Jean Ritchie's voice ---untrained, pure and powerful ---still rises high and clear, like the deep blue sky of autumn over her beloved Cumberland Mountains. Often accompanied by the simple melodic drone of her trademark mountain dulcimer, it harks back to a time when the human voice was instrument enough.
[ Editor's note: Appalchian dulcimer musician Jean Ritchie died June 1, 2015. This article was originally published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Oct. 15, 1997. A memorial gathering for Jean Ritchie is scheduled from 2 p.m. Sunday at Union Church in Berea, Ky, followed by a 4 p.m. Memorial Service. According to kentucky. Davis and Powell Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements. According to Kentucky.com, her family asks that donations be made in lieu of flowers to Appalachian Voices, 171 Grand Boulevard, Boone, N.C. 28607. ]
At 74, one of the greatest living American folk singers still performs, records and composes ---despite having to steady herself with a cane, albeit an intricately carved one, made by her late brother-in-law. She returns Friday and Saturday to Asheville's Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands for something of a double anniversary: Ritchie performed at the first fair in 1948 at the beginning of her singing career, and she's back for its 50th.
Despite the years, Ritchie is still beautiful. Her blue eyes sparkle; her waves of strawberry blond hair ---now with a touch of gray ---are pulled back from a well-lined face.
"You have so much highly produced music these days that you rarely hear someone just get up onstage and sing, " Ritchie tells an admiring audience later that night at nearby Asbury College. "But as long as they keep inviting me, " she adds, "I'll keep singing."
Soon the high-ceilinged hall is filled with nothing but her voice as she stands, closes her eyes and sings "Loving Hannah, " a haunting love song almost as old as the mountains themselves, which she learned on the front porch as a child. She alternates between the dulcimer, auto harp and guitar in a two-hour show that ends as it started, with her unaccompanied voice soaring out over the assembled in "Amazing Grace."
Ritchie is of that generation that was born and raised into traditional music. It wasn't folk music her family sang as they worked the corn fields, walked the rough roads and rested in the twilight on the porch. It was just plain music. "We sang to entertain ourselves, there was no other entertainment, " she says, in the log house she shares with husband George Pickow, a photographer and documentary filmmaker. Here in the small woodsy village of Viper, the same rugged hollow where she grew up the youngest of Balis and Abigail Ritchie's 14 children, she's surrounded by the source of her music.
"I learned from my parents, " she says. "As they sang as they walked some lonely road, it would echo between the hills and keep them company." Ritchie took those traditions to New York City in 1946 to work as a music counselor and social worker in an after-school program. Before long, she was swept up in the Greenwich Village folk movement, performing with such legends as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Doc Watson and Oscar Brand. Before she began playing the mountain dulcimer in New York, the instrument was little known outside Appalachia. Now, thanks greatly to her, the dulcimer is popular around the world.
More than a folk singer, Ritchie became a scholar and a prolific chronicler of her heritage. In the past 50 years, she has collected more than 300 songs from the Southern Appalachians, most from her own family, as well as scores of others from the British Isles, the ancestral home of her music. (A Fulbright scholarship took here there in the early '50s.) She has written 25 songs and reworked another 30 traditional ballads and love tunes. Her "The L and N Don't Stop Here Anymore" has been recorded by Johnny Cash and Michelle Shocked, while "My Dear Companion" was covered in 1987 by the trio of Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.
She has published 10 books, including the tender memoir "Singing Family of the Cumberlands" (1955) and the historic "Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians" (1965), both recently reissued by The University of Kentucky Press. And she has recorded more than 30 albums ---the most recent being 1995's "Mountain Born, " with her sons Peter and Jonathan Pickow.
"Her importance is not only her singing and the preserving of songs and the maintaining of family traditions, says Charles Wolfe, a Middle Tennessee State folklorist and expert on Southern folk music. "But she had the ability, the interest, the skill to present that to a larger more general audience. "She is the best-known woman who is actually an honest-to-God traditional singer ---as opposed to someone like Judy Collins or Joan Baez, who sing songs and do them well, but they don't come from the traditional area themselves."
Not that she's bound by tradition: Inspired by the protest songs of Guthrie and Seeger, Ritchie wrote "Black Waters, " about coal strip mines poisoning the streams of her home county, as well as other topical songs. And her 1977 album "None But One" included electric instruments and percussion as well as pop production. It won top folk awards from Rolling Stone and Melody Maker magazines and remains her most popular record.
Since 1955, she and her husband have spent most of the year on a hilltop house in Port Washington, N.Y., just outside the city. Three months of the year, the couple returns to Viper to live in this house that reminds you of Ritchie's career: built from hand-hewn logs, collected ---like her songs ---from the homes and barns of family and neighbors in Viper.
She performs about 20 times a year, mostly at festivals and fairs in the Southern hills. Pickow's photos of Kentucky and the Ritchie family in the 1950s flash from a video projector during some concerts, and grace most of her books and album covers.
"I'd like to be remembered as a voice for the good guys as versus the bad guys in the world, " Ritchie says. "One of my songs says, about Mom: 'Know that your life, its hopes, joys and sorrows, bring us one step along in God's great purpose here.' I'd like to be known as a healer."
At the 1968 Newport Folk Festival, her ability to soothe became legend.
The mostly young crowd was rowdy, shouting for more of Arlo Guthrie, who had just electrified the place with a new song called "Alice's Restaurant."
"This was the close of the festival and Pete (Seeger) didn't want it to end that way, " Ritche says, relishing a story you can tell she's told before. "He pushed me, he literally pushed me out in front of the microphone and said, 'Go! Go finish the festival.' I knew they were going to eat me up. I didn't know what they were going to do.
"The only thing I could think of was 'Amazing Grace.' I started to sing it in the old regular Baptist way, just decorated and slow and high. They just quieted down like someone had poured water on them. By the time I finished, you could hear a pin drop."
And you don't doubt her for a second.
Editor's note: Appalchian dulcimer musician Jean Ritchie died June 1, 2015. This article was originally published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Oct. 15, 1997
A tribute to Jean Ritchie on Appalachian Voices begins with this line: Above all, kindness always lit up the face of Jean Ritchie.