Jean Ritchie, the recipient of the Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship, is a significant musician and songwriter, as well as a cultural activist and chronicler of her home region. She was born into a singing family in Viper, Kentucky, in the Cumberland Mountains of the eastern part of the state. The youngest of 14 children, she studied at Viper High School and Cumberland College, before going on to the University of Kentucky where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in social work. Her first job was with the Henry Street Settlement on New York's Lower East Side, where she taught Kentucky songs, ballads, and singing games to children. During this time, Alan Lomax encountered her, recorded her songs and lap dulcimer playing for the Library of Congress, and arranged her first formal concert at Columbia University. By 1952, she was traveling on a Fulbright Fellowship to trace and document the roots of her heritage in the British Isles. In 1955, her first book, Singing Family of the Cumberlands, was hailed as an American classic. Her many recordings and appearances at major folk festivals, including the early Newport Folk Festivals, cultivated a revival of interest in Appalachian music and culture. She also became known as an insightful songwriter, penning such classics as Blue Diamond Mines, Black Waters, and The L & N Don't Stop Here Anymore, about life in eastern Kentucky coal country. By sharing her music as well as her commitment and strong ties to her Appalachian home with audiences around the nation and around the world, Jean Ritchie has come to define and embody the dual concepts of ambassador and steward of tradition.
NEA: I want to congratulate you on your award.
MS. RITCHIE: Thank you. I'm still shocked by it.
NEA: What was your reaction when you found out?
MS. RITCHIE: When Barry Bergey told me the news, I just sat silent for a while. I couldn't believe it. I've worked in the field all my life and I've written many many letters of recommendation for other people. But I never thought I would be considered.
NEA: I know that music has always been important to the Ritchie family. Could you talk about that and growing up with music?
MS. RITCHIE: We never realized how important it was until we scattered and got away from each other and began to hear other kinds of music. Growing up we just used music all the time without realizing it. We used it when we were working. We sang when we were around the house doing dishes or out in the cornfield. Or walking along roads and going to each other's houses and having parties. Music was always a big part of our life but was something we took it for granted.
When we separated and went our different ways that's what we thought about most, our singing together. It was the most nostalgic thing for us. That was why I started doing it for other people - people seemed to like our sense of community. That came through with the songs. I'd always talk about the family, about various things that we'd do, our work ways and our play ways and our community culture. It got to be that people wanted to hear that as much as they wanted to hear the songs. People had moved to the cities and had gotten got isolated and they were all a little bit homesick for their community. I guess that's why people want to listen to me.
NEA: What was it like growing up in Viper, Kentucky?
MS. RITCHIE: We were a big family. My mother and father had fourteen children. We had a three room house - we did build a few rooms on in the back small rooms, so it was six rooms - but three of them were kind of lean-to rooms. We all lived there. It's amazing that we could fit in.
People all over the community lived like that. It was common in those days to have a big family. My dad always said, "I needed more help in the cornfields so we had more kids." When I asked my mom why she had so many children, she said, "I never liked to be without a baby in my arms."
That's the way it was. It was not expensive to have children in those days. In fact, it was helpful because they could help with all the work around the farm. We worked all week. We went to school from about July to February and were off the rest of the year to help on the farm. In the summertime we all worked in the cornfield and in the garden to raise enough food to get us through the winter. We had one cow for milking, one horse or mule for doing the work, some pigs, some chickens. It was a subsistence living. We didn't sell anything. It wasn't a commercial farm, we were just feeding ourselves and getting ourselves through.
My dad was very much in favor of education for everybody, so he sent the girls to school the same as the boys, which was unusual in those days. Usually the girls just got married and started their own operation and the boys were educated. But my dad thought everybody should get educated. He had eleven girls and three boys and he wanted them all educated. He knew the girls had good minds.
He went to normal school himself and taught school. He had to go way out to Ohio to get into a normal school where he could get a certificate and then he came back home and taught school around in the community.
NEA: I know you learned to play dulcimer from your dad. Can you talk about that?
MS. RITCHIE: Dad always kept the dulcimer on the fireboard as we called it, the mantelpiece. Everybody could look at it but nobody touched it because it was dad's instrument. He got it from the old man that made dulcimers in Knot County, Edward Thomas. Thomas sold him a dulcimer for $5. Dad always had it there and played. He used a "noter" in the left hand to slide on the strings and a whittled down turkey or goose feather to pick with the right hand. He played square dance tunes except we didn't call it square dancing, we called it set running tunes. He played Oh, Joe Clark and things that had rhythm. He didn't play slow tunes. He played only in the major key, that's the only way he could tune. Anything that wasn't in the major key he just played in the major key anyway.
When I got to be about four or five years old I wanted to play it. None of the rest of the family dared touch it because it was dad's instrument. He never made a fuss about it or anything; we just knew. I would get it down when he was gone to the field and I was home with mom getting dinner. I'd get it down off the mantlepiece and hide behind the davenport or a big chair and play, pick it with my fingers. I started with a song I knew like Go Tell Aunt Roddy, and I'd play that. But I was dissatisfied that I couldn't hear the strings when I sang so I started playing against the tune, I started playing the harmony. I discovered that way of playing, at least I thought I made it up. But I found out later it'd been used a long time ago.
Dad would say, "Something's got into these strings, they're all turned around from what I had it this morning. It's the weather I guess." But after a while he knew I was playing it so he'd get it down and let me hold it. When I was about seven he showed me a few things about it. But he just said there's no teaching to it, you just do it. So I did. I'd watch him and I'd do what he did. That's how I got started.
NEA: Who else influenced your music?
MS. RITCHIE: My mother was a very good singer, had a beautiful high voice. And my older sisters all sang. They'd harmonize around the dishpan. They sang the old ballads but they also sang the songs that they were learning when they were on their way to school, the popular songs of the day I guess you'd call them, the first songs that got played on the early record players and radios. Like After the Ball is Over, a Victorian song, and some of the old Victorian pieces, things out of the Heart songbook. All the old romantic songs and the tear-jerkers, like the one about the son who was disinherited because all the others took up against him but was the one that loved his dad the best and in the end he came to save him from going to the workhouse. And songs about the orphans. We sang all those things, that was our pop music. And we also sang the old songs.
NEA: Tell me about some of the songs that you've sung over the years that have taken on environmental issues or social issues.
MS. RITCHIE: . Sometimes a situation comes along that doesn't have a song so you have to make up one to cover it, to talk about it. I communicate better when I sing than when I talk. Talking on the spur of the moment has always been hard for me. When I write, I have time to think it all out. I write the songs and I sing them and they say what I want to say.
The first one I wrote was Black Waters. It was about strip mining and how it caused all kinds of problems with the land and the water. Then I did a whole group of songs about strip mining and mining in general. One thing sort of led to another. I wanted to comment on mine safety or the lack of it and I did Blue Diamond Mines.
Black Waters has been used in a lot of plays and documentaries. People like Johnny Cash and Michele Shocked have given it different treatments. I just signed an agreement for it to be used in a play about aging!
I've written some healing songs too. One is called Now is the Cool of the Day, which is my favorite of my written songs right now. It's just about God walking in his garden in the cool of the day and how we should be good stewards of the earth, keep the waters clean, keep the grasses green and so on. Churches use it, choruses, choirs, it's played at weddings. It's got a big audience, that one.
NEA: In what direction do you think Appalachian dulcimer music is moving?
MS. RITCHIE: You go to a program of dulcimer music nowadays and you'll get old ballads where people sing and play at the same time, you'll get a instrumental music that's a jazz tune or the blues. It's used for every different kind of music. And it sounds good with all of them. It seems that the dulcimer has been taken now beyond its limitations, beyond its diatonic scale. What they've done now is put in another thread so that they can make it like a regular scale, a regular eight scale. They've put the extra note in. In a strict sense it has a different finger board, it's not quite a dulcimer anymore. But they've done that to make it more flexible and easier to play along with other people.
I think it will keep changing a little more as the years go by but not an awful lot. The sound will still be the same.
NEA: Do you consider yourself a conservative dulcimer player or do you like to be innovative and experiment as well?
MS. RITCHIE: I'm just an old-timer. The reason I don't play any better than I do is because our family were basically singers. We only used an instrument once in a while. If we needed something to keep us together and on pitch on a windy porch we'd bring out a dulcimer just to have something as a base, to keep us in tune. But nobody ever tried to play in a spectacular way. The song was the important thing and the instrument was just there to do a service for you.
After I came to New York I was asked to do programs at ladies clubs and schools and so on. An evening program would be two hours long with an intermission. People would get so tired of hearing you just singing so I started using a dulcimer to break the monotony!
NEA: What other adjustments did you make being up on stage?
MS. RITCHIE: I just sort of went along with what the audience seemed to like. They wanted to hear the stories, the descriptions of growing up and who sang what song and what it meant to them and why the song came to be and so on. I'd just sort of ramble on talking about a particular song and describing things, and afterwards people would come up and say "We love the stories. We could listen to them all night." That sort of dictated the way my performances turned out over the years. People really wanted me to talk and they liked the informality. "It was just like sitting in your living room," they'd say. Or "It's just like being on your porch." It was just me and them. I was on the stage but each one would say, "You were talking to me." I don't know how that happened but that's what people are always telling me. Some of them were really amazed. They thought it was incredible that somebody could be that informal on the stage - in the fifties people were still wearing tuxedos to concerts and acted very proper, so my kind of thing was a revolution in its way. I just sat there and talked and sang.
NEA: I was wondering if you could tell me about your teaching or the passing along what you do of this tradition to others? What advice would you give to somebody wanting to learn the dulcimer?
MS. RITCHIE: I think that people should learn how to play the very basic way and then go on and learn the other things too. They should know how it sounds. I always tell the people I instruct, "This is the way that my dad played, this is the way I learned to play from him, this is the way that everybody used to play, the only way anybody knew how to play." Then you can say, "But here's what you can also do with it," and you can give them the other things too.
In the old days there was nothing written down. But now there are lots of instruction books and repertory books and all kinds of things that you can refer to. And most of them have a little bit of history in it so that people can always know about that.
MS. RITCHIE: I've never considered myself a teacher. I do workshops and things like that but mostly just talking and demonstrating. I think the best approach for learning is to watch somebody and then go and try it out. My dad made me do that. He wouldn't teach me. He'd say, "Just look what I do and see if you can do it." I still believe that's a good way to learn the folk things because that's the way its always been done. People have picked it up from their mother or their grandmother. So that's the way I keep trying to pass it on. I think that's the best way.
I've put some things on records and I've put some things in books as references for people. But I've no other way of teaching except by doing and by living.
I like the idea of a person studying with what they used to call a master teacher, somebody would go with Bill Monroe and just travel with him and watch him and listen to him and jam with him in the off hours. I think that's really what I would tell people to do if they can.
NEA: You've written a great bit about your family.
MS. RITCHIE: My autobiography, Singing Family of the Cumberlands, is used in many Appalachian classes and things like that. It's a true account of growing up and using the music and how the music fit in and so on. It came out in '55 and has been continually in print, which is nice.
NEA: Can you tell me what music has meant to you over the course of your life?
MS. RITCHIE: It's been a wonderful accompaniment to life. I've never thought it was everything. I have never gone into music to the exclusion of everything else. I've just lived and the music has been a wonderful accompaniment. That's what I tell people. Use music to accompany your lives but not let it take over.
NEA: Are you looking forward to coming to DC?
MS. RITCHIE: I'm very much looking forward to it. I'm glad that they've given us the three days so that we don't have to rush. It'll be nice to have some time in Washington to look around and to get a feel of the place, of our nation's capital.
I've gotten many awards but this is one is a national award. It means you're being honored by the whole country, which is something I never thought would happen to me. I'm happy about it. A since I'm going to be eighty in December I think it's in good time!