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Jean Ritchie after a performance on April 26, 2008.
December 8, 1922|
Viper, Kentucky, U.S.
June 1, 2015 (aged 92)|
Berea, Kentucky, U.S.
Jean Ritchie (December 8, 1922 – June 1, 2015) was an American folk music singer, songwriter, and Appalachian dulcimer player. Her career formed a kind of bridge between the traditional and modern forms of folk music: in her youth she learned folksongs in the traditional way (orally, from her family and members of her community); and in adulthood she became a successful modern folksinger, promulgating songs in public through concerts and recordings. She was called by some the "Mother of Folk".
Jean Ritchie was born to Abigail (née Hall) and Balis W. Ritchie of Viper, an unincorporated community in Perry County in the Cumberland Mountains of south eastern Kentucky. The Ritchies of Perry County were one of the two "great ballad-singing families" of Kentucky celebrated among folk song scholars (the other was the Combs family of adjacent Knott County, whose repertoire formed the basis of the first scholarly work on the British ballads in America, a doctoral thesis by Professor Josiah Combs of Berea College for the Sorbonne University published in Paris in 1925.) In 1917, the great collector Cecil Sharp collected songs from Jean's older sisters Una and May. Many of the Ritchies attended the Hindman Settlement School, a folk school, where people were encouraged to cherish their own backgrounds and where Sharp also found many of his songs. Jean's father Balis had printed up a book of old songs entitled Lovers' Melodies, and music making was an important activity in the Ritchie home.
Jean's forebears had fought in the Revolutionary War in 1776 before settling in Kentucky, and most of them later fought on the Confederate Side in the Civil War. Her grandfather Justice Austin Ritchie was 2nd Lieutenant of Company C of the 13th Kentucky Confederate Cavalry. Alan Lomax wrote that:
They were quiet, thoughtful folks, who went in for ballads, big families and educating their children. Jean's grandmother was a prime mover in the Old Regular Baptist Church, and all the traditional hymn tunes came from her. Jean's Uncle Jason was a lawyer, who remembers the big ballads like "Lord Barnard." Jean's father taught school, printed a newspaper, fitted specs, farmed and sent ten of his fourteen children to college.
As the youngest of 14 siblings, Jean was one of ten girls who slept in one room of the farming family's farm house. She was quick to memorize songs and, with Chalmers and Velma McDaniels, performed at local dances and at county fairs, where they repeatedly won blue ribbons in Hazard, the county seat. Jean recalls that when the family acquired a radio in the late 1940s they discovered that what they had been singing was hillbilly music, a word they had never heard before.
Ritchie graduated from high school in Viper and enrolled in Cumberland Junior College (now a four-year University of the Cumberlands) in Williamsburg, Kentucky, and from there went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in social work from the University of Kentucky, in Lexington in 1946. At college she participated in the glee club and choir and learned to play piano. During World War II, she taught in elementary school. After graduating she got a job as a social worker at the Henry Street Settlement, where she taught music to children. There she befriended Alan Lomax, who recorded her extensively for the Library of Congress. She joined the New York folksong scene and met Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, and Oscar Brand. In 1948 she shared the stage with The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, and Betty Sanders at the Spring Fever Hootenanny and by October 1949 was a regular guest on Oscar Brand's Folksong Festival radio show on WNYC. In 1949 and 1950, she recorded several hours of songs, stories, and oral history for Lomax in New York City. Elektra records signed her and released three albums: Jean Ritchie Sings (1952), Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family (1957) and A Time for Singing (1962).
In the early 1940s Ritchie's future husband George Pickow was introduced to folk music when he heard Cisco Houston and Woody Guthrie jamming every night in a tiny cabin at the left-wing Camp Unity summer camp in upstate New York. The Brooklyn-born Pickow, who had studied painting at Cooper Union and made training films for the Navy in World War II, went on to have a long career as a professional photographer and film maker. His career also included an extensive documentation of his wife's work and his photographs illustrated many of her books. Pickow and Ritchie met in 1948 at a square dance at the Henry Street Settlement. The following day, Pickow invited her to accompany him on a photo shoot at the Fulton Fish Market. "The result — Ms. Ritchie perched on the hood of a truck, holding a rather large lobster — was published in a trucking-industry magazine." They married in 1950 and had two sons, Peter and Jon. In 1952, Pickow accompanied his wife on a Fulbright Scholarship to collect folksongs in Britain and Ireland. When Alan Lomax, then working out of London for the BBC, and his collaborator Peter Kennedy of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, decided to document the unique May Eve and May Day Festivals at Padstow in Cornwall, they selected Pickow to be their cameraman. The result was the acclaimed 16-minute color film Oss Oss Wee Oss (1953). In 1961, Pickow and Lomax collaborated on a short film documentary about the Greenwich Village folk revival scene intended to be shown on the BBC. This never happened, however, and ten years later Alan's daughter Anna Lomax Wood, edited the surviving scraps and fragments in her father's office into a short film, "Ballads, Blues, and Bluegrass". In addition to Ritchie, Ballads, Blues, and Bluegrass features what one reviewer called "killer footage"  of performances by Clarence Ashley, Guy Carawan, Willie Dixon, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Roscoe Holcomb, Peter La Farge, Ernie Marrs, The New Lost City Ramblers, Memphis Slim, and the first known footage of a very young Doc Watson. In the audience are Maria Muldaur and Bob Dylan. Despite apocryphal tales, John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers affirms that Bob Dylan is not the male clog dancer at the beginning of the film. Pickow, who had been in declining health for a long time, died December 10, 2010, two days after Ritchie's 88th birthday.
Ritchie preferred to sing without instrumental accompaniment, but occasionally she also accompanied herself on autoharp, guitar or on a handmade plucked Appalachian dulcimer. The latter instrument is also called the "mountain dulcimer" and is distinct from the hammer dulcimer; it is an intimate indoor instrument with a soft, ethereal sound. Her father had played the Appalachian dulcimer but forbade his children to touch it. At the age of four or five, however, Jean defied this prohibition and picked out "Go Tell Aunt Rhody".
By 1949 Ritchie's playing of the Appalachian dulcimer had become a hallmark of her style. After her husband made one for her as a present, the couple decided there might be a potential market for them. Pickow's uncle, Morris Pickow, set up an instrument workshop for them under the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn. At first they were shipped to New York in an unfinished state by Ritchie's Kentucky relative, Jethro Amburgey, then the woodworking instructor at the Hindman Settlement School. George did the finishing and Jean did the tuning and soon they had sold 300 dulcimers. Later they manufactured them themselves from start to finish, Today there are dulcimers for sale at most folk festivals. Because fans kept asking her "Which album has the most dulcimer?", she finally recorded an album called The Most Dulcimer in 1992.
Jean Ritchie was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to trace the links between American ballads and the songs from Britain and Ireland. As a song-collector, she began by setting down the 300 songs that she already knew from her mother's knee. Ritchie spent 18 months tape recording and interviewing singers. Pickow accompanied her, photographing Seamus Ennis, Leo Rowsome, Sarah Makem and other musicians. In 1955 Ritchie wrote a book about her family called Singing Family of the Cumberlands.
Ritchie became known as "The Mother of Folk". As well as work songs and ballads, Ritchie knew hymns from the "Old Regular Baptist" church she attended in Jeff, Kentucky. These were sung as "lining out" songs, in a lingering soulful way. One of the songs they sang was "Amazing Grace". She wrote some songs, including "Black Waters", one on the effects of strip mining in Kentucky. (Some of Ritchie's late 1950s/early 1960s songs on mining she published under the pseudonym "'Than Hall" to avoid troubling her non-political mother, and believing they might be better received if attributed to a man.)
"My Dear Companion" appeared on the album Trio recorded by Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris. Judy Collins recorded some of Ritchie's traditional songs, "Tender Ladies" and "Pretty Saro", and also used a photograph by George Pickow on the front of her album "Golden Apples of the Sun" (1962). Ritchie's 50th anniversary album was Mountain Born (1995), which features her two sons, Peter and Jonathan Pickow. In 1954 Ritchie and George Pickow released some of their UK recordings under the name Field Trip. It was re-issued in 2001 on the Greenhays label. It has recordings by Elizabeth Cronin, Seamus Ennis, and others, side by side with Ritchie family versions of the same songs.
Jean Ritchie performed at such venues as Carnegie Hall and at the Royal Albert Hall. Her album, None But One, was awarded the Rolling Stone Critics Award in 1977. Ritchie is a recipient of a 2002 National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the United States' highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.
In early December 2009, Ritchie was hospitalized after suffering a stroke which impaired her ability to communicate. She recovered to some degree and lived quietly at her home in Berea, Kentucky; a friend reported on her 90th birthday, "Jean has been living quietly in Berea for the last few years, in good spirits and well cared for by neighbors and family." She died at home on 1 June, 2015, aged 92.