As is often the case in these forested hills of Eastern Kentucky, on December 8, 1922 in the small community of Viper in Perry County Kentucky a girl baby was born.
This baby girl was destined to shake the music world. Jean Ritchie was born to Abigail Hall and Balis W. Ritchie who was from perhaps one of the greatest Ballad singing families ever to come out of these hills. Jean made baby number fourteen to enter the Ritchie family.
Beside music, the Ritchie’s valued education and Jean graduated Phi Betta Kappa from the University of Kentucky in 1947. After graduation she become a social worker at the famous Henry Street Settlement in New York City. While working with the children there she come to the attention of Alan Lomax who’s life’s work was the preservation of Folk Music for the Library of Congress. Although Jean had sung for audiences all her life signing for Lomax opened the door to fame. With her repertoire of over 300 songs Jean would become very important in bringing the old Ballard’s to new audiences. Jean helped launch the first Newport Folk Festival in July 1959 which featured notables including Joan Biaz and Bob Dylan. Ritchie often liked to sing acappella with her crystal clear voice. Even so, she also introduced new audiences to the mountain dulcimer and autoharp.
By the age of 5 Jean had mastered the dulcimer, an instrument seemingly destined to obscurity. Due in great part to the fame bestowed upon it by Jean, it is neither obscure nor likely to ever be so. Jean bridged the gap between the old time dulcimer and the folk revival way of playing the instrument.
Ritchie's The Dulcimer Book has an old photograph of Mrs. Leah Smith of Big Laurel, Kentucky, playing the dulcimer with a bow instead of a pick, with the tail of the dulcimer held in the player's lap, and the headstock resting on a table pointing away from her.
Shortly before her death at age 92 on June 1, 2015 friends gathered at Berea's Union Church to celebrate the release of her new album. When Jean joined the other Ritchie family members for a final public performance at the event it was to great delight. The Ritchie family sang one of Jean’s favorites, Twilight-A-Stealing.
The Magoffin County Civil War Committee is proud that we are able to partner with the Kentucky Humanities to offer these dramatic portrayals of historic figures by professional actors to the public free of any charge for admission. Past figures we have provided include Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, Mark Twain, Grandpa Jones, Col Harland Sanders, Alice Lloyd, Mollie Jackson, and Jefferson Davis.
Daniel Boone will be at the Magoffin County Health Department Thursday September 7, 2017 beginning at 7 p.m. Free Admission.
The Committee also has Jean Ritchie booked for October 12 at 7 p.m.and Lilley Cornett booked for November 2 at 6 p.m.