• Helen White

    1950 - 2019

    The Virginia Commission for the Arts was so saddened to hear of the passing of longtime Touring Artist Directory member and musician, Helen White.

    Award-winning folk singer, old-time fiddler, guitarist and tunesmith, Helen White, died on Monday, October 14 in Sparta, NC. A beloved Virginia Commission for the Arts touring artist for more than 12 years, Helen and her partner, Wayne Henderson, brought joy to countless audiences and young aspiring musicians throughout the Commonwealth through their virtuosic musician making.

    Helen Andran White was born in Washington, DC, and moved with her family to Durham, NC in 1951. There she attended Durham Academy and Jordan High School, from which she graduated in 1968. During high school, she spent a year at Burgess Hill School in England. She also was a violin student of Giorgio Ciompi, who founded the Ciompi Quartet at Duke University, and later studied classical guitar with Sophocles Papas, in Washington, DC.

    She attended Vassar College, dropping out in her sophomore year to move to the state of Washington, where she began learning traditional music. In Washington, she supported herself as a fire fighter and ranger with the National Park Service. She also took classes at the University of Washington, graduating with BA degree, taking a semester abroad to work in Nepal. In time, she returned to North Carolina and received a master's degree in public health from UNC-Chapel Hill, followed by master's degree in guidance counseling from Appalachian State University.

    She served as a guidance counselor at Sparta Elementary School, and in 2000 founded an after-school program for disadvantaged youth called Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM). She had noticed that generational old traditions in the area were no longer celebrated by the average student or family. She was also concerned about the general cultural isolation of students and decided that reintroduction of traditional music was a positive way to offer after-school activities, which had the benefit of getting their families engaged. She served as Executive Director for 15 years, during which time the JAM program was adopted in about 50 mountain communities and 5 states.

    From Junior Appalachian Musicians’ moving remembrance:

    What everyone may not know is that her goal was not only to preserve old time and bluegrass music and dance with future generations. Helen cared deeply for people. On a daily basis, she heard the tough stories about the lives of students and their families while she was a guidance counselor at the elementary school where JAM first began. In her own personal experience, she credited music with making her life whole. She believed that music is the way for all people to connect with one another and form meaningful relationships. She recognized that playing mountain music helps people feel pride, instead of shame, about being from forgotten places in Southwest Virginia or Western North Carolina. She knew that by introducing kids to fiddles, banjos, guitars, mandolins and the culture of their local communities, they would become more self-empowered and have better chances of brighter futures.

    Helen toured extensively with her partner, Wayne Henderson, throughout Virginia, the United States and Europe. Her compositions include works for theater and video projects as well as a Booklist honored recording of original songs for children. She also taught at major traditional music camps across the country and won numerous fiddle awards at Galax Fiddler's Conventions and other festivals. She and Wayne were also featured one Thanksgiving on A Prairie Home Companion.

    Helen was loved by all for her energy and hope--her legacy for carrying on the music traditions of her mountain home and the impact she had upon countless young and aspiring musicians will be felt for many generations to come.

    She is survived by her partner Wayne Henderson; her mother Junita R White, of Durham, NC; sisters Katherine R White (Husband Thomas W. Urquhart) of Raleigh and Emily White of Cambridge, MA; a brother Peregrine White, Jr of Ipswich, MA; a nephew Samuel A. White, of Ipswich, MA; and a cousin Susanna T. Gretz of London, England. She was predeceased by her father Peregrine White.

    On behalf of the Commissioners and staff of the Virginia Commission for the Arts, we extend our deepest sympathies to her partner, Wayne Henderson, and her entire family and friends.

    Photo by: Francois Galland

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