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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Remembering Jean Ritchie: The Voice of America

Posted By on Wed, Jun 3, 2015 at 4:38 PM

click to enlarge Jean Ritchie playing autoharp at the Florida Folk Festival - White Springs, 1976
  • Jean Ritchie playing autoharp at the Florida Folk Festival - White Springs, 1976
The first time I heard Jean Ritchie sing, I couldn’t believe my ears. I’d only been listening to folk music for a few months and my friend Lou, the guy who turned me onto Doc Watson, The Greenbriar Boys, and The New Lost City Ramblers, told me that he’d first heard the pickers he’d introduced me to on a program called Oscar Brand’s Folk Song Festival. The program was (and still is) broadcast on WNYC on Saturday nights. I became a regular listener. Brand introduced me to many artists that still inform my taste in music including The Clancy Brothers, Tommy Makem, Oscar Brown, Jr., and Jean Ritchie.


I say, “I couldn’t believe my ears,” when I heard Ritchie sing and, at first, that statement wasn’t a compliment. I turned to folk music because I was tired of the schmaltz that was passing for pop music. I wanted something more authentic, something that spoke to the world I lived in, but, to my young ears, Ritchie was a little bit too authentic. Her high warbling voice made me grimace. I wondered how anyone could listen to her sing, but as the program went on, something happened. Her vocal ornamentations and the naked, vulnerable quality of her voice suddenly clicked. The way her melodic lines intertwined with her dulcimer playing (although I had no idea what a dulcimer was at the time) changed the way I heard and understood music. By the time she sang “Shady Grove” and “Nottamum Town,” I was hooked. The simple driving melody of “Nottamum” embedded itself in my mind and is there to this day.


On future programs with Oscar Brand, Ritchie sung courting songs and play party songs, explaining that play parties were social gathering where young people gathered together to sing folk songs, dance, and probably make out. Being a shy lad, I thought the idea of a play party was neat. I could engage my two biggest fantasies at the same time – I could be a folk singer and a lady’s man. When Brand and Ritchie traded verses on the traditional Appalachian songs in her vast repertoire, I was carried away to another time and place, or so I thought. Living in New York City, I had no idea that the traditions Ritchie came out of were still alive and vital in the mountains around her home in Viper, Kentucky.

Ritchie was the youngest of 14 children from a family in the hills of Kentucky. Everyone in her extended family played instruments and sang, so it was natural for her to join in. Her instrument was the dulcimer, a three-stringed fretted zither, with two drone strings and a single melody string. It was invented in the mountains of Appalachia, probably sometime in the late 1700s, but no one is sure where or when. It has a distinctive sound, and was unknown in folk circles until Ritchie moved to New York. She was a social worker, but soon discovered the City’s early folk music scene. She met Brand, Pete Seeger and The Weavers, Lead Belly, and Woody Guthrie and began performing in clubs and on Brand’s radio show. Her unadorned approach to folk music inspired several generations of young musicians, including Bob Dylan, who borrowed the melody of “Nottamum Town” for “Masters of War.” (When Ritchie told him she held a copy right on the melody, Dylan’s lawyers paid her $5,000 dollars against all further claims.)

Ritchie was a fixture on the early '60s folk scene. She made more than 40 albums including several How to Play Dulcimer recordings, wrote several songbooks and The Dulcimer Book, an instruction manual. She became a well-known songwriter, folklorist, song collector, and dulcimer maker.


A few years ago, I was researching on the early days of the folk revival. Someone suggested contacting Ritchie for some background. I looked up her phone number – it was listed in the phone book – and made a cold call. I told her who I was and what I was doing. She stayed on the line with me for almost an hour talking about her early days in Greenwich Village. She sang snippets of songs, told me the stories behind them, and gave me the numbers of a few more people I could talk to. Somehow we got onto the subject of our favorite folk songs and she shared a lifetime of expertise on the subject, just as enthusiastic about the music as she was when she was a girl just starting to learn how to sing and play. Before we hung up, she asked me for my address. She told me she’d send me a couple of albums and cassettes she thought I’d enjoy. And she did.

Ritchie died on Monday evening, at the age of 92, probably the only folksinger so immersed in America’s oral traditions that she could trace her songs back to family members who fought in the Revolutionary War.
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