Born: December 8, 1922
Died: June 1, 2015
Jean Ritchie attracted national attention not only as a songwriter and performer, but for her work popularizing traditional Appalachian ballads, many of which had their roots in the British Isles from which her ancestors had emigrated.
Ritchie was the youngest of 14 children of Balis and Abigail Hall Ritchie and great up in the Eastern Kentucky mountains where her family had lived since the 1700s. She helped raise and prepare food by hand, learning at an early age to plant, harvest, preserve, and cook.
Music accompanied almost every part of her family’s life. The Ritchies cherished traditional ballads, whose music and lyrics often evolved into many variations. For example, there are dozens of versions of the traditional English ballad “Barbara Allen.”
“It was always a wonder to me how families living close to one another could sing the same song and sing it so different,” Ritchie wrote. “Or how one family would sing a song among themselves for years, and their neighbor family never knew that song at all.”
Ritchie was a fierce promoter of traditional ballads and often performed “Barbara Allen,” “The Cuckoo is a Pretty Bird,” “The Cool of the Day” and others in her unique, haunting soprano voice. She became an iconic figure in American folk music. She became a fixture at Greenwich Village coffeehouses and often was on the New York radio broadcasts of folk singer Oscar Brand. Ritchie performed at Carnegie Hall, London’s Royal Albert Hall and, in 1959, at the first Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island along with Pete Seeger, Odetta, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
She was a powerful influence on Bob Dylan and performed with such luminaries as Doc Watson and Lead Belly (Huddie William Ledbetter). Her discography includes 33 albums recorded between 1952 and 2002.
Ritchie wrote many famous songs, including “Black Waters,” “Blue Diamond Mines” and “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” that were recorded by such stars as Johnny Cash, Emmy Lou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Judy Collins and Dolly Parton.
“There is no one else in her category,” the noted ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax told the LouisvilleCourier-Journal in 1989. “She has devoted herself to her heritage and the struggle to convey it in all its majesty and beauty.”
Ritchie was a 1946 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Kentucky with a degree in social work. She worked, for a short time, at the Henry Street Settlement, an educational and social services center on New York’s Lower East Side.
Ritchie married photographer and woodcraftsman George Pickow in 1950. Until his death in 2010, they published books and music, owned a recording label, and operated a dulcimer-making shop in Port Washington, New York. She published 10 books between 1964 and 1988 and dozens of articles for publications such as Sing Out, Mountain Life and Workand The Ladies Home Journal.
Singing Family of the Cumberlands. Illustrated by Maurice Sendak. (1955)
The Dulcimer Book. (1963)
Apple Seeds and Soda Straws. Illustrated by Don Bolognese. (1965)
Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians (1965. Expanded version 1997)
Jean Ritchie’s Dulcimer People (1975)
Jean Ritchie’s Swapping Song Book (1999)