A Tribute to Jean Ritchie, Mountain Dulcimer Legend

Several weeks ago I was searching through my bookshelf and ran across some of Jean Ritchie’s music books. Upon opening one of the books,  I found her autograph. With time going by, I’d forgotten about the books and autograph. But now the autograph has a special significance.Jean Ritchie Autographed Book-IMG_3834_1

Perhaps you have never heard of Jean Ritchie. But in the mountain dulcimer world, she holds a unique place. Jean passed away June 2015 in her 90’s.

Jean Ritchie, from Viper, Kentucky, had a beautiful singing voice and accompanied her singing with the mountain dulcimer. Born in 1922, she moved to New York City after graduating from college in social work in 1946. Jean worked in an orphanage, the Henry Street Settlement, and hoped to bring her mountain culture to the city. In New York City, Jean joined the thriving folk music scene and befriended many of the folk musicians of the time including Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. She is called ‘Mother of Folk Music” and is largely credited with keeping the mountain dulcimer and it’s music alive from the 40’s to 70’s.

Jean Ritchie at Appalachian State University Dulcimer Playing Workshop

Jean Ritche was a guest artist in 1998 at Lois Hornblstel’s  21st Annual Appalachian State University Dulcimer Playing Workshop in Boone, North Carolina. The week-long event of workshops, classes, concerts and jamming included a “dulcimer orchestra” with music arranged by Ken Bloom. Ken arranged several songs in multiple dulcimer parts including “Simple Gifts”. The music filled the auditorium and Jean Ritchie sang as the dulcimer orchestra accompanied her. Her voice was beautiful and strong.

Jean Ritchie also performed in concert Wednesday evening. I remember her singing and was impressed with the way she used the dulcimer. The dulcimer was an accompaniment to her singing voice and many times Jean played a counter melody or harmonizing chords on her dulcimer. I had never heard anyone play the dulcimer in that manner. In her book, “The Dulcimer Book”, Jean explains that she couldn’t hear her voice when playing melody on the dulcimer so she started playing harmony with the dulcimer. Well, it’s not a coincidence that I noticed this.

Here’s a You-Tube link to Jean playing “the Cuckoo”. This is an excellent example of this style of playing. It is used here with permission from Evo Bluestein. The video from CSU, Fresno Folk Artist in Residence 1980, courtesy of Jean Ritchie, The Bluestein Family and the UNC, Chapel Hill Folk Archives.

After one of her performances, Jean autographed books. “A Celebration of Life” contains original poems and songs. This is the book she autographed for me.

Jean Ritchie’s Legacy

Jean Ritchie was born in Viper, Kentucky,  a small mountain town in southeastern Kentucky. She was the youngest of fourteen children in a very musical family. She learned ballads and mountain songs from her mother, father and other family members. The family and their extensive repertory of songs were sought out by well-known English ballad song collector, Cecil Sharp, early in the century. There were mountain dulcimers in the home and Jean learned to play and sing with the dulcimer.

The Ritchie family valued education; the father was a school teacher. Ten of the children attended college. Jean received a degree in social work and headed to New York City to work in the Henry Street Settlement orphanage. There she became involved in the folk music scene meeting folk song collector, Alan Lomax, her future husband, Peter Picklow, and many folk singers.

Jean had a beautiful voice and a special way of singing mountain ballads. She and her photographer husband built and sold dulcimers while living in New York City. Jean sang and performed with the dulcimer. She authored several books of her music and the dulcimer and made recordings of her songs for Alan Lomax for his Library of Congress collections. She performed at the Newport News Music Festival in the summer.

Jean received a Fulbright Scholarship to travel in the British Isles to document the links between the ballads she sang in the Kentucky mountains and their English, Scottish and Irish roots. According the “The Dulcimer Book”, Jean valued the old ballads and songs — at a time when young folks began listing to the “new music” on the Jude box — and kept the old songs alive through her singing.

The Dulcimer Book and Connection to Jean Ritchie

For many years Jean’s book, “The Dulcimer Book”, was the only instructional book available on how to play the dulcimer. This is one of the first books I purchased early in my quest to learn to play the dulcimer. The book is an interesting essay on Jean’s take on the history of the dulcimer and how she plays it. It is sort of a glimpse back into history.

Many people have a strong connection to Jean Ritchie as they knew of her and her reputation through the years. Mine reference point is mainly through her books and what I”ve learned through other people. I’ll always appreciate the one time I heard her beautiful voice as she sang in concert at the Appalachian State U. Dulcimer workshop.


Jean Ritchie, 92, introduced mountain dulcimer music to the world BY JOHN CHEVES jcheves@herald-leader.com June 2, 2015

Jean Ritchie. Wikipedia.  en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Ritchie

“The Dulcimer Book” by Jean Ritchie

“Jean Ritchie Celebration of Life” by Jean Ritchie

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