Jean Ritchie

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Jean Ritchie
Ritchie after a performance on April 26, 2008
Jean Ruth Ritchie

(1922-12-08)December 8, 1922
DiedJune 1, 2015(2015-06-01) (aged 92)
OccupationFolk musician
Folkways, Elektra, Sire, Greenhays, Flying Fish, Riverside, Tradition, Argo, Collector, June Appal Recordings, Pacific Cascade Records, Warner Brothers

Jean Ruth Ritchie (December 8, 1922 – June 1, 2015) was an American folk singer, songwriter, and Appalachian dulcimer player,[1] called by some the "Mother of Folk".[2] In her youth she learned hundreds of folk songs in the traditional way (orally, from her family and community), many of which were Appalachian variants of centuries old British and Irish songs, including dozens of Child Ballads.[3][4] In adulthood, she shared these songs with wide audiences,[5] as well as writing some of her own songs using traditional foundations.[4] She is ultimately responsible for the revival of the Appalachian dulcimer, the traditional instrument of her community, which she popularized by playing the instrument on her albums and writing tutorial books.[4] She also spent time collecting folk music in the United States and in Britain and Ireland,[6][7] in order to research the origins of her family songs and help preserve traditional music.[4] She inspired a wide array of musicians, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Shirley Collins, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris and Judy Collins.[5][8][9]

Out of Kentucky[edit]

Jean Ritchie was born to Abigail (née Hall) Ritchie (1877-1972) and Balis Wilmar Ritchie (1869-1958) of Viper, an unincorporated community in Perry County in the Cumberland Mountains of south eastern Kentucky.[1] 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 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.)[10]

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. The Ritchie family had a repertoire of over 300 traditional songs.[6] Jean's father Balis had printed up a book of old songs entitled Lovers' Melodies,[11] and music making was an important activity in the Ritchie home. In 1917, the folk music collector Cecil Sharp collected songs from Jean's older sisters May (1896-1982) and Una (1900–1989),[12][13][14] whilst her sister Edna (1910-1997) also learnt the old ballads, much later releasing her own album of traditional songs with dulcimer accompaniment.[15] Most of the Ritchie siblings seemed dedicated to performing and preserving traditional music.[16]

Ritchie's forebears had fought in the Revolutionary War in 1776 before settling in Kentucky, and most of them later fought on the Confederate Side in the Civil War. Her grandfather Justice Austin Ritchie was 2nd Lieutenant of Company C of the 13th Kentucky Confederate Cavalry. 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.[17]

As the youngest of 14 siblings,[1] Ritchie 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 McDaniels, performed at local dances and at county fairs, where they repeatedly won blue ribbons in Hazard, the county seat. She recalled 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 from high school in Viper and enrolled in Cumberland Junior College (now a four-year University of the Cumberlands) in Williamsburg, Kentucky, and from there graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in social work from the University of Kentucky, in Lexington in 1946.[1] At college she participated in the glee club and choir and learned to play piano.[18] Ritchie was recorded performing traditional songs with her sisters Edna, Kitty and Pauline by Emily Elizabeth Barnacle[19][20] and by Artus Moser[21] in 1946 whilst still in Kentucky. 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.[20] In 1949 and 1950, she recorded several hours of songs, stories, and oral history for Lomax in New York City.[22] 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).

George Pickow: marriage and collaborations[edit]

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, had a long career as a professional photographer and filmmaker. 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."[23] They married in 1950 and had two sons, Peter and Jon.

In 1952, Pickow accompanied his wife on a Fulbright Scholarship to collect folk songs 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 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" [24] of performances by Clarence Ashley, Guy Carawan, Willie Dixon, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, 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 Bob Dylan. Despite apocryphal tales, John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers affirms that Bob Dylan is not the male clog dancer at the beginning of the film.[25] Pickow, who had been in declining health for a long time, died December 10, 2010, two days after Ritchie's 88th birthday.[26]

The dulcimer revival[edit]

Ritchie is credited with bringing national and international attention to the Appalachian dulcimer as the main initiator of the "dulcimer revival",[6] although she preferred to sing unaccompanied, only occasionally accompanying herself on autoharp, guitar or a handmade plucked Appalachian dulcimer. Distinct from the hammer dulcimer, the Appalachian dulcimer (or "mountain dulcimer") is an intimate indoor instrument with a soft, ethereal sound, probably first played by Appalachian Scotch-Irish immigrants in the early nineteenth century.

Her father had played the Appalachian dulcimer but forbade his children to touch it, but aged four or five, Ritchie defied this prohibition and picked out "Go Tell Aunt Rhody". By 1949, her dulcimer playing had become a hallmark of her style. After her husband made her one as a present, the couple decided there might be a potential market for them, and 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?", she finally recorded an album called The Most Dulcimer in 1992.[27]

The Fulbright expedition[edit]

In 1952, Jean Ritchie was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to trace the links between American ballads and the songs from Britain and Ireland.[28] 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,[28] including Jeannie Robertson and Elizabeth Cronin.[4] Pickow accompanied her, photographing Seamus Ennis, Leo Rowsome, Sarah Makem and other musicians. In 1954 Ritchie and George Pickow released some of their British and Irish recordings on the album Field Trip, side by side with Ritchie family versions of the same songs.[4]

"The Mother of Folk"[edit]

Ritchie became known as "The Mother of Folk".[2] 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",[29] 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.)[30]

In 1955 Ritchie wrote a book about her family called Singing Family of the Cumberlands.[31]

Ritchie sang at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959.[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 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]

For many years, Ritchie lived in Port Washington, New York. In 2008, she was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame.[32]

Declining health and death[edit]

In early December 2009, Ritchie was hospitalized after suffering a stroke which impaired her ability to communicate.[33] She recovered to some degree[34] and lived quietly at her home in Berea, Kentucky; a friend reported on her 90th birthday, "Jean has been living quietly in Berea for the last few years, in good spirits and well cared for by neighbors and family."[35] She died at home on June 1, 2015, aged 92.[36][37]


  • Singing the Traditional Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family (1952)
  • Appalachian Folk Songs: Black-eyed Susie, Goin' to Boston, Lovin' Hanna (195-)
  • Kentucky Mountains Songs (1954)
  • Field Trip (1954)
  • Courting Songs (1954) (with Oscar Brand)
  • Shivaree (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)
  • Singing Family of the Cumberlands (1957)
  • The Ritchie Family of Kentucky (1958)
  • Riddle Me This (1959) (with Oscar Brand)
  • Carols for All Seasons (1959)
  • British Traditional Ballads in the Southern Mountains, Vol. 1 Folkways (1961) (Child ballads)
  • British Traditional Ballads in the Southern Mountains, Vol. 2 Folkways FA 2302 (1961) (Child ballads) [38]
  • 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) Geordie 101 [38]
  • Jean Ritchie At Home (1974) Pacific Cascade Records LPL 7026 [38]
  • None But One (1977)
  • Christmas Revels. Wassail! Wassail! (1982)
  • Sweet Rivers June Appal JA 037 (-?-) (hymns) [38]
  • O Love Is Teasin' (1985)
  • Kentucky Christmas, Old and New (1987)
  • Childhood Songs (1991)
  • The Most Dulcimer (1992)
  • Mountain Born (1995)
  • High Hills and Mountains (1996)
  • 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.
  • Ritchie, Jean (1965/1997) Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians ISBN 978-0-8131-0927-5. The original 1965 edition was issued by Oak Publications, the 1997 expanded version by University Press of Kentucky. The task of transcribing Ritchie's sung music into musical notation was carried out (1965) by Melinda Zacuto and Jerry Silverman.
  • 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.
  • Ritchie, Jean (1971). Celebration of Life: her songs; her poems. Port Washington: Geordie Music Publishing. ISBN 0-8256-9676-3.

Awards and honors[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Colin Larkin, ed. (2002). The Virgin Encyclopedia of Fifties Music (Third ed.). Virgin Books. pp. 359/60. ISBN 1-85227-937-0.
  2. ^ a b amNY. "Jean Ritchie, 92, the Village's 'Mother of Folk'". amNewYork. Retrieved November 10, 2020.
  3. ^ "Jean Ritchie: Ballads from her Appalachian Family Tradition". Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Retrieved November 10, 2020.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g "Jean Ritchie obituary". The Guardian. June 3, 2015. Retrieved November 10, 2020.
  5. ^ a b "Jean Ritchie Obituary (1922 - 2015) - The Columbian". Retrieved November 23, 2020.
  6. ^ a b c "Mountain Born: The Jean Ritchie Story". KET Education. Retrieved November 10, 2020.
  7. ^ "Jean Ritchie Folk Music of Ireland and Scotland Recordings | Berea College Special Collections and Archives Catalog". Retrieved November 10, 2020.
  8. ^ amNY. "Jean Ritchie, 92, the Village's 'Mother of Folk'". amNewYork. Retrieved November 23, 2020.
  9. ^ "Jean Ritchie served as inspiration for Bob Dylan, Shirley Collins and". The Independent. June 4, 2015. Retrieved November 23, 2020.
  10. ^ 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).
  11. ^ 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, [1952] 2000), p. 1.
  12. ^ "Notamun Town (Cecil Sharp Manuscript Collection (at Clare College, Cambridge) CJS2/10/4073)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved October 23, 2020.
  13. ^ "Good Old Man (Cecil Sharp Manuscript Collection (at Clare College, Cambridge) CJS2/10/4075)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved October 23, 2020.
  14. ^ "Jack Went A-Sailing (Cecil Sharp Manuscript Collection (at Clare College, Cambridge) CJS2/10/3944)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved October 23, 2020.
  15. ^ "Edna Ritchie". Discogs. Retrieved October 23, 2020.
  17. ^ Lomax, foreword to Jean Ritchie, Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians, p. 1.
  18. ^ Biography of Jean Ritchie,; accessed January 9, 2014.
  19. ^ "Cherry Tree (Roud Folksong Index S273256)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved October 2, 2020.
  20. ^ a b Winick, Stephen. "Jean Ritchie, 1922-2015 | Folklife Today". Retrieved November 1, 2015.
  21. ^ "The Two Sisters (Roud Folksong Index S224465)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved October 2, 2020.
  22. ^ "Alan Lomax Archive". Retrieved October 27, 2019.
  23. ^ Fox, Margalit (December 18, 2010). "George Pickow, Artist Who Chronicled Musical Life, Is Dead at 88". The New York Times.
  24. ^ "FAME Review: Ballads, Blues, & Bluegrass - A Film by Alan Lomax (DVD)". Retrieved October 27, 2019.
  25. ^ "Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass (#2)". July 1, 2013.
  26. ^ Spiegel, Max. "Obit: RIP George Pickow (10 Dec 2010, age 88)". Retrieved October 27, 2019.
  27. ^ Library of Congress. "The most dulcimer [sound recording]". Library of Congress. Retrieved October 16, 2016.
  28. ^ a b "Field Trip: Festival-Anthology recordings". Archived from the original on December 30, 2013. Retrieved March 6, 2013.
  29. ^ "Lyr Req: Black Waters (Jean Ritchie)". April 24, 2009. Retrieved November 1, 2015.
  30. ^ 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.
  31. ^ Library of Congress. "Singing family of the Cumberlands. Illustrated by Maurice Sendak". Library of Congress LCCN Permalink for 550005554. Retrieved October 16, 2016.
  32. ^ LONG ISLAND MUSIC HALL OF FAME SECOND INDUCTION AWARD GALA Archived November 30, 2010, at the Wayback Machine Retrieved November 6, 2010.
  33. ^ Report of Ritchie's hospitalization,; December 22, 2009; accessed January 9, 2014.
  34. ^ 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."; Jean Ritchie recovers,
  35. ^ Spiegel, Max. "Jean Ritchie Turns 90". Retrieved October 27, 2019.
  36. ^ Fox, Margalit (June 2, 2015). "Jean Ritchie, Lyrical Voice of Appalachia, Dies at 92". The New York Times. Retrieved June 5, 2015.
  37. ^ Adeniyi, Luqman (June 2, 2015). "Folk Music Singer, Scholar Jean Ritchie Dies at 92". Associated Press. Archived from the original on June 3, 2015. Retrieved June 5, 2015.
  38. ^ a b c d Lifton, Sarah (1983) The Listener's Guide to Folk Music. Poole: Blandford Press; pp. 96-97
  39. ^ "NEA National Heritage Fellowships 2002". National Endowment for the Arts. Archived from the original on May 21, 2020. Retrieved January 1, 2021.

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