Jean Ritchie is generally most well known as a Kentucky born folksinger who through her long performing and recording career beginning in the early 1950s, preserved and passed on the exceptionally strong musical traditions of her Perry County based family. However she has also made important contributions as a collector, composer and scholar.
Early folksong scholars such a Cecil Sharp had taken note of the Ritchie family’s music traditions as early as 1917 through the singing of some of Jean’s older siblings at Hindman Settlement School. Jean received similar attention much later from such scholars as Artus Moser (1946) and Allan Lomax (1951) both of whose audio recordings of her are now in the Library of Congress.
Jean moved to work in New York City after her 1946 graduation from the University of Kentucky with a degree in Social Work. It was there that opportunity, technology, and personality converged to allow her to move her family’s music beyond those early scholars’ written renderings by bringing it to life in public performances and widely available commercial recordings.
Jean Ritchie’s earliest documented Berea College performance was probably on January 11, 1964. Between then and her 1946 college graduation she had written Singing Family of the Cumberlands the first of several books. With support of a Fulbright scholarship, she also had traveled to the British Isles to collect songs and compare them with family and other Appalachian folk songs, a project that resulted in a 2 record set for the Folkways label.
The writer of the Berea Pinnacle account of her 1964 campus performance was intrigued by her “clear, pure voice.” Appalachian scholar Loyal Jones says that beyond simply playing and singing mountain songs, “she leads a cultural trip through the time and place that produced her and her music… she narrates a cultural setting, a backdrop that encompasses the audience, providing an image for the mind’s eye and a mood to receive the music.”
Jean Ritchie’s “clear, pure voice” and her “cultural trip(s) through..time and place” have graced the Berea campus on numerous occasions since 1964, the latest being 1999. Over these years she expanded her repertoire beyond the traditional to include her own songs such as High Hills and Mountains, Black Waters, Blue Diamond Mines, and The L & N Don’t Stop Here Any More.