Kentucky-born folk singer, performer, author, composer and recording artist Jean Ritchie died early this month in Berea, Kentucky, at age 92. She was among the remarkable musicians who in the 1950s and 1960s pioneered a resurgence of folk music. At various times she worked with Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Alan Lomax. Her influence on them, as well as on others such as Judy Collins and Emmylou Harris led some to call her “The Mother of Folk.”
Ritchie was born in 1922 in Viper, Kentucky, in the Cumberland Plateau of Appalachia, a region with steep-walled valleys, dense forests, winding rivers – and coal. Consisting of perhaps 15 or 20 houses in the early 1920s, Viper was one of many oddly-named tiny towns and unincorporated communities of southeastern Kentucky – among them, Drift, Decoy, Hazard, Vicco, Mousie, Virgie, Rowdy, and Pippa Passes – whose people were impoverished, half of them functionally illiterate. As a young girl, Jean heard hundreds of stories about that tragic region that later found voice in original songs like “Black Waters,” which condemned strip mining.
After high school she attended Cumberland Junior College before enrolling at the University of Kentucky, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1946, with a degree in social work. But no such programs existed in her home community, so she headed to New York and became a social worker in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, tutoring poverty-stricken young girls. With a dulcimer the only accompaniment to her clear, soprano voice, she entertained them by drawing on her vast repertoire of Appalachian folk tunes.
In short order she began to perform at coffee houses in Greenwich Village, where her authenticity was immediately apparent. Appearances on radio broadcasts and at folk festivals followed, which in turn led to concerts in Carnegie Hall and in venues abroad. Two years after marrying photographer George Pickow, Jean received a Fulbright scholarship that supported her research in the British Isles for old world songs that could be linked to Appalachian folk tunes. It led to albums like “Mountain Born” and books such as “Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians.”
Though Ritchie played guitar and autoharp, the mountain (Appalachian) dulcimer was her favorite musical instrument. It lies across one’s lap as the player plucks its strings. In a performance at First Mennonite Church (Bluffton) earlier this year, local dulcimerist Betty Sommer noted that the Appalachian dulcimer can be traced to European instruments such as the German “Scheitholt,” although the dulcimer as we see it today originated in the Appalachian Mountains.
Upon learning of the folklorist’s death early this month, my wife Alice (also a dulcimerist) and I decided to attend her memorial service scheduled for Sunday, June 7, at Union Church in Berea. Berea is home to an artisan community of painters, sculptors, musicians, potters, weavers, and instrument makers, with the century-old Boone Tavern Hotel situated in the heart of town.
At the two-hour visitation ahead of the memorial service, we had the opportunity to speak with Jean’s son Jon Pickow, who leads singing workshops at festivals throughout the country, and Berea luthier Warren May. Also at the gathering were Michael Johnathon, host of PBS’s series “WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour,” and the Appalachian author Silas House. Playing in a dulcimer duet throughout the visitation were prominent dulcimerists Lois Hornbostel and Ehukai Teves.
In the semi-formal memorial service that followed, music was central. Most memorable among the songs was Jean’s own, “Now Is the Cool of the Day.” Written forty years ago, it drew on a passage in Genesis: “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” Man may walk in the garden (Earth itself) forever, later verses suggested, if we “keep the waters clean” and “keep the people free.”
Intermixed with music were several remembrances of Jean, including those by sons Jon and Peter Pickow, Berea College president Lyle Roelofs, and a tribute sent by Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear. Niece Judy Hudson spoke for all in saying that for Jean, “music was more than a profession, it was a way of life.” Altogether, a peaceful, music-filled service of love and gratitude, one that Jean herself would have enjoyed.
Jean wrote appropriately an “Epitaph for Myself”: “Sweet were the songs of life, Now they are sung; Harp on the Wllow Tree, Now it is hung.”