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