Folk singer/songwriter, guitarist, dulcimer player; folk scholar
When Jean Ritchie moved from eastern Kentucky to New York City forty-odd years ago, she brought along 300 folk songs. Singing them in her pretty, untrained voice while accompanying herself on mountain dulcimer, she sparked a nationwide love for traditional music. Today she’s revered as a folk-music matriarch throughout the English-speaking world. As the New York Times observed, “Miss Ritchie Is something of a national treasure whose clear soprano ballads have [long] thrilled ‘folkies.’”
Focusing on music from England, Ireland, Scotland, and the United States, Ritchie has discovered countless traditional songs that might otherwise have been forgotten, traced their origins, and preserved them in her many books and recordings. She’s equally renowned for her own songs, several of which—“Blue Diamond Mine,” “Black Waters,” and “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore”—have become classics. Crucial to her sound is the simple, sweet drone of the dulcimer, a stretched-out fiddle that originated in the Appalachian Mountains. She’s widely credited with popularizing the instrument: because of her concerts, recordings books and workshops, there are now dulcimer players and festivals as far afield as Germany, Japan, and Jerusalem. “I used to tell people how easy it is to play, and they wouldn’t believe me, she told the Boston Globe in her soft southern voice.” “I couldn’t understand why people just didn’t pick it up and play it. I learned it from my dad, just from listening.” Joseph Hickerson, head of the Archive of Folk Culture in Washington, D.C., told the Courier-Journal that Jean is “probably the single most important factor in the revival of the Appalachian dulcimer as a popular instrument.”
Jean Ritchie was born in 1922 in Viper, Kentucky, which is the heart of Southern Appalachia. According to local history, the first Ritchies came from Scotland in 1768 to settle the area. “They continued to farm the rugged hillsides,” Ritchie wrote in a press biography referring to her family, “and to entertain themselves with the old ballads, love plaints and play-parties handed down from their Scottish, Irish and English ancestors.” Jean was born the youngest of 14 children. As a child, she watched her father, Balis, plow his fields and plant his crops with handmade tools and her mother, Abigail, make butter with a wooden churn. Though her childhood coincided with the advent of commercial country music, the Cumberland Mountains surrounding her home remained as isolated culturally from the rest of the country as it was geographically. “When Jean was growing up,” she wrote in her press bio, “the favorites were not the new ‘hillbilly’ tunes... but ‘Barbry Ellen,’ ‘Over the River, Charlie,’ ‘Sourwood Mountain,’ ‘Lord Randal’... People made up songs, too—news accounts of hangings, elections, groundhog hunts, elopements, feuds—all meaningful, each a living part of the growth of a people.”
Ritchie’s childhood is beautifully recounted in her autobiographical first book, The Singing Family of the Cumberlands. Writing in the dialect of her Kentucky brethren, she described how music was a vital accompaniment to work, family gatherings, bedtime, socializing, and virtually every other part of their lives. One of Jean’s favorite music-making rituals, as she recounted in Singing Family was “singing the moon up.” It took place summer evenings after dinner, when the whole family would gather on the L-shaped porch of their four-room house.
As she grew up, Jean pursued the two interests that would later merge in her career—Anglo-American folk music and its history. She was also fascinated by the sociological background of the music. “It was always a wonder to me how families living close to one another could sing the same song and sing it so different,” she wrote in Singing Family of the Cumberlands. “Or how one family would sing a song among themselves for years, and their neighbor family never knew that song
Born December 8,1922, in Viper, Kentucky; daughter of Balis (a farmer) and Abigail Ritchie; youngest of 14 children; married George Pickow (a photographer), 1950; children: Peter (born 1954), Jon (born 1958). Education: Attended Cumberland Junior College; University of Kentucky, B.A. in social work.
Worked at the Henry Street Settlement (an inner-city school for children), 1947; began to perform locally, singing, playing dulcimer and guitar; discovered by folklorist Alan Lomax, who recorded her songs for the Archive of the American Folksong at the Library of Congress; performed in the first Newport Folk Festival, 1959 (one of seven original directors); numerous international concerts and festival appearances, recordings, books, TV and radio shows, and dulcimer workshops; has represented U.S. folk-music history at international folk conferences, and served a three-year term on the folklore panel of the National Endowment for the Arts; president of Geordie Music Publishing Company, vice-president of Greenhays Recordings, partner in Folklife Productions, all New York-based companies created by her and her family. Appeared in a 1989 PBS documentary (with Bill Moyers) on the song “Amazing Grace,” and in a cameo role in the 1989 film, Next of Kin.
Awards: Recipient of numerous awards, including University of Kentucky founders Day Award; Phi Beta Kappa Certificate of Honor; Fulbright Scholarship, 1952; Rolling Stone Critic’s Award and Melody Maker Award, both for best folk album, 1977, for None But One; proclamations from the City of Lexington, Kentucky, the State of Kentucky, and the U.S. Congress, along with a Capitol flag and letter from President Reagan honoring her and her family’s contribution to music, 1986.
Addresses: Office —Folklife Productions, 7A Locust Ave., Port Washington, NY 11050.
at all. Most curious of all was how one member of a family living in a certain community could have almost a completely different set of songs than his cousins living a few miles away.”
Commenting on her family’s music-making, she illustrated the haphazard way in which folk music tends to spread: “Because we Ritchies loved to sing so well, we always listened to people singing songs we didn’t know, and we caught many good ones that way. Soon we learned from many different folks and without trying to, so when someone asks us, ‘Where’d you learn that one?’ we just can’t say for sure. But with others we can name the very person that sang them to us.”
At Cumberland Junior College, Ritchie studied teaching, the profession chosen by most of her sisters. After a brief teaching stint during her freshman year at a oneroom school, however, she decided it wasn’t for her. She enrolled at the University of Kentucky to study social work. Graduating with highest honors and a Phi Beta Kappa key, she moved to New York in 1947 to take a job at Henry Street Settlement, an inner-city school on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. As part of her teaching, she would play party songs for the children, accompanying herself on guitar and dulcimer.
Both students and co-workers became intrigued by her clear, ringing voice, the strange, sweet dulcimer, and the enchanting Anglo-American songs. Without meaning to, Ritchie was building a following. She began giving small concerts at the school and playing at parties in the city. At one of her performances, she met her future husband, photographer George Pickow. At first, she told the Courier-Review, Pickow “thought I was an act, that I was putting on my accent and I wasn’t for real.” Soon he realized otherwise, and became— and remains—one of her most ardent fans. They married in 1950, and a few years later moved to the suburbs of Long Island.
Around this time Ritchie met Alan Lomax, the preeminent folklorist who had fostered the careers of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and other noted contributors to America’s music. In the Courier-Journal Lomax recounted that meeting: “I was in an office about 14 floors up on 57th Street working on a folk music project for Decca Records when this young lady came in—this beautiful, golden-haired woman from the mountains with a gorgeous voice. She said her friends had told her she should sing for me and she wondered If she could, so I said, ‘Yes, sing.’ She hadn’t gone very far when suddenly the tears came to my eyes and I was crying at the beauty. In my mind she’s one of the finest pure mountain singers ever discovered.”
In 1948 Lomax arranged for Ritchie to give her first formal concert, which was held at Columbia University. He also recognized the importance of documenting her work, and arranged for her to record some of her songs for the Archive of the American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. “It’s the rare person who know’s how the flow of the poem enhances the melody of the song,” he told the Courier-Journal. “Jean has a pure, instinctive knowledge for that. The true folk singer sings a new tune for every verse. All folk singers, if they’re good, do this, but Jean handles it with extraordinary grace…. There is no one else in her category. She has devoted herself to her heritage and the struggle to convey it in all its majesty and beauty.”
The 1950s were a time of rich artistic and scholarly growth for Ritchie. In 1952, on a Fulbright Scholarship, she traveled through England, Ireland, and Scotland to trace the roots of certain folk songs. Pickow accompanied her, and together they made several documentary films on the subject. Meanwhile, she decided to document her childhood, as those years are part and parcel of her music. The result was the aforementioned Singing Family of the Cumberlands, now considered an American classic. Skillfully written, the book offers not only a charming story but valuable information for folk scholars and performers— the music and lyrics of 42 songs, as well as comments on interpretation and how a particular song was learned and preserved through the generations. In 1959 she was chosen to help direct the first Newport Folk Festival. She also performed, sharing the stage with Pete Seeger, Odetta, Flatt and Scruggs, John Jacob Niles, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee.
The 1960s saw a great commercial folk revival, and Ritchie was among its leaders. As she continued to record and publish books on folk music, she grew even stronger as a performer. In an interview with the Courier-Journal she recalled a telling moment during the 1969 Newport Folk Festival. Arlo Guthrie was onstage, and the audience was yelling for him to sing his hit song, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” Guthrie, who was tired of the song, refused, but the audience wouldn’t relent. “Everybody was stamping and yelling for ‘Alice,’” Jean recounted. “It was getting ugly, and that’s when Pete [Seeger] pushed me out on the stage and said, ‘Close the festival, Jean. Sing something gentle.’ I was scared to death. So I started singing ‘Amazing Grace’ the old way. I lined it out and everything. And you know, it calmed them right down. It’s a truly powerful song.”
Though the folk scene had already peaked by the 1970s, Ritchie continued to build her career. She began to prove herself as a songwriter, with tunes so true to the music’s history that they were often mistaken as traditional. With her 1977 album None But One, she strayed a bit from the purist path, using electric guitar and drums alongside authentic instrumentation, as well as highly polished production. Her departure, however, was to good effect. Featuring sons Peter and Jon Ritchie on vocals, as well as several noted folk musicians, the LP won her a well-deserved Rolling Stone Critics’ Award.
Ritchie often performs side-by-side with Pickow. While she sings and tells stories, he shows photo essays and slide shows that he has created of her family and hometown. Pickow has not missed a single concert of his wife’s. From their home in Port Washington, New York, Ritchie and Pickow run Greenhays, their own record label, as well as Geordie Music, which publishes her songs, and Folklife Productions, which markets her books and videos on folk culture. During the warm months, they spend time in Viper, Kentucky. “We built a house back in the hills out of some old relatives’ cabins,” she told Long Island Monthly. “Virgin timber, old hand-hewn logs. It’s good to go back and get into the swing of talking Kentucky—be a hillbilly, a mountaineer.” That part of Ritchie’s life can be seen in Next of Kin, the 1989 film that’s set not far from her birthplace. Ritchie appears in her debut role as Patrick Swayze’s on-screen aunt. “I got to sing one of Mama’s old hymns, ‘Leaning On Everlasting Arms,’” she told Long Island Monthly.
In an interview with New York Newsday, Ritchie spoke of a woman who was singing songs by Joan Baez and other folk musicians until Ritchie encouraged her to research her own family’s folk heritage. To the woman’s amazement, she discovered that her grandfather and his brother played fiddles for dances near their home. “She started collecting folk songs and now has hundreds of them,” Jean reported. “Like others, she thought she had to import folk music from people like me. She never thought it was right there in her own background. That’s one of my missions… to get people to sing their own music… to take an interest in their local backgrounds and heritage. It really is something that grows and grows once you get started.” Ritchie added that she becomes distressed when people tell her they don’t sing because their voices are untrained. “I want to take them by the shoulders and shake them. I never would have had any lullabies sung to me if my mother had to study first.”
Jean Ritchie at Home, Pacific Cascade, 1971.
None But One, Greenhays, 1977.
High Hills and Mountains, Greenhays, 1979.
The Most Dulcimer, Greenhays, 1984.
O Love is Teasin’, (reissue), Elektra/Asylum, 1985.
Kentucky Christmas, Old and New, 1988.
Singing Family of the Cumberlands (illustrated by Maurice Sendak), 1955; University Press of Kentucky, 1988.
The Swapping Song Book, Henry Walck, Inc., 1952; revised, 1964 (available from Folklife Productions, 7 A Locust Ave., Port Washington, NY 11050).
The Dulcimer Book, Oak Publications, 1963.
Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians, Oak Publications, 1965.
The Dulcimer People, Oak Publications, 1974.
Celebration of Life, Geordie Music, 1971.
Wrote and performed theme song for Caring and Sharing, a documentary (made by husband George Pickow and son Jon Pickow) about underprivileged children in Long Island.
Boston Globe, November 12, 1987.
Courier-Journal Magazine (Louisville, Kentucky), July 23, 1989.
Frets, April 1980; August 1989.
Long Island Monthly, January 1990.
New York Newsday, February 13, 1980.
New York Times, January 11,1980.
Rolling Stone, December 29, 1977.
Press biography (available from Folklife Productions).
"Ritchie, Jean." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/ritchie-jean
"Ritchie, Jean." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved March 24, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/ritchie-jean
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