photo: Cedric N. Chatterley
Art Form: Folk/Traditional Music
Mary Jane Queen lived in the Caney Fork section of Jackson County near where she was born in 1914. She was descended from some of the earliest Irish-American settlers in the valley who, for three generations before her, scratched a living in the rocky soil. In a variety of practical ways--her reservoir of traditional knowledge, her gardens, her songs and stories--she communicated the values and traditions of her upbringing to modern audiences.
She grew up with eight brothers and sisters in a family that lived almost totally outside the cash economy. When she was a child, everyone in her family gathered herbs and tan bark from the forest of the Richland Balsam mountains. She remembered trading herbs, homemade chairs, vegetables, and logs, for coffee and sugar, shoes, and even gasoline. Like others in that time and place, she said, "we made the most of the things we wore; we grew most of the things we ate".
Mrs. Queen's garden reflected her lifelong interest in traditional foods, flowers, and medical practices. She kept a seed bank that became a community source of older varieties of plants no longer obtainable from commercial distributors. The profuse flower, vegetable, and herb gardens that surrounded her house included an uncommon variety of pumpkin that had been in her family for years. About fifteen different varieties of mint revealed her knowledge of medicinal uses of herbs.
Music was always a part of her family life. She recalled that both of her grandmothers were good singers, and her older brother was "the first person to buy a guitar in the Caney Fork section." Her father, by all accounts, was not only a farmer and a blacksmith but was also the best banjo picker around. Before the turn of the century, he was playing at dances in the big red barn about a mile up the road from where Mrs. Queen lived. "I watched him play--and I've helped him sing--all of these old songs many times. And that's how I learned them, and where I learned them," she said.
Singing remained important to Mrs. Queen. She sang for her own pleasure, and she happily shared her music with others. She sang songs brought by pioneering settlers from Ulster, old ballads formed in an earlier America, hymns and spirituals from both Baptist and Methodist traditions, and comic songs that derive from both the European and African American traditions.
Most importantly, she took care to pass on her knowledge. She welcomed into her home a parade of students, teachers, folklorists, journalists, filmmakers, and musicians--anyone who wanted to learn about what she called "good old music." Her observations on many facets of traditional life benefited projects ranging from an exhibit on blacksmithing at the Mountain Heritage Center in Cullowhee, to a musical produced at New York City's Town Hall.
Her marriage to Claude Queen, a banjo and guitar player, brought together the music and song traditions of two neighboring families. Not surprisingly, all of the Queen's eight children are musicians. Like others who were traditionally trained, they learned "by ear." As Mrs. Queen said quite matter-of-factly, "We make music, but we don't read music. But then, there are plenty of people who can read music, but can't really make music."
Mrs. Queen received the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship in 2007, the same year she passed away.