mountains, claiming she’d discovered an “immemorial record of the pure ancestry of the singers” and a direct line to John Dryden and Tudor Queen Elizabeth. (DiSavino notes that many of the singers were descendants of Scottish people, neither Angle nor Saxon nor English.)

To define the mountain people by their Englishness, Jackson French had to ignore not just their ancestry but their other songs. Her contemporary William Aspinwall Bradley wrote in Harper’s in 1915 about “song-ballets” and also about the “devil’s ditties” and the “execrable” but interesting story songs he heard in Berea, Kentucky. Jackson French not only mostly ignored those songs but also 19th-century sheet music and religious hymns — though as a Methodist, she knew that John Wesley, not John Dryden, was the author of many Americans’ songbooks. But she discovered one truth that still needs to be stated aloud: mountain music was women’s music. She discovered a humanity that is all too evasive in her own biography. “They have lived because they have been loved,” she wrote. At a quilting bee, one woman brought treasured lyrics on paper “yellowed with age and difficult to read.”

Almost unbearably, the women called these songs of murder and despair “love songs.” They rocked as they sang, their voices heavy with emotion and sorrow. Their way of seeing ballads comes through in their versions of “Pretty Polly,” an ur-source for the “murder ballads.” Generally, as by Bob Dylan, Polly is killed by her lover. But these women also sang of a Polly who “with her little slender arms” heaved her murderous lover “into the sea.” In a related song, the spurned lover tripped her lover into the nettles so he could “rot in the salt sea foam.” In others, both women and men died. Death and sorrow were humanity’s lot, not just women’s woe.

The 23 ballads Jackson French collected on her first trip and the three dozen more on later trips are a record of women’s work, and DiSavino pays tribute to both those women and Jackson French by republishing her collection in the book’s final section, at last providing a conclusion to her story. Jackson French labored to get Berea College to publish this same document, in hopes it would propel her to a stable academic career. Unknown to her, however, the manuscript moldered in a college storage room for 39 years, “much wrapped and tied with tough knots.” While Jackson French lived long enough to celebrate the college’s belated discovery of her work and to publish an essay from it, folklore studies had passed her by, and so had fame.

Why did it take so long for the manuscript to see print? In a fine section on the “Ballad Wars,” DiSavino suggests a whodunit. As usual in campus novels, the Harvard professor is a prime suspect.

George Lyman Kittredge published one of Jackson French’s competitors, edited another, worked with yet another rival, exerted immense influence over the field, and endorsed Olive Dame Campbell and Cecil James Sharp’s English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians when it appeared a few years later. Some Berea professors also claimed the mountains as their specialty and may have subverted her cause. After the Kentucky legislature imposed segregation on the previously integrated Berea College in 1904, the Berea president busied himself in developing the college’s reputation for mountain crafts and fundraising. He ignored her increasingly desperate letters.

What if Jackson French’s manuscript ended up in print, instead of in the Berea College storage? If female voices had been at the center of mountain music, could roots music have emerged as women’s music? Elizabeth DiSavino’s Katherine Jackson French: Kentucky’s Forgotten Ballad Collector spins out an alternative history. Had Jackson French’s book appeared in 1911, she might have been offered a professorship at Columbia University and steered ballad studies toward the musical crossovers between African Americans and white Kentuckians.

Yet for all her determination, Katherine Jackson French was a folklorist, which meant she shared her profession’s limitations on race and, finally, on curiosity. Those limitations are embedded in the word “folk” that still limits imaginations. Determined to find in the mountains what she wanted to find, she remained stubbornly uninterested in her subjects, in their wide-ranging music, in their religious life, in their grinding struggles with an exploitative capitalist system. She couldn’t see the people who live in the hills not as hill people but as just people. They weren’t “folk” who lived in museums. They were folks grabbing at sounds to make sense not of a secret premodern life but of a modern life. When we listen to roots music, what exactly are we hoping to find the roots of?


Gregory P. Downs is professor of history at the University of California, Davis.