Louis Killen

  • Louis Killen (later Louisa Jo)
    • Born: January 10, 1934, Gateshead-on-Tyne, County Durham, England
    • Died: August 9, 2013
    • Group Member: 1971-1974

Louis Killen: Born and raised in Tyneside in a musical family of Irish/Scottish extraction, Louis was a founder member of the Newcastle Folk Club in 1958 and an original member of the High Level Ranters. He recorded several seminal albums with Topic in the 1960s and then emigrated to the USA where he continued a career in folk music, joining the Clancy Brothers between 1971 and 1976 [sic]. Now back on home ground, Louis is recognised as one of the most knowledgeable singers and influential voices of the folk revival, noted in particular for his knowledge of shanties and maritime songs.

Source: The Fife Traditional Singing Weekend

A mainstay of British folk music since the '50s best-known for his collections of sea shanties and whaling songs, Louis Killen is a singer, archivist, lecturer, and historian on the level of Ewan MacColl, Pete Seeger, and A.L. Lloyd, all of whom Killen worked with at one time or another.

Born in the northern village of Gateshead-on-Tyne, County Durham, England, in 1934, Killen first became interested in folk music as a young man attending Oxford University, where he fell in with the local folk music crowd and developed his vocal technique as well as learning the pennywhistle and concertina. Leaving school to return north in 1958, Killen settled in Newcastle and opened one of Britain's first folk clubs while also working in the city's shipyards. Unemployed in 1961, Killen decided to turn professional and signed with the legendary British folk label Topic Records. His first releases were a pair of EPs, The Colliers Rant (recorded with Johnny Handle) and A Northumbrian Garland, both in 1962. A series of collaborations and appearances on compilations followed, with his first full-length solo recording, Ballads and Broadsides, not appearing until 1964.

Source: AOL Music

Louis Killen Obituary

The Guardian
Derek Schofield
Monday 19 August 2013

Member of the Clancy Brothers who was one of the great singers and influential figures of the British folk revival.

The decision in 2010 by the great Tyneside folk singer Louis Killen to live as a woman came as a surprise to the wider folk music scene in Britain, although he had first lived as a transgender person while based in the US in the 1990s. For a couple of years, Louisa Jo Killen, who has died at the age of 79, continued to sing as before, although illness increasingly reduced her ability to travel around the country.

Louis was born in Gateshead, to a working-class Catholic family. Singing was a natural part of family life — everything from hymns to Irish ballads, light opera and cowboy songs. One older brother brought home jazz records, which encouraged the teenage Louis to go to the Newcastle Rhythm Club, while another brother, who died young, played the English concertina, which Louis later used to accompany folk songs. After working as an apprentice cabinet maker, Louis moved to study at the Catholic Workers' College in Oxford when he was 21. By this time, he was singing a mixture of American, Irish and British folk and popular songs, but Oxford University's Heritage Society exposed him to a more traditional repertoire, which led him to the Ballads and Blues folk club in London, run by Ewan MacColl and AL Lloyd.

Louis had learned traditional songs from Alan Rogerson, a Northumbrian sheep farmer, and impressed MacColl when he sang these at the club. Back in Tyneside, Killen met Johnny Handle in a jazz club and in 1958 they established the region's first folk club, Newcastle Folk Song and Ballad; by 1961, they had adopted MacColl's folk club policy that singers should sing only songs from their own country.

MacColl invited Killen to sing on several of the acclaimed BBC Radio Ballads, made with the producer Charles Parker. For The Big Hewer, about coal mining, Killen introduced MacColl to the Elliotts from Birtley — a family of miners and singers, whose experiences were crucial to the success of the resulting programme.

As folk music grew in popularity throughout the 1960s, Killen became a regular guest singer in folk clubs and concerts all over the country. He was the leading figure in the wave of younger singers who emerged from behind the founding fathers, MacColl and Lloyd. He studied the style of the older traditional singers, was a fine interpreter of folk ballads, including the monumental sea song The Flying Cloud, and popularised songs that became folk club standards, such as The Leaving of Liverpool, Pleasant and Delightful and The Wild Rover.

Killen had a great influence on the singers that followed him into the folk revival, including Tony Rose and Peter Bellamy, and right up to the present day, with singers such as Jon Boden of Bellowhead.

With Handle, he recorded three EPs of north-east songs for Topic Records, which were later re-released on an LP, Along the Coaly Tyne (1966). He also featured on compilations, including The Iron Muse (1963) and the album of sea songs Farewell Nancy (1964). In 1965 came his first solo album, Ballads and Broadsides; the novelist Angela Carter wrote the sleeve notes, commenting on Killen's "unusually subtle and sensitive accompanied singing style".

The early interest in cowboy songs and jazz had given Killen a lifelong fascination with America. In 1966, he visited the US for three months, returning there to live in 1967. As he later said, he had the classic emigrant's motives: opportunity and freedom. His repertoire of British and Irish traditional songs found an eager audience and regular visits home helped to recharge his musical roots. He already knew the Irish-American singers the Clancy Brothers, and in 1971 replaced Bobby Clancy in the family group, recording four albums with them, including Live on St Patrick's Day (1973).

In 1974 he resumed his solo career, also performing briefly with his then wife Sally. His interest in ships and sea songs led to him building and sailing boats: he was a crew member on Pete Seeger's sloop Clearwater which spearheaded the clean-up of the Hudson river, and he sang at the Maritime Museum in San Francisco. Trips home become less frequent, but a major tour in 1991 drew audiences which confirmed that his fine singing had not been forgotten.

Killen returned to live in Gateshead 10 years ago; he resumed his British-based singing career, performing in concerts and festivals, sometimes in a duo with Mike Waterson, and he tutored on the folk music degree at Newcastle University.

Killen's third marriage, to Margaret Osika, ended before he returned to Britain, but their friendship endured.

Louis, later Louisa Jo, Killen, folk singer, born 10 January 1934; died 9 August 2013