Jean Ritchie – An Appreciation

I saw Jean Ritchie (1922 – 2015) perform a few times. The first time was in Louisville shortly after moving to Kentucky in 1979. It was a summer folk festival at which she and John Jacob Niles were both scheduled to appear. Unfortunately, Niles was ill and unable to attend and I would never have another opportunity to hear him. The last time was at the Kentucky Folklife Festival probably around 10 years ago. (That festival was a low-key event on the state capitol grounds in Frankfort. I had a brief casual conversation with former governor Julian Carroll while standing around a large burgoo cauldron being stirred with a paddle.)  I was able to stand in line after Jean’s evening performance for an autograph on a CD and mumbled something incoherent about how she had a tremendous impact on my life. She smiled cordially and looked over my shoulder for the next person in line.

What I wanted her to know was that (like many people, I’m sure) I had first heard her sing “Shady Grove” on a folk music sampler back in the early 60s. It was the first time I had ever heard an Appalachian dulcimer. And it was at a time when I was just awakening to the diversity of music in the world, so I began to learn about this curious instrument and about the ballad tradition. I would later find a book about making dulcimers published by Folkways records, and built several dulcimers before ever actually seeing one in real life. (At the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. This was 1969, and dulcimers were still quite rare.)

Jean has written several books including “Dulcimer People,” about the old dulcimer makers and players she grew up with in eastern Kentucky. She was a real musicologist — this and her other books remain important resources for scholars and aficionados of traditional Appalachian music.

The experience further prompted me to learn more about all the varieties of musical instruments in the world. Jean’s music stayed with me as I pursued an undergraduate degree in music history at New College of Florida. While studying counterpoint and historical eras, I was able to do in-depth study in the history and construction of musical instruments as independent study programs (New College required at least three IS courses.) I also started a short-lived local dulcimer society.

Having grown up in the frigid flatness of Chicago winters, I was not anxious to move from sunny Sarasota to a cold climate. I applied to nine graduate programs in all the top schools for Musicology. I included Kentucky in the list as a sort of fall-back, but also because I just had a good feeling about the place whenever driving through from Chicago to Florida and back. (My grandparents, and later my parents, had moved to St. Petersburg). I was accepted to all nine schools, and very nearly went to Ohio State, but then Kentucky offered me a graduate assistantship that paid my tuition and a stipend. It just seemed that my long resonance with Kentucky that began with Jean Ritchie had a sort of inevitability that drew me here.

I have lived in Kentucky since 1979, save for a few years wandering the desert in the late 90s. It is more a home to me than any other place has been or could be, and I can’t imagine that would have been the case had I never heard that old recording of Jean Ritchie singing “Shady Grove.”

 

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