Jean Ritchie: Short Biography

Born in Viper, Kentucky, performing on stage for over 50 years, dulcimer-playing Jean Ritchie is one of the legendary folk singers.

The upper end of Charles Street in Baltimore, Maryland, was once dotted with basket houses where pungent coffee and sweet Italian soft drinks blended with heaping helpings of live folk music. At the end of each set, the performer passed a wicker basket through the audience. Individuals would drop in whatever coins they thought the performance was worth. It was all very democratic. Nearly anyone who wanted to stop by to play or sing performed a four-song set, then passed the basket.

One of the regulars was an elderly man with the home-spun name of Virgil Sturgill. He'd arrive every Saturday afternoon and play mountain songs on a plucked dulcimer. His voice was like a asthmatic hound dog stuck in a well, but he was "authentic" and the beatnik audience loved him. Besides that, he KNEW Jean Ritchie and that made him somewhat of a celebrity. To everyone who knew anything about authentic folk music, Jean Ritchie was the undisputed queen.

I got to know Virgil pretty well. He told me endless stories about growing up in the mountains and about his father, who he said could play the banjo before he could even talk. But the stories I liked best were the ones Virgil told about Jean Ritchie.

"See this turkey quill?" Virgil once said to me. "Me and Jean are the only ones who play the dulcimer with a quill. Most people use a guitar pick or their fingernails. But me and Jean still use a turkey quill. That's the way they used to do it in the hills."

Virgil died in 1965, but Jean Ritchie is still going strong. She is one of the legends of folk music along with the likes of Josh White, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. She was singing to an audience long before folk music became generally fashionable. And, though nearly 80 years old, she still performs in concert.

Jean Ritchie was born in 1922 in Viper, Kentucky, the youngest of the 14 children of Balis and Abigail Ritchie. Her family were poor farmers, but what they lacked in money they more than made up for in music. Their Scot-Irish heritage was rich in songs sung by generations of mountain people, tucked away from the world in the remote hollows and valleys of Appalachia. Jean was the beneficiary of this bottomless well of material which she absorbed like a roll of paper towels drinks in a spill.

Jean's father encouraged music making in all his children and the whole family sang and played together. Balis taught her to play the mountain (or plucked) dulcimer when she was five or six years old. The instrument fitted her small lap well. It's narrow, fretted finger board did not intimidate tiny fingers and it's three strings were easy to control. Two of the strings were tuned in unison and played the melody. The third was a drone, like a five-string banjo. She strummed it like her father taught her -- with a turkey quill. She also learned another trick early on. She strummed toward herself, not away like many other players. And she also learned to sing one melody while she strummed a counter melody on the dulcimer, creating a kind of duet with herself.

In her early days at home, little Jean learned all the sad old English ballads that her ancestors had brought with them when they came to the New World. She learned the made up songs they sang while at work or play. She learned the hymns that they sang in the little board church down the road. She learned the instrumentals -- the dances and reels and jigs that they danced to at weddings and ice cream socials.

She took all these things with her when she went to college -- a rare event for a woman in the mountains in the 30s. Four years later she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a social work degree from the University of Kentucky. Then she went to New York to work in the Henry Street Settlement, where she used her songs to entertain children. Of course, the kids were delighted but there was more ahead for Jean. The New York folk music scene soon discovered her and she became its darling. She had all the qualifications the intellectuals were looking for: she was a woman, had been born and raised in Appalachia, knew a lot of authentic folk songs, and played a little-known instrument.

Jean was asked to play formal recitals and concerts. New York ate it up. Her first formal concert was in 1948 at the Little Greenwich Mews Theatre. After that, Jean became a busy performer.

In 1950, Ritchie married photographer George Pickow and the union endures to this day. Two years later, she recorded her first solo album and received the Fulbright award to study folk music in the British Isles. In 1955 her first book, "Singing Family of the Cumberlands" was published.

When general interest in folk music became widespread in the early 60s, traditional Jean Ritchie fit in perfectly. She played concert dates at colleges throughout America and abroad, and appeared on television. Intellectuals still considered her the essence of the true folk artist, unlike the urban folk singers who were then in vogue. For this reason, she never approached the popularity of the slicker singers like The Kingston Trio, Judy Collins, or Peter, Paul and Mary.

One night in 1962, I had the privilege of seeing Jean Ritchie perform at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village. The place was crowded. It was a hot summer night and the air conditioning must have been on the fritz because it was like an oven inside the hall. Members of the audience furiously fanned themselves with whatever was available.

Then it became deathly quiet. A lone spotlight shone on stage as Jean Ritchie strode out, dulcimer in hand, sat down and began to sing the songs of her childhood. In spite of the heat, all paper rustling stopped. All ears were concentrated on the music of a living legend. All hearts were returned to a simpler time of horses and wagons, of family reunions and golden harvests.

And, yes. Virgil Sturgill was right. Jean Ritchie played the dulcimer with a turkey quill. Whether she still does, I don't know. I haven't seen her perform in years. But I imagine, considering the songs she's sung, that the poor old turkey must be getting pretty bald.

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