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Mountain Born: The Jean Ritchie Story

Episode #203 | First Aired: January 1, 2009

For Jean Ritchie, the youngest of 14 children growing up in the Cumberland Mountains of Eastern Kentucky, “Singing became just like breathing, or walking, or talking…it came as naturally as anything else.” Kentucky Muse is proud to present as an Encore Presentation the story of a true Kentucky music original: “Mountain Born: The Jean Ritchie Story.”

This one-hour program, originally aired in 1996, follows the life of this folk music legend from her childhood on a small farm in Viper, Kentucky, to Carnegie Hall, and beyond.

Jean Ritchie in 1995

The Ritchie family had songs to accompany nearly all of their activities, from sweeping to butter-churning to working in the fields. Everyone gathered in the evenings for singing, choosing from a repertoire of more than 300 songs. Among them were hymns, traditional love songs and ballads, and popular songs by composers like Stephen Foster. Most of these songs were passed directly from generation to generation and were usually sung without accompaniment. During her childhood, Ritchie also grew close to the music of the Old Regular Baptist church and to popular music through radio broadcasts and recordings.

As “Mountain Born” follows Ritchie’s journey from these unpretentious beginnings, the artist’s impact on the world of music and her love for the beauty and power of song become clear. Interviews with family, friends, and colleagues describe her early move to New York where, after having received her degree in social work from the University of Kentucky in 1946, she drew upon her knowledge of family songs and games to entertain the children of Henry Street Settlement. After several public appearances and her introduction to the emerging folk scene, she was “discovered” by folklorist Alan Lomax. In the documentary, Ritchie recalls her early meetings and collaborations with such legendary performers as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Doc Watson, as well as some of her first television appearances and participation in the Newport Folk Festival. Archival footage, personal photographs, and beautiful music bring the exciting story to life.

The program also examines Ritchie’s impact on the world of popular music, both as a performer and researcher of authentic, traditional folk music and a champion for its role in social awareness. From her songwriting and song-sharing work with Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris, to her lyrics concerning environmental issues, poverty, and civil rights, Ritchie’s devotion remains constant and true.

The program concludes with a return to Ritchie’s Kentucky home for a family reunion, bringing this amazing story back to its source: a life connected to the majestic Cumberland Mountains through the sweet sound of voices in song.

For more information visit KET’s Mountain Born website .

Jean Ritchie Updates

Jean Ritchie, Traditional Kentucky Folk Musician, Dies at 92. Read more »

I guess if I had to categorize myself or pin down a description of what I do, I’d have to say I’m a carrier of tradition,” Jean Ritchie said in November 2008 upon her induction into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame.

Jean Ritchie
Jean Ritchie

Ritchie, who turned 86 in December 2008, continued to tour well into her 80’s, delighting long-time fans and introducing new ones to music rooted in her Eastern Kentucky childhood—ballads from her Scottish, Irish, and English ancestors; Old Regular Baptist hymns; the songs she and her family wrote; and her own works penned over decades as a performer and social activist.

Ritchie and her husband, George Pickow, lived in Port Washington, New York, from 1956 until Pickow’s death in December of 2010. They also kept a home in Ritchie’s hometown of Viper, Ky.

In fall of 2008, Ritchie began packing up her personal letters, song lyrics, field recordings, and other memorabilia to send them to the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress, where the materials will be preserved and be made available to the public to help tell the history of American folk music.

Ritchie herself has been at the center of that history. “It is hard to measure how important Jean Ritchie has been to folk music,” said Eastern Kentucky novelist and musician Silas House. “She has singlehandedly preserved hundreds of songs that would have been lost otherwise.”

To Ritchie that music is the bedrock of other American music genres. As she told a reporter for The New York Times in November 2008, her close friend Pete Seeger, who often talked through a song, “was kind of the beginning of rap.”

She added, “I believe all music comes from this big river of folk music that runs along through every culture.”

For her induction into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, Ritchie performed alongside her two sons, Peter and Jonathan, preceded by fellow inductees Public Enemy, LL Cool J, and a Long Island bar band, the Good Rats. Ritchie chose to perform the song “Now Is the Cool of the Day,” for its quietness. “I was looking to contrast with the other acts,” she said. “And here’s the nicest part: Besides being the only woman on the bill, I got the only standing ovation.”