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Jean Ritchie Biography

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Jean Ritchie (born 1922) is an American folk singer and Appalachian dulcimer player.

In the mid-thirties Alan Lomax recorded in Kentucky for the Library of Congress's Archive of Folk Song. Among the people he recorded was "The Singing Ritchies". Abigail and Balis Ritchie had 14 children and Jean was the last one, born on the 8th December 1922. 10 girls slept in one room of the farming family in the Cumberland Mountains. She quickly memorised songs and performed at local dances and the country fair in Hazard. In the late forties the family acquired a radio and discovered that what they were singing was Hillbilly music, a word they had never heard before. Jean attended Cumberland College in Williamsburg, Kentucky and later the University of Kentucky in Lexington. At college she joined the glee club and choir and learned to play piano. In 1946 she graduated with a BA in social work. During the war she taught in elementary school. In the summer of 1946 she moved to work in the Henry Street Settlement in New York. Here she met Oscar Brand, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger and started singing her family songs again. In 1948 she shared the stage with The Weavers, Woody Guthrie and Betty Sanders at the Spring Fever Hootenanny. Oscar Brand's Folksong Festival on WNYC radio adopted her as a regular by October 1949.

Mostly Jean sang unaccompanied folk songs but occasionally accompanied herself on guitar or lap dulcimer (not a hammer dulcimer). Balis Ritchie played dulcimer but forbade his children to touch it. At the age of 4 or 5 Jean defied the ruling to pick out "Go Tell Aunt Rhody". By 1949 it was an instrument that marked Jean Ritchie out as distinct from all other singers. Jean and her husband George Pickow became convinced there was a potential boom. George's uncle, Morris Pickow set up a workshop under Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn. George did the finishing and Jean did the tuning. Soon they had sold 300. Today most folk festivals have several people selling dulcimers. Elektra records signed her up and released three albums, "Jean Ritchie Sings" (1952), "Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family" (1957) and "A Time for Singing" (1962). She had a charming voice rather than a powerful or dramatic one, but it was authentic. Her fans would ask her "Which album has the most dulcimer?" She finally gave in, recording an album called "The Most Dulcimer" in 1992.

In the early 1940's George Pickow was at Camp Unity in New York. There he heard Cisco Houston and Woody Guthrie jamming every night in a tiny cabin. He took up a career as a photographer, but still went to square dances. He met Jean and put her on the front cover of a trucker's magazine. They married in 1950. In 1953 Alan Lomax, George Pickow and Peter Kennedy directed a film "Oss Oss Wee Oss" (Colour, 16 minues) showing the May Eve and May Day Festival at Padstow, Cornwall, England. George visited Britain again in 1960. In 1961 Alan Lomax and George Pickow directed "Ballads, Blues, Bluegrass".

Jean Ritchie was awarded a Fulbright award to trace the links between American ballads and the songs of Ireland and the UK. As a song-collector, she began by setting down the 300 songs that she already knew from her mother's knee. Jean Ritchie spent 18 months tape recording and interviewing singers. George accompanied her, photographing Seamus Ennis, the McPeakes, Leo Rowsome, Sarah Makem and others. One of Jean's own songs was Child Ballad 76, "Lass of Lochlroyan". She was delighted to discover that an elderly Irish woman Elizabeth Cronin knew a version of the same song. In 1955 Jean wrote a book about her family called "Singing Family of the Cumberlands".

Jean became known as "The Mother of Folk". As well as work songs and ballads, Jean knew hymns from the "Regular Baptist" church she attended in Jeff, Kentucky. These were sung as "lining out" songs, in a lingering soulful way. One of the songs they sang was Amazing Grace. She wrote some songs, including one on the effects of strip mining in Kentucky. "My Dear Companion" appeared on the album "Trio" recorded by Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. Judy Collins not only recorded some of Jean's traditional songs, "Tender Ladies" and "Pretty Saro", but used a photograph by George Pickow on the front of her album "Golden Apples of the Sun" (1962). Jean's fiftieth anniversary album was "Mountain Born" (1995), which features her two sons Peter and Jonathan Pickow. In 1954 Jean and George released some their UK recordings under the name "Field Trip". It was re-issued in 2001 on the Greenhays label. It has recordings by Elizabeth Cronin, Seamus Ennis and others, side by side with Ritchie family versions of the same songs. In 1996 the Ritchie Pickow Photographic Archive was acquired by the James Hardiman Library, National University of Ireland, Galway, along with tapes of Irish recordings. She has performed in Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall, London. Her album "None But One" was awarded the Rolling Stone Critics award in 1977.
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