Jean Ritchie

Jean Ritchie

Infobox musical artist
Name = Jean Ritchie

Img_capt = Jean Ritchie after a performance on April 26, 2008.
Background = solo_singer
Birth_name =
Born = Birth date and age|1922|12|8|mf=y. Perry County, Kentucky.
Died =
Origin =
Instrument = Appalachian dulcimer, Vocals
Genre = Folk
Occupation = Singer-songwriter
Years_active = 1948 - Present
Label = Folkways, Elektra, Sire, Greenhays, Flying Fish, Riverside, Tradition

Jean Ritchie (born December 8, 1922) is an American folk singer, songwriter, and Appalachian dulcimer player.

Out of Kentucky

Abigail and Balis Ritchie of Viper, Perry County, Kentucky had 14 children, and Jean was the youngest. Ten girls slept in one room of the farming family's house in the Cumberland Mountains.

Jean Ritchie quickly memorized songs and performed at local dances and the country fair in Hazard. In the late forties the family acquired a radio and discovered that what they were singing was hillbilly music, a word they had never heard before. In the mid-thirties Alan Lomax recorded in Kentucky for the Library of Congress's Archive of Folk Song. Among the people he recorded were The Singing Ritchies.

Ritchie attended Cumberland College in Williamsburg, Kentucky and later the University of Kentucky in Lexington. At college she joined the glee club and choir and learned to play piano. In 1946 she graduated with a BA in social work. During the war, she taught in elementary school.

In the summer of 1946, she moved to work in the Henry Street Settlement in New York. There she met Oscar Brand, Leadbelly, and Pete Seeger and started singing her family songs again. In 1948 she shared the stage with The Weavers, Woody Guthrie and Betty Sanders at the Spring Fever Hootenanny. Oscar Brand's Folksong Festival on WNYC radio adopted her as a regular by October 1949.

The dulcimer revival

Ritchie sang unaccompanied folk songs mostly, but occasionally accompanied herself on guitar or lap dulcimer (not a hammer dulcimer). Balis Ritchie played dulcimer but forbade his children to touch it. At the age of 4 or 5 Jean Ritchie defied the ruling to pick out "Go Tell Aunt Rhody". By 1949 it was an instrument that distinguished Ritchie from all other singers. Ritchie and her husband George Pickow became convinced there was a potential boom. Pickow's uncle, Morris Pickow, set up a workshop under the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn.

George Pickow

George Pickow did the finishing and Jean did the tuning. Soon they had sold 300 dulcimers. Today most folk festivals have several people selling dulcimers. Elektra records signed her up and released three albums: "Jean Ritchie Sings" (1952), "Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family" (1957) and "A Time for Singing" (1962). She had a charming voice rather than a powerful or dramatic one, but it was authentic. Her fans would ask her "Which album has the most dulcimer?" She finally gave in, recording an album called "The Most Dulcimer" in 1992.

In the early 1940s George Pickow was at Camp Unity in New York. There he heard Cisco Houston and Woody Guthrie jamming every night in a tiny cabin. He took up a career as a photographer, but still went to square dances. He met Ritchie and put her on the front cover of a trucker's magazine. They married in 1950. In 1953 Alan Lomax, George Pickow, and Peter Kennedy directed a film "Oss Oss Wee Oss" (Colour, 16 minutes) showing the May Eve and May Day Festivals at Padstow, Cornwall. George visited the UK again in 1960. In 1961 Alan Lomax and George Pickow directed "Ballads, Blues, Bluegrass".

The Fulbright expedition

Jean Ritchie was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to trace the links between American ballads and the songs of the British Isles. As a song-collector, she began by setting down the 300 songs that she already knew from her mother's knee. Jean Ritchie spent 18 months tape recording and interviewing singers. Pickow accompanied her, photographing Seamus Ennis, the McPeakes, Leo Rowsome, Sarah Makem and others. One of Jean's own songs was Child Ballad 76, "Lass of Lochlroyan". She was delighted to discover that Elizabeth Cronin, an elderly Irish woman, knew a version of the same song. 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 one on the effects of strip mining in Kentucky. "My Dear Companion" appeared on the album "Trio" recorded by Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris. Judy Collins not only recorded some of Ritchie's traditional songs, "Tender Ladies" and "Pretty Saro", but 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 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.

In 1996 the Ritchie Pickow Photographic Archive was acquired by the James Hardiman Library, National University of Ireland, Galway, along with tapes of Irish recordings.

Ritchie has performed at Carnegie Hall and at the Royal Albert Hall. Her album, "None But One", was awarded the Rolling Stone Critics award in 1977.


*"Traditional Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Home" (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)
*"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)


*"Singing Family of the Cumberlands" (1955) ISBN 978-0-8131-0186-6
*"The Dulcimer Book" (1963)
*"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)

External links

* [ Jean Ritchie's website]
* [ Live 1976 recording of Ritchie performing "Nottamun Town" from the Florida Folklife Collection (made available for public use by the State Archives of Florida)]

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