Jean Ritchie grew up with music as the youngest in a family of fourteen children in the Cumberland Mountains community of Viper, Kentucky. When she was 4 or 5 years old, Jean began to take her father’s dulcimer down from the mantel when he was away and try to play the instrument. When he discovered her secret, Balis Ritchie encouraged her, not by teaching her in a formal way but by telling her to watch and listen while he played and to try to repeat what he had done. Music, Jean Ritchie said, was something everyone took for granted. Everyone sang while doing chores or just walking down the road. The repertoire ranged from traditional songs from the British Isles to the popular songs of the day.
After graduating Phi Beta Kappa with a social work degree from the University of Kentucky, Ritchie worked at the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side of New York City, where she taught songs and games to the children. Soon she was performing in homes and schoolrooms, and folklorist Alan Lomax recorded her for the Library of Congress folksong archives. Her first book, Singing Family of the Cumberlands, was published in 1955 and republished in 1988. She was an original director of the Newport Folk Festival and served a three-year term on the folklore panel of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Despite her impeccable folk roots and scholarly reputation, Ritchie was anything but a purist. She recorded with pedal steel guitar and amplified instruments, shocking some of her fans. “You sing the old songs, and they sound good with dulcimer or even unaccompanied, the way they used to be sung,” she once told Frets magazine. “But they sound equally good with modern instruments. I believe in using what’s around you at the time.”
Ritchie also wrote a number of songs, some of which address social concerns, such as “Black Waters,” about the impact of strip mining on her home state.
“I’ve written some healing songs too,” she told NEA interviewer Mary K. Lee. “One is called 'Now Is the Cool of the Day,' which is my favorite of my written songs right now. It’s just about God walking in his garden in the cool of the day and how we should be good stewards of the Earth, keep the waters clean, keep the grasses green and so on. Churches use it, choruses, choirs; it’s played at weddings. It’s got a big audience, that one.”
Ritchie has passed her knowledge to many others, preferring to teach by example, as her father did. “I think that people should learn how to play the very basic way and then go on and learn the other things, too,” she told Lee. “They should know how it sounds. I always tell the people I instruct, ‘This is the way that my dad played, this is the way I learned to play from him, this is the way that everybody used to play, the only way anybody knew how to play.’ Then you can say, ‘But here’s what you can also do with it,’ and you can give them the other things, too.”
Of her music, Ritchie said, “I’ve never thought it was everything. I have never gone into music to the exclusion of everything else. I’ve just lived, and the music has been a wonderful accompaniment. That’s what I tell people. Use music to accompany your lives but not let it take over.”
Fox, Margalit. "Jean Ritchie, Lyrical Voice of Appalachia, Dies at 92." The New York Times, June 2, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/03/arts/music/jean-ritchie-who-revived-appalachian-folk-songs-dies-at-92.html?_r=0 Jones, Loyal. “Jean Ritchie, Twenty-Five Years After.” Appalachian Journal (spring, 1981).
Nash, Alanna. “Jean Ritchie.” 200V (partial citation)
“Ritchie Receives Folk-Art Award.” Herald-Leader (June 2002).
Ritchie, Jean. Singing Family of the Cumberlands, New York: Oxford University Press, 1955, University of Kentucky Press, 1988.
Ritchie, Jean and Doc Watson. Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City. Folkways SF40005.
Ritchie, Jean. Field Trip to England. Folkways F-8871.
_____. Field Trip to Ireland. Folkways F-8872.
_____. Sweet Rivers. June Appal Recordings JA0037.
_____. Concert. Greenhays Recordings GR101.
_____. Childhood Songs. Greenhays Recordings GR90723.
_____. Ballads From Her Appalachian Family Tradition. Folkways SFW CD 40145.
_____. Clear Waters Remembered. Greenhays GR 727.
_____. Mountain Born. Greenhays GR70725.
_____. None but One: High Hills and Mountains. Greenhays GRCD 708.
_____. The Most Dulcimer. Greenhays GRCD 70714.
_____. Kentucky Christmas Old and New. Greenhays GR70717.
_____. Carols For All Seasons. Tradition TCD 1058.
_____. The Dusing Singers: The Cool of the Day. Greenhays GR70722.
_____. Field Trip. Greenhays 726.
Mountain Born: The Jean Ritchie Story. VHS, videotape, color, 90 minutes. Directed by Russ Farmer. Kentucky: Folklife Productions, 1996.
Stir Off! With Jean Ritchie. VHS, videotape, color. Directed by Jean Ritchie. Kentucky.
Jean Ritchie, 2002 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Jean Ritchie from Mountain Born: The Jean Ritchie Story, courtesy of Folklife Productions
Jean Ritchie explains how molasses is made, courtesy George Pickow
Jean Ritchie answers the question 'Could you talk a little about when you were born?' Arlington, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar
Jean Ritchie talks about learning the history of her tradition, Arlington, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar
Jean Ritchie talks about being a social worker, Arlington, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar
Jean Ritchie talks about working with Alan Lomax, Arlington, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar
Jean Ritchie answers the question 'When did you start playing music?' Arlington, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar
Jean Ritchie answers the question 'What is the tuning of the dulcimer?' Arlington, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar
Jean Ritchie, 'West Virginia Mine Disaster,' Clear Waters Remembered, 2001 Greenhays Recordings, GR 727
Jean Ritchie, 'None But One,' None But One/High Hills And Mountains, 1998 Greenhays Recordings, GR 708
Jean Ritchie Family and Friends, 'Carol Of The Cherry Tree,' Kentucky Christmas Old and New, Greenhays Recordings