PINEVILLE - Using a cane, the 83-year-old woman moved slowly to the front of The Bell Theatre to take her place quietly in front of the microphone on Thursday night.
Apologizing for her voice, which was affected slightly by hoarseness and a bad cough due to an oncoming cold, she announced she planned to sing “a few old family songs.”
“This is the only kind of music we had,” she said, referring to her childhood as the youngest of 14 children growing up in the rural Letcher County community of Viper, just south of Hazard in the heart of the Cumberland Mountains. “We didn't have no radios, no movies - the first movie I ever saw was silent. We didn't have no record players. We just had our own voices and our imaginations. At night, we'd sit down on the porch and sing.”
And then, as her audience of 100-something people of all generations listened in attentive silence, she sang, unaccompanied, the traditional mountain folk ballad, “All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies” in a voice that, while showing her years, still sounded as clear and true as the air on a Cumberland Mountain peak.
Ritchie's appearance at The Bell Theatre was part of the 30th anniversary of the Great American Dulcimer Convention, an internationally important cultural event that probably would not have existed if Ritchie, at age four or five, had not defied her father's edict for his children not to touch his dulcimer. By teaching herself to pick out “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” she began the journey that would eventually earn her a Fulbright Scholarship and become one of the most influential traditional folk musicians of her lifetime.
An influencer of artists as diverse as Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, Ritchie has seen her music recorded by artists as diverse as Johnny Cash and Michelle Shocked, who both gave unique interpretations to her original song, “The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore.” One of the most famous recordings of a Ritchie tune was by three music superstars, Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, who used Ritchie's song about strip mining in Kentucky, “My Dear Companion,” on their now legendary “Trio” album.
As part of the evening, Ritchie, who turns 84 on Dec. 8, was made an honorary mayor of Pineville and presented with a plaque signed Gov. Ernie Fletcher and presented by a gushing representative of the Kentucky Department of Tourism, all of which she accepted with bemused grace and dignity. Then, as an introduction to her concert, the audience was treated to a showing of the 1996 documentary film, “Mountain Born: The Jean Ritchie Story,” which featured vintage performances by Ritchie with artists as diverse as Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie and tributes from musicians as diverse as Tom Paxton, Naomi Judd and Ritchie's own sons, Peter and John Pickow.
For many in the audience, the film's highlight included vintage 1950s-era home movies of Ritchie's parents and siblings, the latter with children and grandchildren of their own by that point, sitting on the family homestead's front porch and recreating the evenings from their childhood in which they would all sing hymns and old-time folk songs together in beautiful and sometimes complex harmonies. Ritchie's family history is key to her career, because of the influence of her parents, Balis and Abigail Ritchie, both proponents of education and passionate music lovers at a time and place where such interests were not common.
Balis Ritchie, who left school in the eighth grade, eventually worked his way up to what his daughter described as “a normal school” in Lebanon, Ohio, where he received teaching certification and returned to Kentucky.
“He was determined that all of his children would get a good education,” Jean Ritchie recalled. “People would ask, ‘Even the girls?' and he'd say, “Even the girls.” Considering that Jean was one of 10 sisters and four brothers, that was a major accomplishment.
Jean Ritchie, as a child, quickly memorized songs, performed at local dances and the county fair in Hazard. In the late 1940s, the family acquired a radio and discovered that what they were singing was considered “hillbilly music” by the rest of the world, a word they had never heard before.
She attended Cumberland College in Williamsburg and later the University of Kentucky in Lexington. At college she joined the glee club and choir and learned to play the piano. After a short stint In 1946, she graduated with a bachelor's degree in social work, and after a short stint as an elementary school teacher during World War II, she moved to work in the Henry Street Settlement House in New York, where she worked with children from Jewish-, Italian- and Puerto Rican-American backgrounds and taught them games and songs she learned as a child in the Kentucky mountains. This experience inspired her to write the song, “None but One,” with the message of “all people being one people.”
In New York, Ritchie met 1950s-era folk singers Oscar Brand, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger, all of whom were exploring America's rich heritage of folk music. They, along with folk music historian Alan Lomax, became interested in her plain, traditional songs which she sang in a pure, untrained soprano, accompanied only by strumming her dulcimer, an instrument not well known in music circles up to that point.
Brand, in particular, influenced her career by making her a regular on the WNYC radio program, “Oscar Brand's Folksong Festival.”
It was during this time that she met her husband, a Jewish-American photographer, George Pickow, who said in the film, “I didn't like her music so much, but I thought she was pretty and liked her.” After their marriage in 1950, they became supporters of each other's work, and sometimes combined their efforts.
“When I took him to meet my family, I was worried we might meet with some prejudice,” Ritchie recalled. “When I told my mother I married a Jewish man, she smiled and said, “Oh, you've done well for yourself! They're God's chosen people!”
After Ritchie won a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship in 1952, Pickow traveled with her and documented a journey to the British Isles, where she met with traditional musicians to document folk ballads that were centuries old. In the process, Ritchie shared her own songs from the Kentucky hills and inspired at least one young Irish musician - the teen-age Tommy Makem - to begin his own career as a collector and performer of traditional Irish ballads.
Participation in the famed Newport Folk Festival during the 1960s gave Ritchie opportunity to share stages with folk megastars like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, and allowed younger performers to be exposed to Appalachian music and the dulcimer. As a result, Ritchie's songs began to be recorded by other artists, including those involved in the antiwar and environmental movements, the latter of whom found inspiration in Ritchie's original songs about strip mining and Appalachian poverty.
Among the younger artists influenced by Ritchie are Terry Duggins and Ehukai Tevis, two Hawaiian dulcimer artists who joined her on-stage at the Bell Theater. Duggins became the target of some good-humored kidding by Ritchie when they got into a dispute during a duet rendition of one song.
“He might learn it someday,” she told her audience after the song, some verses mangled, was over. “I might learn it, too.”
Tevis, with a strong, rich baritone voice, impressed the audience with a song he wrote about “Waiting for my Jean Ritchie Dulcimer,” describing his impatience while his order for a specially-crafted Ritchie-style dulcimer was delivered.
Ritchie's performance included haunting ballads like “Barbary Allen,” which made its way from the British Isles through the centuries to become a well-known Appalachian folk favorite and a children's “kissing song,” which Ritchie explained was a song that girls used on the school yards to annoy boys.
“The boys weren't interested in kissing, of course, so they'd be off playing while the girls would sing the kissing song. When it came time to kiss, a girl would use a boy's name, and when the other boys would hear it, they'd tease the boy and he'd have to fight them,” she said. “Oh, there's all kinds of politics goes on at a school ground!”
Ritchie ended her concert with a traditional hymn, “Amazing Grace,” well-known to nearly everyone present. As one by one, audience members joined in, some adding high and low harmonies, Ritchie's family heritage - and all the musical traditions of Appalachia - seemed to add to the chorus. And everyone present could say, “I've sung with Jean Ritchie.”
Photo by JAMES-CLIFTON SPIRES/Daily News
Photo by JAMES-CLIFTON SPIRES/Daily News