Jean Ritchie (1922-2015) was a traditional musician from Kentucky. She had great influence on American music in the 20th century as a performer, author, recording artist, composer, and folk music preservationist.
Ritchie was born in 1922 in Viper, Kentucky, into a family that considered music extremely important. In addition to singing as a means of entertainment, they used songs to accompany daily activities such as sweeping, churning, and working in the fields. When they got together in the evening to sing as a family, they chose from a repertoire of more than 300 songs. Among them were hymns, traditional love songs and ballads, and popular songs. While much of the music that was to become central to Ritchie’s later performance repertoire originated at home, other influences on her musical development cannot be overlooked. Besides the songs of family and friends, she was exposed to the music of the Old Regular Baptist church meetings the family attended regularly and to popular culture, particularly radio and recording. It is interesting to note that the one thing absent from Ritchie’s musical background is formal training.
After graduating from high school in Viper, Ritchie attended Cumberland Junior College in Williamsburg, Ky. From there she went to the University of Kentucky, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1946. With a bachelor’s degree in social work in hand, she moved to New York City to work at the Henry Street Settlement. There she drew on her knowledge of family songs to entertain the children in her charge.
Gradually, Ritchie’s reputation as a folk singer grew, and she was asked to perform more formally. For folk music fans of the 1940s, Ritchie represented the ideal traditional performer: she grew up in the mountains of Kentucky, sang songs that she learned from her family, and played a then-little-known stringed instrument called a dulcimer. Her own songwriting represented the traditional practice of altering tunes and lyrics, even from performance to performance, and creating new songs on the foundation of older songs. When Ritchie’s album None But One won the Rolling Stone Critics’ Award in 1977, her acceptance into the popular mainstream was secured.
Ritchie maintained an active performing and writing career well into her 80s, her soprano voice remaining clear and lovely. She also combined her authentic mountain music background with a scholarly touch, collecting, documenting, and writing songbooks about traditional music.