Jean Ritchie, The “Mother of Folk”

Jean Ritchie’s 1998 Folk Alliance International Lifetime Achievement Award

In the 1970s there was a growing interest in all things Appalachian. There was the popular Foxfire magazine, the project of a teacher and his students in Rabun County, Georgia. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band revived old-time music and introduced legendary musicians to a new audience through their seminal album “May The Circle Be Unbroken.”

In West Virginia, where I lived, college campuses held Mountain Music Festivals, where modern balladeers performed and dulcimer-makers demonstrated their craft.

The seeds of this interest were planted in large part by Jean Ritchie (December 8, 1922-June 1, 2015). The Kentucky-born Ritchie was part of a family famous for preserving the old British ballads that had echoed through the hills and valleys of the south for centuries.

When she moved to Manhattan in the 1940s to become a social worker, she took her music and dulcimer with her. According to Wikipedia, she met the folk legends Pete Seeger and Lead Belly, shared the stage with The Weavers and Woody Guthrie, and was befriended by the folklorist Alan Lomax, who recorded her songs for the Library of Congress.

She was a frequent performer at the Newport Folk Festival and the very first artist to appear on the Elektra label.

She even helped spark a revival of the dulcimer by making dulcimers at a workshop in Brooklyn that she operated with her husband George Pickow.

Jean Ritchie sings “Shady Grove” on Pete Seeger’s “Rainbow Quest”