A Perry County icon and national folk music legend turned 90 years old this week past weekend, only a couple weeks after she was honored during the Appalachian Winter Homecoming in Hazard.
Jean Ritchie has spent decades writing and preforming music that has kept the musical traditions of the mountains alive. She grew up in the Viper community a few miles south of Hazard as the youngest of 14 children. The family all preformed music and memorized songs as they worked, and would often times perform at churches and festivals.
Ritchie was first recorded in the 1930’s by acclaimed folklorist and musician Alan Lomax while he was recording songs for the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Song. The Singing Ritchies were recorded along with hundreds of other folk singers.
Ritchie attended Cumberland College and the University of Kentucky, graduating with a degree in social work. She moved to New York where she began working at the Henry Street Settlement School. While in New England, she met several musicians and started playing her old folk songs again.
She also met George Pickow, who would later become her husband. She and Pickow have two sons, Peter and Jonathan.
Ritchie began playing and recording regularly and brought much attention to a little known instrument, the lap dulcimer. She, Pickow, and Pickow’s uncle Morris Pickow, began a workshop making dulcimers in Brooklyn. Ritchie would tune them and Pickow would finish them.
Ritchie believed that there was going to be a dulcimer revival, and she was right. While the instrument remains obscure in mainstream circles, it has become very popular in folk music. According to Dean Osborne, director of the Hazard Community and Technical College’s Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music, it is because of Ritchie’s influence that the dulcimer has become such a large part of folk music.
“She is in the top three of dulcimer players in terms of what they have done for awareness of the instrument,” said Osborne.
She went on to create hundreds of recordings and write many songs. Several of those songs were written under the pseudonym Than Hall, her grandfather’s name, because she felt many of her songs, particularly about coal, would be taken more seriously if they were written by a man.
As it turns out, this may have been true. One of her most well-known and frequently covered songs, the “L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore,” was written as Than Hall.
Osborne said that he believes one of the reasons Ritchie’s music is so often covered is because of how timeless and iconic it is. “Her music is honest and from the heart,” he noted.
Another reason she has been able to become truly iconic is her ability to bring the music of the region outside of the mountains, Osborne continued. While there were many emerging folk artist during the 1940s and 50s, Ritchie was able to rise above because of her willingness to collaborate with many of the greats and take the music to places it had never been before.
He compared Ritchie to a modern figure in folk music, Alison Krauss, for her ability to bring the music of Appalachia to the world.
“While there is nothing wrong with playing around your home, she was able to bring our music to major venues,” Osborne said.
Ritchie’s music covers many different facets of her life, from the songs she and her family sang while working in the fields to songs about the coal industry and religion. She kept her music traditional, with most of it being the way it would have been sung at home with no accompaniment. She would play guitar or dulcimer in some of her songs.
Another way she kept old traditions alive was by recording many of the Old Regular Baptist hymns that she grew up with. They were recorded as they were sang, lined out one line at a time. Osborne said that it was her voice that made these recordings work. He called it just perfect and sweet.
Over the years, Ritchie has performed on some of the grandest stages in the world including Carnegie Hall and Royal Albert Hall. Her and her husband’s photographic archives and Irish music have been purchased and are displayed in the National University of Ireland. She was awarded with a Rolling Stone Critics Award in 1977 for her album None But One. In 2002 she received the highest honor in the folk music world, the National Endowment For The Arts National Heritage Fellowship.
Among all of the musicians from the mountains, Osborne said that Ritchie stands out because of her honesty in her songs and ability to cross boundaries with her traditional music. Osborne was a part of the selection committee that chose her to be in the first class entered in the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in 2002.
“She is in a class all her own,” he said.
Ritchie’s career has spanned from the late 1940s through 2009. She continued preforming until she suffered a stroke in Dec. 2009 that affected her communication. She was able to make a great amount of recovery and begin speaking again in 2010.
Ritchie’s 90 birthday was on Saturday, Dec. 8. She currently resides in Berea, Kentucky and was recently honored for her body of work and the mark she has made on the music of Eastern Kentucky in a performance at the Hal Rogers Forum called Appalachian Winter Homecoming. The people that came out to the concert were recorded wishing the folk icon a happy birthday and many signed a card for her.
From her humble beginnings sharing a bedroom with her nine sisters and signing in the fields, Jean Ritchie has been regarded as a national treasure for preserving the music of the mountains and bringing folk to the world.