Thursday, June 04, 2015

Jean Ritchie – 1922-2015

Almeda Riddle, Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson, 1964
When Jean Ritchie, who has died aged 92, emerged on to the embryonic New York folk scene in the 1940s, her repertoire of family songs from the Anglo-American tradition of the southern Appalachian mountains was seized upon by folksong enthusiasts as proof of the veracity of the old music. It was a tradition that had first been exposed to a wider audience by the English folksong collector Cecil Sharp in 1916-18: indeed, Sharp had noted songs from the Ritchie family in 1917. The quality of the music recorded by Sharp, and contained in the Ritchie family songs, contributed to the reassessment of the Appalachians, which had previously been seen as culturally backward.

One of Ritchie’s favourites was Fair Nottamun Town, first noted by Sharp from her sister and cousin in 1917. Ritchie’s version was recorded in Britain by Shirley Collins and then popularised by Bert Jansch and Fairport Convention, but it was Bob Dylan’s use of the tune for Masters of War that gave Ritchie the greatest exposure.

Born in Viper in the Cumberland mountains of Kentucky, Jean was the youngest of the 14 children of Abigail (nee Hall) and Balis Ritchie. The role played by singing in family life during her childhood was documented in her acclaimed book Singing Family of the Cumberlands (1955), widely regarded as an American classic, and used in schools in the US. The songs were the natural accompaniment to everyday tasks on the farm and in the home, and the family often gathered on the porch in the evening to “sing the moon up”.

Jean’s curiosity and her widening knowledge led her to wonder about the origins of the family songs and, in 1952, she obtained a Fulbright scholarship to travel around Britain and Ireland. In Devon, Ritchie and Pickow worked with the folksong collector Peter Kennedy to record and film Bill Westaway, whose father Harry had been a source of the song Widecombe Fair. In Aberdeen, Ritchie swapped songs with the Traveller ballad singer Jeannie Robertson, and in Ireland, she recorded songs in Irish and English from Elizabeth Cronin.

She performed alongside Doc Watson and they recorded a memorable album together in 1963. Ritchie’s version of the traditional song My Dear Companion was recorded by Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton on their celebrated 1987 album, Trio.

In 2002, Ritchie received a National Endowment for the Arts heritage fellowship, and the same year was inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame. She continued to perform until 2009, when she suffered a stroke. A double tribute album, Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie (2014), featured Pete Seeger and Judy Collins.

Jean Ritchie sings Blue Diamond Mines

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