Remembering Appalachian folksinging legend Jean Ritchie

Jean Ritchie performing in 2004. (Photo by Cindy Funk via Flickr.)

The legendary Appalachian folk singer and mountain dulcimer player Jean Ritchie died earlier this month at her home in Berea, Kentucky. Ritchie, who came to be known as "The Mother of Folk," was 92.

"No one was more important to the survival, appreciation, and revival of traditional Appalachian folk music in the 20th and 21st centuries than this ballad singer, songwriter, folksong collector, Fulbright scholar, and champion of the Appalachian dulcimer," the American Folklife Center said in a statement posted to its Facebook page.

Ritchie was born in 1922 in the rural community of Viper in Perry County, Kentucky, the youngest of 14 children in what was considered one of the state's great balladeer families. Many of the Ritchies attended the Hindman Settlement School in nearby Knott County; settlement schools were part of a late 19th and early 20th century social change movement that sought to alleviate poverty and improve the lives of the poor. In Appalachia, settlement schools also played an important role in preserving and promoting traditional culture.

When the English folksong collector Cecil Sharp visited Kentucky in 1917, he worked out of the Hindman school, where he met two girls — Ritchie's older sister and second cousin — whose music intrigued him. One of the songs they sang for him, "Nottamun Town," came to be closely associated with Jean Ritchie; you can hear her version here. Bob Dylan later used the tune for his song "Masters of War." Ritchie talked about that in a 2003 interview with The Children's Music Network:

…I just wrote a little letter to what I thought was him. Of course, it went to his lawyer. I wrote that he was using a tune to my family song, and at least he should say, "Music traditional from the Ritchie family," because I believe in preserving sources. But there was no answer at all. So, it made me a little miffed! I told another lawyer about it, and he said, "I'll write for you." So little by little, I guess, Bob Dylan finally heard about it, because he said, "Oh, we'll settle this out of court." So, he sent some money and said that he would take his name off as composer, which he did. But he never did say where the music came from.

Ritchie earned a bachelor's degree in social work from the University of Kentucky in 1946, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and went to work at the Henry Street Settlement on Manhattan's Lower East Side, teaching music to children. She became part of the city's folk music scene, married Brooklyn-born photographer George Pickow, was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to trace links between American ballads and songs from Britain and Ireland, and recorded songs, stories and oral history for folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. She began recording for Elektra Records in the 1950s and went on to make dozens of records and perform in venues including New York's Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall in London. In 2002 she received a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, the nation's highest honor for folk artists.

Besides preserving ancient folk songs, Ritchie wrote original compositions including "Black Waters," about the environmental ruin of strip mining; "Blue Diamond Mines," about conditions suffered by coal miners and their families; and "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore," a song about the decline of mining communities that was later recorded by Johnny Cash. Her original compositions were also performed by Judy Collins, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, among many other artists.

She published some of her early songs about coal mining under the pseudonym "'Than Hall" to avoid upsetting her non-political mother and to create the impression they were written by a man, as she discussed in that same 2003 interview:

Well, that was in the late fifties and early sixties when I was writing the strip mining and the coal mining songs. My mother was still alive. She was a very sweet, gentle person. And she didn't like politics at all, and she didn't like us to sit around and talk politics. If we came to the table, we had to talk about the weather! About the beautiful flowers, or about each other and how much we love each other and all that, just personal family things. The minute people started talking about politics, she got up and left the table. That's the way she used to be.

To keep people from complaining to my mother that her daughter was out there doing protest songs and marching in parades and things like that, I thought I'd take my grandfather's name, which was Jonathan Hall. I submitted Jon Hall as a pseudonym. It turned out that a Jon Hall at that time was the president of BMI! And they said I absolutely couldn't take Jon Hall as a pseudonym, even if it was my own name. So I decided to make it the end of the name then, 'Than, because people used to do that. If there were two Jonathans in the same area, they'd call one Jon and one 'Than, and put an apostrophe on the front. And it was kind of a nice name, it was kind of different. So I took 'Than Hall on my own written songs, on the coal mining songs, for two reasons: first, was to protect my mother. But the second reason was that I felt that they would be better received in those days if they came from a man.

Ritchie and Pickow lived for many years in Port Washington, New York, where they ran a record label and music publishing company. After Pickow's death in 2010, Ritchie returned to Kentucky.

She is survived by her sons, Peter and Jonathan Pickow, both musicians who performed with their mother. Her family asks that memorial donations be sent to Appalachian Voices, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that works to lessen coal's destruction of the region and to promote a clean energy future.

Here's Ritchie and her sons performing "Black Waters," which became an anthem of sorts for the movement against strip mining and mountaintop removal. The photographs are by Pickow.