At the age of 76, Louis Killen began to live openly as a woman named Louisa Jo Killen. She died on this day, August 9, 2013, aged 79.

The first time I ever saw Louisa Killen was in the early 1970s when she became the replacement for Tommy Makem with the singing Clancy Brothers. With Aran sweater, banjo and squeeze-box in hand, she was a comfortable fit on the stage. She was always introduced as hailing from Newcastle-on-Tyne in England and she had the accent to prove it—deep and as unfathomable as a foreign language.

Clancy fans soon took to Louisa and her working-class songs such as “Go to Sea No More,” about the tough life and agony of seamen in the 19th century; “School Days Over,” about a young man—really a child—going off to work in the mines. But it was his rousing, rowdy, bawdy sea-shanties that really caught the imagination.

As a Christmas gift, I was given Louisa's album, “50 South by 50 South,” by my friend Jim McCawley, who knew Louisa from his time on the Clearwater, Pete Seeger’s sloop on the Hudson River. (Jim would later go on to become the Comedy Talent Coordinator on Johnny Carson’s "The Tonight Show." His claim to fame would be discovering Roseann Barr.) Well, the first time I heard “Sally Racket” I was hooked—absolute filth, for 1973!—but this song would keep you laughing for hours. Sing along with Louisa (the third song on the track after “Whiskey is the Life of Man” and “Santy Anno”):

Little Sally Racket

Haul him away!

She pawned my best jacket

Haul him away!

And she lost the ticket

Haul him away!

And a hauley high-o!

Haul him away!

Little Kitty Carson

Got off with the parson

Now she’s got a little barson

And a hauley high-0!

Little Suzie Skinner

She said she’s a beginner

And she prefers it to her dinner

Serve up, lads, and win her

Little Nancy Dawson

She’s got red flannel draws on

So says the old bosun

With a hauley high-o!

Little Betty Baker

She ran off with a Quaker

Guess her mum could shake her

With a hauley high-o!

Little Dolly Ducket

She washes in a bucket

She’s a tart but doesn’t look it

With a hauley high-o!

So it’s up me fightin’ cocks, boys

Yes it’s up and split them blocks, boys

And it’s up, boys, in love, boys

And that’ll be enough, boys

Haul her away!

I met Louisa several times at the Lion’s Head, the writers' bar down on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village where the Clancys used to hang out. She was slight, not very tall, and had a voice that emanated from deep down. I remember one Sunday afternoon I was bellying up to the bar with novelist David Markson and the Head’s renowned bartender, Tommy “Sugar” Butler. Paddy and Liam Clancy and Louisa came roaring through the door with their bags and instrument cases.

“Where are you guys going?” I asked.

“Ware aw ta f’en Ca-gry!” barked Louisa in that renowned tenor.

“What?” I repeated.

“Ware aw ta f’en Ca-gry!” repeated Louisa.


Finally, Liam stepped in to translate: “He says ‘We’re off to fucking Calgary!’ ” Soon they were on their way to JFK for their trip to western Canada. What an accent!

So it was with shock I discovered an obituary for “Louisa Jo Killen, English Folk Singer” in the New York Times on August 28, 2013.

Could it be?

It was indeed.

Louis was now Louisa Jo. The Times said: “In 2010 when he was 76, Mr. Killen surprised his fans and many of his friends by resolving to give voice to another sort of lost life. He began living openly as a woman, performing in women’s clothing and a wig. In 2012, he underwent a sex-change operation.”

“Louis was my education about the music of the United Kingdom,” the Times quoted Pete Seeger in the obituary. “He knew all the dialects, taught me many songs.”

The Times went on to say that “Ms. Killen told friends in her last days that she had never regretted her life as a man—or her life, however brief, as a woman. Her only disappointment was in not having acquired a more feminine voice. The trademark strapping tenor remained a constant. ‘That part of the change didn’t work I guess you might say,’ ” said Louis’ last wife, Margaret Osika.

So, I’ll always fondly remember Louisa Jo—a person who could sing the dirtiest sea shanties in one life and had the courage to change sex in another.

God bless, Louisa Jo!

* Dermot McEvoy is the author of the "The 13th Apostle: A Novel of a Dublin Family, Michael Collins, and the Irish Uprising" and "Our Lady of Greenwich Village," now available in paperback from Skyhorse Publishing. He may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him at

** This article was originally published in November 2016. Updated in August 2023.