In­flu­en­tial folk singer dies

JEAN RITCHIE, 1922 - 2015

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Steve Chawkins steve.chawkins@la­times.com

Jean Ritchie, one of Ap­palachia’s most com­pelling voices, was 92.

When Jean Ritchie was grow­ing up in ru­ral Ken­tucky, warm evenings had a char­ac­ter all their own.

Af­ter a day’s work in the corn­field, the kids — Jean was the youngest of 14 — would gather on the fam­ily porch. Her mom, Abigail, would sway back and forth in the swing, and her dad, Balis, would start play­ing his moun­tain dul­cimer, and, af­ter awhile, the whole fam­ily would sing. As the evening deep­ened, they and their neigh­bors would, as they said, sing the moon up.

Jean Ritchie kept on singing. She sang songs about court­ing and kings — bal­lads from the 1700s, when her fore­bears came from Scot­land and Ire­land. She sang well-loved lul­la­bies and nearly forgotten chil­dren’s rhymes. She sang her own protest songs about coal min­ers dy­ing of black lung dis­ease and min­ing com­pa­nies lop­ping off moun­tain­tops.

The girl from Viper, a ham­let in a hol­low with just 15 or 20 houses, be­came one of Ap­palachia’s most com­pelling voices and a pow­er­ful inf lu­ence in Amer­i­can folk mu­sic, re­leas­ing more than 30 al­bums and per­form­ing glob­ally.

Ritchie, who is cred­ited with sav­ing songs that would have oth­er­wise died and turn­ing the once-ob­scure dul­cimer into a folk mu­sic sta­ple, died Mon­day at her home in Berea, Ky. She was 92.

“No one was more im­por­tant to the sur­vival, ap­pre­ci­a­tion, and re­vival of tra­di­tional Ap­palachian folk mu­sic in the 20th and 21st cen­turies,” said the Amer­i­can Folk­lore Cen­ter of the Li­brary of Congress, spread­ing word of her death on Face­book.

In an in­ter­view with The Times, Dean Os­borne, direc­tor of the Ken- tucky School of Blue­grass and Tra­di­tional Mu­sic, likened Ritchie’s in­flu­ence on Ap­palachian mu­sic to that of Bill Ha­ley and Chuck Berry on rock ’n’ roll.

“She was one of the first to have an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence,” said Os­borne, whose mu­sic pro­gram is part of Haz­ard Com­mu­nity and Tech­ni­cal Col­lege. “And once you heard her voice, you’d never for­get it. It was pure and clear, a high-- lone­some sound to­tally unadul­ter­ated and haunt­ing.”

Ritchie was more wryly off­hand about her tal­ents.

“I was asked to at­tend some par­ties and bring my dul­cimer,” she told the As­so­ci­ated Press in 2008. “That’s how my so-called ca­reer got started.”

Of course, there was a lit­tle more to it.

A Phi Beta Kappa grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­sity of Ken­tucky, Ritchie tried teach­ing in her home state be­fore mov­ing to New York City for a job at the Lower East Side’s Henry Street Set­tle­ment.

Us­ing her mu­sic to calm un­ruly chil­dren, she en­chanted a vis­i­tor who asked her to play at an NYU alumni group’s af­ter­noon tea. In a short while, Ritchie was per­form­ing all over town.

In Green­wich Vil­lage cof­fee­houses, Ritchie shared the stage with Pete Seeger and Bob Dy­lan. Play­ing at a hand­i­craft shop in Rock­e­feller Cen­ter, she im­pressed mae­stro and mu­sic ex­ec­u­tive Mitch Miller, who recorded her chil­dren’s songs.

One af­ter­noon in the late 1940s, she stunned folk­lorist Alan Lo­max when she knocked on his of­fice door.

“This young lady came in — this beau­ti­ful, golden-haired woman from the moun­tains with a gor­geous voice,” he once re­counted to the Louisville Courier-Jour­nal.

“She said her friends had told her she should sing for me, and she won­dered if she could do so. She hadn’t gone very far when sud­denly the tears came to my eyes and I was cry­ing at the beauty.”

Her songs in­clude “Black Wa­ters,” “Blue Di­a­mond Mines” and “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Any More.” She once told an in­ter­viewer that her ren­di­tion of “Amaz­ing Grace” at the New­port Folk Fes­ti­val soothed a crowd an­gry with Arlo Guthrie for re­fus­ing to reprise “Alice’s Restau­rant.”

“It’s truly a pow­er­ful song,” she said.

Born Dec. 8, 1922, Ritchie grew up in a fam­ily lo­cally renowned for its mu­sic. Five years be­fore Jean was born, the Ritchies hosted Ce­cil Sharp, a Bri­tish folk mu­sic ex­pert who was trac­ing the path that old songs had taken in Amer­ica.

In her 1955 book, “Singing Fam­ily of the Cum­ber­lands,” Ritchie wrote nos­tal­gi­cally about pick­ing out “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” on her fa­ther’s dul­cimer when she was 4 or 5. She wrote about the old porch swing, and “the way it creaked in time to the mu­sic — fast lit­tle squawks with the quick tunes, melan­choly moans with the slow, sad ones. What a safe, warm world it was for me then. ....”

She mar­ried pho­tog­ra­pher Ge­orge Pickow in 1950, and to­gether the two built dulcimers at a small shop in Brook­lyn. They trav­eled to Eng­land when she won a Ful­bright fel­low­ship in 1952, and around the world dur­ing her per­form­ing ca­reer.

Ritchie, Pickow and their two sons spent most of their time in Port Wash­ing­ton, N.Y., but made a point of re­turn­ing to Ken­tucky at least sev­eral months ev­ery year. He died in 2010.

Ritchie is sur­vived by their sons, Jon and Peter, and her brother Wilmer. Her other sib­lings — Mae, Ollie, Mal­lie, Una, Ray­mond, Kitty, Tru­man, Patty, Edna, Jewel, Opal and Pauline — pre­de­ceased her.

Ritchie, who had a stroke in 2009, lived full time in Ken­tucky in her later years and per­formed on oc­ca­sion well into her 80s.

She saw cer­tain ad­van­tages in aging. “Peo­ple re­tire at the age of 65, but I don’t think folk singers do,” she told the New York Times in 1998. “Your voice cracks a lit­tle, and peo­ple say, ‘Oh, she’s very au­then­tic.’ ”

A COM­PELLING VOICE

Ken­tucky-born folk singer Jean Ritchie brought the centu-ries-old bal­lads she grew up with to a wide au­di­ence.

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