Jean Ritchie: 60-plus years of contributions to American music and culture

Jean Ritchie (watercolor 2017)

If you play the dulcimer, you owe Jean Ritchie a debt of thanks.

If you have heard a dulcimer, seen one — or even know what one is, Jean Ritchie is the person responsible.

Ritchie died in 2015 at the age of 92 (her birthday is Dec. 8, 1922), and she is known to many of us who play the dulcimer (or try) as the person who sparked the 20th century interest in the instrument. In the 1940s, few people outside a few isolated spots in Appalachia know anything about a dulcimer. Today, thousands of people across the world play as individuals and in groups. They sign up for workshops. They attend conventions. YouTube has hundreds of videos devoted to the instrument. (Check out EverythingDulcimer.com to get a sense of this.)

And it all started with Jean Ritchie.

But Ritchie’s life and work were more than the widespread use of an instrument. Much more.

Ritchie grew up the last of 14 children in the Cumberland Mountain hollow of Viper, Kentucky. Music surrounded everything the family did. Not only would they sing together in the evening as entertainment for themselves, but they would sing individually as they went about their daily tasks. She had a high, lilting, beautiful voice and a mind that retained more than 300 songs when she left Viper to attend the University of Kentucky.

She graduated in 1946 with a degree in social work and moved to New York City where he worked in a settlement house on the Lower East Side. She worked with children, and one of the things she did was to teach them some of the songs that she had learned as a child. To do that she used something no one had ever seen — a dulcimer.

She played her dulcimer not only for the children but also for the adults she met in New York, and they loved it. Being something of a beauty with a ton of red hair and a beautiful voice added to her luster.

Ritchie playing with the children of a New York settlement house in the late 1940s. (Library of Congress)

Soon she was invited to play at more formal venues where her music was so original and so fitting with the popular music movement of the times that people could not help but notice. Ritchie also wrote songs and played guitar and banjo with them.

In 1950, she married George Pickow, and they stayed married for the next 60 years until Pickow’s death in 2010. Pickow was a photographer, but he and Jean set up a dulcimer-making shop in Brooklyn, where the demand for the instrument was heavy.

Two years later, Ritchie recorded her first solo album: Jean Ritchie Sings Traditional Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family.

Also in that year, she received a Fulbright grant that allowed her to travel to Ireland and Great Britain to research the origins of some of her mountain songs and to discover new music to bring home with her.

In addition to making dulcimers and producing two sons, Ritchie continued recording, writing and performing for many years. She was at the forefront of the folk music explosion of the early 1960s, and even when it faded, she never wavered from her roots.

By the time she died in 2015, illness and obscurity had moved her from fame to legend. But the fans of her music and legacy — particularly the dulcimer players among them — remained loyal and numerous.

Read more about Jean Ritchie here:

Kentucky Educational Television: MOUNTAIN BORN: THE JEAN RITCHIE STORY

Library of Congress Folklife Today blog: Jean Ritchie, 1922-2015, 

See also the George Pickow and Jean Ritchie Collection in the Library of Congress.

 

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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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