Louisa Jo Killen, British Folk Song and Shanty Singer, Dies at 79

I was saddened to learn that the singer that I knew as Lou Killen died early this month after a six year battle with cancer.  Killen was an influential voice in the British folk song revival of the 50s and 60s and a wonderful singer of sea songs and shanties.  He was featured in a dozen albums and contributed to over sixty and for several years was a member of the Irish folk group the Clancy Brothers.  He helped popularize classics including Leaving of LiverpoolPleasant and Delightful and The Wild Rover

In 2010, at the age of 76, Killen surprised friends and fans alike when he began living openly as a woman, performing in women’s clothing and a wig. In 2012, he underwent a sex-change operation.  As noted in the New York TimesAdopting 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.

Here is Lou Killen singing Ewan MacColl’s Shoals of Herring

From the New York TImes obituary:

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.

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4 Responses to Louisa Jo Killen, British Folk Song and Shanty Singer, Dies at 79

  1. Erik Abranson says:

    Sorry to hear that. I have several of his records and love them.

  2. Buck says:

    Sailor, rest your oar.

  3. Diego says:

    Our loss is a boon to Fiddler’s Green. Fair winds.

  4. Andy Hall says:

    I was introduced to Louis Killen on Seeger’s 1980 album, Pete Seeger Sing-a-Long. His ballad “Rothesay-O” is great fun.