Obituary: Jean Ritchie
Musician who popularised the mountain dulcimer and was friend of Seamus Ennis and Tommy Makem
Published 07/06/2015 | 02:30
Jean Ritchie, who died last Monday aged 92, helped to reignite public enthusiasm for American folk music in the 1950s and 1960s with her ballads of love, loss and revenge; to Joan Baez she was "the mother of folk".
Accompanying herself on the mountain or Appalachian dulcimer, a three or four-stringed instrument held in the lap and strummed with a thin pick or finger, Jean Ritchie's bell-like soprano swiftly won her a following in New York coffee houses and on local radio.
She was feted by the Greenwich Village folk movement and performed with the likes of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, going on to play at Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall. Bob Dylan cited her as a key influence and borrowed her arrangement of the English folk song Nottamun Town for his own composition Masters of War - much to the ire of Ritchie, who pursued him for an out-of-court settlement of $5,000.
As Jean Ritchie's popularity grew in folk music circles, so too did the profile of the hitherto little-known mountain dulcimer. Her husband, the photographer George Pickow, founded a workshop making the instruments in Brooklyn, and in 1963 Jean published an instruction pamphlet, The Dulcimer Book.
She also made a concerted effort to set down many of the traditional songs of her childhood, tracing their history back through multiple generations of Ritchies.
The youngest of 14 children, Jean Ritchie was born at Viper, Kentucky, a tiny farming community in the Appalachian Mountains, on December 8 1922. The whole family squeezed into a four-room house built by Jean's father Balis, and the front room played host to a succession of dulcimer players and folk-song enthusiasts.
She began strumming on her father's mountain dulcimer at the age of five. Music, to the Ritchies, was not just a passion but an emotional mainstay.
In her memoir Singing Family of the Cumberlands (1955), Jean Ritchie recounted how she and a cousin had followed the sound of the family's singing to return home after getting lost on the mountains. As the notes of Father Get Ready rang out over the hillside, "I could have believed without much persuasion that it was a host of angels."
After graduation from Perry County High School, Jean set about codifying some of the 300 or so songs she knew from childhood. She took a degree in social work at the University of Kentucky and moved to New York in 1947 to take up a post as a music counsellor in an after-school programme. Elektra Records signed her five years later and she went on to record the label's first folk LP, Jean Ritchie Singing the Traditional Songs Of Her Kentucky Mountain Family (1952).
That same year she received a Fulbright scholarship to study the historic links between folk music traditions in Britain and those of the Appalachian Mountains. Armed with a tape recorder, she and her husband travelled Britain capturing drinking songs and old ballads.
She struck up a close friendship with the Irish uilleann piper Seamus Ennis, whose rendition of Bog Down in the Valley-O appeared on her resulting 1954 release Field Trip. Another acquaintance was the teenage Tommy Makem, later hailed as the "godfather of Irish music", who played the tin whistle and knew a grand total of one song. ("He got busy," as Jean succinctly put it.)
As well as championing the traditional melodies, Jean Ritchie recorded several of her own songs. Of these the best-known was Black Waters (1967), written in protest at the damaging effects of strip mining in her native Kentucky. She received the Rolling Stone Critics' Award in 1977 for her album None But One.
In 2002, aged 80, she was granted a National Heritage Fellowship - America's highest honour in folk and traditional music. She continued to perform at local festivals until a stroke forced her into retirement in 2009.
Jean Ritchie's husband George died in 2010. Their sons Peter and Jonathan - both musicians who featured on her 1995 album Mountain Born - survive her.