Tag Archives: Jean Ritchie

REVIEW: A celebration of the music of Jean Ritchie

‘Two brilliant artists… an exceptionally fitting venue… Square Roots look set to make a real impact in preserving and promoting the people, the places, and the history of the British/American folk relationship’

Well I’ll be damned, to coin a phrase – from ‘Diamonds and Rust’ actually! Square Roots Productions made its official debut on 22 February with a concert showcasing Dan Evans and Virginia Thorn that had Folk & Honey reaching for superlatives.


The gig, at Camden’s award-winning Green Note, was a sell-out – indeed, there was a waiting list for tickets. The evening was a tribute to folksinger and song collector Jean Ritchie, who died last summer: to her songs, to the folk revivalists of the 1960s who brought them to a vast new international audience and to the instrument she made her own – the dulcimer, now the official instrument of her home state of Kentucky.

Dan EvansFor many in the audience, it was the first time they had heard it played live and the capacity crowd was both charmed and intrigued. Dan Evans, Britain’s leading dulcimer player who has toured the US and played with Jean Ritchie, introduced the instrument itself, explaining something of its history, its construction and tuning, and the styles of playing. (He plucks the strings whereas Ritchie used a quill, the equivalent of the guitarist’s plectrum.)

The evening was bookended by performances of ‘Amazing Grace’,  perhaps the most celebrated song to have criss-crossed the Atlantic and which was written by English poet and clergyman John Newton from Olney, Buckinghamshire. A favourite of Ritchie’s, who frequently featured it in her concerts, it was presented first as a dulcimer instrumental and, at the end, a capella by Virginia Thorn. Many in the audience picked up the melody and sang along.

The musicians, together on stage for the whole evening, alternated songs and instrumentals, Virginia adding vocal effects to Dan’s solos, which included the medieval ‘Wind Among the Heather’ and ‘Columbine’, played in the dulcimer’s natural Dorian mode, ‘Spring Season’ by the late Roger Nicholson, a friend and mentor, and his own ‘The Spider’s Dance’. Virginia also joined him on ‘The Water is Wide’, recalling its links to Ritchie’s ‘Love is Teasing’, and added harmonies on the chorus of ‘The Grey Funnel Line’, written by Cyril Tawney, a sailor in the British Navy in the 1950s who was inspired by Alan Lomax, like Ritchie an American song collector who spent time in Britain.

Virginia ThornVirginia’s contributions included ‘Old Virginny’, a Ritchie favourite with links to ‘Silver Dagger’, a song covered by innumerable folk revivalists including Judy Collins and Joan Baez. The latter’s ‘Diamonds and Rust’, written in recollection of her romance with Bob Dylan, was an undoubted highlight among her solos, along with Tom Waits’ ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, an anti-war song – written in the form of a letter home – which is all the more powerful for being so understated. And there were heartfelt performances of songs from the Canadian folk revival: Joni Mitchell’s ‘All I Want’ and Kate McGarrigle’s ‘Talk to Me of Mendocino’.

Throughout, both musicians introduced each item with comments as to its origins and performance practice, linking past and present and teasing out the links between Jean Ritchie – described by Baez as ‘the mother of folk’ – and the generations of musicians she has inspired and continues to inspire.

Virginia Thorn and Dan Evans

As one member of the audience wrote the next day: ‘It might not have been Washington Square but it was a fabulous buzzy and intimate venue with a fantastic atmosphere and brilliant music. It would have been no leap of imagination to walk out into Greenwich Village in search of a cab rather than on to Camden Parkway to find a taxi.’

Watch the Gig


*The life and legacy of Jean Ritchie was be celebrated with a concert and exhibition at The Egg on New York State Plaza on Sunday 6 March, a joint project with New York State Arts/Square Roots Productions.  Read a review.

Tickets are selling fast for SRP’s next two concerts at Green Note:

Wizz Jones: 23 March 2016

A celebration of the life and work of guitarist Wizz Jones, whose career began in the coffee bars of 1950s London, a man to whom both Clapton and Springsteen pay homage.

With Simeon Jones and Dariush Kanani.

Bonnie Dobson: 13 April 2016

New York folk legend Bonnie Dobson, a key figure in the 1960s’ revival whose song ‘Morning Dew’ is now a classic, covered by Fred Neil, the Grateful Dead, Jeff Beck and Robert Plant among others.

She is supported by Harry Phillips, another new talent to watch.

Dan Schatz: Jean Ritchie and the Cool of the Day

Dan Schatz with autoharp
Dan Schatz with autoharp

Dan Schatz has been playing folk music since he was a child in Kensington, Maryland, and he is now a Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist and producer. He co-produced and performed on the internationally acclaimed double album Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie, featuring among others Janis Ian, Judy Collins, Peggy Seeger, Archie Fisher and Kathy Mattea, as well as Ritchie herself.

Listen to Dan Schatz’ recording of ‘Now is the Cool of the Day’ from his Folk-Legacy album The Promise of Sowing, Schatz (lead vocal and banjo) performs with Kim and Reggie Harris, Mara Levine, Geeta Shivde, George Stephens and Kathy Westra. www.folk-legacy.com

Full article Huffington Post, 4 June 2015

Janis Ian remembers Jean Ritchie

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 Jean Ritchie by Susan Hamburger
Janis Ian (left) with Jean Ritchie at the 2008 Philadelphia Folk Festival. Photo: Susan Hamburger

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.

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 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.

Backstage with Jean Ritchie
by Dan Evans

Dan EvansMy 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.

Dan Evans is the leading British (mountain) dulcimer player with five CDs and 15 international tours to his credit http://www.english-dulcimer.com/

Jean Ritchie

Jean Ritchie and Janis Ian
Jean Ritchie (left) and Janis Ian

What a stunning interpreter and writer she was — Janis Ian

Jean Ritchie represents a living connection to a heritage of song, spanning an ocean and several generations — Fiona Ritchie, NPR’s Thistle & Shamrock

As the ‘Mother of Folk’, Jean is a living museum of impeccably rendered songs passed down from singer to singer, influencing and inspiring generations  — Joan Baez

When I grow up I want to write just like Jean Ritchie. Seriously, I love every song she’s ever written. I love her simple yet beautiful melodies and the honest, heartfelt truth in them — Dolly Parton


Further Reading



A celebration of the music of Jean Ritchie: 22 February 2016

Read a review of this event >>

A celebration of the late Jean Ritchie, the Appalachian singer and song-collector who inspired both Baez and Dylan. Regarded as ‘the mother of folk music’, she came to Britain on a Fulbright Scholarship to trace the links between American ballads and songs from the UK and Ireland.

The gig features acclaimed dulcimer player Dan Evans and singer-guitarist Virginia Thorn, a rising star.