Jean Ritchie

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Jean Ritchie
Jean Ritchie after a performance on April 26, 2008.
Born (1922-12-08) December 8, 1922 (age 91)
Viper, Kentucky, U.S.
Occupation Singer-songwriter
Years active 1948–present
Spouse(s) George Pickow (1950-2010; his death); 2 children

Jean Ritchie (born December 8, 1922) is an American folk music singer, songwriter, and Appalachian dulcimer player.

Out of Kentucky[edit]

Jean Ritchie was born to Abigail and Balis Ritchie of Viper, Kentucky. She is the youngest of 14 siblings. Ten girls slept in one room of the farming family's house in the Cumberland Mountains. She quickly memorized songs and performed at local dances and the county fairs with Chalmers and Velma NcDaniels, where they repeatedly won blue ribbons in Hazard. In the late 1940s the family acquired a radio and discovered that what they were singing was hillbilly music, a word they had never heard before. In the mid-1930s Alan Lomax recorded in Kentucky for the Library of Congress's Archive of Folk Song. Among the people he recorded were The Singing Ritchies.[dubious ]

Ritchie attended Cumberland College (Now the University of the Cumberlands) in Williamsburg, Kentucky and later the University of Kentucky in Lexington. At college she joined the glee club and choir and learned to play piano, graduating in 1946 with a B.A. in social work.[1] During the war, she taught in elementary school. In 1946, she moved to New York City to work in the Henry Street Settlement. In New York she met Oscar Brand, Lead Belly, and Pete Seeger, and started singing her family songs again. In 1948 she shared the stage with The Weavers, Woody Guthrie and Betty Sanders at the Spring Fever Hootenanny. Oscar Brand's Folksong Festival on WNYC radio adopted her as a regular by October 1949.[citation needed]

George Pickow[edit]

In the early 1940s George Pickow was at Camp Unity in New York.[clarification needed] There he heard Cisco Houston and Woody Guthrie jamming every night in a tiny cabin. He took up a career as a photographer, but still went to square dances. He met Ritchie and put her on the front cover of a trucker's magazine. They married in 1950 and had two children, Peter and Jon. In 1953, Pickow, Alan Lomax[who?] and Peter Kennedy[who?] directed a film Oss Oss Wee Oss (Colour, 16 minutes) showing the May Eve and May Day Festivals at Padstow, Cornwall. George visited the UK again in 1960. In 1961 Lomax and Pickow directed Ballads, Blues, Bluegrass. Pickow, who had been in declining health for a long time, died December 10, 2010, two days after Ritchie's 88th birthday.[2]

The dulcimer revival[edit]

Ritchie sang unaccompanied folk songs mostly, but occasionally accompanied herself on guitar or lap dulcimer (not a hammer dulcimer). Her father played dulcimer but forbade his children to touch it. At the age of 4 or 5 Jean defied her father to pick out "Go Tell Aunt Rhody". By 1949 it distinguished her from other musicians. She and her husband George Pickow became convinced there was a potential boom. George's uncle, Morris Pickow, set up a workshop under the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn. George did the finishing and Jean did the tuning. Soon they had sold 300 dulcimers. Today most folk festivals have several people selling dulcimers. 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). Her fans would ask her "Which album has the most dulcimer?". She finally gave in, recording an album called The Most Dulcimer in 1992.[citation needed]

The Fulbright expedition[edit]

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.[3] 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.[citation needed]

"The Mother of Folk"[edit]

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 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.)[4]

"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.[citation needed]

In 1996 the Ritchie Pickow Photographic Archive was acquired by the James Hardiman Library, National University of Ireland, Galway.[citation needed]

Jean Ritchie performed at such venues as Carnegie Hall and at the Royal Albert Hall.[citation needed] Her album, None But One, was awarded the Rolling Stone Critics Award in 1977. In 2002, Ritchie received a National Endowment For The Arts National Heritage Fellowship, the Nation's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.[citation needed]

In early December 2009, Ritchie was hospitalized after suffering a stroke which impaired her ability to communicate.[5] On June 8, 2010, Ritchie's son Jon reported: "Great news! Mom is coming home tomorrow. She has surpassed all expectations and is talking, laughing and in general being herself."[6]

For many years, Ritchie lived in Port Washington, New York. In 2008, she was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame.[7] She currently lives in Berea, Kentucky. [8]


  • Traditional Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family (1952)
  • Kentucky Mountains Songs (1954)
  • Field Trip (1954)
  • Courting Songs (1954)
  • Shivaree (1955)
  • The Singing Family of the Cumberlands (1955)
  • Children's Songs & Games from the Southern Mountains (1956)
  • Songs from Kentucky (1956)
  • American Folk Tales and Songs (1956)
  • Saturday Night and Sunday Too (1956)
  • The Ritchie Family of Kentucky (1958)
  • Riddle Me This (1959) (with Oscar Brand)
  • Carols for All Seasons (1959)
  • British Traditional Ballads, Vol 1 (1961)
  • British Traditional Ballads, Vol 2 (1961)
  • Ballads (2003; vol 1 and 2 above, issued on a single CD)
  • Ballads from Her Appalachian Family Tradition (1961)
  • Precious Memories (1962)
  • The Appalachian Dulcimer: An Instructional Record (1963)
  • Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson Live at Folk City (1963)
  • Time For Singing (1966)
  • Marching Across the Green Grass & Other American Children's Game Songs (1968)
  • Clear Waters Remembered (1974)
  • Jean Ritchie At Home (1974)
  • None But One (1977)
  • Christmas Revels. Wassail! Wassail! (1982)
  • O Love Is Teasin' (1985)
  • Kentucky Christmas, Old and New (1987)
  • The Most Dulcimer (1992)
  • Mountain Born (1995)
  • High Hills and Mountains (1996)
  • Childhood Songs (1997)
  • Legends of Old time Music (2002, DVD)


  • Ritchie, Jean (1955). Singing family of the Cumberlands. Illustrated by Maurice Sendak. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-8131-0186-6. LCCN 55005554. 
  • Ritchie, Jean (1963). The dulcimer book; being a book about the three-stringed Appalachian dulcimer, including some ways of tuning and playing; some recollections in its local history in Perry and Knott Counties, Kentucky. New York: Oak Music. LCCN 63020754. 
  • Ritchie, Jean (1965). Apple seeds and soda straws. illustrated by Don Bolognese. New York: H.Z. Walck. LCCN 65013223. 
  • Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians ISBN 978-0-8131-0927-5
  • Jean Ritchie's Swapping Song Book ISBN 978-0-8131-0973-2
  • Jean Ritchie's Dulcimer People (1975)
  • Ritchie, Jean, ed. (1953). A garland of mountain song; songs from the repertoire of the Ritchie family of Viper, Kentucky (New ed.). New York: Broadcast Music. LCCN m53001732. 


  1. ^ Biography of Jean Ritchie,; accessed January 9, 2014.
  2. ^ Death of George Pickow,
  3. ^ "Field Trip: Festival-Anthology recordings". Retrieved 2013-03-06. 
  4. ^ Sally Rogers, "Sowing Seeds of Love for Traditional Music: An interview with Jean Ritchie", Pass It On! The Journal of the Children's Music Network, Winter 2003; retrieved January 10, 2010.
  5. ^ Report of Ritchie's hospitalization,; December 22, 2009; accessed January 9, 2014.
  6. ^ Jean Ritchie recovers,
  8. ^ [1]

External links[edit]

  1. 159: She sang and played her dulcimer as sole guest in 2000; 84 minutes.
  2. 450: Was as one of 3 guests in "Celebration of the Mountain Dulcimer" July 7, 2007; 94 minutes.