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Jean Ritchie, 1922-2015

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Note: The whole AFC staff was saddened by the death of Jean Ritchie earlier this month.  We paid tribute to her immediately in a Facebook post, which you can see here, and the Chairman of our Board of Trustees, C. Kurt Dewhurst, made a moving statement about Jean at the Board’s June meeting.  However, I felt a fuller and more public statement about Jean was still appropriate. In addition, because Ritchie’s husband was the outstandingly talented photographer George Pickow, we have many beautiful pictures of Jean to share. For this appreciation of Jean and George, I drew heavily on an article written by our retired archive head, Michael Taft, for Folklife Center News. Enough material is new in this article, and enough of that older article was contributed by me as editor, that this piece can be considered co-authored by Stephen Winick and Michael Taft. We would also like to thank Marcia Segal for help with the collection’s photos.

Jean Ritchie, 1922-2015

Jean Ritchie, Circa 1950. Photo by George Pickow. AFC George Pickow and Jean Ritchie Collection.
Jean Ritchie, Circa 1950. Photo by George Pickow. AFC George Pickow and Jean Ritchie Collection.

Jean Ritchie, a peerless traditional singer, musician, folklorist, and donor to the American Folklife Center’s archive, died on June 1, 2015, at her home in Berea, Kentucky. Perhaps the most important singer, interpreter, and proponent of Appalachian traditions since Bascom Lamar Lunsford (1882-1973), she had been part of the American folksong revival for about seventy years. Her life story is well known, partly through her autobiographical songbook Singing Family of the Cumberlands (1955) and her many other writings. She was born in 1922 in Viper, Kentucky, the youngest in a family of fourteen children. Her family’s great storehouse of songs, stories, games, and other traditions, which they performed as part of their daily lives, was responsible for Jean’s personal repertoire of mountain folklife. By her reckoning, the most prolific keeper of songs in the family was the man she knew as “Uncle Jason” (actually her father’s first cousin), but her parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all sang and played mountain music.

Jean Ritchie with her Aunt Ellen Fields in the 1950s. Photo by George Pickow. On the back of this print in the collection, Jean wrote "Aunt Ellen Fields had a fine vsn of 'Bangum & the Boar.'"
Jean Ritchie with her Aunt Ellen Fields in the 1950s. Photo by George Pickow. On the back of this print in the collection, Jean wrote “Aunt Ellen Fields had a fine vsn of ‘Bangum & the Boar.'”

As background to some of her most popular songs, Jean loved to recount stories of her family’s interactions with folklorists, especially the English collector Cecil Sharp, who visited the Appalachian mountains to collect songs from 1915 to 1918. In 1917, when he visited Kentucky, Sharp made his home base at the Hindman Settlement School, in Knott County. There he met two young girls who were students at the school, whom he called “the misses Una and Sabrina Ritchie.” Una was Jean’s older sister and Sabrina was Uncle Jason’s daughter, thus her second cousin. Sharp collected two songs from them that Jean thought were especially significant. One of these was a nonsense song that later came to be closely associated with Jean, “Nottamun Town.” It is presumably about the English city of Nottingham, but at the time that collectors discovered the Ritchies’ version, it was unknown in Britain. Although it has since been found in Missouri, New Jersey, Virginia, and Texas, and a related song has been found in England, the Ritchies’ version was the first to be published, and became popular in the revival on both sides of the Atlantic. It has been recorded by Roger McGuinn, John Langstaff, and Judy Collins in the United States, and by Fairport Convention, Bert Jansch, and Shirley Collins in England, among many others. In addition, its tune was borrowed by Bob Dylan for his song “Masters of War.” Jean sang it for Alan Lomax in 1949, and that version is now in the AFC archive. Hear it in the player below:


Another song sung for Sharp by Una and Sabrina was “The Little Devils,” a version of the ballad generally known as “The Farmer’s Curst Wife.” According to one of Jean’s books:

The great English folksong collector, Cecil Sharp, told us that he had long heard in England how the ‘Farmer’s Curst Wife’ song used to have a whistled refrain, but he could find it nowhere existing in England. He was very happy and excited when my sister Una and our cousin Sabrina Ritchie sang and whistled it for him in Knott County, as they had learnt it from Sabrina’s father, Uncle Jason Ritchie. Uncle Jason had to specialize in this song at play parties around the countryside, because the young courting couples, when the singing would begin as resting times, liked to have ‘a funny one to settle down with.’

Jean sang Uncle Jason’s version at a gathering in Scotland in 1953. Hear it in the player below:


Sharp also collected songs from Jean’s sister May Ritchie. May had often told Jean about her interactions with Sharp, but her stories were not confirmed until the collector’s diaries and manuscripts were digitized and placed online at the Ralph Vaughn Williams Memorial Library in England. May is mentioned in Sharp’s diary, and two of her songs are among his manuscripts.  More interestingly, in what must be one of the saddest near-misses in folklore history, Sharp narrowly missed meeting and collecting from Uncle Jason. In his diary on September 22, 1917, sharp wrote, “Jason Ritchie was to have come over but they couldn’t get hold of him — also Wylie Parkes. There is a great deal to be done here but I think it better to leave on Monday and come here again next year perhaps.” (You can search Sharp’s Diaries and Manuscripts for information about the Ritchies at this link, at the Ralph Vaughn Williams Memorial Library.)

These two photos from the George Pickow and Jean Ritchie Collection show Jean in a playful mood. We do not know who the woman with Jean is in the photo to the right. If you have any further information, please leave a comment!

Her older sisters and Uncle Jason aside, Jean Ritchie’s songs owe their enduring popularity today to Jean’s own teaching, performances and publications. Even before she left Kentucky in the late 1940s, she had been recorded by folksong collectors. Artus Moser recorded her at the Renfro Valley Folk Festival in April, 1946. In December of the same year, Mary Elizabeth Barnicle recorded Jean, along with her sisters Kitty, Edna and Pauline, in Viper, Kentucky. AFC holds the recordings from both sessions.

Jean teaching a class at the Henry Street Settlement in New York. George Pickow and Jean Ritchie Collection.

Jean graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Kentucky with a degree in social work in 1946, and began spread her songs much farther. Her first job was at the Henry Street Settlement in New York City, which has been offering social services to the city’s Lower East Side since 1893. While there, Jean taught her Appalachian songs and other traditions to local children, and she soon came to the notice of New York’s circle of folksong singers, scholars, and enthusiasts.

Jean Ritchie with Woody Guthrie before an appearance on Oscar Brand’s radio show in New York City, 1948. George Pickow and Jean Ritchie Collection.

Jean’s new friends included Woody Guthrie, Oscar Brand, Pete Seeger, and Alan Lomax, all of whom were influential with folk audiences and venues; Lomax booked her in concert at Columbia University in 1948, and she soon was appearing regularly in live venues and on the radio. Jean also met George Pickow, himself a folk music enthusiast as well as a photographer and filmmaker, and the two were married in 1950. By 1951, Jean had switched careers to be a full-time singer, folksong collector, and songwriter. In May of that year, she was recorded in the Library of Congress recording lab, which yielded another set of recordings, which is now in the AFC Archive.

Jean in the Library of Congress Recording Lab in 1951. The man is Duncan Emrich, head of the Folklore Section, which is one of the precursors of the American Folklife Center.

In 1952, Jean received a Fulbright Fellowship to record folksongs in Scotland and Ireland as analogs to the songs she knew and collected in Appalachia. While she documented Old World traditions with an early tape recorder, George did the same through photography. The subjects they recorded and photographed included well known singers such as Tommy Makem and his mother Sarah in Ireland, Jeannie Robertson and Jimmy MacBeath in Scotland, and Harry Cox and Bob Roberts in England; they also documented many well-known Irish pipers, such as Seamus Ennis, Leo Rowsome, and Michael Reagh.

Jean Ritchie records uillean piper Michael Reagh in Ireland, 1953.
Jean Ritchie records uillean piper Michael Reagh in Ireland, 1953.

A selection of the recordings she made in the field in Britain and Ireland was released in 1954 on the LP Field Trip on the Ritchies’ label “Collector Limited Editions.” (That recording was reissued on CD on the Ritchies’ Greenhays label in 2001.) A broader selection was issued by Folkways on the two LPs Field Trip–England (1959) and As I Roved Out (Field Trip–Ireland) (1960). Some transcriptions and photographs were published in Jean’s book From Fair to Fair: Folksongs of the British Isles (1966). The full set of recordings form part of the George Pickow and Jean Ritchie Collection in the AFC Archive. (Many of Pickow’s Irish photographs were previously acquired by the National University of Ireland, Galway, but the rest of the photographic materials are also part of AFC’s collection.)

Shirley Collins, Jean Ritchie, and Alan Lomax, in 1959 or 1960. Notes on the back of a print indicate that Lomax and Collins were staying in the Pickows’ basement because Alan Lomax’s apartment in New York had burned down. The color on this negative has obviously deteriorated, but we thought we’d show it in color anyway!

Jean’s career as a performer, author, and songwriter continued to flourish into the 21st century. Among others, she published the books A Garland of Mountain Song (1953), Singing family of the Cumberlands (1955), The Dulcimer Book (1964), Jean Ritchie’s Swapping Song Book (1964), Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians (1965), and Jean Ritchie’s Dulcimer People (1975).  She recorded numerous albums for Folkways, Elektra, and many other labels. (Our friends at Smithsonian Folkways have placed their own appreciation of Jean, which includes a playlist, online at this link.)

Jean Ritchie with folklorists Tristram Coffin (left) and MacEdward Leach (right), ca. 1963. The three were appearing on the Lyrics and Legends TV series on WHYY in Philadelphia.
Jean Ritchie with folklorists Tristram Coffin (left) and MacEdward Leach (right), ca. 1963. The three were appearing on the Lyrics and Legends TV series on WHYY in Philadelphia.

Jean was one of the original directors of the Newport Folk Festival, and served on the first folklore panel for the National Endowment for the Arts. For many years, Jean and George, together with their sons Jon and Peter, ran a book, video, and record publishing and distribution business devoted both to Jean’s repertoire and to folksong in general, which included the Greenhays label. In fact, in every area except onstage performances, Jean and her husband were very much a team: Jean would record traditional singers, both in her home community in Kentucky, and on their fieldwork trips to Ireland and the United Kingdom, and George would document them in still and moving images. George also filmed other traditions, and along with Jean became a leading documentarian of folk traditions and the folk revival.

Jean teaching a game at the Henry Street Settlement in New York. George Pickow and Jean Ritchie Collection.

Jean was absolutely crucial to the popularity of the mountain dulcimer in the United States, especially outside its stronghold in the Appalachian region. Her recordings and performances on folk festival stages introduced many people to the instrument for the first time, and she and George, together with members of their family, built and sold many dulcimers, starting in the 1950s, from a shop beneath the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn, New York. (After years of people repeatedly asking Jean which of her recordings featured the most dulcimer, she recorded an album entitled The Most Dulcimer!) A set of Jean’s dulcimer tunes, which she played at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966, is part of AFC’s Alan Lomax Collection. Hear it in the player below.


Jean playing the banjo in the 1950s. Photo by George Pickow.

Even after largely retiring, Ritchie and Pickow remained active supporters of folk music. Jean in particular joined online forums and discussion groups where she could ask and answer questions about folk music, sharing her wisdom with researchers all over the world–including reference specialists at the American Folklife Center. In 1996, Jean was the subject of a documentary film, Mountain Born: The Jean Ritchie Story, which was made for Kentucky Educational Television. She was awarded the Folk Alliance’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998.  In 2002, she received the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, which is considered the nation’s highest honor for a traditional artist.

The life’s work of Jean and George was acquired by AFC in 2008, and has the collection number AFC 2008/005. It is among the largest multi-media collections acquired by the Center, and perhaps the most extensive AFC collection compiled by a husband-and-wife team. The collection includes at least thirty-five linear feet of manuscripts: correspondence (including fan mail), sheet music, scripts for radio and television productions, book drafts, business files from the Newport Folk Festival, transcripts of interviews with Jean, and posters and programs from Jean’s concerts and lectures, among other items. The collection also includes over a hundred moving image items (prints, negatives, etc.), over four hundred audio tapes, and between fifteen and twenty thousand still images.

Jean and George in the 1950s. The photographer is unknown, but it may have been taken by George with a self-timer.
Jean and George in the 1950s. The photographer is unknown, but it may have been taken by George with a self-timer.

There are many items in the collection worthy of special mention, such as field tapes of Jean’s extended family and neighbors in Kentucky; recordings of performers such as Doc Watson, Jeannie Robertson, and Texas Gladden; and recordings of folklorists/performers such as Alan Lomax, Hamish Henderson, A. L. Lloyd, Ewan McColl, and Richard Chase. Particularly noteworthy for anyone interested in Jean’s early career and her place in the New York folklore “scene” in the late 1940s and early 1950s are her yearly engagement books, which list her daily appointments; for example, “sing at Arden (Del.) Folk Festival with Pete Seegar [sic]”–July 25, 1948; “recording [for] Elektra [Records]”–March 29, 1954; “[singing for] Margot Mayo and college students”–April 5, 1955. These small books doubled as address books, and Jean’s circle of friends and acquaintances included Carl Sandburg, Henry Cowell (composer) and Sidney Robertson Cowell (folklore fieldworker), Maud Karpeles (English folksong collector), Alan Lomax, Texas Gladden (Virginia ballad singer), Evelyn K. Wells (folksong scholar), and Tony Schwartz (collector of ambient sounds, among other talents). As they are processed, we hope to make these materials available for viewing and listening in the Folklife Research Center.

Two shots of Jean Ritchie, showing her rustic side and her elegant side. George Pickow and Jean Ritchie Collection.

The death of Jean Ritchie is an incalculable loss to the world of folk music, as well as to her family and friends. We wish to once more thank Jean Ritchie, as well as George Pickow, for their seventy years of dedication to traditional culture; for their remarkable legacy of manuscripts, photographs, films, and recordings, which now make their home in the AFC Archive; and for being wise and wonderful sources, colleagues, and friends to many of us over the years.

Jean Ritchie and George Pickow in 2008, during a visit made by AFC staff to assess the collection. Photo by Marcia Segal.

To say goodbye to Jean Ritchie, let’s hear one more audio selection. On this recording from Jean’s own collection, made in Scotland in 1953, the folklorist Hamish Henderson introduces Jean, who then sings a song appropriate to her final journey: “Guide Me, Oh Thou Great Jehovah.”


Farewell, Jean Ritchie.


Hear More

To hear over 100 of Jean’s songs in the Alan Lomax Collection, please visit this link at the Association for Cultural Equity site.

The Ritchies in the Archive

The following list includes AFC collections that contain recordings of Jean or members of Jean’s family, or in one case, recordings made by Jean and George. Jean might also be represented on other AFC collections, especially folk festival and coffee house collections, but is not listed in current finding aids for those collections.

1946: Artus Moser Recordings (AFC 1948/003). Jean Ritchie recorded at the Renfro Valley Folk Festival, Kentucky.

1946: Mary Elizabeth Barnicle-Cadle Recordings Collection (AFC 1977/016). Jean and her sisters Edna, Kitty, and Pauline recorded in Viper, Kentucky.

Late 1940s: Mike Cohen and Diana Cohen Wire Recordings (AFC 1980/003). Jean Ritchie recorded on Oscar Brand’s Sunday evening radio program “Folk Festival of the Air,” WNYC-New York.

1949-1950 & 1966: Alan Lomax Collection (AFC 2004/004).  In 1949 and 1950, Jean Ritchie recorded several hours of songs, stories, and oral history for Alan Lomax in New York City. She was also recorded by Lomax at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966.  Those recordings can be found at this link on the Association for Cultural Equity site.

1950-51: George Pickow and Jean Ritchie Recordings, 1950-1951 (AFS 10491-10493). Folk music and Old Regular Baptist Church service from Ulvah and Jeff, Kentucky; folk music from Alpine, Tennessee; and fiddle and vocal folk music from Harkers Island, North Carolina, recorded by Jean Ritchie and George Pickow.

1951: Jean Ritchie Recordings, May 1951 (AFS 10089). Jean Ritchie recorded by Herman Norwood at the Library of Congress recording studios in Washington, DC.

1954: Wyatt Insko Collection of Folk Music from Eastern Kentucky (AFC 1955/007). Jean’s father Balis and her sister Kitty Singleton Ritchie recorded in Viper, Kentucky.

1962: University of Chicago Folk Festival (AFC 1963/001). Edna Ritchie, Jean’s sister, recorded.

1963: Newport Folk Festival 1963 and 1966 (AFC 1999/001). Jean Ritchie recorded at several venues at the 1963 festival in Newport, Rhode Island.

1972: Frank Traficante / Kentucky Folk Music and Lore (AFC 1973/009). Edna Ritchie and her husband Floyd recorded at the University of Kentucky.

1974: Carl Fleischhauer / Melvin Wine Collection (AFC 1996/072). Jean Ritchie interview recorded at WWVU television station in Morgantown, West Virginia.

1980: George Armstrong Radio Program Collection (AFS 20101-20102). “Cecil Sharp in the Southern Appalachians,” broadcast on WFMT (Chicago) and “Brasstown (North Carolina) Memories,” never broadcast, including interviews with Jean Ritchie and Edna Ritchie Baker, recorded by George Armstrong.

1950s-c. 2000: George Pickow and Jean Ritchie Collection (AFC 2008/005).

Comments (14)

  1. A rich and beautiful tribute to a very great lady. Thank you so much.

  2. Thank you for this tribute to a wonderful lady! From her friends and family at the Knott County Historical Society in Hindman.

  3. Stephen, many thanks for a masterful job capturing the blithe and beautiful spirit of Jean Ritchie. Amos

  4. Thank-you very much for this. I have been listening to Jean all my life (nearly sixty years), and her voice never fails to move me. May she rest in peace.

  5. Thank you, Steve, for this very special tribute to Jean – insightful, informative and wonderfully illustrated – a delight to hear the recordings.

  6. These are some of the songs we sang when I was in grade school at Hindman Elementry in Knott Co. We were so blessed to have our mountain culture incorporated into our curriculum.

  7. Thank you for this beautiful tribute. My parents would be so pleased to see their work shared and appreciated in this way. Stephen, Michael and Marcia, thank you for this glimpse into their lives.

    • Thanks to everyone, especially Jon, for commenting. Jon, please accept my condolences and convey them to the family. Jean meant a lot to so many people, even some she had only met a few times, like me! I know I speak for the whole staff when I say that we are honored to be taking care of her collection and George’s as well.

  8. I was lucky enough to know Jean Ritchie through my friendship with the Robinson family (Jewell Robinson was her sister). Her niece, Jean Robinson, was a friend and her family became a second family to a lonely NY native at ISU. I visited with the Ritchie family in their Viper, Kentucky home and made corn shuck dolls, slept in the old unheated homestead with heated bricks to warm our beds, and listened to the nightly music that was produced after the evening dishes were done. Jean Ritchie performed at ISU during this time. I was able to attend and she was so popular that a subsequent show had to be scheduled for the overflow. Many years later she appeared at ISU again. I, and my 8 year old daughter were able to attend and by this time we were doing folk music and dulcimers at local county and state parks mainly because of her influence. She, at 73 years old, finished an hour and a half show and asked if she had left anything out. I raised my hand and said, “Amazing Grace”; she stood with her cane and said, “For this, we stand.” A packed audience at Dreiser Hall stood and sang all four verses of the song. Needless to say, she got a standing ovation. I emailed her some years later to tell her of her great influence and she responded by wishing me a Happy Christmas, on the epiphany, of course, as the traditional Appalachian celebration. She will live as long as those who have been touched by her continue to tell her stories and sing her songs. She and her family live in my heart and memories forever, and I wish for her family the comfort of having known a great soul.

  9. This is a lovely tribute. Especially the photographs. Jean was my godmother, and her family and mine were very close. It’s especially wonderful to celebrate the teamwork of this loving, enduring, couple. George filmed my wedding and we watch it every year for 33 years now. I also lived in their basement and met my husband during that time. They very much encouraged the match!
    Miss her so much, so happy to have this legacy endure. (Oscar Brand’s daughter)

  10. thanks for this, and a day after what would have been Jean’s 93rd birthday too!

  11. She was a national treasure!

  12. I enjoyed the article, documenting Jean’s work and the history of the Ritchie family. Jean was also an excellent and interesting songwriter, (Blue Diamond Mines, One More Mile, etc.) and somehow that whole aspect of her work is ignored here.

    • Thanks, Dick. We did mention a couple of times that she was a songwriter, but it’s true that we otherwise didn’t say much about that. Apologies for the oversight–she was so extraordinary it was hard to include everything!

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