Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Jean Ritchie, a leader of the folk revival, dies at 92; memorial Sunday at Union Church in Berea, Ky.

Jean Ritchie, who helped start a folk-music revival in the mid-20th century and remained an icon of it into the 21st, died Monday at her home in Berea, Ky., at 92.

New York Times photo of Jean Ritchie by Vic DeLucia.
As the youngest of 14 children in Viper, Ky., "Ritchie was a vital link in a chain of oral tradition that stretched back centuries," Margalit Fox reports for The New York Times. "Song was woven seamlessly into every aspect of the Ritchies' daily life." They performed and were known as "The Singing Family of the Cumberlands."

After earning a social-work degree from the University of Kentucky, Ritchie moved to New York but took with her "the Appalachian fretted dulcimer she had learned to play as a girl . . . a stringed instrument plucked with one hand," Fox writes. At the Henry Street Settlement, "She routinely calmed the urban street children in her care with songs from the Cumberlands, which, with their haunting modal melodies and tales of simple pastimes, were so alien as to stun her young charges into submission."

Ritchie drew the attention of renowned record producer Mitch Miller, who got her into commercial recording in 1952. She performed "with some of the best-known names in folk music, including Pete Seeger and Doc Watson," Fox writes. "She was closely associated with the Newport Folk Festival, performing at its inception in 1959 and many times afterward. With her flowing red hair and modest dress, Ms. Ritchie had a quietly striking stage presence. Hers was not a trained voice, but it was a splendidly traditional one: high, sweet, lyrical and plaintive." She wrote original songs, such as "Black Waters," which denounced strip mining in her native state, to which she returned after her husband, filmmaker George Pickow, died in 2010. Using coalfield footage from Appalshop and stills from Ken Murray, Pickow produced a video of Ritchie singing her "Blue Diamond Mines" in 2007.

"She was a source of incredible pride for my people," southeastern Kentucky author Silas House wrote for Appalachian Voices. "Everyone I knew loved Jean Ritchie, and they especially loved the way she represented Appalachian people: with generosity and sweetness, yes. But also with defiance and strength."

Ritchie's honors included, in 2002, a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, "considered the nation’s highest award in the traditional arts," Fox writes. "She was the subject of a 1996 documentary, Mountain Born: The Jean Ritchie Story, available on video from Kentucky Educational Television.

UPDATES, June 3-4: A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Sunday at Union Church, 200 Prospect St., Berea, with visitation from 2 to 4 p.m. Ritchie's family asks that donations, in lieu of flowers, go to Appalachian Voices, 171 Grand Blvd., Boone NC 28607.


Obscure Rattlesnake said...

Here's another wonderful tribute of Jean Ritchie from Appalachian author and advocate, Silas House: http://appvoices.org/2015/06/02/a-remembrance-of-jean-ritchie/

Al Cross said...

Thanks. Have added something from Silas and a link to his piece.