Mary Jane Queen lived in the Caney Fork section of Jackson County near where she was born in 1914. She was descended from some of the earliest Irish-American settlers in the valley who, for three generations before her, scratched a living in the rocky soil. In a variety of practical ways—her reservoir of traditional knowledge, her gardens, her songs and stories—she communicated the values and traditions of her upbringing to modern audiences.
Music was always a part of her family life. She recalled that both of her grandmothers were good singers, and her older brother was “the first person to buy a guitar in the Caney Fork section.” Her father, by all accounts, was not only a farmer and a blacksmith but was also the best banjo picker around. Before the turn of the century, he was playing at dances in the big red barn about a mile up the road from where Queen lived before her death in 2007. “I watched him play—and I’ve helped him sing—all of these old songs many times. And that’s how I learned them, and where I learned them,” she said.
Singing remained important to Queen. She sang for her own pleasure, performed with her family, and she happily shared her music with others. She sang songs brought by pioneering settlers from Ulster, old ballads formed in an earlier America, hymns and spirituals from both Baptist and Methodist traditions, and comic songs that derive from both the European and African American traditions.
Most importantly, she took care to pass on her knowledge. In addition to teaching her children, she welcomed into her home a parade of students, teachers, folklorists, journalists, filmmakers, and musicians—anyone who wanted to learn about what she called “good old music.” She received the North Carolina Heritage Award in 1993, and was recognized posthumously with the National Heritage Award in 2007.