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Jean Ritchie

Dec. 18, 1922 - June 1, 2015

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Kentucky-born Jean Ritchie was one of the best-known American folk musicians. But she was no purist, also having recorded with pedal steel guitar and amplified instruments. She liked to teach by example and advised people, 'Use music to accompany your lives but not to let it take over.' Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
About this photograph, Jean Ritchie said, 'If you turn right, just beyond the sign, that's Slabtown Hollow Road; our old house is a short way up the holler. Jonny and Peter Pickow are our sons; Edna Ritchie Baker was my sister,' ca. 1963, photograph by George Pickow
Newport Folk Festival Finale, (left to right) Alan Lomax, Jean Ritchie, Theo Bikel, Bruce Jackson, Logan English, George Wein, Ramblin' Jack Elliott Bernice Reagon, Arlo Guthrie, Oscar Brand, Bess Lomax Hawes, Lee Hayes, Pete Seeger, the Reverend Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick. Courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
About this photograph, Jean Ritchie said, 'My first visit to meet Elizabeth Cronin in 1952, in her sister's cottage in Lisbee Muir, County Cork (Ireland) near Macroom. Mrs. Cronin is at far right, on fireplace settle with her sister Mrs. O'Connell and her daughter, Maimie. The O'Connell sons and a neighbor woman are on left side.' Courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
Woody Guthrie shows Jean Ritchie his latest song, 'Written on My Way Down Here,' at an Oscar Brand Folksong Festival broadcast, WNYC, New York City, ca.1948. Courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
Fred Hellerman (front), then left to right, Woody Guthrie, Jean Ritchie, Pete Seeger, at an Oscar Brand Folksong Festival broadcast, WNYC, New York City, ca.1948. Courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
Empingham Bell Ringers giving Jean Ritchie a lesson in change ringing in the church, Empingham, 1952, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
Jean Ritchie's first publicity brochure, featuring a photograph taken in Hally Wood's front yard, ca. 1950, photograph by George Pickow, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
Jean Ritchie's school picture as a junior in Viper High School, 1937, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
Jean Ritchie visits with Mr. Rew, a gardener and musician, while collecting traditional music in England during her Fulbright year in the British Isles. Courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
Jean Ritchie and Carl Sandburg. About this photograph, Jean recalled, 'On impulse while driving through North Carolina we called Carl Sandburg at his Flat Rock farm; we had recently met him at Frank Warner's apartment in New York. He said, 'Come right over; we'll have some goat's milk for supper!' The visiting and singing went on and it ended with our spending the night, sleeping in 'The Crow's Nest' at the top of the house where Carl did most of his writing during that period.' Courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
Opening night of Izzy Young's Folklore Center on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, (left to right) Jerry Silverman, Cynthia Gooding, unknown, Una Ritchie Yahkub (Jean's sister), two unknown men, Carolyn Hester in front, Jean Ritchie, Happy Traum, Molly Scott, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
Jean Ritchie on *Camera Three* on a Sunday morning, New York City, ca. 1950s, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
Album cover for *Mountain Born*, Jean Ritchie and Sons, now Greenhays CD 70725, photograph by George Pickow, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
On an early collecting trip, soon after her marriage to George Pickow, Jean Ritchie talks and sings with Ivey Scott of Harker's Island, North Carolina, ca. 1950, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
Jean Ritchie making an early recording, probably for her album, *A Time For Singing*, originally released by Warner Brothers. Now available on a Warner Brothers/Rhino reissue, a CD box set, *Mountain Hearth & Home*
Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City in Greenwich Village, 1962. About this photograph, Ritchie said, 'This was Doc's first solo performance since he had left Clarence Ashley's band. Ralph Rinzler, then Doc's manager, asked me to share the gig with him, so he 'wouldn't get nervous.' Courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
In her junior year, Jean Ritchie transferred from Cumberland Junior College to the University of Kentucky at Lexington. She graduated in 1946 with a bachelor of arts in social work and a Phi Beta Kappa key. Courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
Jean Ritchie and Patrick Swayze. About this photograph, Jean Ritchie said, 'The film starring Patrick Swayze, *Next of Kin*, was shot partially in Hazard, Kentucky, near to my birthplace, Viper Kentucky. George and I were spending time at our cabin there, and a friend asked us to go with him to the casting session in Hazard; director John Irvin talked with us and gave me the part of 'Aunt Charlene' in the movie! PS: I didn't especially like the script, but being a part of a Hollywood movie was an experience I had never had, I thought I'd like to see what it was like, and because it was set in my own part of Appalachia, the coal camp at Hardburly, a few miles from my home.' Courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
About this photograph, Jean Ritchie said, 'George takes a picture of an informal singing party in our first apartment, 88 Seventh Avenue South, in the Village.' Recognizable faces (left to right): Tom Clancy, Robin Roberts, Jean (on floor), Mrs. Amen and husband-artist Irving Amen, Oscar Brand. Photograph by George Pickow, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
Jean Ritchie doing her set at opening night at Folk City, in Greenwich Village, New York City, photograph by George Pickow, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
About this photograph, Jean Ritchie said, 'After graduation from [the University of Kentucky], for a short time I worked out of the county school superintendent's office, as recreation director for all the one-room schools in the area. Here we're doing one of the children's favorite action songs.' Photograph by George Pickow, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
About this photograph, Jean Ritchie said, 'This is the house in which I was born. Here it looks bare, but when I was small it had a wonderful porch running almost all round the house, with two porch swings and the mysterious 'corner' fondly remembered in my first book, *Singing Family of the Cumberlands*. Courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
Once a year, Oscar Brand's WNYC Folksong Festival was broadcast live from The Cooper Union's Great Hall. New York City. Photograph by George Pickow, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson outside Folk City after one of their performances, New York City, 1962. Photograph by George Pickow, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
About this photograph, George Pickow said, 'The Berkeley Festival was I believe the first of the big USA folk festivals. They were presented by Barry Olivier, and Jean performed at all or most of them. The Greek Theatre there was a thrilling place to sing.' Courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
About this photograph, Jean Ritchie said, 'Uncle Jason was not my uncle; he was Dad's first cousin, but everyone called him Uncle, kin or not. He was a matchless singer of the old ballads, a real collector and preserver of our earliest family songs. If I liked a version of his and didn't already have it, he'd say, 'Well I'll write ye out a ballit of'it.' He was deeply interested in knowledge and would usually go on to tell me that in this case the word, 'ballit,' meant a 'billet,' from the French you know.' Courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
About this photograph, Jean Ritchie says, 'During filming of the TV Special, *Amazing Grace*, Bill Moyers visited with his wife and staff during our family reunion. They stayed the whole weekend and were great guests. This interview took place on the front porch of our log house in Viper.' Photograph by George Pickow, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
About this photograph, Jean Ritchie said, 'Good friend Loyal Jones gave me his arm for the ceremony. Berea College gave an honorary doctor of arts degree; my previous one was from [the University of Kentucky], honorary doctor of letters. At Berea, George gave me the title 'Doctor-Doctor.'' Photograph by George Pickow, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
About this photograph, Jean Ritchie said, 'Balis and Abigail Ritchie with eleven of their children. In this photo, Pauline was the baby; brother Wilmer and I were born later.' Courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
Jean Ritchie sings with members of the Ritchie family who were invited to perform at the National Folk Festival on the mall of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., during the Kentucky Bicentennial year, 1992. Photograph by George Pickow, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
About this photograph, Jean Ritchie said, 'Backstage at Albert Hall, London, England, in 1952, with two members of the Morris team from near Chester. The dancer on the right is Leslie Haworth, who owned The Eddisbury Fruit Farm, was an avid folk singer and writer. He wrote his, 'Here's to Cheshire! Here's to Cheese!' as a gift dedicated to me.' Photograph by George Pickow, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
About this photograph, Jean Ritchie said, 'This huge international folk festival went back and forth between the two countries. Most countries sent large dancing/singing teams, but the U.S. had no structure in place to go to such an expense for culture. I was already in England for my Fulbright year, so was invited by Maud Karpeles to represent my country. How everyone along the parade route laughed when I came by with my little Kentucky dulcimer! On returning home in 1953, I was urged to write something critical about this situation, which I did, and it got published in some D.C., paper: *The Congressional Record*? Anyway, I hope it did some good!' Photograph by George Pickow, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
Jean Ritchie at the autograph table with John Jacob Niles, on one of the Kentucky Music Weekends, Iroquois Park, Louisville, Kentucky. Photograph by George Pickow, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
About this photograph, Jean Ritchie said, 'We were asked to get together a record of folk songs for a 'supermarket' album, with no names mentioned, at one point in our early married life. This group was recording for the album *Hootenanny at the Limelight*. The singers-without-names are (left to right) Eric Weisberg, Judy Collins, Marshall Brickman, Mike Settle, Clarence Cooper and Jean Ritchie.' Photograph by George Pickow, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
Jean Ritchie and Oscar Brand singing a duet during a WNYC broadcast in New York City. Photograph by George Pickow, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
About this photograph, Jean Ritchie said, 'Getting the Ritchie mail at the Viper post office and talking with our postmaster, Marion Brashears, Viper, Kentucky.' Photograph by George Pickow, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
About this photograph, Jean Ritchie said, 'Seamus Ennis was one of our best friends we met during my Fulbright year (1952-53) in the British Isles. He lived in London and worked then for the BBC, had done much collecting in both England and Ireland. He and Peter Kennedy gave us many names of folks to visit, were great help. Here he plays the Uilleann pipes for us, into our brand new Magnacorder, one of the first portable recording machines with high fidelity. Separate recorder and amplifier, each only fifty pounds! Seamus was one of the all-time greatest of Irish pipers. This session was done in our Belsize Park flat in London.' Photograph by George Pickow, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
About this photograph, Jean Ritchie said, 'This was taken at the ceremony in Washington, D.C., at the reception of the Alan Lomax Collection by the Library of Congress. Bess Lomax Hawes sends Pete Seeger a message from everybody. Mick Hart, of the Grateful Dead, is a well-known collector of folk music and has just given me his new book.' Photograph by George Pickow, courtesy Jean Ritchie and George Pickow

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.”

Bibliography
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.

Discography
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.

Filmography
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.

Watch

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

Listen

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 sings a song, Arlington, Virginia, 2002, recording by Alan Govenar

Jean Ritchie sings a song, Arlington, Virginia, 2002, recording 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 & Sons, 'Mountain Born,' Mountain Born, 1999 Greenhays Recordings, GR 70725

Jean Ritchie, 'Pretty Nancy,' Clear Waters Remembered, 2001 Greenhays Recordings, GR 727

Jean Ritchie, 'West Virginia Mine Disaster,' Clear Waters Remembered, 2001 Greenhays Recordings, GR 727

Jean Ritchie, 'Killiekrankie,' The Most Dulcimer, 1999 Greenhays Recordings, GR 70714

Jean Ritchie, 'None But One,' None But One/High Hills And Mountains, 1998 Greenhays Recordings, GR 708

Jean Ritchie, 'The May Day Carol,' Carols For All Seasons, 1997 Rykodise, TCD 1058

Jean Ritchie, 'Cherry Tree Of Cumberlands,' Carols For All Seasons, 1997 Rykodise, TCD 1058

Jean Ritchie Family and Friends, 'Carol Of The Cherry Tree,' Kentucky Christmas Old and New, Greenhays Recordings

Jean Ritchie, 'Pretty Polly,' Field Trip, 2001 Greenhays Recordings, GR 726

The Dusing Singers, 'Now Is The Cool Of The Day,' Cool Of The Day—Music Of Jean Ritchie, 1991 Greenhays Recordings, GR 70722