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Folk singer Jean Ritchie's songs, letters to be preserved

Jean Ritchie may be the most renowned folk musician most people have never heard of.

Born in the hills of Eastern Kentucky and steeped in traditional mountain song, she is credited with preserving a trove of musical heritage that might otherwise have been lost.

An accomplished performer in her own right, Ritchie was at the center of the American folk movement of the 1940s and '50s. Now 85, she has made dozens of records and performed with major folk musicians. Her YouTube clips include duets with Pete Seeger, Doc Watson and Emmylou Harris, just to name a few.

And now the Library of Congress plans to gather her music, field recordings and letters for its American Folk Life Center.

"She's someone certainly in the center of 20th-century folk song scholarship and performance," said Folk Life Center director Michael Taft.

Kentucky novelist and musician Silas House puts it this way: "She has single-handedly preserved hundreds of songs that would have been lost otherwise. It is hard to measure how important Jean Ritchie has been to folk music."

The youngest of 14 children, Ritchie was born into Appalachian music.

At the family's cabin home in Viper, singing together was a daily part of life.

"We knew all the old songs and the ballads and things that the ancestors had brought with them from England, Scotland and Ireland," Ritchie recalled in a phone interview. "We used to sit out on the porch at the end of the day and chose songs as we thought of them. We'd sing for about an hour."

When the melodies reached the ears of relatives across the hollow, Ritchie says they would hurry over and join in.

"That happened almost every night," she said.

Ritchie's father played a traditional stringed instrument called the lap dulcimer. Ritchie taught herself to play it, too, adding a unique style of strumming toward her body. She says it keeps it from falling off her lap. Ritchie's use of the dulcimer eventually helped increase the obscure instrument's popularity.

In 1946, armed with a degree in social work from the University of Kentucky, Ritchie moved to New York, where folk musicians such as Seeger and Woody Guthrie were making names for themselves.

"I was asked to attend some parties and bring my dulcimer," Ritchie said. "That's the way my so-called career got started. I met Pete and decided he was one of the world's good men. Everything that he was involved in was to make things better for poor people. I was impressed with the kind of life creed that he had."

She took a serious, even scholarly interest in the music she grew up with. In 1952, Ritchie obtained a coveted Fulbright award to study the roots of American folk music in the British Isles.

Ritchie also recalls the early 1960s, when a young Bob Dylan arrived in New York and many found his unusual style amusing.

"It wasn't musical, and he didn't care whether he had a pretty voice or not. He was friendly and well liked, but it took him a while to become famous. We were on stages together and he had this weird way of singing. It was almost early rap."

In 1977, she won a Rolling Stone Critics Award. More recently her song Blackwaters has been a part of the protest against mountaintop coal mining in Ritchie's beloved Appalachians.

Now she's sending van loads of letters, song lyrics, recordings and a multitude of other memorabilia to Washington for display and preservation.

"She had a tape recorder very early on, around 1949," Taft said. "We are taking in all the tape recordings she has made over the years from her work in Appalachia and the British Isles. There are manuscript materials, everything from correspondence, letters that were written to her and that she's written to others and lists of songs she sang for individual concerts."

The packing began in October and is about half done, said her husband, photographer George Pickow.

Taft says the center will collate and make the material available to the public.

"Once we get all of her material in here, we will start duplicating the tapes so that people can actually sit down and listen," he said.

Ritchie and her husband have lived for years in Port Washington, N.Y., but they return to her mountain home in Kentucky a few months each year.

In October, she was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. She was also among the first group of inductees into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, in 2002.

And her age notwithstanding, she's still touring.

"You may be one of those who've been heard to say, 'Whatever happened to Jean Ritchie?' " she says on her Web site, www.jeanritchie.com. "Well, here I am, not kicking too high, but very much alive."

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