I Celebrate Life: Remembering My Friend Jean Ritchie
By Susie Glaze
I celebrate Life!
I tangle my fingers in its long-haired grasses… with gladness.
I beat upon its breast with futility.
I lie across its loin with joy.
I give to it and take from it sweet juices of abundance with… pain and pleasure.
I replenish it with my tears and the vibrations… of my laughter.
Until it sweeps me off, I will not leave it,
This World, this Earth!
This Universe, this Time and Space!
This Chance at finding God!
Back in 1995, my heart was being broken and I had no friends to turn to. One day, standing at the kitchen sink and looking out at the green world, I had no answer to how I would move forward. Then a memory of a tune conjured in my mind and I began to sing it:
I am a poor pilgrim of sorrow,
Cast out in this wide world to roam.
I have no hope for the morrow,
I’ve started to make heaven my home.
Sometimes I’m tossed and driven,
I know not where to roam.
I’ve heard of a city called heaven,
I’ve started to make it my home.
My voice had been silenced for so long by my own choice, believing that it didn’t belong in the life I had chosen. That day I heard my own voice streaming into the room through no force of my own will after so long being buried, and was pulled into a presence. A spirit had descended and was bringing me back something that was intrinsically mine. Through the song I was allowed to know my voice again, to know that I was alive, I was myself, and to begin the process of grieving, as the ancients had done, through the keening.
I had heard that song from Jean Ritchie.Years later I recorded this traditional ballad as I had learned it from Jean for an album of bluegrass songs. It occurred to me that she might like to hear it, to have a copy, to know that she had inspired someone. So I searched and found her website with an email address to inquire about mailing a copy of the CD to her. Back came a response that said thank you, to please send it to a particular address, and at the end, stated, “…it’s Jean ~ write anytime!” That one simple message changed my life. I was thunderstruck, to say the least, that I had made a connection with the lady herself, and was astonished at her openness. I corresponded in return of course and thus we struck up a pen pal friendship that lasted for many years. It resulted in my first meeting Jean in Kentucky in 2002 when she was inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, and ultimately collaborating with her and Steve Rankin on the development of our tribute show “Singin’ The Moon Up: The Voice of Jean Ritchie” in 2005. In the interim years and after, she coached me from a long distance about singing, recording, performing, song choices, teaching, music scholarship, humor and grace: lessons which I held close to my heart. We had become like family, performing at festivals together, visiting Jean and her husband, George Pickow, at their Port Washington home many times. I would always leave her reluctantly, wanting to stay and learn more, hear more, ask more. There was so much she had lived through, so much she had created, developed, was a part of that was seminal in the life of American folk music - I couldn’t believe that my destiny had just opened a window into that friendship. George was also a generous and brilliant artist, so important to the photographic recording of the folk revival. We toured their home in amazement, viewing a collection of music scholarship and original artworks and valuable memorabilia of American music during the mid-20th century that would ultimately be collected by the Library of Congress during the years leading up to George’s death in 2010. Jean’s stories astounded me as she recounted attending Bob Dylan’s first public concert appearance; meeting Maurice Sendak at a music gathering in Greenwich Village while she was preparing her book Singing Family of the Cumberlands. Seeing “Mark” do sketches as he sat on the floor, George asked him if he would do the illustrations for Jean’s upcoming book, one of his first jobs as a professional illustrator. Jean invited a young and fresh-from-the-mountains Doc Watson to perform with her in one of his earliest public performances on the East Coast, and he agreed, learning her mountain songs and singing with her on what would become the album “Doc and Jean at Folk City” from 1962. Jean was the first artist on the new label Elektra Records. At a radio station in Pennsylvania in 2005, Jean and I talked before an interview and she told me how Bob Dylan took one of her family’s traditional song melodies to create a song of his. I was astonished and asked “which song was it, Jean?” She said simply, “Masters of War.” Both Jean and George were unsung heroes. There are so many more stories like these. I wonder if somehow they will be collected and documented, as now they are historical figures that wander throughout the legends of the folk revival and mid-20th century folk music evolution. I had never met or known a more generous, loving, joyful, and gentle spirit than Jean’s. She described herself in her song “Mountain Born:” “I’m mountain born, and country gentle.” That was exactly the truth: country gentle. A friend remarked to me after Jean’s passing that we would surely not see her like again. That is truer than anyone can know. Every time I was with her I was already grieving how little time I actually had to spend with her. Now that she’s gone that grieving takes on a whole new character and depth. What she has left to all of us will bring her back in the fullness of time. And when I do call up her memory and all she gave me, that new character of memory will be mixed with a new kind of gratitude: gratitude for being given an idea of how life, as an artist and as a woman, should be. There are so many reasons why Jean’s work needs to be perpetuated, not the least of which is the immense scholarship of her life in music, the huge body of work that also includes her own original songwriting, which pulled those old stories along into her present day. In the 1961 liner notes for her album “Jean Ritchie: Ballads from her Appalachian Family Tradition” Kenneth Goldstein refers to Jean as a great “tradition bearer.” She was precisely that, bringing the massive wealth of her family’s collective memory to bear in her memorized canon which accompanied her to New York in the late 1940s. All during her childhood, Jean and her brothers and sisters and their parents had collected songs from their Kentucky community - doing field research into folklore without even knowing it, for their own family’s pleasure in singing. Their father Balis printed a small song book of the tunes. When they found even a snippet of a song they would often invent new sections to flesh them out into full-fledged songs. This is why Jean would publish as the “Ritchie Family Version.” They were as original, in the oral tradition sense, as one could get. Oral tradition had always created new versions of songs, but Jean took this process one step further. The “singing family of the Cumberlands” had been forming a new canon for which they were known. And Jean codified their work by placing them in publication. Luckily for us today, we have them recorded, printed and known. Jean’s Uncle Jason was seminal in Jean’s collecting as a young person, and provided that ancestral link that binds our present day with all the generations before us that settled this country and the Appalachian regions in particular. As she explains in her writing, during the early 20th century the mountain communities were mostly isolated from the “outside” world, there being no radios or televisions or even recorded music to bring that world to them. That meant that their social ways and traditions were kept intact just as their forebears had brought them to America from Scotland, England and Ireland. From her book Singing Family of the Cumberlands:
“Travelers from the level lands, usually the Blue Grass section of Kentucky to the west of us, always complained that they felt hemmed in by our hills, cut off from the wide skies and the rest of the world. For us it was hard to believe there was any ‘rest of the world,’ and if there should be such a thing, why, we trusted in the mountains to protect us from it.”
When you looked at Jean, you saw an upbringing that largely copied the upbringing her ancestors had been given, all the way back to their settling Appalachian regions in the 18th century. And, most importantly for Jean, the songs were remembered in the collective consciousness and memory of the people themselves. She writes in her songbook “Jean Ritchie - Celebration of Life: Her songs…her poems”:
“Uncle” Jason Ritchie, in reality my Dad’s first cousin, was a good friend who shared my consuming interest in the songs and the history of the family and the region around us.
He had a most marvelous memory, and a remarkable knowledge of his land and people. His stories an recollections, taken down on wires and tapes, were as dear to me as his songs. And as for songs, he drew them from some bottomless well inside himself, and, before his memory faded at last with age, he gave me many of the oldest and rarest ballads ever found in this country.
Jean sings “Sweet William and Lady Margaret”
Jean gathered these up from Uncle Jason over the years of her young life, and when she left the mountains, they went with her.
How unlikely was it that these songs would make their way to New York City and the on-rush of the Folk Revival? New York and the fabled folklorist Alan Lomax wasn’t prepared for the sheer wealth of Jean’s knowledge and breadth of song craft. Lomax told her he wanted to record everything she knew for the Library of Congress and his vast collection of field recordings. She warned him that it might take a while because she knew over 300 songs! He wasn’t fazed, and that began the moment when her history became folk music’s history, then and there.
Jean sings “Shady Grove” on Pete Seeger’s “Rainbow Quest” television show:
Suddenly, Jean found herself on stages performing next to people like Woody Guthrie, Odetta and Pete Seeger. She was made aware of an entire new class of performer and she became one of them. Later, Jean was inspired by all the writers who were around her to also write original songs, and with a protest bent to them (though she used a pseudonym for some of the writing so as not to bother her Mother who was staunchly non-political).
She always said that she had grown up with songs attached to a true story, and if a story didn’t have a song to go with it, she knew she had to write one. “All folk songs are true” she said in concert, and in the legacy of folk song, that’s what the songs were there for: to broadcast the story far and wide and lodge in the memory. So when Jean started to write, she had fertile ground in her own homeland of Eastern Kentucky. The coal mining culture and its tragedies supplied ample fodder for her great composing gift. “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore,” “Blue Diamond Mines,” and the greatest of all “Black Waters” have become legend in the life of coal mining protest anthems. What was always so remarkable about Jean, among many other remarkable facts, was that she was a giant in the gentle spirit of a mountain lady, carrying on what she learned and letting it speak through her quiet but firm voice.
That sweet firm voice lives on. After “Singin’ the Moon Up” was over, we were able to join the Ritchie clan for their annual reunion at the family’s original cabin in Viper, Kentucky in 2007. We “sang the moon up” and played dulcimer and sang a-Capella ballads the way the family had done in the mountains for so many generations. I was so grateful to be welcomed into that and participate in it. Since then I’ve recorded many of Jean’s songs, both traditional and original, and it’s a fervent prayer of mine that many other singers will discover her work and realize the immense artistry, power and poetry in what she’s left us.
In the liner notes to our tribute CD “Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie,” Fiona Ritchie writes that “Jean Ritchie represents a living connection to a heritage of song, spanning an ocean and several generations.” The voice you hear on the accompanying recording of “I Celebrate Life” is none other than Jean’s long-time friend and colleague, Pete Seeger. It was recorded a few months before Pete’s own departing, and I thought a very fitting tribute from one who was celebrating his own remarkable life.
I urge you to listen to Jean singing and playing and understand from what depths this music comes. They are deceptively simple, but listen: listen to the stories! The ballads, the play-party songs, the mining songs, the tragedies and the humor and the wisdom and the love: it’s all there, all of it from the depths and history of our human life.
I thank you for reading. It’s with all my heart that I write about my Dear Jean. I will miss her deeply until the end of my days and will be forever grateful for that small window that opened for me on a vast world of beauty and artistry.
And now, I leave you with the Ritchie family’s goodnight song, and for my Dear Jean, it is a fond farewell. May she fly on the wings of doves.
Twilight a stealing over the sea,
Shadows are falling, dark on the lea,
Borne on the night wind, voices of yore,
Come from the far off shore.
Far away beyond the starry sky,
Where the love light never, never dies.
Gleameth a mansion filled with delight,
Sweet happy home so bright.
Note: Original article appeared on FolkWorks: http://www.folkworks.org