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Jean Ritchie in performance, 1994 program logo

Discussion Questions and Activities

Before viewing this program, what did you think the activities of a typical folk singer were? What kind of music did you expect to hear Jean Ritchie sing? As you watched the program, were you surprised at all by the diversity of her career? Discuss this with the class.

In oral tradition, songs often change when they are transmitted from one person to the next. In our writing- and recording-based society today, it is difficult to experience this. To get the feel of it, try playing the game sometimes known as “whispering down the line.” Start at one end of the room and whisper a sentence to the next person, who whispers it to the next person and so on. What happens to the sentence by the time it has gone to the final person? How do changes occur? Through mishearing? Making up a word or phrase to compensate for something that is forgotten? “Improvements” or elaborations?

Everyone hears and learns songs while they’re growing up, though probably not as many as Jean Ritchie did. What songs do you remember? Under what circumstances or in what situations were they sung? How did you learn them? Do you know the same songs as your classmates? As a class, make a list of “variant” versions of songs, sharing the different versions.

Divide the class into pairs and have each pair of students discuss songs that they know. Each student should find one song that his or her partner does not know and then try to teach that song to the partner orally. Have the class discuss this experience. How easy was it to learn a song this way? Did the “teachers” have to repeat the song to the “learners” many times? Which element of the song was the easiest to learn: melody, lyrics, or rhythm? Which was the most difficult?

What is your biggest musical influence? You might want to consider things like school, radio, MTV, recordings (CDs, cassettes, LPs), family gatherings, church, and live concerts. Do you listen to different types of music from these different sources? What kind of music is most important to you?

Keep track of all the music you hear over the course of a weekend. (You might want to carry around a piece of paper and a pen so that you don’t miss anything.) Be sure to consider the context. Was the music generated by a live source, or was it recorded? Were you listening actively to the music—did you pay much attention to it? Or was it just part of the background? Did you have any negative reactions to music heard in any context? Share your findings with the class.

Text by Karen L. Carter-Schwendler. Photo by David Crawford, KET.

Introduction * Jean Ritchie * Timeline * Appalachian Music * Discography * Program Song List * Bibliography

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