Kentucky folksinger, dulcimer player Jean Ritchie dies at 92

Jun 2, 2015, 1:36 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — Jean Ritchie, the Kentucky-born folksinger who brought the centuries-old ballads she grew up with to a wide audience from the 1950s onward, died Monday evening. She was 92. Ritchie died in her home in Berea, Kentucky, with family around her, her niece Judy Hudson said.

The tall, red-haired Ritchie, who grew up in Kentucky’s Cumberland mountains, sang ballads with a clear soprano voice. She accompanied herself on the guitar, autoharp or the mountain dulcimer, a string instrument played while placed on the performer’s lap that Ritchie helped rescue from obscurity.

Among the hundreds of songs she performed were “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” ”Old Virginny,” ”One Morning in May” and “Aunt Sal’s Song.”

Hudson said Ritchie suffered a stroke several years ago and moved back to Kentucky from the East Coast.

As part of the folk music boom of the 1950s and ’60s, she was a contemporary of such giants as Pete Seeger, Odetta and Doc Watson. She influenced a generation of younger singers such as Judy Collins and Emmylou Harris.

“I see folk music as a river that never stopped flowing,” she told The New York Times in 1980. “Sometimes a few people go to it and sometimes a lot of people do. But it’s always there.”

Johnny Cash recorded her “The L. & N. Don’t Stop Here Anymore” and Harris performed “Sweet Sorrow in the Wind.” In a 1978 Rolling Stone interview, Bob Dylan cited her as one of the folksingers he listened to, along with Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy and Leadbelly.

Last fall, Ritchie appeared on her last CD, “Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie,” a two CD tribute that featured an old recording of Ritchie’s and another track that included a recording of her leading an audience before her stroke.

“Nobody was more important than Jean not only in bringing the old songs to new audiences but also in encouraging generations of new musicians,” said Dan Schatz, who co-produced the CD. “Nobody in the music community will ever forget Jean.”

Her own composition “Black Waters” took aim at what strip mining had done to her native region, a relatively rare foray into topical songs. Her 1977 album “None But One” received a Rolling Stone Critics Award.

She combined her authentic mountain musical background with a scholarly touch, even traveling overseas on a Fulbright scholarship in the early 1950s to trace the roots of her traditional music.

Her books included “The Swapping Song Book,” a 1952 collection of songs she sang as a child in Kentucky, accompanied by notes on life and customs in the Cumberland Mountains and photos by her husband, photographer George Pickow.

Along with Seeger, Odetta, Joan Baez and Earl Scruggs, she was one of the singers at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959. As the Times wrote earlier that year, “there is no disputing that Jean Ritchie is one of the finest authentic traditional folk singers we have in the United States today.”

She was born in 1922, the youngest of 14 children in the southern Appalachian community of Viper, Ky. In a 2008 Associated Press interview, Ritchie said singing together was a daily part of life for the family.

“We knew all the old songs and the ballads and things that the ancestors had brought with them from England, Scotland and Ireland,” Ritchie recalled. “We used to sit out on the porch at the end of the day and chose songs as we thought of them. We’d sing for about an hour.”

When the melodies reached the ears of relatives across the hollow, Ritchie they would hurry over and join in “almost every night,” she said.

She moved to New York to become a social worker after graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1946. Her first solo recording was the 1952 “Jean Ritchie Sings Traditional Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family.”

Her 1955 book, “They Sang the Moon Up: Singing Family of the Cumberlands,” traced her family’s roots from the time James Ritchie came from England in 1768, fought in the Revolutionary War and migrated west to Kentucky. It was illustrated by Maurice Sendak and included 42 of the songs her family members liked to sing.

At the time of the 2008 interview, Ritchie’s extensive archive of letters, song lyrics, tape recordings and other memorabilia was being prepared for inclusion in the Library of Congress’ American Folk Life Center.

“She has single-handedly preserved hundreds of songs that would have been lost otherwise,” Kentucky-born novelist and musician Silas House said at the time. “It is hard to measure how important Jean Ritchie has been to folk music.”

Ritchie and her husband, who married in 1950, lived for years in Port Washington, N.Y., but they returned to her mountain home in Kentucky, where they had a cabin, a few months each year. They had two sons, Peter and Jonathan, who also became musicians.

Ritchie recalled working with the then-unknown Dylan in the early 1960s when many in New York found his unusual style amusing.

“It wasn’t musical and he didn’t care whether he had a pretty voice or not,” she said in 2008. “He was friendly and well liked, but it took him a while to become famous. We were on stages together and he had this weird way of singing. It was almost early rap.”

Along with Loretta Lynn, Rosemary Clooney and the Everly Brothers, she was one of 12 musicians and groups chosen for the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame’s first inductees in 2001.


Former Associated Press writer Polly Anderson contributed to this report.

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Kentucky folksinger, dulcimer player Jean Ritchie dies at 92