Ken­tucky-born folksinger, dul­cimer player Jean Ritchie passes away at home aged 92

The China Post - - ARTS - BY LUQ­MAN ADENIYI

Jean Ritchie, the Ken­tucky-born folksinger who brought the cen­turies-old bal­lads she grew up with to a wide au­di­ence from the 1950s on­ward, died Mon­day evening. She was 92. Ritchie died in her home in Berea, Ken­tucky, with fam­ily around her, her niece Judy Hud­son said.

The tall, red-haired Ritchie, who grew up in Ken­tucky’s Cum­ber­land moun­tains, sang bal­lads with a clear so­prano voice. She ac­com­pa­nied her­self on the gui­tar, au­to­harp or the moun­tain dul­cimer, a string in­stru­ment played while placed on the per­former’s lap that Ritchie helped res­cue from ob­scu­rity.

Among the hun­dreds of songs she per­formed were “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” “Old Vir­ginny,” “One Morn­ing in May” and “Aunt Sal’s Song.”

Hud­son said Ritchie suf­fered a stroke sev­eral years ago and moved back to Ken­tucky from the East Coast.

As part of the folk mu­sic boom of the 1950s and ’60s, she was a con­tem­po­rary of such gi­ants as Pete Seeger, Odetta and Doc Wat­son. She in­flu­enced a gen­er­a­tion of younger singers such as Judy Collins and Em­my­lou Har­ris.

Johnny Cash recorded her “The L. & N. Don’t Stop Here Any­more” and Har­ris per­formed “Sweet Sor­row in the Wind.” In a 1978 Rolling Stone in­ter­view, Bob Dy­lan cited her as one of the folksingers he lis­tened to, along with Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy and Lead­belly.

Last fall, Ritchie ap­peared on her last CD, “Dear Jean: Artists Cel­e­brate Jean Ritchie,” a two CD trib­ute that fea­tured an old record­ing of Ritchie’s and an­other track that in­cluded a record­ing of her lead­ing an au­di­ence be­fore her stroke.

Her own com­po­si­tion “Black Wa­ters” took aim at what strip min­ing had done to her na­tive re­gion, a rel­a­tively rare foray into top­i­cal songs. Her 1977 al­bum “None But One” re­ceived a Rolling Stone Crit­ics Award.

She com­bined her au­then­tic moun­tain mu­si­cal back­ground with a schol­arly touch, even trav­el­ing over­seas on a Ful­bright schol­ar­ship in the early 1950s to trace the roots of her tra­di­tional mu­sic.

Her books in­cluded “The Swap­ping Song Book,” a 1952 col­lec­tion of songs she sang as a child in Ken­tucky, ac­com­pa­nied by notes on life and cus­toms in the Cum­ber­land Moun­tains and pho­tos by her hus­band, pho­tog­ra­pher Ge­orge Pickow.

Along with Seeger, Odetta, Joan Baez and Earl Scruggs, she was one of the singers at the first New­port Folk Fes­ti­val in 1959. As the Times wrote ear­lier that year, “there is no dis­put­ing that Jean Ritchie is one of the finest au­then­tic tradi- tional folk singers we have in the United States to­day.”

She was born in 1922, the youngest of 14 chil­dren in the south­ern Ap­palachian com­mu­nity of Viper, Ky. In a 2008 As­so­ci­ated Press in­ter­view, Ritchie said singing to­gether was a daily part of life for the fam­ily.

When the melodies reached the ears of rel­a­tives across the hol­low, Ritchie they would hurry over and join in “al­most ev­ery night,” she said.

She moved to New York to be­come a so­cial worker af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the Uni­ver­sity of Ken­tucky in 1946. Her first solo record­ing was the 1952 “Jean Ritchie Sings Tra­di­tional Songs of Her Ken­tucky Moun­tain Fam­ily.”

Her 1955 book, “They Sang the Moon Up: Singing Fam­ily of the Cum­ber­lands,” traced her fam­ily’s roots from the time James Ritchie came from Eng­land in 1768, fought in the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War and mi­grated west to Ken­tucky. It was il­lus­trated by Mau­rice Sen­dak and in­cluded 42 of the songs her fam­ily mem­bers liked to sing.

At the time of the 2008 in­ter­view, Ritchie’s ex­ten­sive ar­chive of let­ters, song lyrics, tape record­ings and other me­mora­bilia was be­ing pre­pared for in­clu­sion in the Li­brary of Congress’ Amer­i­can Folk Life Cen­ter.


This photo taken by An­nie Lei­bovitz ex­clu­sively for Van­ity Fair shows the cover of the mag­a­zine’s July 2015 is­sue fea­tur­ing Bruce Jen­ner de­but­ing as a trans­gen­der woman named Cait­lyn Jen­ner.

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