Memories of Jean Ritchie
by Elwood Donnelly and Aubrey Atwater

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.

Jean Ritchie & George Pickow with Elwood Donnelly & Aubrey Atwater
Jean Ritchie and George Pickow (seated) at one of the annual Jean Ritchie concerts in the Port Washington Library, New York, with Elwood Donnelly and Aubrey Atwater

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  present programmes of traditional American and Celtic folk songs, a capella pieces, old-time gospel songs, dance tunes, and original works.