Editorial: Jean Ritchie, a righteous voice of Kentucky

Jean Ritchie
Jean Ritchie

Eastern Kentucky has produced many great musicians. None left a deeper mark than Jean Ritchie, who died Monday in Berea at 92.

If you could take all the sweetness and pain of Kentucky's hills — the green valleys and lilting streams, the evening cool, the history of struggle, oppression and strength — and distill them into a sound, it would be Ritchie's voice.

Her legacy — the songs she wrote and the old songs she saved — will live forever as new generations follow Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Rhiannon Giddens and many others who have borrowed from the Ritchie songbook.

Some of her originals, such as "Black Waters," "Blue Diamond Mines" and "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore," personalize environmental and economic injustices in a plain yet piercing way that few writers have equaled.

Ritchie grew up in a big musical family in Viper in Perry County and graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1946.

She arrived in New York just in time to become a leading figure in the folk music revival, playing dulcimer and singing at Greenwich Village coffee houses and performing at the first Newport Folk Festival.

In 1952, a Fulbright Fellowship sent her to Scotland and Ireland to record folk music, completing the circle that brought the tunes to the Appalachian hills.

She and her husband, George Pickow, a filmmaker and photographer who died in 2010, were an accomplished team.

They documented not just the folkways and music of Appalachia and the British Isles but also of traditional cultures around the world. Their extensive work is part of the American Folklife Center's collection.

Ritchie led a remarkable life that ended as it began, according to her son, Jon Pickow, surrounded by her family singing.