American Folk Singer Jean Ritchie has died at the age of 92. Born in the Cumberland Mountains of south eastern Kentucky she came from a rich musical heritage which saw the likes of Cecil Sharp collecting songs from her older sisters Una and May in 1917. She gave a great insight into her family heritage in her 1955 book Singing Family of the Cumberlands in which she wrote about her parents Balis and Abigail Ritchie, and their fourteen children, all born and reared in Viper, Kentucky, deep in the Cumberland Mountains. Whilst Jean went on to become the most famous of her family they all sang, carrying on the tradition of their forebears.
It was after graduating and taking up a job as a social worker at the Henry Street Settlement in New York that things dramatically changed for it was here she met Alan Lomax who made recordings of her primarily for the Library of Congress. She became a part of that burgeoning New York folk scene meeting stars such as Lead Belly and Pete Seeger.
Whilst known for her voice the mountain dulcimer became synonymous with the name of Ritchie. Unlike the hammered dulcimer this was a softer sounding instrument which grew in popularity for which Jean was largely credited for. Her husband, George Pickow, who she met in New York was also a folk music lover and they both recognised the growing demand for the dulcimer and soon arranged for George’s uncle to make them with George doing the finishing and Jean the tuning. They would later manufacture them entirely themselves.
Jean was awarded a Fullbright scholarship which led to both Jean and her husband visiting Britain and Ireland in 1952 to collect folk songs, befriending the likes of Jeannie Robertson, Seamus Ennis, Leo Rowsome, Sarah Makem and many more. As well as photographing those they recorded George was also a film maker and was the cameraman for the Peter Kennedy and Alan Lomax’s 1953 documentary on the Padstow Obby Oss Oss Oss Wee Oss which we recently featured.
By 1949 her music was reaching a far wider audience thanks to Oscar Brand with whom she featured as a regular guest on his Folksong Festival radio show on WNYC. It was not long after this that she was signed by Elektra records signed who released three albums: Jean Ritchie Sings (1952), Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family (1957) and A Time for Singing (1962).
Jean became known as ‘The Mother of Folk’, she remained true to the tradition she was raised in despite the move away from such songs in the sixties where songs of protest took to the fore. Despite this many of the songs Jean sang were equally topical highlighting both environmental and corporate exploitation such as ‘Black Waters’ which tackled the effects of strip mining in Kentucky:
I come from the mountains, Kentucky’s my home,
Where the wild deer and black bear so lately did roam;
By cool rushing waterfalls the wildflowers dream,
And through every green valley there runs a clear stream.
Now there’s scenes of destruction on every hand
And only black waters run down through my land.
In 2002, she received a National Endowment For The Arts National Heritage Fellowship, the Nation’s highest honour in the folk and traditional arts.She carried on performing until 2009 when she suffered a stroke. She lost her husband, George, the following year.
Jean Ritchie: 8 December 1922 – 1 June 2015