and Jean Ritchie
Jean Ritchie and George Pickow
George Pickow m. 1950 to Jean R Ritchie b 8 Dec 1922 Viper,
Perry Co KY d/o Balis
Wilmer Ritchie and Abigail Hall. Jean Ritchie is a dulcimer player and
singer. The Singing Ritchies sang at Hazard, Perry Co KY fairs and festivals.
From Wickipedia: Abigail and Balis Ritchie of Viper, Perry
County, Kentucky had 14 children, and Jean was the youngest. Ten girls slept in
one room of the farming family's house in the Cumberland Mountains.
Jean Ritchie quickly memorized songs and performed at local dances and the
country fair in Hazard. In the late forties the family acquired a radio and
discovered that what they were singing was hillbilly music, a word they had
never heard before. In the mid-thirties Alan Lomax recorded in Kentucky for the
Library of Congress's Archive of Folk Song. Among the people he recorded were
The Singing Ritchies.
Ritchie attended Cumberland College in Williamsburg, Kentucky and later the
University of Kentucky in Lexington. At college she joined the glee club and
choir and learned to play piano. In 1946 she graduated with a BA in social work.
During the war, she taught in elementary school.
In the summer of 1946, she moved to work in the Henry Street Settlement in New
York. There she met Oscar Brand, Leadbelly, and Pete Seeger and started singing
her family songs again. In 1948 she shared the stage with The Weavers, Woody
Guthrie and Betty Sanders at the Spring Fever Hootenanny. Oscar Brand's Folksong
Festival on WNYC radio adopted her as a regular by October 1949.
The dulcimer revival
Ritchie sang unaccompanied folk songs mostly, but occasionally accompanied
herself on guitar or lap dulcimer (not a hammer dulcimer). Balis Ritchie played
dulcimer but forbade his children to touch it. At the age of 4 or 5 Jean Ritchie
defied the ruling to pick out Go Tell Aunt Rhody. By 1949 it was an instrument
that distinguished Ritchie from all other singers. Ritchie and her husband
George Pickow became convinced there was a potential boom. Pickow's uncle,
Morris Pickow, set up a workshop under the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn.
George Pickow did the finishing and Jean did the tuning. Soon they had sold 300
dulcimers. Today most folk festivals have several people selling dulcimers.
Elektra records signed her up and released three albums: Jean Ritchie Sings
(1952), Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family (1957) and A Time for Singing
(1962). She had a charming voice rather than a powerful or dramatic one, but it
was authentic. Her fans would ask her "Which album has the most dulcimer?" She
finally gave in, recording an album called The Most Dulcimer in 1992.
In the early 1940s George Pickow was at Camp Unity in New York. There he heard
Cisco Houston and Woody Guthrie jamming every night in a tiny cabin. He took up
a career as a photographer, but still went to square dances. He met Ritchie and
put her on the front cover of a trucker's magazine. They married in 1950. In
1953 Alan Lomax, George Pickow, and Peter Kennedy directed a film Oss Oss Wee
Oss (Colour, 16 minutes) showing the May Eve and May Day Festivals at Padstow,
Cornwall. George visited the UK again in 1960. In 1961 Alan Lomax and George
Pickow directed Ballads, Blues, Bluegrass.
The Fulbright expedition
Jean Ritchie was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to trace the links between
American ballads and the songs of the British Isles. As a song-collector, she
began by setting down the 300 songs that she already knew from her mother's
knee. Jean Ritchie spent 18 months tape recording and interviewing singers.
Pickow accompanied her, photographing Seamus Ennis, the McPeakes, Leo Rowsome,
Sarah Makem and others. One of Jean's own songs was Child Ballad 76, "Lass of
Lochlroyan". She was delighted to discover that Elizabeth Cronin, an elderly
Irish woman, knew a version of the same song. In 1955 Ritchie wrote a book about
her family called Singing Family of the Cumberlands.
"The Mother of Folk"
Ritchie became known as "The Mother of Folk". As well as work songs and ballads,
Ritchie knew hymns from the "Old Regular Baptist" church she attended in Jeff,
Kentucky. These were sung as "lining out" songs, in a lingering soulful way. One
of the songs they sang was "Amazing Grace". She wrote some songs, including one
on the effects of strip mining in Kentucky. "My Dear Companion" appeared on the
album Trio recorded by Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris. Judy
Collins not only recorded some of Ritchie's traditional songs, "Tender Ladies"
and "Pretty Saro", but used a photograph by George Pickow on the front of her
album Golden Apples of the Sun (1962). Ritchie's 50th anniversary album was
Mountain Born (1995), which features her two sons, Peter and Jonathan Pickow. In
1954 Ritchie and George Pickow released some their UK recordings under the name
Field Trip. It was re-issued in 2001 on the Greenhays label. It has recordings
by Elizabeth Cronin, Seamus Ennis, and others, side by side with Ritchie family
versions of the same songs.
In 1996 the Ritchie Pickow Photographic Archive was acquired by the James
Hardiman Library, National University of Ireland, Galway, along with tapes of
Ritchie has performed at Carnegie Hall and at the Royal Albert Hall. Her album,
None But One, was awarded the Rolling Stone Critics award in 1977.