Jean Ritchie served as inspiration for Bob Dylan, Shirley Collins and Joni Mitchell

The acclaimed folk singer and dulcimer player influenced some of the biggest performers of all time

Ken Hunt
Thursday 04 June 2015 18:59 BST
Ritchie in 1950 playing her mountain dulcimer
Ritchie in 1950 playing her mountain dulcimer

Jean Ritchie was one of the supreme giants of North American folk music. She was a lodestone for performers, her influence working on many levels. If you were Shirley Collins or Joni Mitchell or Wendy Waldman, it was impossible not to respond to her dulcimer playing.

If you were Bob Dylan and heard her “Nottamun Town”, why wouldn’t you set “Masters of War” to such a gem of a tune? If you heard her song “Black Waters”, condemning strip mining, and you were Johnny Cash or Emmylou Harris, of course you would cover it.

In 1965 the era’s pre-eminent scholar of recorded folk music, Ray M Lawless, crowned her in print as “Queen of the Cumberland Mountain Singers” in his book Folksingers and Folksongs in America. Unlike the collegiate, middle-class kids who picked up guitars and trends in the 1960s and the many folk acts that waxed and waned, the Singing Ritchies of the Cumberlands were musicians and singers steeped in traditional music and regional folkways.

Her family autobiography opens, “I was born in Viper, Kentucky, in the Cumberland Mountains, on the eighth day of December 1922. I think I was a little of a surprise to my mother who had thought that if a woman had a baby in her fortieth year it would be her last. Mom had my brother Wilmer when she was forty, and she settled back to raise her thirteen young uns without any more interference. Then when she was forty-four, I came along.”

Her parents were Abigail (née Hall) and Balis Ritchie. She was the littlest of 14 – 10 of them girls. She told her family’s tale in her Singing Family of the Cumberlands. Illustrated by Maurice Sendak and first published by Oxford University Press in 1955, it has gone through several imprints. She traces her branch of the Ritchie bloodline back to James Ritchie, who had arrived in the Colonies in 1768. Down the centuries the family assembled a sizeable repository of cherishable songs, ballads, dance tunes and tales.

The family had credentials. The eldest child, May, had sung and demonstrated square dancing for the English musicologist, Cecil Sharp, and Maud Karpeles on their Appalachian journeys in search of folk song in 1916 and ’17; sister Una, fourth in age order, had sung ballads for him. Yet the family was modest about their cultural richesse. It was only on Ritchie’s move to New York City that the penny truly dropped.

Following graduation from Cumberland College, a junior college in Williamsburg, in 1943, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Kentucky in social work in 1946. After teaching in Perry County she took up a post at the Henry Street Settlement – a progressive social services agency based in Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighbourhood – from 1947 and 1949.

Singing her range of work and frolic songs, lullabies, ballads and Old Regular Baptist hymns, and playing her mountain dulcimer – a stretched hourglass-shaped, three- or four-stringed folk instrument – brought her to wider attention. In his foreword to A Garland of Mountain Song (1953), the American folklorist and musician Alan Lomax avowed, “Jean’s quiet, serene, objective voice, the truth of her pitch, the perfection and restraint of her directions (the shakes and quavers that fall upon the melody to suit it to the poetry) all denote a superb mountain singer.”

In New York she met the photographer and designer George Pickow (Independent obituary, 9 March 2011) and the pair married in September 1950, settling in Greenwich Village. They became part of the local folk scene and inevitably ran into the founder of a fledging record label. Writing about her for the CD reissue Mountain Hearth & Home (2004), Jac Holzman recalled, “I very much wanted Jean to be our first folk release in [the] planned change of direction for my infant Elektra label. She was new, vital, and came from a rich singing tradition about which I had read but never experienced on record.”

The recipient of a Fulbright scholarship, between September 1952 and August 1953 she researched the origins of the Ritchie songs in Scotland, Ireland and England, with her husband handling the visual-record duties. The resultant Field Trip (1954, reissued 2001) used regional variants as an artistic unity; for example, the Irish musician Séamus Ennis sang “Bog Down In The Valley-O” while she sang “Tree In The Valley-O”.

Beginning with Elektra’s Jean Ritchie Singing the Traditional Songs of her Kentucky Mountain Family (1952), she recorded extensively. She also experimented. Carols Of All Seasons (1959) had Robert Abramson’s harpsichord and LaNoue Davenport’s recorder, a distant cousin of Dolly Collins’ complex early music arrangements for her and Shirley Collins’ Anthems in Eden (1968). None But One (1977) took a folk-rock path. As to “Masters of War”, while acknowledging the arrangement as the Ritchie family’s, Dylan’s lawyers wriggled out of a half-share of the song, instead negotiating a buy-out for $5,000.

Jean Ritchie, folk singer and instrumentalist, songwriter and folklorist: born Viper, Perry County, Kentucky 8 December 1922; married 1950 George Pickow (two sons); died Berea, Madison County, Kentucky 1 June 2015.

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