NEW YORK — The English folk singer known for most of his life as Louis Killen was a bawdy, bearded pioneer of the 1950s British folk revival, a member of the Clancy Brothers and a soloist admired for giving voice to forgotten miners and sailors in traditional ballads.
In 2010, when he was 76, he surprised fans and many friends by resolving to give voice to another sort of lost life. He began living as a woman, performing in women’s clothing and a wig. He underwent a sex-change operation in 2012.
Adopting the name Louisa Jo Killen, she continued to perform for almost two years, by most accounts winning over most of Louis Killen’s fans and all of his friends. She died at 79 on Aug. 9 at her home in Gateshead, England, of a recurrence of a cancer diagnosed six years ago, said the singer’s former wife, Margaret Osika.
As Louis Killen, he had been among the most influential voices of England’s postwar folk music scene, as both a collector and performer of 19th-century ballads and folk songs chronicling the lives of seamen, miners, mill workers, and laborers.
Folk archivists still consider the dozen recordings made by Louis Killen in the late 1950s and early 1960s to be the definitive versions of traditional English songs like “The Shoals of Herring,” “Black Leg Miners,” “Pleasant and Delightful,” and “The Ship in Distress.”
Singing a cappella or accompanying himself sparsely on the concertina, Louis Killen was known for his lyrical tenor — a “terrifying decibel rate,” as one British critic described it — and a haunting ability to capture the aching loss at the heart of many traditional songs.
“A lot of his songs are not of the jolliest in content,” a reviewer for The Living Tradition, a traditional-music magazine published in Scotland, wrote in 2002. “But in his hands, you are impressed by the dignity, rather than the misery.”
Moving to the United States in 1966, Louis Killen met and became friends with his fellow folk singer and archivist Pete Seeger, with whom he performed often over the years. In 1969 he was enlisted as a member of the maiden crew — along with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Len Chandler, Don McLean, and a half-dozen other singers — on the first voyage of Seeger’s Hudson River Sloop Clearwater.
During the seven-week journey from South Bristol, Maine to the South Street Seaport in New York, performances basically paid off the mortgage on the boat, which has since become the floating soapbox and standard-bearer of Seeger’s campaign to clean the Hudson.
In 1970, Louis Killen joined the popular Irish folk singing group the Clancy Brothers.
In all, Louis Killen contributed to more than 60 albums.