I was lucky enough to sing with Jean and her sons in the 1970s, visiting with her and husband George Pickow at their beautiful home. More recently, I was able to introduce Jean to my long-time friend Kathy Mattea, who was unaccountably shy to meet her. I was again fortunate to guest on the tribute CD, Dear Jean – Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie. In working up her song ‘Mariah’s Gone’, I really came to understand what a stunning interpreter and writer she was. My version is light years different from hers, but I’m told she liked mine a lot, even so – a true artist, to acknowledge her art in another’s heart, and see it as an act of homage rather than ego.
I guess what I’m saying is that her thread ran through my life. She came from a world without record players, without CDs, without the constant hum and noise of speakers everywhere. A world where families made music together, both to entertain and to educate. A world that is sadly dying in this country, and one I greatly miss. The handing down of music is the handing down of culture and history, both personal and global. Jean epitomized that world, and we are poorer for this loss.
Janis Ian was barely into her teens when she received her first Grammy nomination for ‘Society’s Child’, a brave and controversial song from her debut album. Since then, there have been 10 nominations and three Grammys, most recently for Best Spoken Word for Society’s Child: My Autobiography, as well as countless other awards. Her many celebrated songs include ‘At Seventeen’ and ‘Jesse’. In February 2016, Janis Ian was honoured with a concert in Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series.
Elwood Donnelly and Aubrey Atwater are traditional folk musicians who perform as Atwater – Donnelly
Although Aubrey and I learned lots of Jean’s songs from her books or from musician friends, here is a short list of some of the ones we learned knee-to-knee with Jean herself during Appalachian Family Folk Week at the Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Kentucky: ‘Jenny Jenkins’; ‘Four Marys’; ‘The Devil’s Nine Questions’; ‘I Wonder When I Shall Be Married’; ‘Morning’s Come, Mariah’s Gone’; and ‘Pretty Saro’.
Aubrey and I had been doing research and performing traditional folk songs for a while already, including the songs of Jean Ritchie, the youngest of 14 from a mountain family in eastern Kentucky. But when Aubrey saw a small ad in Sing Out! Magazine in the late winter of 1992 which read ‘Appalachian Folk Week, with Jean Ritchie and others’ she was determined to go and meet Jean in person. So, off she went, that following June, to the Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Kentucky.
Not only did Aubrey meet Jean, who took her to the family cabin in Viper, Kentucky, but she met three other people who would become lifelong friends as well: Chris Bischoff of Louisville, who taught Aubrey her first clogging steps, right up to the Tennessee Walking Step, and who taught me to call contra and square dances; Dan Dutton, of Somerset, Kentucky, who is a multi-talented artist, songwriter, painter, dance choreographer and sculptor, and who engaged Aubrey in some of his folk operas; and Cari Norris, the granddaughter of Lily May Ledford, part of a trio who were among the first all-female group of performers during radio days in the 1930s. Cari taught Aubrey to play claw-hammer-style banjo.
Starting with that fateful visit to Hindman, Kentucky, we have all become the best of friends, visiting each other’s homes between Kentucky, Long Island, New York, and Rhode Island, where Aubrey and I live.
A conversation about Jean would be remiss without mentioning George Pickow, her husband for sixty years. Jean met George Pickow when she came to New York City in 1947 to follow her college degree in social work to the Henry Street Settlement School. George, a photo-journalist, subsequently documented Jean’s career, making her one of the most chronicled female folk singers in history.
Atwater – Donnelly performed with Jean on many occasions throughout the 22-year relationship, and Jean visited Rhode Island too, to participate in an annual festival that Aubrey organized, Mountain Music in the Ocean State. We also held Concerts in the Barn on our property in Foster, Rhode Island, during that period, bringing such luminaries as Dave Para and Cathy Barton, Tracy Schwarz and Ginny Hawker, Sheila Kay Adams, and, of course, Jean Ritchie.
Aubrey and I were also thrilled to perform twice for the annual Jean Ritchie concert at the library near Jean and George’s home in Port Washington on Long Island.
There were other occasions when we were privileged to visit and perform with Jean, but the greatest memories come from our times together at the Hindman Settlement School, during their Appalachian Family Folk Week in June, learning the history of the Ritchie family, singing together, and meeting Jean’s extended family, including her nieces Judy Hudson, Joy Powers, Susie Ritchie and Patty Tarter. Katie Tarter German, daughter of Patty and Joe Tarter, took a huge interest in the family history, songs and play-party games and dance, and is a principal teacher of the same.
Because of our friendships with members of the Ritchie family, Aubrey and I also have had the honour to be on staff several times over these years for the Christmas County Dance School in Berea, Kentucky. This event is held every year, starting the day after Christmas and ending on New Year’s Day.
If you want to get a strong introduction to Jean and the family that has brought so many songs to the ears of faithful traditional music fans, read Jean’s book, The Singing Family of the Cumberlands. It’s an honest and well-written appraisal of growing up in the Ritchie home, from the viewpoint of the youngest child, Jean Ritchie.
The way in which Aubrey and I are always on the lookout for alternate versions of familiar folk songs is due to the path on which Jean set us, with anecdotes from her decades of touring and performing and learning from others. These lessons learned, and the smiles shared, are just the tip of the warmth-berg of our 22-year friendship with Jean. It seems almost ironic now to look back across the years and recall that this friendship started with a classified ad.
Husband-wife duo Aubrey Atwater and Elwood Donnelly www.atwater-donnelly.com present programmes of traditional American and Celtic folk songs, a capella pieces, old-time gospel songs, dance tunes, and original works.
My musical education started at school, when I built two dulcimers. I was good at woodwork but had no training whatsoever in music. There were but two guiding lights for me at that time: the iconic Nonsuch for Dulcimer album by London-based Roger Nicholson and the book Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians by the popular US folk singer Jean Ritchie. Between these two I somehow managed to make a start as a dulcimer player and was later to develop my own approach and styles of playing.
As a wide-eyed teenager, new to music, I inevitably had vague dreams of visiting London and America and seeing Roger and Jean perform. Little did I know then that I was later to meet them both and even to perform with them. The story of how I met and worked with Roger is documented here but this article is about Jean…
It was upon my third tour in the United States that I met Jean. It was my first visit to Kentucky and the trip was magical, as you can see from my tour dairy. I met many of the leading lights in the dulcimer world and made new friends and had a thoroughly fun time to boot. One of the festivals was in a pleasant park in the north Kentucky city of Louisville, in and around the Uroquois Amphitheatre. The festival ran for several days and on the last night I gave a performance on dulcimer and guitar to a large, warm and appreciative audience.
Two of the performers that night were US folk legends Bill Staines and Jean Ritchie and I had the privilege to meet them in person backstage and, in particular, to chat to Jean a little. We talked about Roger Nicholson and ‘Amazing Grace’. I knew that Jean frequently performed ‘Amazing Grace’ a capella to end her concerts and I’d seen her be unclear in a film interview about the song’s origins, which I have documented here.
Upon my return to England I made a point of visiting St Peter and St Paul’s Church in Olney, Buckinghamshire, and sent Jean a small booklet on the song that the church published. Therein pursued a short email dialogue with her. In our brief encounters Jean was very gracious, as you might imagine from such a warmly loved performer.
Shortly after our brief meeting I watched Jean perform from behind the stage. At one point I remember her standing, silhouetted by the stage lights with her arms slightly open. She was so relaxed and seemed angelic. Meanwhile, backstage, master song-smith Bill was busy crafting the song ‘Beneath Kentucky Skies’ for all the performers that night to present as finale. So I can literally say, I’ve sung on stage with Jean Ritchie and Bill Staines.