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Ritchie, Jean (1922—)

Ritchie, Jean (1922—)

American folk singer and folklorist . Born in Viper, Kentucky, on December 8, 1922; daughter of Balis W. Ritchie (a former schoolteacher and farmer) and Abigail (Hall) Ritchie; attended Cumberland College in Williamsburg, Kentucky; University of Kentucky in Lexington, A.B., 1946; married George Pickow (a photographer), on September 29, 1950; children: Jonathan Balis; Peter Ritchie Pickow.

Received Fulbright grant (1952) to study folk music of the British Isles; sang at first annual Newport Folk Festival (July 1959).

Selected recordings:

Children's Songs and Games from the Southern Mountains (1957); Folk Concert in Town Hall, New York (1959); British Traditional Ballads in the Southern Mountains, Volumes 1 and 2 (1960); Precious Memories (1962); High Hills and Mountains (1979); None But One (1981).

Selected writings:

The Swapping Song Book (1952); A Garland of Mountain Song (1953); (memoir) Singing Family of the Cumberlands (1955); From Fair to Fair: Folk Songs of the British Isles (1966).

Born in 1922 into a musical family whose ancestors had been among the first to settle in the Cumberland Mountain region of Appalachia in the 1700s, Jean Ritchie grew up hearing and singing the traditional songs that her family had passed along for generations. She made her life's work the preservation of this musical heritage, which the Library of Congress had catalogued in the 1930s.

Ritchie was the youngest of 14 children born to Balis W. Ritchie, a former teacher who had turned to farming after losing his hearing, and Abigail Hall Ritchie . Though the family was poor and the children worked hard at farm chores, they enjoyed a happy home life and often amused themselves by singing and sharing songs with neighbors.

Balis Ritchie valued learning and helped most of his children receive a solid education. Jean attended Cumberland College in Williamsburg, Kentucky, worked briefly as a teacher during World War II, and later transferred to the University of Kentucky in Lexington. There she majored in social work and also received some formal musical training. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1946, she worked briefly as a teacher in Kentucky before moving to New York City to take a job as a music counselor at the Henry Street Settlement. In New York, Ritchie began to sing and play the dulcimer for friends, and she met folklorist Alan Lomax, who helped arrange singing appearances for her. He once called her "one of the finest pure mountain singers ever discovered." Within a few years, Ritchie gave up social work to fully devote her energies to her music.

In 1950, Ritchie married photographer George Pickow. She made her first solo public appearance that same year at the Greenwich Mews Playhouse and began doing regular radio performances. In 1952, she received a Fulbright grant to travel with Pickow throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland to trace the origins of Appalachian folk songs. While in England, she appeared at the Royal Albert Hall and sang on BBC radio. Ritchie returned to the United States in 1953, where she worked on several book projects. Oxford University Press had published her first book, The Swapping Song Book, in 1952. Oxford also published her portrait of her family, Singing Family of the Cumberlands (1955), which received highly favorable reviews. In 1959, Ritchie sang to great acclaim at the first annual Newport (Rhode Island) Folk Festival, of which she was one of the original directors. Ritchie has commented that one of her primary reasons for studying and promoting folk music was the fact that, by the 1940s, radio broadcasts of other types of songs had begun to threaten Appalachian native music. By popularizing traditional songs, she saw herself as preserving an important part of America's cultural heritage. Ritchie has represented the United States at international folklore conferences and served on the first folklore panel of the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work was central in inspiring the American folk music renaissance of the 1960s.

Though Ritchie cut back on her performance schedule while her two sons, Jonathan and Peter, were young, she maintained her interests in folk music and culture and continued recording and performing. Her two-volume album British Traditional Ballads in the Southern Mountains, based on her Fulbright research, was issued in 1960. She also released an album of dulcimer instruction, The Appalachian Dulcimer (1964), as well as High Hills and Mountains (1979), and None But One (1981), which received the Rolling Stone Critics Award as best folk album of the year. Though most of the songs Ritchie has recorded are traditional ballads, she has also written original material; among the best known are "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore," "Black Waters," and "Blue Diamond Mine." She has recorded and performed with a number of notable folk musicians, including Doc Watson, Happy Traum, Kenny Hall, Frank Hicks, Odetta , Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee, and has been joined on her later albums by her sons who play banjo, dulcimer, guitar, pennywhistle, dobro, autoharp, bass, and recorder. Ritchie's performance of "Amazing Grace" can be seen in the PBS home video of that name.


ASCAP Biographical Dictionary. 4th ed. NY: R.R. Bowker, 1980.

Carlin, Richard. The Big Book of Country Music. NY: Penguin, 1995.

Hitchcock, H. Wiley and Stanley Sadie. The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. London: Macmillan, 1986.

LaBlanc, Michael L., ed. Contemporary Musicians. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1991.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Morehead, Philip D. with Anne MacNeil. The New International Dictionary of Music. Meridian, 1991.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography Yearbook 1959. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1959.

Elizabeth Shostak , freelance writer, Cambridge, Massachusetts

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