Jean Ritchie after a performance on April 26, 2008.
December 8, 1922 |
Viper, Kentucky, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||George Pickow (1950-2010; his death); 2 children|
Out of Kentucky
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 a 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 forbears had fought in the Revolutionary War in 1776 before settling in Kentucky, and most of them later fought on the Union Side in the Civil War. 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 NcDaniels, 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 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).
Marriage to George Pickow
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 Elliot, 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 also Bob Dylan, who can be seen clog dancing in the film's opening moments. Pickow, who had been in declining health for a long time, died December 10, 2010, two days after Ritchie's 88th birthday.
The dulcimer revival
Ritchie preferred to sing without instrumental accompaniment, but occasionally she also accompanied herself on autoharp, guitar and handmade plucked lap or mountain dulcimer (not a hammer dulcimer), an intimate indoor instrument with an soft, ethereal sound. Her father had played this instrument 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 this distinctive instrument 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?", Jean finally recorded an album called The Most Dulcimer in 1992.
The Fulbright expedition
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.
"The Mother of Folk"
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. In 2002, Ritchie received a National Endowment For The Arts National Heritage Fellowship, the Nation's 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. 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."
- 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.
- Alan Lomax, foreword to Jean Ritchie, Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians as Sung by Jean Ritchie, forewords by Alan Lomax and Ron Pen (University of Kentucky Press, 2nd edition, 1997). p. 1. The book by Combs, who was a specialist in the dulcimer, was translated into English as a monograph by D. K. Wilgus in 1967 as Folk-Songs of the Southern United States (Folk-Songs Du Midi Des Etats-Unis), Publications of the American Folklore Society, Bibliographical and Special Series, Vol. 19 (University of Texas).
- Charles Wolfe and Jean Ritchie, foreword to new edition of Jean Ritchie, Jean Ritchie's Swapping Song Book with photographs by George Pickow (University of Kentucky Press,  2000), p. 1.
- Lomax, foreword to Jean Ritchie, Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians, p. 1.
- Biography of Jean Ritchie, music.yahoo.com; accessed January 9, 2014.
- Association of Cultural Equity: Research Center: Song Collection Guide.
- Margalit Fox, "George Pickow, Artist Who Chronicled Musical Life, Is Dead at 88", New York Times, December 18, 2010.
- Mark S. Tucker, "Ballads, Blues, & Bluegrass - A Film by Alan Lomax (DVD)" for FAME (website of Peterborough Folk Music Society, Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange ), 2012.
- Death of George Pickow, mudcat.org
- "Field Trip: Festival-Anthology recordings". Retrieved 2013-03-06.
- 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.
- Report of Ritchie's hospitalization, thesunchronicle.com; December 22, 2009; accessed January 9, 2014.
- Jean Ritchie recovers, mudcat.org
- LONG ISLAND MUSIC HALL OF FAME SECOND INDUCTION AWARD GALA Retrieved November 6, 2010.
- "Jean Ritchie update Sept 2011". mudcat.org. Retrieved 2014-06-13.
- Live 1976 recording of Ritchie performing "Nottamun Town" from the Florida Folklife Collection (made available for public use by the State Archives of Florida)
- Videos on Woodsongs Archive
- 159: She sang and played her dulcimer as sole guest in 2000; 84 minutes.
- 450: Was as one of 3 guests in "Celebration of the Mountain Dulcimer" July 7, 2007; 94 minutes.