MOUTH OF WILSON, VA. — Traditional and old-time music lost a champion Monday, Oct. 14, with the passing of Helen White, the founder of the Junior Appalachian Musicians program that has introduced thousands of people to the music of their areas.
White was the partner of Wayne Henderson, and the pair toured extensively alongside his group of musicians for years.
Born in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 8, 1950, White grew up in Durham. She became a student of violinist Giorgio Ciompi and later classical guitarist Sophocles Papas back in D.C.
After briefly attending Vassar College in New York, White moved to Washington state. While supporting herself as a firefighter and National Park Service ranger, White developed her love of traditional music. She returned to academia, graduating from the University of Washington, where she spent a semester off to work in Nepal, before receiving a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in public health and a master’s in guidance counseling from Appalachian State University.
While serving as a guidance counselor at Sparta Elementary School, White started an after-school program called Junior Appalachian Musicians.
According to JAM Executive Director Brett Morris, the program helps teach youth about the traditional music of their area. Morris said the program helps keep the music of the mountains alive and passes it along to the people whose roots are embedded in it.
Former Ashe County Arts Council Executive Director Jane Lonon said White’s legacy and memory will live on through JAM and the music she gave to many people.
“JAM was born of her passion for children, her love of music and the inevitable combining those two into a dream. JAM has touched the lives of countless children and their families,” Lonon said. “Helen’s beautiful smile and her happy eyes would light up a room when she entered. She shared her gifts, talents and musical skills freely. There was nothing like hearing her sing old Carter Family tunes and her accompanying Wayne on fiddle. Helen will be missed, she went way too soon. We’ll all have to try a little harder to fill in the gaps she left and to make her proud of us by carrying on her work through music and song.”
Originally called the Allegheny Jam, the program has since grown to be in 17 counties in North Carolina and 53 programs in N.C., Virginia, South Carolina and east Tennessee.
“She was very passionate about the preservation of traditional mountain music,” musician and teacher Steve Lewis said. “She wanted to spread the traditional musical culture to the young people who could enjoy it and keep it alive. She was very proud of the JAM program that she got up and running, as she should be, and worked tirelessly to ensure its success. Her dream of a whole new generation of traditional musicians became a reality, and continues to grow.”
Rodney Sutton, director of Joe Shannon’s Mountain Home Music, knew White as both a friend and business partner.
“About five or six of us spent nearly three years working to establish JAM as an educational nonprofit,” Sutton said. “Helen had a vision of how she wanted JAM to teach music, singing and dancing of the mountains to as many school-age kids that she could reach, and she dedicated her life to that task.”
Morris said White’s impact and what came out of the JAM program cannot be quantified. He also said that the amount of people who came to White’s celebration of life was not even a fraction of the people she had an impact on, or continues to impact.
In a statement released on Oct. 17, JAM administrators promised to keep White’s vision alive and do their best to “remain true to her wishes.”
Abby Whitt contributed reporting to this article.