It seems likely that Jean Ritchie was the first woman other than my mother with whom I fell in love. I would have been about five years old and have no memory of what she looked like; worse, I fear she was replaced in my affections by the Peruvian-born wife of one of my fathers graduate students.
But hers were among the albums mother played while ironing, and I came to adore the clear, high voice with which Miss Ritchie sang, and the exotic dulcimer with which she accompanied herself. Mountain Hearth & Home was her debut, recorded from 1948-50 for the fledgling Elektra label (this was its second release).
She had no intention of becoming a performing musician. Music was simply part of her familys life back in Perry County, Kentucky. It says much for her resolute nature that she attended the University of Kentucky, and followed her social work studies to, of all places, the Henry Street Settlement in the lower east side of New York City, seeking to learn what programs might be adapted to serve her neighbors back home.
Ritchie must have made an exotic figure in New York, and just at the beginning of the folk boom. The dulcimer cannot have been a common instrument, no more than it is today, and she arrived with a head full of songs that really did come from the folk.
And she had that voice. She would sing with more assurance, later on, but hers was an unusually pure high tone, largely free of regional accent and yet very much rooted in her home soil. She was quickly found and asked to sing, in 1947, at the Country Dance Society. Edward Tatnall Canby asked to record some of her songs, and brought her to the attention of Elektra founder Jac Holz-man.
Here, then, are her versions of The Cuckoo and Jubilee and Gypsum Davy (better known now as Black Jack David), The Hangman Song, and Come All You Fair And Tender Ladies. Thirty-seven tracks, in all, considerably expanding the original ten-inch which bore her name.
Many of these songs had been collected before, and many entered the folk canon through other versions. But this is where I heard them first, where many heard them first, and they have lost none of their luster with the passing of so many years.
Neither, judging by her own sprightly liner notes, has Jean Ritchie.