During their panel discussion titled “Voice Lessons” at the 2015…
I first met Jean Ritchie about seventy years ago at Brasstown, North Carolina, where I grew up and where her sisters Mae and Edna were at the John C. Campbell Folk School. Just a few years later, as a foreign-lander-soldier, I found a copy of Singing Family of the Cumberlands in the Army post library. It was a revelation to me. It was the first book I’d ever read whose author I personally knew—and it was about my own kind of people. A half century later, she and I served together on the Hindman Settlement School Board for about twenty years. She was also a member of the committee that originated and planned, and she frequently performed at the annual Celebration of Traditional Music at Berea College.
Jean was the most traditionally authentic artist in the Folk Revival and afterwards. She didn’t just sing the ancient and marvelous songs and ballads that came down through the generations of her people, along with their genes, her performances took her audiences on profound cultural trips, with the help of husband George Pickow’s photographs. These performances highlighted the positive values and aesthetics of her people. Thus, she counteracted the negative stereotypes that have shamed Appalachian people. Her Phi Beta Kappa intelligence led her also into scholarship. With her native artistry and the knowledge she acquired, she published many books and dozens of recordings. She also composed meaningful new songs about the strength and beauty of her people, but she also used her art and knowledge against the persistent problems and the environmental degradation of her homeland.
Jean Ritchie was an elegant and influential presence in our time.