Square Roots Productions in partnership with New York State Arts celebrates the opening of a Jean Ritchie exhibition at the New York State Library
Peter Pickow, son of the late Jean Ritchie and George Pickow, was part of a celebration of the life, music and legacy of the woman known as ‘the Mother of Folk Music’ held at the Egg on New York State Plaza on 6 March.
The concert – which also showcased David Massengill and Susan Trump, musicians who were both heavily influenced by Ritchie, whom they met – marked the opening of an exhibition of Ritchie memorabilia drawn from the State Library’s vast collection which was donated by the Ritchie family following Jean’s death in June 2015. Paul Mercer, Senior Librarian, Manuscripts and Special Collections and himself a singer and songwriter, is still cataloguing the collection, which includes hundreds of photographs and records, as well as more than 20 dulcimers owned and played by Ritchie, many of them made by her husband George Pickow, also a photographer and filmmaker.
Ritchie was born in Kentucky in 1947 and moved to New York city to teach music to under-privileged children at the Henry Street Settlement. Her own musical heritage dated back to her 18th-century forebears and in New York she became friends with folk singers and songwriters Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and with celebrated song collector Alan Lomax. Ritchie too collected songs and came to Britain and Ireland in the 1950s on a Fulbright Scholarship to trace the roots and branches of the folk music that crossed the Atlantic and became part of her own Appalachian heritage.
The memorabilia on display drew an appreciative audience, some of them from the recent Albany dulcimer festival.
The concert featured both songs associated with Jean Ritchie and others that fit well with the Ritchie style and tradition. The musicians – Pickow on guitar, Trump on dulcimer and banjo, Massingell on dulcimer – played solo and in ensemble, adding harmony lines and instrumental fills in the way folk musicians have done for centuries, beginning with ‘Shady Grove’, a Ritchie perennial. Also featured were ‘Black Waters’, about the strip mining that disfigured the Appalachians, ‘The L&N Don’t Stop Here Any More’, a favourite with Johnny Cash, and ‘Now is the Cool of the Day’.
Among Trump’s solo offerings was a notably affecting a capella rendition of ‘The West Virginia Mine Disaster’, Relatively unusually, the song is written from the woman’s point of view, Ritchie having set out to reflect the anguished feelings of the wives who wave goodbye to their loved ones every day as they ‘go down the black hole’.
Massengill, who hails from Bristol, Tennessee and ‘emigrated’ to Greenwich Village in the 1970s, recalled how his mother had bought a three-string dulcimer for her young children. He taught himself from one of Ritchie’s celebrated books, though he finger-picked in a way he felt she would not approve. However when he met her many years later, she seemed to appreciate his style. The highlight of his performance was ‘Rider On An Orphan Train’, written after Massengill had received a letter from a man asking if he was his long-lost brother: ‘It was so sad to read I wrote a song for him’.
The concert closed with all three performers trading lines and harmonising on ‘The Last Old Train’s a-Leavin’.