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Mountain Born: The Jean Ritchie Story

For Jean Ritchie, the youngest of 14 children growing up in the Cumberland Mountains of Eastern Kentucky, “Singing became just like breathing, or walking, or talking…it came as naturally as anything else.” Kentucky Muse is proud to present as an Encore Presentation the story of a true Kentucky music original: “Mountain Born: The Jean Ritchie Story.”

This one-hour program, originally aired in 1996, follows the life of this folk music legend from her childhood on a small farm in Viper, Kentucky, to Carnegie Hall, and beyond.

The Ritchie family had songs to accompany nearly all of their activities, from sweeping to butter-churning to working in the fields. Everyone gathered in the evenings for singing, choosing 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. Most of these songs were passed directly from generation to generation and were usually sung without accompaniment. During her childhood, Ritchie also grew close to the music of the Old Regular Baptist church and to popular music through radio broadcasts and recordings.

A young Jean Ritchie

As “Mountain Born” follows Ritchie’s journey from these unpretentious beginnings, the artist’s impact on the world of music and her love for the beauty and power of song become clear. Interviews with family, friends, and colleagues describe her early move to New York where, after having received her degree in social work from the University of Kentucky in 1946, she drew upon her knowledge of family songs and games to entertain the children of Henry Street Settlement. After several public appearances and her introduction to the emerging folk scene, she was “discovered” by folklorist Alan Lomax. In the documentary, Ritchie recalls her early meetings and collaborations with such legendary performers as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Doc Watson, as well as some of her first television appearances and participation in the Newport Folk Festival. Archival footage, personal photographs, and beautiful music bring the exciting story to life.

The program also examines Ritchie’s impact on the world of popular music, both as a performer and researcher of authentic, traditional folk music and a champion for its role in social awareness. From her songwriting and song-sharing work with Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris, to her lyrics concerning environmental issues, poverty, and civil rights, Ritchie’s devotion remains constant and true.

The program concludes with a return to Ritchie’s Kentucky home for a family reunion, bringing this amazing story back to its source: a life connected to the majestic Cumberland Mountains through the sweet sound of voices in song.