Mary Jane Queen, 93, well-known North Carolina ballad singer and storyteller, and recent recipient of a National Folk Heritage Award, passed away on June 29. Though her final illness kept her close to home, Mrs. Queen had loved sharing her treasure trove of music, lore, and stories with audiences across the region.
Mrs. Queen was descended from some of the earliest settlers in the rugged Caney Fork valley in Jackson County in western North Carolina. Though she mostly sang for her own pleasure, she enjoyed sharing her music, stories, and her knowledge of traditional healing and gardening practices with modern audiences. Music had always been part of the Queen family’s life. Both of her grandmothers were good singers, her older brother was a guitar player, and her father was said to have been the best banjo player in the area. Her large repertoire of songs was made up of ballads learned from her own people who had migrated to America from Ulster, songs made up in early America, hymns and spirituals, and humorous songs from both the European and African American traditions.
Mary Jane Queen’s observations on traditional life have enlivened 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. Clips from the film, The Queen Family: Appalachian Traditions & Back Porch Music, by Neal Hutcheson and Walt Wolfram of the NC Language and Life Project, North Carolina State University, can be viewed at www.queenfamilymovie.com/mediagallery.html.