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Virtual convocation to highlight work of former Centenary professor Katherine Jackson French

SHREVEPORT, LA — Elizabeth DiSavino, associate professor of music at Berea College in Kentucky, will present a virtual convocation lecture to discuss her new book, Katherine Jackson French: Kentucky’s Forgotten Ballad Collector. French, a professor of English at Centenary from 1924 to 1948, was a ground-breaking music researcher in the early 20th century whose contributions to the field of Appalachian music had largely been forgotten before DiSavino’s project.

The virtual convocation will be presented on Tuesday, October 27, at 7:00 p.m. CST via Zoom. Participants should pre-register at centenary.edu/disavino for an online lecture presentation and live Q&A with DiSavino. Passport Points will be available for Centenary students.

“I’m excited that Elizabeth DiSavino will highlight a fascinating professor from Centenary’s past,” says Chris Brown, Centenary College archivist. “It’s rewarding to assist researchers and see the products of their hard work. It’s even more special that we have the opportunity for DiSavino to share details about Dr. French with current Centenary students.”

Kentucky native Katherine Jackson French was the second woman, and the first woman from the South, to earn a PhD from Columbia University. She was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the Modern Language Association, the Shakespearean Association of America, and the American Association of University Women, an organization for which she served as state president. She was also a founding member of the Women’s Department Club in Shreveport, and in a letter written on the occasion of her retirement from the College in 1949, the Centenary board of trustees stated that, “Shreveport will long feel the far-reaching influence of Dr. French.” She left her mark on generations of students as well, prompting Dr. Joe Mickle, president of the College during her tenure, to remark that, “Perhaps no other teacher in the history of Centenary College has left a finer and deeper impression on students, both in and out of the classroom.”

French worked to compile a collection of traditional Kentucky ballads, English-Scottish Ballads from the Hills of Kentucky, in the early decades of the 20th century, but a confluence of, as DiSavino writes, “academic rivalries, gender prejudice, and broken promises” prevented French’s achievement from being published. Instead, two other researchers with very different priorities emerged to shape the field of Appalachian music studies, a development that emphasized stereotypes and misconceptions about Appalachian ignorance, misogyny, and homogeneity.

DiSavino’s book draws on previously unavailable materials, including artifacts from French’s granddaughter, and works to reclaim the life and legacy of this pivotal scholar by emphasizing the ways her work shaped and could reshape our conceptions about Appalachia. DiSavino’s book also includes the first publication of French’s original English-Scottish Ballads from the Hills of Kentucky. This blend of primary source material and new historical and cultural analysis highlights the ways in which French’s interpretation and presentation of the ballads diverged from that of her peers, elevating the status of Appalachian women and acknowledging a greater ethnic and linguistic complexity than the accepted stereotypes imply.

During her October 27 lecture, DiSavino will primarily focus on French’s years at Centenary and in Shreveport, but will also discuss her pivotal ballad-collecting trip in the Kentucky mountains in 1909. A performance of some of the ballads from French’s collection will be included in the presentation.

“I came to this subject by accident,” explains DiSavino. “I was researching another project and stumbled across Katherine Jackson French. I began pulling at threads, and was able to find much of the missing story of her life thanks to the discovery of her granddaughter, and former students and colleagues thanks to Centenary archivist Chris Brown. The reception has been very good; the book has won the Kentucky History Prize from the Kentucky Historical Society, I have lectured and taught about French at a number of places so far, and the accompanying CD has been played on radio here and in Great Britain, Denmark, and New Zealand.”

DiSavino is associate professor of music at Berea College and directs both the Berea College Celebration of Traditional Music and the Berea College Folk Roots Ensemble. She is also a spoken word winner in the Women of Appalachia Project and has received grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Hutchins Library Sound Archives.

For more information, please contact Chris Brown at cbrown@centenary.edu or visit Centenary’s Facebook page for event details. This event is generously underwritten by the Attaway Professorships in Civic Culture.

 

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