Helen White, founder of Junior Appalachian Musicians, died on October 14. She was 69 years of age, and passed away at home after suffering a heart attack.
Born in Washington, DC, Helen traveled widely before settling in western North Carolina after receiving her education at the University of North Carolina and Appalachian State University. She performed widely as a fiddler, and in duet with her long-time partner, guitarist Wayne Henderson.
But surely her greatest legacy with be the program she started, known for short as JAM. The impetus for creating it was a pair of realizations that Helen came to while working as a counselor at Sparta Elementary School. There she recognized that the rich tradition of old time and bluegrass music in this Appalachian region was not being conveyed to her young students, and that the poverty and desperation then endemic in western North Carolina and southwest Virginia offered little hope to these eager young minds.
Looking at her own life, she knew how much joy she received from playing traditional music, and in meeting others who shared her love for the style. So why wouldn’t these young folks enjoy it as well? And getting their families involved with the children learning mountain music would further ensure that the traditions survive.
Helen launched JAM 20 years ago, to teach old time and bluegrass banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and guitar to her students, and soon the program was replicated all across the Appalachian region, finding both instructors and instruments, to teach the music, and traditional dancing, to children in Virginia and North Carolina. Now there are JAM programs in more than 40 towns in 4 states, in Tennessee and South Carolina as well, all based on her vision.
It is rare that someone can leave this world knowing that their work will continue on as Helen’s will. JAM is now headed by Executive Director Brett Morris, where they provide materials, training, and advice for people interested in starting a chapter in their locality. Songbooks, videos, and more can be found on the JAM web site.
A Celebration of Life and Memorial Service was held this past Sunday, concluding with a jam session at the at the Alleghany JAM House in Sparta.
Those who wish to commemorate Helen’s life and work can make donations to Junior Appalachian Musicians through PayPal online.
R.I.P., Helen White.