Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Jean Ritchie, Dec. 8, 1922-June 1, 2015

An obituary and a reminiscence, followed by a Jean Ritchie song I hope to introduce at Saturday's jam session at Clayville Historic Stagecoach Stop on Ill. 125 in Pleasant Plains.

*Jean Ritchie, with Warren May and Alan Mills at Berea College, 2012

Jean Ritchie of Berea, Ky., who arguably did more to take the Appalachian dulcimer into the mainstream of 20th-century American traditional music than anyone else, died Monday at the age of 92. Others knew her far better than I, so I'll just link to her obits in today's Louisville Courier-Journal, sort of a hometown paper for eastern Kentucky, and the New York Times, also sort of a hometown paper for Ritchie since her career as a musician took off in New York City and she lived on Long Island until her husband George Pickow's death in 2010. Recovering from a stroke she suffered in 2009, she returned to Kentucky and lived near Berea. Reported Margalit Fox of the Times:

The youngest of 14 children in a farming family from Viper, Ky., Ms. Ritchie was a vital link in a chain of oral tradition that stretched back centuries. Her recordings and concerts — she appeared on some of the world’s celebrated stages, including Carnegie Hall in New York and the Royal Albert Hall in London — helped keep the music alive for an international listenership.

Over the years Ms. Ritchie performed jointly with some of the best-known names in folk music, including Pete Seeger and Doc Watson. She was closely associated with the Newport Folk Festival, performing at its inception in 1959 and many times afterward.

Jeffrey Lee Puckett of the Courier-Journal noted, quite correctly, that Jean Ritchie was intimately involved with the folk revival of the 1960s, both in Greenwich Village and the Newport Festival. He added:

Nancy Johnson Barker, a longtime friend and musical compatriot of Ritchie's who organizes the annual Kentucky Music Weekend festival at Iroquois Amphitheater in Louisville, described Ritchie as the "premiere folk singer and traditional folk artist" not only in Kentucky but also nationally — and even internationally.

"She's the reason everybody across the country knows about the dulcimer," Johnson said. The albums she recorded "were shared and played and shared again all across the country."

If it weren't for Jean Ritchie, people like me wouldn't be playing the dulcimer.

I met her two or three times, in receiving lines at dulcimer festivals toward the end of her musical career when she was there to receive lifetime achievement awards. We only spoke briefly -- I recall chuckling with her about the way her fellow Kentuckian Homer Ledford made dulcimers out of scrap wood (my Homer Ledford has a butternut top made of wood from old school desks) -- and I noticed she had a good word for everyone who came up to shake her hand. She was down-to-earth, and completely unaffected.

Others knew her far better than I, like I said, but a couple of Jean Ritchie stories have stayed with me. Once at the Swananoa Gathering, I noticed she was using a big floppy pick on fiddle tunes like "Shady Grove" and "Swing and Turn Jubilee." So between sets I went up front where she'd laid her dulcimer across a chair so I could take a look. She'd cut a rectangular pick out of the lid to a Philadelphia Cream Cheese tub. Ever since I've cut up an assortment of cream cheese, Prairie Farms, Jewel and Anderson Erickson Dairy lids for when I play with a pick and noter. Drives other players crazy, but it's my little tribute to her.

My other memory is from Lois Hornbostel's mountain dulcimer week at Appalachian State or Western Carolina about 14 or 15 years ago. It was toward the end of Jean Ritchie's farewell concert, and she set the instrument aside and started singing "Amazing Grace" the way she had learned it growing up in the Old Regular Baptist church. She sang a cappella, and we -- the entire audience of several hundred people -- joined in call-and-response style as she started each verse, "Through many dangers, toils and snares ...," and so on, and we sang it back to her. It was one of the most powerful experiences of pure, simple, unadorned music -- singing from the heart as country Baptists down home would say -- that I've ever been a part of.

"Pretty Saro"

According to Wikipedia (which I am coming to regard as the best repository of all human knowledge), "Pretty Saro" is an "English folk ballad" that "was rediscovered in North America" a hundred years ago by Cecil Sharp and other songcatchers in southern Appalachia. That's about as close to its origins as we'll ever get. Several versions have been collected over the years, mostly in North Carolina.

Jean Ritchie has a distinctive version. In a thread on Mudcat Cafe, she said she learned it from her "older sisters who went to Berea College in Kentucky" and they learned it from Gladys Jamison, director of the college's Glee Club. "I think she was the one who brought 'our' [Ritchie family] version of 'Pretty Saro' to the Glee Club, and from there the girls began singing it at home. This would be about 1925-26, with Kitty and Patty who were older and were at Berea first. And I was born at the end of 1922, so you see have known this song ALL my singing life. I guess that's why people think of it as a Ritchie song. I wish Miss Jamison had shared more on her song sources, but she never did, as I know."

Jean Ritchie sang it during the 1960s with Doc Watson (a North Carolinian who had another version of the song) in concert at the Folk City club in New York. It's still available on the Smithsonian Folkways label, and it is monument of the real American folk music.

Listen to Ritchie's accompaniment on the dulcimer. She isn't playing chords -- she's improvising harmonies and countermelodies, the same way she and her family did at home.

"We never sang "Saro" without harmony -- just made-up, natural harmonies," she said of their singing on the Mudcat thread. "It's gorgeous, to use a modern adjective! It's one of those tunes calls for harmony, and almost everything one sings sounds great. I used to sing what we called a 'low tenor,'...made a lovely bottom for the song."

There is dulcimer tab available on line at


... and it looks like it's pretty close to Jean Ritchie's version of the traditional song. (I'm not 100 percent sure -- I haven't played it -- but it looks OK on paper. If you play the dulcimer you might want to retune to DAA, though, since the melody is tabbed out on the A string.) The very best way to learn it -- and get a feel for her lovely, simple harmonies -- is to pick up a copy of Jean Ritchie's "Dulcimer Book" (1963).

"The Dulcimer Book" is the book most of us learned to play from back in the day, and it's still in print. Look for it online at Amazon.com, Folkcraft, McSpadden and other outlets. Her tab has fret numbers -- no chords, the dulcimer wasn't (and IMO still isn't) a chordal instrument -- and standard notation. It's in C instead of D, but if you tune the dulcimer to CGG or DAA, you can follow the fret numbers till you know it by ear and the instrument will transpose to whichever key you tune it to.


* Jean Ritchie was the guest of honor at a gallery reception for industrial arts professor Allan Mills' exhibition of antique Kentucky dulcimers at Berea College in the fall of 2012. From left, in picture above: A caretaker whose name I didn't get, Jean Ritchie, luthier Warren May of Berea and Mills.

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