strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter_node_status::operator_form() should be compatible with views_handler_filter::operator_form(&$form, &$form_state) in /homepages/27/d92612305/htdocs/livingtradition/modules/views/modules/node/ on line 13.

LOU KILLEN - PIONEER - 1934 - 2013

Lou Killen was regarded by many as the foremost stylist of the second folk revival and probably spawned more copyists, conscious or subconscious, than any of his contemporaries. His career, particularly in the early stages, was characterised by pioneering a style of singing and accompaniment, which whilst difficult to analyse, continued to mesmerise audiences for half a century. For most of this time he was Louis, but in the last three years of his life he underwent a long desired change to Louisa.

Lou was born in 1934 in Gateshead. As a choirboy, he showed an early appetite for singing and he also enjoying singing at home, including both Irish and Geordie songs - the latter much influenced by the Catcheside-Warrington books. At that time, British song culture was at its nadir and Louis came to folk singing via American music. Records brought back from the Navy by his brother included jazz immortals such as Charlie Parker, Stan Kenton and country records like Grand Ol Oprey and the Smoky Mountain Boys. He first went to the Newcastle Rhythm Club when he was 16.

The Catholic Workers’ College at Oxford, where Louis went as a student in 1955, was equivalent to Ruskin, the Trade Union College. He soon lost interest in the academic side, but stayed on in Oxford working as a carpenter. The Heritage Society, one of the very early folk clubs, met weekly, and there he saw such pioneers as Alexis Korner and Jack Elliott (the American one). He did some collecting at this stage, including two of his best songs, College Valley Hunt and Fortune Turns The Wheel, which he got from Alan Rogerson of Commonburn near Wooller.

In late 1957, Louis met Johnny Handle at the Marlborough Street Jazz Club in Newcastle, where they were soon sharing a blues slot at the interval. Eventually they put on a whole night, which later gave rise to Tyneside’s first Folk Club at The Sink, a pub on Barrass Bridge. The date was February 1958, a notable landmark in the British Folk Revival. In that period, Louis was still doing American and mining songs, using banjo and guitar. But in terms of the British Folk Revival, a most significant event was Louis’ getting hold of Come All Ye Bold Miners and showing it to Johnny Handle, who took it as his bible from then on. Meanwhile, Louis was fast gaining a national reputation, occasionally singing at Folksong Unlimited with the likes of Dominic Behan, Shirley Collins, Seamus Ennis and Stan Kelly.

At this time, he was very much Ewan MacColl's blue-eyed boy, with the Radio Ballads, Centre 42 in autumn 1962, and making records for Topic. However, MacColl’s patronage was engendered by Louis as “cabinet maker who had working class songs to sing”, and from the moment Louis signed off the dole, he got no more gigs from MacColl. Louis’ other mentor, and joint “founder” of the revival, was of course Bert Lloyd. Clearly, he owed them both a lot, but Bert eventually became the person he most respected. MacColl had the idea that British people should sing British songs, so when Folksong and Ballad reopened at the Liberal Club in1961 after the closure of the Sink, that was the policy. The three originals were there and were now joined by John Brennan and Colin Ross at the start of the heyday of the British Revival and Newcastle’s prime place within it.

During these early days, he had a number of jobs, but without a career as such. These jobs were lost partly because of his temperament, but also because he was getting increasingly busy with the singing, particularly a diary programme on Tyne Tees TV. Eventually, he lost all his day jobs; it was “down to the smoke” again, this time to turn pro. The gigs started to come thick and fast. The scene was very small in those days and the people who were to become big in the revival would go to the same venues, especially the Troubadour in Old Brompton Road.

Maybe he had been singing to audiences for longer, maybe his style was further developed, maybe he had more glamour for the people now seeking to follow him and maybe it was the concertina! The idea came partly from hearing Alf Edwards accompany Bert Lloyd, but also from having had a box in the Killen household. His invalid brother had been playing this before he died and Louis had tried it out as a teenager. His sparse chordal style immediately suited much of his material, particularly the sea songs. This was a period which found him involved with many of the classic “theme” recordings, including Along The Coaly Tyne, Farewell Nancy, The Iron Muse and Tommy Armstrong, as well as a couple of MacColl’s radio ballads. It wasn’t until 1965 that he made with his first solo LP Ballads & Broadsides.

The 60s folk revival was just as big in the States, of course, and the Americans were hungry for the “real thing” from the UK. Louis, on a short tour in 1966, was an immediate hit. And there he remained for nearly 40 years. Not only was he very popular as a soloist, but he had a six-year shift with the Clancy Brothers and his childhood love of sailing came to fruition in the States. Deckwork and singing were often combined with trips on various brigs, brigantines, sloops and schooners, notably Pete Seeger’s Clearwater. He married Margaret Osika in 1979 and they moved to the West coast in 1981, first living on Bainbridge Island in Washington. Later, he worked at the Maritime Museum in San Francisco, co-ordinating volunteers. He continued to produce splendid albums over the years, notably Old Songs, Old Friends, The Rose In June, Bright Shining Morn, and the two Sailors, Ships And Chanteys albums.

Louis’ repertoire was English traditional, with a liberal sprinkling of Irish, Scots and Tyneside songs. To an extent, he was “in the right place at the right time” (Ken Hunt), and many of us in the “second wave” thought he had grabbed all the best songs and there was nothing left for us to sing. So how did he get to this exalted position? After MacColl and Lloyd, he was probably the first to listen to the source singers like Sam Larner and Harry Cox. He listened carefully and he heard the way the note at a given point moved around, adding “texture”; that it was important to parse a line according to the story to keep the interest and the story dynamic; that every word counted and had to have proportionate emphasis; and that you had to keep hold of that last word of the verse, not tailing it off. His was a rare talent, where the style of the source singers had been adapted to a professional performance. But you have to have something else to offer. Firstly, he was gifted with a voice which naturally swooped and soared. But he also had an attitude and respect for the tradition which brooked no compromise, and his singing showed the passion he felt for the song. I suppose the culmination of what Louis had to offer as an artist is on show in The Rose In June, a song of almost biblical sweep so suited to his skills that it might have been written by him (as apparently many people believe).

Louis returned to his native Gateshead in 2003, doing relatively few gigs, but a regular at local folk clubs, where he showed no “side” - not leaning on his fame, but very much part of the crowd. One notable success during this period was teaming up with Mike Waterson, in particular singing Mike’s own songs, delivered in classic Louis style. Indeed his voice continued to be often as good as in his younger years. He seemed contented with life back home, but was clearly struggling with identity problems, and despite increasing health issues, he came out as Louisa Jo in 2010. At first fretting about singing or even “coming out”, he became an elegant 60-year old woman, from whose lips the superb voice continued to be heard by those of us privileged to be in the north east for those three short years. Not bad for a 78 year old man. His absence will be long mourned.

I sometimes feel as a community we are too reticent, accepting “our place” in the performing arts. But a folk song’s importance in social and historical terms should not obscure the fact that many renditions reach the highest points of human artistic endeavour. Thus Jeannie Robertson’s What A Voice for me is as good as anything out of classical opera, and Louis Killen’s Death Of Nelson cannot be far behind.

Peter Wood