It’s a crisp May evening on the front lawn of Union College in Barbourville. A light spring breeze carries a scent of wisteria over to the crowd gathered on the fresh green grass. The group speaks in hushed, reverent tones as the legendary Jean Ritchie makes her way to a makeshift stage in the new gazebo. She moves gingerly, using her trusted cane, smiling and nodding to everyone.
Almost out of nowhere, Ritchie’s nieces appear beside her. And as soon as the four women open their mouths, ancient tones join the wind and bear the audience back in time to the 1930s, back to Balis and Abigail Ritchie’s front porch in the Perry County hollow of Viper:
Cheeks as red as a bloomin’ rose
Eyes of the deepest brown
You are the darlin’ of my heart
Stay til the sun goes down
Mesmerized, the crowd has no intention of going anywhere. Across the street, a few local residents venture out to sit on their porches and listen to Ritchie sing the classic Shady Grove.
The youngest of 14 children, Ritchie grew up singing songs such as this with her sisters and brothers, songs handed down through her family and others in eastern Kentucky. “We’d sing while we worked and played, while we walked or did anything at all. We’d sing in the cornfields or over the dishes while we washed them,” she recalls.
Balis Ritchie sometimes played his dulcimer–which his children were not allowed to touch–usually off by himself to relax at the end of a long, hard day in the fields. One of Ritchie’s earliest memories is of defying that rule by teaching herself to play Go Tell Aunt Rhodie when she was only 5 years old. She soon began singing at fairs and dances around Hazard.
In 1946, she graduated from the University of Kentucky with a B.A. in social work, and later took a job at the Henry Street Settlement in Manhattan. While in New York, Ritchie met other important musicians and became at home singing her mountain songs on the same bill as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and The Weavers.
Since then, Ritchie has performed her familyï¿½s songs from the smoky coffeehouses of Greenwich Village to the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York, the Royal Albert Hall in London, England, and back home to the forks of Troublesome Creek at Hindman Settlement School in Knott County. And if the 85-year-old has her way, she’ll be singing them for many more years to come.
“It keeps you alive longer,” she says, sitting at her dining room table at home in Port Washington, New York. (She also maintains a home in Perry County, Kentucky.) “It wouldn’t be much fun sitting in a nursing home, just waiting. If you want to stay longer in this world, you have to join in.”
Ritchie’s participation is steady these days, if a little less frequent. Her passion for mountain music has never waned; she still plays her dulcimer regularly. She insists on coming home every June for Appalachian Family Folk Week in Hindman and the Ritchie Family Reunion in nearby Viper. The Great American Dulcimer Convention, held annually at Pine Mountain State Resort Park in Pineville, is also a favorite event. Otherwise, she limits herself to about a dozen appearances a year, and special performances for causes such as the fight against mountaintop removal mining.
“I have given myself a lot of leeway in my old age,” Ritchie laughs. “I sleep late in the mornings, I turn down things. I keep thinking, ‘You’re old, you have to act like it.’ But things keep coming up that I can’t refuse. I still try to do everything I can.”
That still includes writing the occasional song, she says. As the author of beloved classics such as The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore, Black Waters, Blue Diamond Mines, My Dear Companion, and Sorrow in the Wind, Ritchie’s position among the songwriting greats is certainly assured.
She laughs at herself as she recalls writing Blue Diamond Mines during an excursion with her husband, acclaimed photographer and producer George Pickow. “We were driving on a big trip and we went through a big pine forest. I was singing In the pines/in the pines/where the sun/never shines, and George said, ‘Why don’t you do a song called In the mines/in the mines?’ And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s silly.’ Then later on I felt, ‘Well, that is good, that’s a very natural thing to sing.'”
Ritchie hums a note to herself before launching into a chorus:
In the mines, in the mines
In the Blue Diamond Mines
I have worked my life away
In the mines, in the mines
In the Blue Diamond Mines
Oh fall on your knees and pray
It has become one of her most enduring compositions, most recently recorded by Kathy Mattea. Other songs have been widely sought out through the years, sung by such luminaries as June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, The Judds, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt, among others.
Singing Family of the Cumberlands (1955, Oxford University Press), her memoir about growing up in Perry County, is considered a gem of Appalachian literature. Her popular songbooks also remain in print.
Such acclaim is what led The New York Times to recently call Ritchie a “national treasure.” Now, the Library of Congress is making that title official. The institution recently acquired her entire body of work–recordings, writings, letters–to add to the nation’s collection: “It’s the most central place for researchers in the country, so that’s the thing that pleases me the most.”
She admits that the process of sifting through more than 60 years’ worth of work has made her nostalgic. “I’ve found all kinds of letters from people I had forgotten that I knew, saying wonderful things, commenting about the times and how they were when they wrote the letter,” she smiles. “I don’t want to give them away, but at the same time, I like the fact that we’re preserving that time. Preservation is important.”
Other institutions are also finding ways to continue Ritchie’s legacy. In 2002, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded her a prestigious Heritage Fellowship.
She was inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame that same year. Berea College, Union College, and the University of Kentucky have all awarded her honorary degrees. Just this October, she was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame.
Ritchie typically chooses to sing in lieu of the requisite commencement address. Her a cappella performance of The Cool of the Day at Union College this past May silenced the restless audience of 1,000, bringing many to tears. They rewarded her with a thunderous standing ovation.
Lincoln Memorial University has gone one step further. Following the request of an anonymous donor, bestselling novelist and writer-in-residence Silas House recently announced the establishment of the Jean Ritchie Fellowship in Appalachian Literature, a $1,500 annual grant given to an emerging Appalachian writer. It is the largest such award in the region.
“Appalachian literature is all about preservation, and nobody epitomizes that better than Jean’s music and writing and who she is as a person,” House says. “People say there are no Appalachian heroes. Well, she’s proof that that’s not true.”
Other Kentucky artists share that view. The Reel World String Band always cites her as one of their main influences. In a joint statement, band members say, “Jean Ritchie means everything to us as a band. Her folksy style and pride in her eastern Kentucky roots were just the beginning of her influence on our music.”
Kate Larken, a Louisville-based singer-songwriter, says she’s been inspired by Ritchie’s generosity. “I was talking with Jean one time at Appalshop,” she recalls. “I said to her, ‘I sing your songs sometimes.’ She said right back, ‘Good, keep singing them.’ I took that to mean she knows the messages have to get out there. Even in her 80s, she’s not sitting back.”
One thing she has never remained silent on is the environment. Ritchie says it is sometimes painful to think of what surface mining and mountaintop removal have done to her beloved mountains: “They’re destroying our memories.”
She pauses, smoothing her long red hair. “I feel that I’m still a resident of Kentucky. I still have land up in the holler,” she says proudly, noting that she has preserved her family’s homeplace and has built a newer cabin nearby.
Still, Ritchie admits it’s sometimes difficult returning to Perry County. “The memories, they just push right down on me sometimes,” she says quietly, eyes watering. “I think of Hazard, people sitting on the courthouse benches, people walking down the streets. I think of 1940s Perry County. Home. Everybody who was there isn’t there anymore. Nowadays I think about how it looks now, and how it used to look. We get to go less and less.”
To compensate, Ritchie has surrounded herself with reminders of eastern Kentucky in her Port Washington cottage. Musical instruments, stained-glass panels, and photographs, all crafted by husband Pickow, are proudly displayed. It’s an inspiring work environment, she points out, turning to her upcoming projects, including a book of family stories she’s considering turning over to a family member.
“I’m trying very hard to retire,” she grins. “But there are things that I just have to try to do.”
MORE ABOUT JEAN RITCHIE
For more information about Jean Ritchie, go online to www.jeanritchie.com. You’ll find interesting stories, old Ritchie family photos, a sampling of her music, books, and you can purchase CDs of various albums.
On her 1996 Mountain Born album, Ritchie celebrates 50 years of singing Appalachian music along with sons Jon and Peter.
Writes Ritchie, “The title song, Mountain Born, just about sums up how I feel about my Kentucky hills, my kith and kin–my home. Like most of my 40 or so albums, Mountain Born follows the ‘slice-of-life’ idea. Some love songs, a child’s song, a hymn, a play-party, honor songs for home, for family. A collection of songs to celebrate, again, a way of life, a loved place in the world, and pass on the memories gathered by all the people there.”
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: APPALACHIAN FAMILY FOLK WEEK
For information on Appalachian Family Folk Week held each June on the campus of Hindman Settlement School, go to Folk Week.