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Jean Ritchie

Born into a large family of fourteen singing siblings on December 8, 1922, Viper, Perry County, Kentucky, the youngest of them, balladeer JEAN RITCHIE (with her trusty lap dulcimer) was one of the first signings on Jac Holzman’s Elektra Records, and arguably the earliest female purveyor of Appalachian mountain folk-music. Graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1946, Jean found work at New York’s Henry Street Settlement for children in care; she’d repay those times with a handful of children’s recordings. From working with folklorist ALAN LOMAX (at the Library of Congress) in the late 40s, to meeting PETE SEEGER, OSCAR BRAND and LEADBELLY, to her Fulbright scholarship sojourn with the English Folk and Dance Society at Cecil Sharp House in London in the early 50s (she also featured on a bill at the Royal Albert Hall), RITCHIE was collating numerous songs to record on her return.
1952’s solo debut, …SINGING THE TRADITIONAL SONGS OF HER TRADITIONAL KENTUCKY MOUNTAIN FAMILY {*7}, was inspirational, a truly wholesome all-round set that guaranteed a voice on radio and appearances on television. Subsequent LPs for Elektra (and Riverside) continued to sell enough copies to maintain a decent enough lifestyle, although her work with photographer/dulcimer maker George Pickow (whom she married in 1950) gave her a secondary source of income. If one were to pick out a few from her horde of 50s & 60s LPs, one could do no wrong by finding RIDDLE ME THIS (1958) {*7}, a collaboration with OSCAR BRAND, BRITISH TRADITIONAL BALLADS (CHILD BALLADS) IN THE SOUTHERN MOUNTAINS – VOLUME 1 & 2 (both 1961) {*7/*7} and AT FOLK CITY (1963) {*6}, the latter alongside DOC WATSON.
Launching her Greenhays imprint with hubby George in the mid-70s, RITCHIE delivered several traditional folk albums, but this was after one of her greatest achievements, NONE BUT ONE (1977) {*8}, a record which had the distinction of including guest spots from MARY TRAVERS, JANIS IAN, OSCAR BRAND, SUSAN REED, Claire Bey and her own sons Peter and Jon Pickow. The aforementioned Greenhays were behind some of her best modern-day work: HIGH HILLS AND MOUNTAINS (1979) {*7}, THE MOST DULCIMER (1984) {*7} – in answer to her most frequently asked question: “which of your albums has the most dulcimer?”, KENTUCKY CHRISTMAS, OLD AND NEW (1987) {*6} and MOUNTAIN BORN (1996) {*5}, while her sister Edna Ritchie was also recorded for her own solo `Kentucky Viper’ set.
Post-millennium and now in her 80th year, she was awarded a fellowship at the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage and was subsequently inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame; she was living at the time in Port Washington, NY. Sadly of late, December 2009, Jean suffered a stroke which has left her without the ability to speak; she subsequently received institutional care and lived out her remaining years until she died at her home in Berea, Kentucky on June 1, 2015.
© MC Strong 2010/GFD // rev-up MCS Jun2015

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