INTERVIEW with Jean Ritchie
Jean Ritchie: On this end, I knew Douglas and Helen Kennedy from the Cecil Sharp House, the folklore people. They came over to the summer camp at Pine Woods, in Massachusetts. I was there, and we met and became good friends. So, when we wanted to go over and do our Fullbright Scholarship tour, they gave us names. Their son, Peter Kennedy, and Seamus Ennis, had been working together collecting throughout Ireland and England and Scotland for the BBC Archives.
J.R. We did that; we had all that happen. We were there before the folk revival. When we interviewed Jimmy MacBeth, and Jeanie Robertson, and all the other people, they were still singing the old slow style. And even the Clancy's; on this end we met Tom and Paddy, and they were not singing at all, they were acting. When they did sing, they sang in the old slow way. It wasn't until they began their stage career that they became more aggressive in their singing. They didn't bother to sing exciting songs in the old days. The songs themselves, the words, were exciting.
M.S. That's an important thing to say. Most of the singers I've talked to say they prefer to sing the old slow airs. Because they have to go onstage, they feel they have to get some up-tempo songs.
J.R. That's right, you have to become 'stage Irish' or you don't survive.
M.S. There you go. You're putting your finger right on it.
J.R. That's really the reason I never got to be a household word in this country, which is something I never strove for anyway. I didn't want it. I want to be the way I am, and I want to sing the way I sing.
M.S. Now why do you want to do that? Tell me about that.
J.R. Because that's the way I feel. I don't crave that kind of thing. I guess one of the reasons is that I've never had to earn a living with music. I got married in my twenties to a photographer, George Pickow, and he's always been able to support me, so my music is more of a hobby. It's what I want to do. It's something that I love, and I don't want to go out and commercialize it.
M.S. Yes, there you are. It's a fine line. I was really fascinated to see that you have established the Ritchie/Pickow archive in the city of Galway.
J.R. Yes, what a grand thing to happen in our "senior years". In that year, 1952-53, when I got the Fullbright Scholarship, George went along for the trip. He was a photographer. He set up several interviews before we went over. So we both had our projects, and being not long married, it was fun to be working together.
M.S. That was very good fortune that he is a photographer.
J.R. We went around and saw all the singers. In addition to recording them, he was able to photograph them in their homes, giving depth to the music.
Not long ago, we met Daîbhî O'Cronin who is from Galway. He teaches there at the University. One of the people we collected from, all those years ago, was his grandmother, Elizabeth Cronin. She didn't use the "O". Since he's a professor and teaches and speaks Gaelic, he's taken up the old ways. Anyway, he started writing to me about his grandmother. He was doing a book about her and he heard that we had photographed her, and had tapes etc. etc. So he came over and we showed him what we had and he was thrilled with the quality of the pictures and the quality of the recordings. Back in 1952, we had one of the first portable recorders of good quality. It was very heavy. We recorded and photographed singers all over Ireland, and England, and Scotland. Daîbhî was able to interest the people at his University. They wanted to have all our material for their library. They bought all our Irish pictures and tapes and now they have a traveling archive of Ireland in the 50's.
M.S. You must be very excited about that!
J.R. Yes! We've had some wonderful trips to Ireland, and it is marvelous that our work is preserved in that way. We were hoping that the Scots would also be interested in our Scottish collections. There's a new project started up there, in Aberdeen, but it's not quite on its feet yet.
M.S. About ten years ago, the Glasgow Government became very interested in cultural tourism. Glasgow is now one of the top six cultural centers in Europe because the government decided to focus their economic growth on their cultural assets. The Irish did the same thing at about the same time, during the late eighties when the big boom was going on. And when the Wall Street crash came, Ireland didn't stop; they kept it going and now Ireland is known as "The Celtic Tiger". They have moved from being the poorest, to being one of the richest countries in Europe.
J.R. You can see that in the country. When we went over there this last time, it wasn't the way it used to be when we were collecting. It was like daylight and dark. Everything is prospering and thriving. Another thing that's happening in Aberdeen, Scotland, is a new cultural center, a place called the Elphinstone Institute. The curator there, the man who is helping set it up, is Dr. James Porter. He wanted to do the same thing in Scotland. They're interested but things are moving slowly as yet.
M.S. How do you feel about the rapid changes in communications technology? You've got yourself a website; you've got email now.
J.R. Well, I just have people in the family that can do that kind of thing. I never would have gotten around to it myself, but I love it. It puts you in instant touch with the whole world.
M.S. Have you got any new projects coming up?
J.R. One thing that we're doing that might interest you is that, in April, Phillip King, of Hummingbird Productions, wants to do the same show that we did last November in Belfast. They want to do it at the Barbicon in London. The show in Belfast was for "The Belfast Festival at Queens", and I went over, and Tommy Makem went over, and David Hammond came. So the three of us, with Donal Lunny, did a folk music program. Donal didn't sing, but accompanied everybody. I asked him to sing with me and he blushed, (laughs) but he played beautifully and we did a program as part of that Festival. The whole program is Irish, but it's going to be in London. I guess the British Government wants to do something nice, make good feeling. I don't travel a lot now, but when something like this comes up, it's really great.
M.S. I'm very interested in how you feel about what you discovered in comparison to the music tradition in America. You had already been involved in music collecting in America, before you went to Europe.
J.R. I was born and raised in the mountains of Kentucky, where we're all of Scottish, Irish, and English decent, mixed of course. The motivation for me getting the scholarship in the first place was that I wanted to trace the sources of our old family ballads and songs that were all of Celtic origin.
M.S. How do you feel about the word Celtic now a days?
J.R. I think it's sort of an umbrella term that people use, not always knowing what it means. It's a very descriptive word. It unites people in that feeling. Where I came from, we had some Irish, and some English, and some Scottish, mainly Scottish. The Ritchie's came from Inverness. But we began our collecting in Ireland. It was fascinating to visit there and hear the same tunes that we sing in Kentucky, but maybe with different words. Then I'd go to Scotland and hear the same words with maybe an Irish tune. Therefore, in the mountains of Kentucky, we seem to have taken what we thought was the best of everything. If we liked the words we would put a pretty Irish tune to them. Everything sort of got wedded together. Pity that human beings can't do the same. It's part of my heritage, and it's been thrilling my whole life to be able to discover, more and more, the roots of the music, what folk music really is. To meet the people who keep the songs alive because they mean so much to them - a part of their oral history and their way of life.
M.S. Well, they stir up wonderful feelings.
J.R. When we met Daîbhî and were going to go to Ireland, we were invited especially to come to Cork for a party, as guests of honor, because it had been almost forty years since we had been there. Everybody we had collected from, their descendants and children all came. We met in a hotel and had a big party and we put our pictures on the wall, so they could all see what they used to look like. Everybody sang and everybody performed. It was a marvelous little party. There was a big recording studio next door, and the Chieftains were recording, so some of them looked in and joined us. Imagine my surprise and delight when Sean Keane came in, nodded to me, and proceeded to fiddle a medley of lovely traditional airs in my honor!
M.S. I think one of the big lessons we have to share as people who get our thrills from music is that just by associating yourself more deeply with the music tradition, you get this great lifestyle. When you're into music you can meet the musicians. If you're reading a book, you rarely get a chance to hang out with the author. Whereas, with the musicians, you can go and hear them live and participate in the energy, even play with them.
J.R. Yes, that's the way it's been for me, and I've been very happy. It's made my life a very joyful experience.
Jean Ritchie was born and raised in Viper, Kentucky in the heart of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, youngest in a family of fourteen children born to Balis and Abigail Ritchie. Walled in by the rugged Cumberland ridges, the Ritchies' and their neighbors farmed their hillsides using primitive methods and entertained themselves with play-party games and ballads handed down through the generations from their Scottish, English and Irish ancestors. Jean is a graduate of Cumberland College and the University of Kentucky where she earned a Phi Beta Kapa"- key, taking her bachelors degree in social work.
In her second year at Cumberland College, Ritchie was trying to decide between being a teacher and being a missionary. "I remember asking myself what else was there I could do to help people, but not force my beliefs on them. I came up with the idea of being a social worker." So, she went from the small village of Viper, Kentucky to become the first person to enroll and obtain a degree in social work from the University of Kentucky. In 1947, after college, she moved to New York and worked in the famous Henry Street Settlement as a social worker whose main virtues proved to be her voice and her deeply felt interest in the betterment of society.
By 1950, Jean Ritchie was an important figure on the New York folk scene, her influence probably best shown by the fact that dulcimers, almost unknown instruments in New York, began selling at a brisk rate. Today she is credited with almost single-handedly reviving interest in the mountain dulcimer and with helping to establish its prominence as more than a regional folk instrument. As Jean's reputation grew, Oxford Press encouraged her to begin working on a book about her family and its music. Singing Family of the Cumberlands, as it came to be known, published in 1955, was reviewed as " an American classic," and is still in print. Nine more books, including the prize winning Celebration of life, were to follow. The early 50's continued to be eventful for Jean. Three months after marrying New York photographer George Pickow, she met a Haverford College student named Jac Holzman, who told her that he and a friend had just started a small record company they called Elektra and asked if she'd consider launching their folk music division. The result - the first record for Elektra and for Jean - was the I 10-inch LP Jean Ritchie, Singing Traditional Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family. Since then, she has recorded more than 30 albums for different labels, including her own Greenhays label, which she and George set up in '79 to assure availability of her records.
While the folk movement that peaked in the 1960's has tapered off, the sustained, if less commercial, interest in traditional music provided Jean with more college and festival dates than ever before. She also finds herself often in demand to guest teach at such places as the University of California, Santa Cruz, or to serve as artist-in-residence, as she did at California State University, Fresno, in the spring of'79. And there are even more exciting invitations. She led 180,000 people in singing "Amazing Grace" for Pope John Paul 11 in Washington. Also, she has had many tours abroad.
Even though Jean still resides in New York, she and George have a log house in Viper, and she stays active performing in many of Kentucky's summer music festivals, telling her stories of family and experiences growing up in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. KET, The Kentucky Network honored her with a program about her life and music, Mountain Born: the Jean Ritchie Story that was on Monday, May 20, 1996 and later on The PBS network.
She says it best, "I believe that old songs have things to say to the modem generation, and that's why they've stayed around. That's also why I am still singing. I'm not afraid to be myself Agents say you have to change and grow, but I believe you can sing the same songs and sing them better and grow new songs out of the old. I guess if I had to categorize myself or pin down a description of what I do, I'd have to say I'm a carrier of tradition.".
Honors and awards include the University of Kentucky Founders Day Award and a place in their Hall of Distinguished Alumni, the Phi Beta Kappa Certificate of Honor, a 1983 Doctor of Letters degree from the University of Kentucky, a 1991 Honorary Doctor of Arts from Berea College. She was the recipient of the 1984 Milner Award from the Kentucky Arts Council as Outstanding Kentucky Artist of the Year. In 1986, Ritchie Family Week was declared, and Jean accepted Proclamations from the City of Lexington, Kentucky, the State of Kentucky, the National Congress, together with a Capitol flag and a letter from the President of the United States, honoring Jean and her family's contribution to music. Her book, Celebration of life won a national prize upon publication. Her album - None But One received the Rolling Stone Critic's Circle Award as Best Folk Album, and a similar Melody Maker Award for that year in England. Her Biographies appear in FOLKSINGERS AND FOLK SONGS IN AMERICA, THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FOLK, COUNTRY, AND WESTERN MUSIC, "Current Biography", KENTUCKY COUNTRY, and WHO'S WHO OF AMERICAN WOMEN.
Jean was featured in Bill Moyers 'PBS documentary, AMAZING GRACE, and is the subject of MOUNTAIN BORN, THE JEAN RITCHIE STORY, produced by Kentucky Educational Television. Life Achievement Award given to Jean by FOLK ALLIANCE at its annual conference in Memphis.
Clear Waters Remembered Geordie Records SES97014 1971
Jean Ritchie Concert Greenhays
BOOKS BY JEAN RITCHIE
Singing Family of the Cumberlands Oxford University Press 1955
* Discontinued all others available from Folklife Productions, 7A Locust Ave., Port Washington, N.Y. 11050
Thanks to Mairéid Sullivan for allowing us to print this segment from her book, "Celtic Women in Music", copyright 1999, Quarry Press.