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Jean Ritchie Update

Ritchie, who turned 86 in December 2008, continues to tour, delighting long-time fans and introducing new ones to music rooted in her Eastern Kentucky childhood—ballads from her Scottish, Irish, and English ancestors; Old Regular Baptist hymns; the songs she and her family wrote; and her own works penned over decades as a performer and social activist.

Ritchie and her husband, George Pickow, have lived in Port Washington, New York, since 1956, but they also keep a home in Ritchie’s hometown of Viper, Ky.

In fall of 2008, Ritchie began packing up her personal letters, song lyrics, field recordings, and other memorabilia to send them to the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress, where the materials will be preserved and be made available to the public to help tell the history of American folk music.

Ritchie herself has been at the center of that history. “It is hard to measure how important Jean Ritchie has been to folk music,” said Eastern Kentucky novelist and musician Silas House. “She has singlehandedly preserved hundreds of songs that would have been lost otherwise.”

To Ritchie that music is the bedrock of other American music genres. As she told a reporter for The New York Times in November 2008, her close friend Pete Seeger, who often talked through a song, “was kind of the beginning of rap.”

She added, “I believe all music comes from this big river of folk music that runs along through every culture.”

For her induction into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, Ritchie performed alongside her two sons, Peter and Jonathan, preceded by fellow inductees Public Enemy, LL Cool J, and a Long Island bar band, the Good Rats. Ritchie chose to perform the song “Now Is the Cool of the Day,” for its quietness. “I was looking to contrast with the other acts,” she said. “And here’s the nicest part: Besides being the only woman on the bill, I got the only standing ovation.”