Music News & Reviews

Jean Ritchie, 92, introduced mountain dulcimer music to the world

Jean Ritchie
Jean Ritchie

Jean Ritchie, a daughter of Eastern Kentucky and "The Mother of Folk," who introduced mountain dulcimer music to the outside world, died Monday at her home in Berea. She was 92.

In a performing career that spanned seven decades, Ritchie established herself as one of the preeminent American folk singers and musicians. She went on stage with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Her songs were recorded by Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton and sung in the rain by Knott County women standing, arms linked, to stop bulldozers at muddy strip mines. Rolling Stone magazine called her 1977 album None But One one of the year's best.

"If you ever heard her voice, you never forgot it. She had that high, haunting tone, a quality that really just comes along once in a lifetime," said Dean Osborne, director of the Kentucky School of Traditional and Bluegrass Music in Hyden.

An appreciation: Read music writer Walter Tunis’ reflections on the life of Jean Ritchie

Apart from creating her own music, Ritchie helped preserve the Appalachian ballads that she learned growing up in the tiny farming community of Viper, southeast of Hazard in Perry County. She published explanatory song books and traveled the length of the British Isles in the 1950s to tape-record musicians who still knew the primordial versions of tunes her ancestors carried across the Atlantic two centuries earlier.

You can't truly understand the music of Eastern Kentucky — tales of struggle and kin and heartbreak — until you trace its roots to Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, she told students over the years.

"No one was more important to the survival, appreciation and revival of traditional Appalachian folk music in the 20th and 21st centuries," the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress said of Ritchie on Tuesday.

Jean Ruth Ritchie was the last of 14 children born to Balis and Abigail Ritchie in a long-ago place where if you wanted to hear any music, you had better be able to produce it yourself.

The Ritchies, nicknamed "The Singing Family of the Cumberlands," were more than able. Accompanied by Balis on the fiddle or mountain dulcimer, the family joined voices on the front porch in the summer, around the fireplace in the winter, at church, at parties, at festivals. They sang of the hangman and his rope and of Mother getting ready for Heaven when He calls and of Baby Jesus born born O born in Betha-lye-hem. NBC broadcast their Christmas 1955 family reunion to a national audience, live from Viper. There was plenty of music.

By age 5, Ritchie could play the mountain dulcimer, just like her father. In her book Jean Ritchie's Singing Family of the Cumberlands, she wrote about the time she and her cousin Sallie got lost in the mountains looking for their family's wandering cows. To steady their nerves as darkness fell, the girls did what came naturally. They sang.

This world is a trouble and sorrow.

World is a trouble and sorrow.

This world is a trouble and sorrow.

The only bright light is Jesus.

"The wind did strange things with the modal melody," Ritchie wrote of that evening. "Its cadences rose and fell over the solemn hills with unbelievable beauty. I could have believed without much persuasion that it was a host of angels."

Ritchie attended Cumberland College and the University of Kentucky before moving to New York City in 1947 to become a social worker. Her after-hours singing and dulcimer playing in coffeehouses quickly won her a following. In this period following World War II, folk music was a popular curiosity for big-city sophisticates.

This was the first of several "folk revivals" to come, and it launched her career. Dulcimers were uncommon in New York before Ritchie arrived. Afterward, it was — and remains — hard to find a music store without one.

Alan Lomax, the celebrated song catcher who traveled the country taping America's "disappearing music" for the Library of Congress, recorded Ritchie in 1949. Elektra Records signed her three years later. Her first album was Jean Ritchie Sings Traditional Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family. That same year, she won the Fulbright fellowship that paid for her music research in the British Isles.

Around this time, Ritchie married photographer and filmmaker George Pickow. They remained together until his death in 2010, living in Port Washington, N.Y., and collaborating on creative projects. Their two sons, Jon and Peter, survived them both.

"We always had music in our home," Jon Pickow said Tuesday.

"The reports we gave at school each year on 'What I Did on My Summer Vacation' were a hit with our teachers," he said. "The other kids in class would say 'I went to camp' or 'We went to the beach.' My brother and I could say, 'We hung out at the Newport Folk Festival.'"

During the 1960s, Ritchie came to oppose the coal industry's strip-mining in Eastern Kentucky, her son said, in part because "it destroyed the mountains and land that she loved," and in part because closing underground mines in favor of more efficient surface machinery "was putting men out of work."

Ritchie wrote a number of mining protest songs from the viewpoint of her beleaguered neighbors. Initially, she used her grandfather's name, Than Hall, as a pseudonym. She feared people would not take a woman's opinion on the subject seriously. Ironically, then, when dozens of women across Southeastern Kentucky protested at strip-mine operations by blocking the machinery with their bodies, they frequently turned for inspiration to Ritchie's songs, belting out the lyrics of Black Waters.

In the coming of springtime we planted our corn.

In the ending of springtime we buried our son.

In the summer come a nice man saying everything's fine.

My employer just requires a way to his mine.

Then they tore down my mountain and covered my corn.

Now the grave on the hillside's a mile deeper down.

And the man stands a-talking with his hat in his hand.

While the poisoned black waters rise over my land.

Every few decades, American mass audiences rediscovered folk music — in 1972, with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, and again in 2000, with the movie soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Still faithfully performing and teaching, Ritchie was delighted to see the old songs continually revived, said Dan Schatz, a folk musician who co-produced last year's album Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie, featuring Pete Seeger, Janis Ian, Kathy Mattea and many others.

"Joan Baez called her 'The Mother of Folk.' Jean was a mentor to all of these other musicians for so long," Schatz said. "She didn't care how famous you were or how successful you were. All she cared about is that you loved the music."

Ritchie moved to Berea in 2011 after her husband's death. A stroke forced her into retirement. However, celebrating the release of Dear Jean, Ritchie's friends held a tribute concert for her one year ago at Berea's Union Church. And everyone was delighted when she joined the other Ritchie family members for a final public performance. They sang one of her favorites, Twilight-A-Stealing:

Voi ces of loved ones, songs of the past

Still linger round me while life shall last.

Cheering my pathway while here I roam

Seeking my far-off home.

Come in the twilight, come, come to me,

Bringing sweet message over the sea.

Lonely I wander, sadly I roam,

Seeking my far-of f home.

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