Jean Ritchie, Appalachian balladeer and folklorist, sang with a high lonesome sound that ranged from dulcet to doleful—a sound ornamented with trills and quivers in the “good old way” of her Kentucky forebears. Ms. Ritchie died Monday at the age of 92.
Born on December 8, 1922, in Perry County, Kentucky, Jean Ritchie was the youngest of 14 children in one of the great Cumberland Mountain ballad-singing families. Since music was part of her daily life, she was able to learn hundreds of Appalachian ballads and folk songs as part of an oral tradition that stretched back to the British Isles. Often accompanying herself on the lap dulcimer, an instrument unique to Appalachia, she brought her repertoire to New York City in the late 1940s, where she met Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie, Oscar Brand, and other members of the Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene. In spite of the fact that she preferred singing unaccompanied, the delicate sound of the dulcimer became a signature for Ms. Ritchie, leading to a surge in the use of the instrument among folk music enthusiasts outside of Appalachia.
Jean Ritchie’s popularity grew with the release of her first three albums on Elektra Records: Jean Ritchie Sings (1952), Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family (1957) and A Time for Singing (1962). During this time, Ms. Ritchie not only published protest songs about the horrible conditions for workers in the mines of Kentucky (using a pseudonym to avoid upsetting her apolitical mother), but also traveled to Britain and Ireland on a Fulbright Scholarship to collect ballads and trace the origins of the Appalachian tunes she knew so well. “The Mother of Folk,” as she was often called, brought ballads and work songs to folk festivals across the country, performing with artists like Doc Watson and Pete Seeger in an effort to preserve and promote the traditional music of her native Appalachia.
Not surprisingly then, the Florida Folklife Collection contains some fantastic performances by Ms. Ritchie, including this 1976 concert at the Stephen Foster Center: