Jean Ritchie, a beloved Appalachian and “The Mother of Folk,” passed away on June 1. She was a dear friend of mine whom I first met in 2006. But the thing about Ritchie is that I felt she was my friend long before I ever knew her. Her wide smile, gentle demeanor and profoundly moving music had that impact on most everyone.
For as long as I can remember she has been an American treasure and an Appalachian hero. Since first coming to know her, I spent a lot of time with her: at her former home in Port Washington, New York, at the Hindman Settlement School, during her visits home to Eastern Kentucky, and—in recent years—a few visits with her at her home in Berea, less than a mile from my own house. Always those times were filled with profound moments of the wonderful magic Jean possessed: wisdom, kindness, grace.
Her death at the age of 92 has not dimmed the light of her legacy, which will keep shining. Yet the loss is especially large because Ritchie was such a repository. Without her intervention many centuries-old ballads would almost certainly have been lost. She also carried on the oral tradition of her ancestors and preserved their stories, which she shared at concerts and in her various books. In many ways with her will go a whole way of life.
It is impossible to measure the tremendous impact she had on American music. She single-handedly popularized the mountain dulcimer. The New York Times has called her “a national treasure.” Her archives were secured by the Library of Congress in 2008. In 2002 she was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest award given in the nation to traditional artists and musicians. Her original compositions have been performed by such artists as Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Judy Collins, Emmylou Harris, the Judds, Kathy Mattea, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and many others.
Ritchie was born in a cabin on the banks of Elk Branch, near the small community of Viper, in Perry County, Kentucky, in 1922. Her family sang songs that dated back to when their ancestors crossed the ocean, and long before. Today the Ritchie Family is best known for preserving the song “Far Nottamun Town.” In 1917 famed songcatcher Cecil Sharp found his way to the Ritchie Family.
Ritchie began singing by the age of 4 and playing the dulcimer by the time she was 7. Education was highly valued in her family and her father was particularly adamant that all of his daughters go to school. Ritchie went to Cumberland College and then Cumberland College and then the University of Kentucky, where she received a degree in social work in 1946 (graduating with highest honors and a Phi Beta Kappa key). She immediately moved to New York City to work at the Henry Street Settlement School where she worked with children.
Ritchie taught the children the games and songs she had grown up playing and singing, accompanying herself on guitar and dulcimer. Students and co-workers alike became mesmerized when she sang. Before she knew it, and without even trying, Ritchie had acquired a following. At one gathering she met George Pickow, an energetic magazine photographer who quickly became her biggest fan and remained so until his death in 2010.
In 1950 she eloped with Pickow and they began what Ritchie called “our folklore-collecting travels; myself as a singer/dulcimer player/interviewer (gossip), and he as a photographer/filmmaker/sound recorder.” Later they would also raise two sons together: Jon and Peter Pickow.
Ritchie received a Fulbright Scholarship in 1952, the same year she released her first album with Elektra Records. She and Pickow went to England, Scotland, and Ireland. The result was the 1954 album Field Trip, which preserved an entire musical culture that might have been lost otherwise. In 1955, the Oxford University Press published Ritchie’s childhood autobiography, Singing Family of the Cumberlands with illustrations by Maurice Sendack. The book is as much an act of preserving traditional music as it is of preserving the storytelling tradition, with forty-two of her family’s most beloved songs being examined. The book was published to wide acclaim, was excerpted in Ladies Home Journal, and today it is considered a classic that has never gone out of print.
Ritchie became ever more active in the folk music scene and before long became one of the leading voices in the genre. By the end of the 1960s she had recorded twenty albums and written classics like “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” “Blue Diamond Mines,” and “Black Waters.” Perhaps the song that solidifies her legacy is “The Cool of the Day,” an ancient-sounding spiritual which demands environmental stewardship and is now being widely used as one of the major anthems in the fight for environmental justice. It is a song that has already achieved classic status by being included in the hymnal of the Society of Friends.
Up until a stroke she suffered in 2009 Jean remained active in performing and activism. She appeared last May at the release concert for a double CD tribute album in her honor called “Dear Jean” and made sure that proceeds from that record to go to Appalachian Voices, an organization devoted to protecting Appalachia’s mountains.
Since Ritchie’s passing I have been reminded several times of a long visit I had with her at her house on Long Island in 2008. I had travelled there with two others from Manhattan and when we were fixing to leave, Ritchie came out onto the porch to see us off. Just as we were backing out with our windows down to wave goodbye, Jean Ritchie leaned on the porch railing, held back her face so it could be touched by the surprisingly warm February sun. She closed her eyes for a moment, and she couldn’t help but sing:
“What wondrous love is this
O my soul, o my soul.”
She opened her eyes, gave a hearty wave. And her smile was like a prayer.
Silas House is an author and the National Endowment for the Humanities Chair in Appalachian Studies at Berea College. Sections of this tribute were adapted from ‘Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal’ by Silas House and Jason Howard (2009, University Press of Kentucky)