If a triumph of aging is to finally do what you really want, without regard for what others may think, then Louisa Jo Killen went to her grave triumphant. Born Louis Killen in 1934, he spent 76 years as a male, most as a respected British folk singer with a notable period as a Clancy Brother. Then, after “30 years of agonizing debate with himself”, according to his third and last wife of more than 20 years, Louis Killen decided to live openly as a woman.
In the year before her death, she underwent a sex change operation. So Louisa Jo died in the body she had long wanted to have. Ms. Killen also met another challenge of aging, by following the advice of French singer Edith Piaf in her signature song “I regret nothing” (Je ne regrette rien in her native French). Shortly before her death of cancer in August 2013 she reportedly told friends that, like Piaf, she had no regrets: neither about her life as a male nor of her brief period as a female. She did admit to some disappointment, however, over the fact that transgendering did not turn her popular tenor into a more feminine voice.
Yet she never expressed regrets for any aspect of her rich life. During Killen’s time in the US folk movement Louis joined fellow folksinger Pete Seeger, not only in singing but in the anti-establishment politics of the era. He helped in the Clearwater campaign to clean up the Hudson river – a natural move for this figure who sang about all things watery, from sea shanties to sailing. His only ever day job was reportedly a brief stint at San Francisco’s Maritime Museum.
Given Killen’s progressive politics, had he lived just a few weeks longer she might have appreciated the statement from whistleblower Chelsea Manning about her own transitioning. Now serving a 35-year sentence handed down to US Army Private Bradley Manning for his role as Wikileaks Leaker, Chelsea could take comfort from the moody ballads of the kindred soul who was Louis, then Louis Jo in YouTube concert videos. If only American prison inmates had internet access.