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Jean Ritchie singing, mid-career program logo

Jean Ritchie

It is impossible to place any one label on Jean Ritchie. She is a traditional musician by virtue of her life and works, but she is also a commercial performer, author, recording artist, composer, and folk music collector.

Ritchie was born in 1922 in Viper, Kentucky, into a family that considered music extremely important. In addition to singing as a means of entertainment, they had songs to accompany nearly all of their activities, from sweeping to churning to working in the fields. When they got together in the evening to sing as a family, they chose from a repertoire of more than 300 songs. Among them were hymns, traditional love songs and ballads, and popular songs by composers like Stephen Foster. For the most part, these songs were learned orally and sung without accompaniment.

While much of the music that was to become central to Ritchie’s later performance repertoire originated at home, other influences on her musical development cannot be overlooked. Besides the songs of family and friends, she was exposed to the music of the Old Regular Baptist church meetings the family attended regularly and to popular culture, particularly radio and recording. It is interesting to note that the one thing absent from Ritchie’s musical background is formal training.

After graduating from high school in Viper, Ritchie attended Cumberland Junior College in Williamsburg, Ky. From there she went to the University of Kentucky, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1946. With a bachelor’s degree in social work in hand, she moved to New York City to work at the Henry Street Settlement. There she drew on her knowledge of family songs to entertain the children in her charge.

Gradually, Ritchie’s reputation as a folk singer grew, and she was asked to perform more formally. (Many of these concert experiences are discussed in the video.) For folk music fans of the 1940s, Ritchie represented the ideal traditional performer: She grew up in the mountains of Kentucky, sang songs that she learned from her family, and played a little-known instrument called a dulcimer.

Ritchie has maintained an active performance schedule ever since. She has played and sung on radio and television, in concerts, and at folk festivals and hootenannies in the U.S. and abroad. As you will see in the program, her friends and acquaintances include many of the most recognizable people in the contemporary folk and country music scenes. When Ritchie’s album None But One won the Rolling Stone Critics’ Award in 1977, her acceptance into the popular mainstream was secured.

One of the most interesting aspects of Ritchie’s career is her own songwriting. Central to her approach is a lesson learned early on from her uncle Jason. His practice of altering tunes from one verse to another in a song, and lyrics from one performance to the next, taught her to accept improvisation and variation as natural elements of traditional music. So her versions of both family songs and original compositions often vary slightly from one performance (or publication) to the next. And she often creates new songs by using bits of material from existing ones or adding newly composed verses to flesh out song fragments that she recalls from her childhood.

Ritchie has been married to photographer George Pickow since 1950. They have two sons: Peter, born in 1954, and Jonathan, born in 1958. She and Pickow live in Port Washington, New York.

Significance to American Music

Jean Ritchie is extremely significant to traditional music in America as a performer, author, and composer. Besides launching what is usually referred to as the “dulcimer revival” through her performances and books (see The Dulcimer Book and Dulcimer People), she has influenced other folk and country singers, including the Judds and Tommy Makem, to explore their own musical roots. Through her professional visibility, Ritchie has been vital in awakening an interest in the music of Kentucky. And with her own compositions, she has proved an important spokesperson for the inequities of the Appalachian region.

Text by Karen L. Carter-Schwendler. Photo by George Pickow.

Web resources:

Introduction * Timeline * Discography * Appalachian Music * Activities * Program Song List * Bibliography

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