The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #25389   Message #297279
Posted By: Joe Offer
14-Sep-00 - 01:57 PM
Thread Name: Jean Ritchie article
Subject: RE: Jean Ritchie article
Since the article is likely to disappear, I think I'll post it. From the Irish Times, Saturday, September 9, 2000.

Rediscovering the
Ritchie tradition


77-year-old folksinger Jean Ritchie has seen folk music going from Appalachian rawness to being ripped off and re-hashed by rockers

Born in Viper, Kentucky in 1922, singer Jean Ritchie sometimes seems like the last of a long line. As a young girl growing up in that very particular part of the southern Appalachians, her approach to music developed in an isolated community in the Cumberland Ridges. From an early age she had learnt the importance both of singing and of the tradition she was soon to carry - "mountain music" - the old ballads which, like the people themselves, had originated on the two large islands off the coast of Europe.

Her parents Balis and Abigail were of Scottish and English descent - Ritchie was later to fill in the Irish part of her mountain heritage when, in 1952, she came to Ireland on a Fulbright Scholarship. She arrived here, deeply curious about where the songs had come from, what they meant to different people in different places, and how they had travelled and changed. It was a broadminded passion she had inherited from her father - someone who connected her directly to pre-railroad and pre-radio Kentucky.

"And at about 1911 or 1912 he printed up a lot of ballads into a little booklet - old ballads like Lord Thomas and things like Bill Bailey Won't You Please Come Home - so he was very eclectic. It also had an early country song called Kitty Wells, so you can sort of date the incursion of the new music by that. So I was born into it.

"Sometimes people would pass through and they would sing him songs from different places. These old ballads were the pop songs of the day, especially for the older members of the family, and they kept on singing them on the front porch or over the dish-pan. I grew up just singing along with them. Then in the evenings we would always gather together and sing - it was around the fireside in the winter or outside on the swings and rocking chairs on the porch in the summer. It was a way of ending the day."

The Ritchies were a big family and Jean was the youngest of 14. In fact most of the families in the area amounted to little singing communities in themselves. The focus of all of these families was on work in the fields, songs in the evening and going to church on a Sunday - the three crucial elements of Cumberland life which were intertwined at all times.

Ritchie attended the Old Regular Baptist Church and at one point she even considered being a missionary - energies which she later transferred into her social work at the University of Kentucky. It was there that she discovered that her real mission in life was to keep the old ballads alive and sing them the way they were supposed to be sung.

And although she now lives in New York, and has done for many years, she has never really strayed from her path. Those roots - actual and musical roots - run deep and straight. It seems that Viper was that kind of place.

"Uncle Jason Ritchie was what they called a big singer. He would always be invited to parties because he could be counted on to know the longest ballads and the best ballads. At those parties it was more listening to each other sing than all singing together. It was a little bit of a performance and at the resting times, when the dancing wasn't going on, that was what happened. There were people like Bradley Kincaid who sang around the Chicago area and he was like the top of the hit parade for singing things like Barbara Allen on the guitar. He had a great following. Then Bascom Lamar Lunsford started the festival in North Carolina, but with radio they tailored the old songs and accompanied them with instruments and put a to beat to them. The old people in Viper thought it was terrible. They were making the music too fast and all of it was dancey and so on. It's the same as the old people complain today every time the music changes."

In 1946, while working at the Henry Street Settlement in New York, Ritchie was finally manouevred into the limelight. Being something of a musical novelty, she was constantly being asked to come to parties and bring her dulcimer with her. Even with the huge interest in folk music, her own particular music was something immediately strange and arresting. Anyone who heard her could tell that she was not just another Burl Ives folkie - she was as she puts it "singing from the roots rather than being any kind of performer". That said, she soon found herself being invited to perform regularly as "the real thing" and making her first important appearance at a festival run by Alan Lomax at Columbia University.

As that interest in folk music developed through the 1950s and eventually ended up in a full blown folk boom, Ritchie, while hugely influential, preferred to keep very much to the fringes. She performed regularly with people like Doc Watson but the coffee houses of Greenwich Village were never really her scene. As Bob Dylan and the rest began to lovingly plunder the Harry Smith Anthology, she tended to sit back and smile as the songs of her mountain childhood came back into vogue once more.

"You had a little something in the back of your mind - a little possessiveness. You heard what they were doing to some of the songs that you'd heard sung in their natural state and you'd get a little mad about it. Why are they treating it that way? But still, you have to go along with progress and in the end, you're glad they're using it in some form instead of whatever rock thing is coming along. At least they're paying attention to the old music. And you do get more work in times like that because festivals or symposia sometimes want to show how the music began and then how it has changed. So I always get to go on first!"

Perhaps curiously, that devotion to tradition was never to stop her continually adding to it herself. The L&N Don't Stop Here Any More is one of her own and yet is now very firmly in the canon as a "traditional" song. And her own versions of traditional songs always tended to have a particular Jean Ritchie take - something she learned from Uncle Jason Ritchie who constantly altered lyrics and shapes from one performance to the next.

It is an element of variation and improvisation which, as Ritchie sees it, is in no way at odds with traditional singing. Indeed, there have been many odd twists in Jean Ritchie's singing life. Her EP Jean Ritchie Singing Traditional songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family was the first ever release by Elecktra records. Her 1977 album None But One won the Rolling Stone Critic's Award - just two of the many surprises in the CV of someone so wary of "performance" and yet so committed to the old music.

In 1952, Ritchie was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship which enabled her to undertake serious research into the music of her childhood. The work took her to Ireland, Scotland and England in search of those very songs sung in their Kentucky variant by Uncle Jason and published in her father's pamphlet of 1911. Along with her husband, the New York photographer George Pickow, she travelled from place to place and was welcomed by singers entirely untouched by the demands of the commercial. In Ireland, with a song in her heart and a recording machine in her suitcase, she was directed to homes like that of Sarah Makem in Keady, Co Armagh.

"It was like finding your ancestors. It was a kind of a genealogy in music and it was very exciting. I used the song Barbara Allen as a collecting tool because everybody knew it. When I would ask people to sing me some of their old songs they would sometimes sing [IT]Does Your Mother Come From Ireland? or something about shamrocks. But if I asked if they knew Barbara Allen, immediately they knew exactly what kind of song I was talking about and they would bring out beautiful old things that matched mine, and were variants of the songs that I knew in Kentucky. It was like coming home. It was before the revival and everybody was singing in a very relaxed and lovely way. They were doing the ballads at their own speed. I guess it makes a difference when you have a big audience and you feel you have to please everybody. It makes a difference in the way you present things."

These days, at 77, Ritchie is still performing in her own unruffled and intimate way. She stole the show at the Ireland Arts From Ireland Festival in Washington when she joined, arm in arm, with David Hammond and Tommy Makem for a deeply moving rendition of Will You Go Lassie Go? and this week she's off to Prague to do it again. The songs she sings have survived railroad, radio, instrumentation, adaptation, confiscation, commercialisation and a whole lot more - and still they remain intact. For that, much thanks and all due respect.

"I remember old Francie McPeake said to me `Every 20 years I get out my pipes again.' He's right. It goes in circles. For a while something else gets more popular and the music grows away from the old stuff, but then there's a generation that comes along and says `hey let's go looking for the roots again'. That just keeps happening over and over and now that I'm 77 I know what Francie McPeake was talking about. I keep getting rediscovered!"