Folksinger and songwriter Jean Ritchie died Monday (June 1) at her home in Berea, Kentucky, at the age of 92.
Although she never reached star status as a recording artist — even during the folk boom of the 1950s and ‘60s — she was hugely influential on many who did, including a variety of country acts.
Kathy Mattea recorded two Ritchie songs on her 2008 album, Coal — “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” and “Blue Diamond Mines.” Johnny Cash cut “L&N” as well on his 1979 album, Silver, as did June Carter Cash on her Grammy-winning Press On in 1999.
The Kingston Trio adapted its “Shady Grove” from Ritchie’s version of the old folk tune.
Ritchie was born Dec. 8, 1922 in the tiny settlement of Viper, in eastern Kentucky, the youngest of 14 children. One of the family’s chief entertainments was singing the ballads passed down from their Scottish and Irish ancestors.
During her childhood, she learned and memorized a vast repertoire of folk songs that would fuel her lifelong career. After earning a degree in social work at the University of Kentucky in 1946, she moved to New York City.
There she met song collector Alan Lomax, who recorded her for the Library of Congress. She also entered a circle of fellow folk enthusiasts that included Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Oscar Brand. In 1949, Brand began featuring her regularly on his folk music radio show on WNYC.
In the 1950 Lead Belly Memorial Concert at New York’s Town Hall, organized by Lomax, she shared the stage with such titans as Guthrie, the Weavers, Sidney Bechet, W.C. Handy and Count Basie.
Richie was awarded a Fulbright grant in 1952 that enabled her to collect and perform folk songs throughout Britain. That same year, Jac Holzman signed her to his fledging Elektra Records. Her first of three albums for that label was Jean Ritchie Singing the Traditional Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family. Between 1952 and 1997, she recorded more than 30 albums.
In 1955, she published her first book, Singing Family of the Cumberlands. It was illustrated by the soon-to-be-famous artist and children’s book author Maurice Sendak.
Ritchie routinely accompanied herself on a three-string Appalachian dulcimer that provoked such interest that she and her husband, photographer George Pickow, set up shop under the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn to make and sell the instruments. She also wrote The Dulcimer Book, an instructional manual.
Over the ensuing years, Ritchie’s high, crystalline, unadorned voice would ring out from the minuscule stages of folk clubs to such exalted venues as the Newport Folk Festival, Carnegie Hall and London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Even though she spent most of her life in New York, she remained nostalgically centered in Appalachia, always attuned to the glories and tragedies of those who chose or were forced to remain in that historically turbulent region.
One of her most moving songs is “West Virginia Mine Disaster.” Inspired by the 1968 flooding of a mine in Hominy Falls, West Virginia, that trapped 21 men and killed four, she wrote it from the point of view of a woman who must explain to her children what has happened to their father. Mattea included the song in her 2012 album, Calling Me Home.
In 2002, Ritchie was awarded the Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
After her husband died in 2010, Ritchie returned to Kentucky, settling in the college town of Berea.
Last year, she was honored by the 37-track, two-CD collection Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie, Among those featured on the album were Mattea, Brand, Pete Seeger, Peggy Seeger, Judy Collins, Suzy Bogguss, Janis Ian, Tim O’Brien, Robin and Linda Williams, Alison Brown and Dale Ann Bradley.