Dulcimer player Ritchie to be portrayed at January event
Re-enactor Rogers to tell story at ‘Living Treasures’ program
LA GRANGE, Ky. (January 2020) – Jean Ritchie was known as the “Mother of Folk.” To many she was a musical icon, influencing generation after generation with her mountain dulcimer and songs about her Kentucky heritage.
Ritchie was born on Dec. 8, 1922, in Viper, Perry Co., Ky. She was the youngest of 14 children born to Balis and Abigail Ritchie.
She attended Cumberland Junior College (now University of the Cumberlands) in Williamsburg, Ky., and earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Kentucky in 1946. Ritchie had a career teaching and working as a social worker at the Henry Street Settlement, where she also taught music to children. It is there that she befriended Alan Lomax, who recorded her extensively for the Library of Congress.
Accompanied by her lap dulcimer, Ritchie joined the New York folksong scene and met Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, and Oscar Brand. In 1948, she shared the stage with such acts as The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, and Betty Sanders. By October 1949, she was a regular guest on Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival radio show on WNYC.
Rachel Lee Rogers portrays famed “Mother of Folk” Jean Ritchie for the Kentucky Humanities program.
Ritchie began her recording career in 1952 with Elektra records and with them recorded three albums: “Jean Ritchie Sings” (1952), “Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family” (1957) and “A Time for Singing” (1962). She went on to record a total of 35 albums.
Jean Ritchie, Damsel with a Dulcimer, will be presented by Rachel Lee Rogers at 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 18, at the Oldham County History Center in La Grange, Ky. The program is part of the annual Living Treasures Reception and will take place inside the Rob Morris Education Building, 207 W. Jefferson St.
This program will honor the 2019 Living Treasures: Judy Horton Smith, Norman Brown, Hazel White, Steve Trummer, Clara May Miller Wyatt, Dennis Summitt, Allen Kiekhefer, Diane Downing, Jack and Jo Miles, Clyde Powell and Virginia Turner. The Living Treasures are a special group of people from the Oldham County community known for their wisdom and various accomplishments, having spent a lifetime making history.
The Living Treasures Program recognizes people who presently live in or are from Oldham County. Their oral histories and photographs are recorded, archived and made available to the public at the Oldham County History Center. Each month a nominee is selected and featured in a one page spread in The Oldham Era. Eleven nominees are selected throughout the year and then honored the following year in a reception in January at the Oldham County History Center.
This year’s entertainment focuses on Ritchie. “Jean’s life story is inspirational,” said Rogers, who was born and raised in Versailles, Ky. “I know how scary it was for me to leave Kentucky for the theatre world of New York. Jean came from tiny Viper, Ky., and succeeded not only in New York but around the world. Then she came home again to live in Kentucky and share the music with us. That’s brave and beautiful and loving.”
Where Ritchie grew up in Appalachia, music was used for a variety of different things: it accompanied work, it was a form of entertainment and it was an integral part of religious practices. Singing was commonly accompanied by traditional instruments like the dulcimer, the banjo and the fiddle.
“Jean came from an extremely musical family who was long concerned with the collection and preservation of the old mountain tunes. Her family gathered more than 300 of them and those would eventually be recorded on disc and kept at the Library of Congress,” said Rogers. Ritchie learned to play the dulcimer from her father when she was 5 or 6 years old.
Rogers plays the dulcimer and sings in her performance. “Jean sang a cappella a lot since traditionals were often unaccompanied, but everyone was so taken with her dulcimer playing that she eventually released an album called “The Most Dulcimer” to satisfy everyone who kept asking,” Rogers said.
“I use three dulcimers throughout the show – two of them handmade here in Kentucky by Berea’s Warren May. What a magical instrument. To me, dulcimers sound just like the Kentucky mountains. Somehow, they capture the view of the hills, the smell of cornbread, the feeling of being with your family on the front porch.”
Rogers said she sings about 14 songs in her performance, including old favorites like “The Cuckoo” and “Shady Grove,” but also some of Jeans originals, like “Black Waters” and “L&N.” Ritchie’s “Black Waters” is a well-known protest song she wrote about strip mining in Kentucky.
Throughout her long career, Ritchie wore many hats as a traditional musician, songwriter, poet, commercial performer, recording artist, author and composer. She was a major contributor to the national revival of folk music across American during the mid to second half of the 20th century. Well-known artists including Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton have covered her songs.
“Jean was highly educated – a Fulbright scholar – and made a huge impact on the music scene in the 1960s and beyond,” Rogers said. “She also did a lot for the music by using her Fulbright scholarship to travel Scotland, England and Ireland to discover the ancient roots of mountain music.”
When Rogers decided to teach others about Ritchie, her Kentucky Humanities character was born. At the time she was teaching middle school drama. “I write scripts for the students to perform that are based on Shakespeare, Greek mythology, world cultures, etc., but I re-invent them from a Kentucky perspective.”
Since she always incorporates music, she includes a Ritchie song or a mountain traditional each time. “I couldn’t believe that these kids had never heard that music. I figured I had to do something about that. These songs – and the dulcimer – are their inheritance as Kentuckians, and I don’t want that kind of music to ever die out.”
Rogers wrote the script for this Kentucky Chautauqua performance and said she had “so much fun working with Dr. Jim Rodgers as my drama coach and Dr. Ron Pen as my advisor on musical history. Ron even let me play a dulcimer that belonged to Jean that is currently kept at the John Jacob Niles gallery in Lexington.”
Because Ritchie lived until 2015, Rogers was able to find many people who knew her and had made music with her. “That was invaluable because I gained a real sense of her personality and heard the best stories that never made it into books. Of course, I used the book she wrote herself, ‘Singing Family of the Cumberlands.’ ” Rogers had to teach herself to play the dulcimer.
Ritchie is Rogers’ only Chautauqua character. She performs as Rosemary Clooney through a company called Upbeat Arts. She also performs as Mary Todd Lincoln and wrote an original musical called “The Garden Club,” about women’s suffrage in Kentucky during the turn of the 20th century. That show will debut in the spring of 2020.
“I hope folks remember just how much we have to be proud about when it comes to our state. Jean surely did remain true to her roots and, thanks to her, a large canon of unique music was preserved for the next generation.”
• To make reservations or for more information contact the Oldham County History Center at (502) 222-0826.
Back to January 2020 Articles.