On October 14, 2019, Helen White died at the age of 69. The Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) Program, which she founded, shared this remembrance.
The mountains are still with a great silence. We have lost the vibrant earthly presence of Helen White, our fearless leader.
As you all know, nearly twenty years ago in Sparta, North Carolina, Helen started from scratch the program that quickly became known as Junior Appalachian Musicians. What everyone may not know is that her goal was not only to preserve old time and bluegrass music and dance with future generations. Helen cared deeply for people. On a daily basis, she heard the tough stories about the lives of students and their families while she was a guidance counselor at the elementary school where JAM first began. In her own personal experience, she credited music with making her life whole. She believed that music is the way for all people to connect with one another and form meaningful relationships. She recognized that playing mountain music helps people feel pride, instead of shame, about being from forgotten places in Southwest Virginia or Western North Carolina. She knew that by introducing kids to fiddles, banjos, guitars, mandolins and the culture of their local communities, they would become more self-empowered and have better chances of brighter futures.
Thanks to Helen and her tireless work, we cannot even begin to count the number of young people who have experienced music for the first time through a JAM program. There has never been any doubt that Helen fully believed in her mission of bringing music education to communities throughout Appalachia. She burned the midnight oil and thousands of miles doing all she could do to make sure JAM was successful. She gathered people and funding, started the regional parent organization as a way to offer resources and help to others, and she was never afraid to stand up for what was right. Helen wanted each JAM program to be effective, sustainable, and good. As we continue the work of Junior Appalachian Musicians, we will do our best to remain true to her wishes.
Words cannot seem to give this desolate announcement enough justice. Music can do a better job of that, so let everyone play a tune today in memory of Helen, and let us all keep Building Community One Tune at a Time.