Folk Legend Jean Ritchie, Inspiration to Bob Dylan and Others, Dies at 92
Bob Dylan and his contemporaries wove the folk music tradition into rock 'n' roll — and they did it by standing on the shoulders of giants like Jean Ritchie, the singer and musician whose tireless efforts to preserve traditional song helped shape modern American music.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Ritchie passed away June 1 at the age of 92, surrounded by family at her home in Berea, Ky., where she moved after enduring a stroke in 2009. Fittingly, given her strong focus on tradition, Ritchie ended up roughly 100 miles from Viper, the town where she was born in 1922.
The youngest of 14 children — 10 of them girls — Ritchie got her musical start as part of a local trio before going to college, where she majored in social work. After graduating, she moved to New York, where she got a job as a social worker and taught music to children; during this period, she became friends with the legendary archivist Alan Lomax, who recorded many of her performances for his Library of Congress collection, and started making a name for herself as part of a local folk scene that included Leadbelly and Pete Seeger.
Ritchie, who performed a cappella in addition to accompanying herself on a variety of instruments that included the mountain dulcimer, earned a Fulbright scholarship, which she used to travel to the U.K. while studying the roots and origins of the songs she learned as a girl; during this period, she signed her first recording contract with Elektra, where she released a trio of albums (1952's Jean Ritchie Sings, 1957's Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family and 1962's A Time for Singing) that helped bring her music — and the traditional songs she learned in her youth — to a growing audience that included the young Dylan.
"When I was first living in New York City – do you remember the old Madison Square Garden?" he asked Rolling Stone in 1978. "Well, they used to have gospel shows there every Sunday, and you could see everyone from the Five Blind Boys, the Soul Stirrers and the Swan Silvertones to Clara Ward and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. I went up there every Sunday. I'd listen to that and Big Bill Broonzy. Then I heard the Clancy Brothers and hung out with them – all of their drinking songs, their revolutionary and damsel-in-distress songs. And I listened to Jean Ritchie, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly."
Ritchie's influence on Dylan would later become apparent in "Masters of War," which he recorded for 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan — and which, to Ritchie's chagrin, lifted the melody from "Nottamun Town," a traditional number with roots in her own family's musical lineage. She took action against Dylan, ultimately securing a financial settlement as well as a co-writing credit.
As her reputation grew, Ritchie became known as the "Mother of Folk," and performed for increasingly larger crowds at venues that included Carnegie Hall while continuing to record and release albums well in to the '90s. In 2002, her contributions to music were honored with the prestigious National Endowment For The Arts National Heritage Fellowship. As novelist and musician Silas House is quoted as saying in the Wall Street Journal's obituary, "She has single-handedly preserved hundreds of songs that would have been lost otherwise. It is hard to measure how important Jean Ritchie has been to folk music."
But for Ritchie, her work was just a continuation of a tradition that had been in place before she was born, and would continue long after she was gone. "I see folk music as a river that never stopped flowing," she told the New York Times during a 1980 interview. "Sometimes a few people go to it and sometimes a lot of people do. But it’s always there."
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