Jean Ritchie: “Singing Family of the Cumberlands”

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If you’re looking for bona fide old-time mountain music – the real deal, before bluegrass, before the Carter Family even – then look no further than Jean Ritchie. Perhaps more than any other performer of her generation, Jean Ritchie gives us the traditional old-time stories and songs and the story of the lived experience of growing up in a family in the Cumberland Mountains of Eastern Kentucky.

Many Americans know Jean Ritchie from her singing and songwriting career. In addition to songs she wrote (such as “The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore”), Ritchie took special delight in preserving, performing, and passing down traditional ballads and other old-time songs. She sings “play party” game songs, she sings murder ballads, and of course, like any mountain balladeer worth her salt, she has her own version of “Barbary Allen.” In her performances, she both told stories and sang songs, accompanying herself on lap dulcimer.

I had the great fortune of hosting Jean Ritchie at Shepherd University’s Appalachian Heritage Festival in 1997. That October I got to not only see and hear her perform (complete with “Skin and Bones,” a spooky game song), but I also had the privilege of spending time with her backstage. I found her to be shy, quiet, soft-spoken, completely unassuming. She seemed to know she was “the” Jean Ritchie, but she was remarkably humble about that – both proud of her heritage and her ability to share it and receptive to meeting new folks who appreciated that heritage.

If you want to experience Jean Ritchie as a performer, I highly recommend the following CDs: Jean Ritchie: Ballads from Her Appalachian Family TraditionJean Ritchie: The Most Dulcimer; Mountain Hearth & Home; Jean Ritchie Singing the Traditional Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family; British Traditional Ballads in the Southern Mountains, Volumes 1 and 2 (both recorded for Smithsonian Folkways); and her fiftieth anniversary album, Mountain Born, which she recorded with her sons. Collaborations include Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City; A Folk Concert in Town Hall, featuring Ritchie along with Oscar Brand and David Sear; and American Folk Tales and Songs, recorded with Paul Clayton. Recordings of carols and children’s songs are also available.

If you want to try your hand at singing mountain ballads and playing dulcimer, check out Ritchie’s instructional album, The Appalachian Dulcimer, as well as The Dulcimer Book. A book/CD combo, Traditional Mountain Dulcimer, also provides instruction. Once you’ve gotten the hang of the dulcimer, you’ll want to buy the collection by famed folklorist Alan Lomax: Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians as Sung by Jean Ritchie. The second edition of this volume features eighty-one songs, including “the Child ballads, lyric folksongs, play party or frolic songs, Old Regular Baptist lined hymns, Native American ballads, ‘hant’ songs, and carols” as passed down through the famous American ballad-singing family, the Ritchie family of Perry County, Kentucky.

To go deeper in your exploration of Jean Ritchie, consider reading her 1955 book, Singing Family of the Cumberlands, part autobiography, part family songbook. Born in 1922 as the youngest of fourteen children in the Singing Ritchie Family, Jean Ritchie tells the stories behind the songs, the rich family context that gave life and meaning to these songs. Be forewarned: once you pick up Singing Family of the Cumberlands, you won’t be able to put it down. Ritchie’s writing voice is engaging, sweet, light-hearted, even light-spirited in a way. She invites you in to share her world in the Cumberland Mountains.

Though she hailed from Kentucky, Jean Ritchie spent most of her adult life living in New York, both in New York City and in Port Washington. She was married to photographer and filmmaker George Pickow, who hailed from Brooklyn. Together, they raised two sons. George, too, was warm and unassuming – and completely devoted to Jean.

In the 1950s, she began to record albums and became friends with Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Alan Lomax, each of whom had an immense impact on American folk music. By the early 1960s, Greenwich Village was the site of a lively folk music revival. Alan Lomax gathered many of the leading musicians in 1961 and invited them to his apartment on West 3rd Avenue to swap songs. Ritchie’s husband, George Pickow, filmed the impromptu jam session, which became Ballads, Blues, and Bluegrass. Of course, you’ll find Jean Ritchie in this rare film, but you’ll also see Roscoe Holcomb, Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, Ramblin Jack Elliott, Guy Carawan, and the New Lost City Ramblers. And if you look closely in the film’s opening moments, you’ll spy Bob Dylan clogging in the audience.

In the 1960s, Jean Ritchie won a Fulbright scholarship to collect traditional songs in the United Kingdom and Ireland and to trace their links to American ballads. In preparation, Ritchie wrote down 300 songs she had learned from her mother. During her Fulbright travels, she spent eighteen months recording and interviewing British and Irish singers. Some of these recordings are collected on Field Trip.

In 2015, Jean Ritchie died at age 92 in Berea, Kentucky. By that time, she had accumulated numerous awards and accolades, including a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, the United States’ highest honor for folk and traditional artists. A wonderful tribute to Jean Ritchie – including many outstanding recordings as well as photographs by George Pickow – is featured on the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center website. Also notable are the New York Times and NPR obituaries.

Widely known as “The Mother of Folk,” Ritchie had an immeasurable impact on other musicians who came after her, as evidenced by the 2014 two-CD set titled Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie, which features Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Janis Ian, Kathy Mattea, Tim O’Brien, John McCutcheon, Suzy Bogguss, and others. Her songs have also been recorded by the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and Johnny Cash.

Awards, honors, and tributes aside, in the end it all comes back to Jean Ritchie singing a spare, simple ballad like “Barbary Allen.” Take my advice, and check out Jean Ritchie’s recordings and writing. You won’t be disappointed.

Listen and Watch:Listen to Jean Ritchie sing “Barbry Allen.” Listen to her talk about and sing the song “Nottamun Town” (and read the history of this song and Ritchie’s relationship to it). Watch her perform “Shady Grove” on Pete Seeger’s show Rainbow Quest. Listen to her sing a game song, “Skin and Bones” (a song she frequently performed in concert). Finally, listen to her talk about writing Singing Family of the Cumberlands.


Image Credit: A 2008 photograph of Jean Ritchie, taken by Lee Paxton,