Jean Ritchie, mother of folk

So many songs have been adapted and sung or otherwise performed in a Bluegrass venue, but often, such songs were written by someone from another culture. For example, Ada Blenkhorn, who is buried in Cleveland, Ohio, wrote “Keep on the Sunny Side”. Ada Habershon, born in London, England, wrote “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. Both songs were popularized as part of the Bluegrass genre by the Carter Family. But thanks to a meeting with the trio of Al (White), Alice (White) and Ruth (Smith) of Berea, Kentucky, I was introduced to a true Appalachian songwriter, Jean Ritchie.

Jean was born in 1922 in the heart of Appalachia in Viper, Perry County Kentucky, as the youngest of 14 children. The family farmed using primitive methods. Music traced to the family’s English/Scottish/Irish ancestors was central to family life. Songs were a part of nearly all activity, from cleaning to working in the fields. Hymns were included in their repertoire, primarily from the Old Regular Baptist church meetings which the family attended. Jean Ritchie never had formal musical training, but she was smart and talented. After high school and junior college, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Kentucky in 1946 with a degree in social work. From there, she moved to New York City to work at the Henry Street Settlement. There she entertained children with her music. Her reputation as a folk singer/writer and dulcimer player grew. Because of her influence, dulcimers, almost unknown in New York, began to sell briskly there. After marrying noted New York photographer George Pickow in 1950, she began writing books, a total of ten, recalling her family and her music, and illustrated with her husband’s photography. She began to record traditional songs and since then has recorded over 30 albums under different labels, including her own Greenhays label. Ritchie became known as the “Mother of Folk”. Her songs have been recorded by Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Judy Collins and many others. Jean performed at Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall and her album, “None But One” received the Rolling Stone Critics Award in 1977. In 2008, she was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame along with Public Enemy, LL Cool J, and others. She performed her song “The Cool of the Day”. She said, “I was looking to contrast with the other acts, . . . And here’s the nicest part: Besides being the only woman on the bill, I got the only standing ovation.” Today she lives in Berea, Kentucky, true to her roots.

Upon hearing it for the first time, “The Cool of the Day” struck me as both a reference to the Garden of Eden and a call for the proper stewardship of the earth. Indeed, Genesis 3:8 (KJV) says, “And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. . .“ It blends well with her other works which often emphasize the preservation of our earth and bemoan the devastating effects of unreclaimed strip mining.

Thank you, Al, Alice and Ruth for giving me this treasure.