Mountain Born: The Jean Ritchie Story


Through interviews and recordings, KET’s Mountain Born: The Jean Ritchie Story not only chronicles the life of one folk singer and songwriter, but also introduces viewers to broader issues regarding the role of the traditional musician in contemporary society. Teachers will also find the program useful for generating classroom discussions about general topics such as life in Appalachia in the early part of the 20th century and the changing role of music in our lives, as well as more specific issues including the recent folk music revival and the influence of Appalachian music on performers from Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan.

There is much to be learned from Jean Ritchie’s life story, even for viewers whose background and experiences differ greatly from hers. It encourages us to reflect on and explore our own pasts, particularly with regard to family heritage and cultural background. Such recollections help inform our understanding of the present.

Teachers might want to preview the program before viewing it with a class to familiarize themselves with the content. To help you use the program, this site includes:

• biographical information about Jean Ritchie
• a timeline of important events in her life and career
• a selected discography
• information about music in Appalachia and the lap dulcimer
• ideas for classroom discussion topics and activities
• a selected bibliography
• a list of songs heard in the program

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Text by Karen L. Carter-Schwendler. Photo by Guy Mendes, KET.



Biographical Information About Jean Ritchie

It is impossible to place any one label on Jean Ritchie. She is a traditional musician by virtue of her life and works, but she is also a commercial performer, author, recording artist, composer, and folk music collector.

Ritchie was born in 1922 in Viper, Kentucky, into a family that considered music extremely important. In addition to singing as a means of entertainment, they had songs to accompany nearly all of their activities, from sweeping to churning to working in the fields. When they got together in the evening to sing as a family, they chose from a repertoire of more than 300 songs. Among them were hymns, traditional love songs and ballads, and popular songs by composers like Stephen Foster. For the most part, these songs were learned orally and sung without accompaniment.

While much of the music that was to become central to Ritchie’s later performance repertoire originated at home, other influences on her musical development cannot be overlooked. Besides the songs of family and friends, she was exposed to the music of the Old Regular Baptist church meetings the family attended regularly and to popular culture, particularly radio and recording. It is interesting to note that the one thing absent from Ritchie’s musical background is formal training.

After graduating from high school in Viper, Ritchie attended Cumberland Junior College in Williamsburg, Ky. From there she went to the University of Kentucky, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1946. With a bachelor’s degree in social work in hand, she moved to New York City to work at the Henry Street Settlement. There she drew on her knowledge of family songs to entertain the children in her charge.

Gradually, Ritchie’s reputation as a folk singer grew, and she was asked to perform more formally. (Many of these concert experiences are discussed in the video.) For folk music fans of the 1940s, Ritchie represented the ideal traditional performer: She grew up in the mountains of Kentucky, sang songs that she learned from her family, and played a little-known instrument called a dulcimer.

Ritchie has maintained an active performance schedule ever since. She has played and sung on radio and television, in concerts, and at folk festivals and hootenannies in the U.S. and abroad. As you will see in the program, her friends and acquaintances include many of the most recognizable people in the contemporary folk and country music scenes. When Ritchie’s album None But One won the Rolling Stone Critics’ Award in 1977, her acceptance into the popular mainstream was secured.

One of the most interesting aspects of Ritchie’s career is her own songwriting. Central to her approach is a lesson learned early on from her uncle Jason. His practice of altering tunes from one verse to another in a song, and lyrics from one performance to the next, taught her to accept improvisation and variation as natural elements of traditional music. So her versions of both family songs and original compositions often vary slightly from one performance (or publication) to the next. And she often creates new songs by using bits of material from existing ones or adding newly composed verses to flesh out song fragments that she recalls from her childhood.

Ritchie was married to photographer George Pickow from 1950 until Pickow’s death in 2010. They had two sons, Peter, born in 1954, and Jonathan, born in 1958, and lived in Port Washington, New York. In 2009, Jean Ritchie suffered a stroke. She returned to Berea, Kentucky, where she lived until her death in 2015.

Significance to American Music

Jean Ritchie is extremely significant to traditional music in America as a performer, author, and composer. Besides launching what is usually referred to as the “dulcimer revival” through her performances and books (see The Dulcimer Book and Dulcimer People), she has influenced other folk and country singers, including the Judds and Tommy Makem, to explore their own musical roots. Through her professional visibility, Ritchie has been vital in awakening an interest in the music of Kentucky. And with her own compositions, she has proved an important spokesperson for the inequities of the Appalachian region.

Text by Karen L. Carter-Schwendler. Photo by George Pickow.


Text by Karen L. Carter-Schwendler. Photo by George Pickow.

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A timeline of important events in the life and career of Jean Ritchie

  • 1922 Jean Ritchie born in Viper, KY
  • 1946 graduated from University of Kentucky, moved to New York City
  • 1948 first formal concert: Little Greenwich Mews Theatre
  • 1950 married George Pickow
  • 1952 first solo recording: Jean Ritchie Sings Traditional Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family
  • 1952 Fulbright award to study folk music in the British Isles
  • 1955 first publication of Singing Family of the Cumberlands
  • 1977 album None But One wins Rolling Stone Critics’ Award
  • 1996 recording: Mountain Born
  • 2008 inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame
  • 2008 George Pickow dies
  • June 1, 2015 Jean Ritchie dies in Berea, Kentucky

Photo courtesy Ritchie family.

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Selected Discography


Many of Jean Ritchie’s dozens of other recordings, especially those released only on LP, are difficult to locate. The best place to start looking may be your local public library.

From Greenhays Recordings, P.O. Box 361, Port Washington, NY 11050:

    • Mountain Born
    • None But One/High Hills and Mountains
    • High Hills and Mountains
    • None But One
    • The Most Dulcimer
    • Kentucky Christmas Old and New
    • Jean Ritchie Concert
    • Childhood Songs

Greenhays, a label founded by Jean Ritchie and George Pickow, is a division of Rounder Records.

From Smithsonian/Folkways Recordings, Office of Folklife Programs, 955 L’Enfant Plaza, Suite 2600, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560:

    • Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City
    • Child Ballads in America
    • Marching Across the Green Grass

From June Appal Recordings, 306 Madison Street, Whitesburg, KY 41858:Sweet RiversThe June Appal label is operated by Appalshop, a media collective headquartered in Whitesburg.


Another good source of information on traditional-music recordings is the Library of Congress Office of Folk Life. Write to the Public Services Office, M/B/RS Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20540.

Selections performed by Jean Ritchie may also be heard on the following compilations:

  • Seedtime on the Cumberland Sampler 1990-1991—June Appal
  • Folk Song America, Vol. 2—Smithsonian Recordings
  • Greatest Folksingers of the ’Sixties—Vanguard
  • Child Ballads Traditional in the United States—Library of Congress Archive of Folk CultureText compiled by Karen L. Carter-Schwendler. Photo by George Pickow.

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Music in Appalachia and the Lap Dulcimer


Music in Appalachia

While Jean Ritchie was growing up in Appalachia, music was used for a variety of different things: It was often functional in that it accompanied work, it was a form of entertainment, and it was an integral part of religious practices. Singing was commonly accompanied by traditional instruments like the dulcimer, the banjo, and the fiddle.

The Dulcimer

Ritchie plays the Appalachian lap dulcimer, an instrument that is probably a descendant of the German Scheitholt, the Scandinavian langliek, and the French epinette de Vosges, brought to America by immigrants sometime in the 18th century. The lap dulcimer has three or four strings and a fretted fingerboard and is played with a plectrum of some sort. In the past this was often a feather, but nowadays it is most often a plastic pick.

In America, builders have made dulcimers in several different shapes, the most common being rectangular, teardrop, and hourglass. The hourglass-shaped instruments, like the one Ritchie typically plays in performance, have been created by makers in Kentucky as well as parts of Ohio and West Virginia.

The popularity of the dulcimer in the mountains has long been open to debate. While some folk song collectors have claimed that the instrument has always been rare in the mountains, even in the 20th century, Ritchie has a different view. Based on her own research, she has speculated that the dulcimer was the only instrument found in the region until the 1880s, and that these collectors did not see or hear them because they were looking for songs, not inquiring specifically about instrumental music.

Certain cultural factors may also have had something to do with the “elusiveness” of the instrument. People living in the mountains were typically shy with regard to accomplishments. This “shyness and modesty” of instrument players was influenced by their religious beliefs. For Old Regular Baptists, lined-out hymn singing was the only music considered acceptable. Harmony was considered “frivolous” and instruments “sinful.” For example, the fiddle was long considered by many to be “the devil’s instrument,” and the banjo lost popularity with some people because it was associated most often with dance music.

Ritchie learned to play the dulcimer from her father when she was about 5 or 6 years old. She had covertly played around with the instrument earlier, so when her father actually “taught” her, he thought she was a “natural born musician.”

When you watch Ritchie play, you will notice two things in particular that distinguish her style from others’. The first is the fact that when she strums the most important beats of the tune, she strums toward herself, not away like most other players. The second point has to do with her singing style. Listen carefully, and you will notice that while she sings the melody of a song, she usually plays a different melody, a “countermelody,” on the dulcimer to accompany it.

Text by Karen L. Carter-Schwendler. Photo by George Pickow.

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Discussion Questions and Activities


Ideas for classroom discussion topics and activities

  • Before viewing this program, what did you think the activities of a typical folk singer were? What kind of music did you expect to hear Jean Ritchie sing? As you watched the program, were you surprised at all by the diversity of her career? Discuss this with the class.
  • In oral tradition, songs often change when they are transmitted from one person to the next. In our writing- and recording-based society today, it is difficult to experience this. To get the feel of it, try playing the game sometimes known as “whispering down the line.” Start at one end of the room and whisper a sentence to the next person, who whispers it to the next person and so on. What happens to the sentence by the time it has gone to the final person? How do changes occur? Through mishearing? Making up a word or phrase to compensate for something that is forgotten? “Improvements” or elaborations?
  • Everyone hears and learns songs while they’re growing up, though probably not as many as Jean Ritchie did. What songs do you remember? Under what circumstances or in what situations were they sung? How did you learn them? Do you know the same songs as your classmates? As a class, make a list of “variant” versions of songs, sharing the different versions.
  • Divide the class into pairs and have each pair of students discuss songs that they know. Each student should find one song that his or her partner does not know and then try to teach that song to the partner orally. Have the class discuss this experience. How easy was it to learn a song this way? Did the “teachers” have to repeat the song to the “learners” many times? Which element of the song was the easiest to learn: melody, lyrics, or rhythm? Which was the most difficult?
  • What is your biggest musical influence? You might want to consider things like school, radio, MTV, recordings (CDs, cassettes, LPs), family gatherings, church, and live concerts. Do you listen to different types of music from these different sources? What kind of music is most important to you?
  • Keep track of all the music you hear over the course of a weekend. (You might want to carry around a piece of paper and a pen so that you don’t miss anything.) Be sure to consider the context. Was the music generated by a live source, or was it recorded? Were you listening actively to the music—did you pay much attention to it? Or was it just part of the background? Did you have any negative reactions to music heard in any context? Share your findings with the class.

Text by Karen L. Carter-Schwendler. Photo by David Crawford, KET

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Selected Bibliography

Books by Jean Ritchie

Apple Seeds and Soda Straws: Love Charms and Legends Written Down for Young and Old. New York: H.Z. Walck, 1965.

Celebration of Life. Port Washington, NY: Geordie Music Publishing, 1971.

The Dulcimer Book. New York: Oak Publications, 1963.

Dulcimer People. New York: Oak Publications, 1975.

Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians as Sung by Jean Ritchie. New York: Oak Publications, 1965.

From Fair to Fair. New York: H.Z. Walk, 1966.

Garland of Mountain Songs. New York: Broadcast Music, 1953.

Singing Family of the Cumberlands. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955; reprint, Oak Publications, 1963; reprint, Geordie Music Publishing, 1980; reprint, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988.

The Swapping Song Book. New York: Oak Publications, 1965.

Traditional Mountain Dulcimer. New York: Homespun Tapes, 1984.

Articles by Jean Ritchie

“A Dulcimer Round from Jean Ritchie.” Sing Out! 25/2 (1976): 20-21.

“Jean Ritchie’s Junaluska Keynote: Now Is the Cool of the Day.” Mountain Life and Work 46/5 (1970): 3-8.

“Living Is Collecting: Growing Up in a Southern Appalachian ‘Folk’ Family.” In An Appalachian Symposium: Essays Written in Honor of Cratis D. Williams, edited by J.W. Williamson. 188-98. Boone, NC: Appalachian State University Press, 1977.

“Yonder Comes My Beau.” Ladies Home Journal 72 (April 1955): 54, 127-29.

Other Articles and Books of Interest

Baker, Edna Ritchie. “Memories of Musical Moments.” Appalachian Heritage 5/3 (1977): 59-64.

“Folksongs for Singing: ‘Pretty Little Pink.’” Mountain Life and Work 26/3 (1950): 13-14.

“The Singing Ritchies.” Mountain Life and Work 29/3 (1953): 6-10.

Bluestein, Gene. Poplore: Folk and Pop in American Culture. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

Botkin, B.A. The American Play-Party Song. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1963.

Brand, Oscar. The Ballad Mongers: Rise of the Modern Folksong. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1962.

Brewer, Mary T. “A Golden Memory.” Mountain Life and Work 40/2 (1964): 21-25.

Carter-Schwendler, Karen L. Traditional Background, Contemporary Context: The Music and Activities of Jean Ritchie to 1977. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Kentucky, 1995.

Caudill, Harry M. Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1963.

Eller, Ronald. Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1989.

Jones, Loyal. “Jean Ritchie: Twenty-Five Years After.” Appalachian Journal VIII (1981): 224-229.

The Newport Folk Festival Songbook. New York: Alfred Music Company, 1965. Introduction by Jean Ritchie.

Rosenberg, Neil V., editor. Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Smith, L. Allen. A Catalogue of Pre-Revival Appalachian Dulcimers, with a Foreword by Jean Ritchie. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983.

Whisnant, David. All That Is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1983.

Web Resources

The Folk Music Home Page has information about many other folk and traditional musicians.

Text compiled by Karen L. Carter-Schwendler. Photo by George Pickow.

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Songs Heard in the Program


A list of songs heard in the program

Following is a list of songs heard in Mountain Born: The Jean Ritchie Story, in the order in which they appear in the program. Highlighted songs are featured in the narrative or as foreground; others are heard as background.

Mountain Born Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
High Hills and Mountains Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
Baby’O Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
Thousand Man Blues Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
Shady Grove Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
Fair and Tender Ladies Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
Star of the East Traditional Public Domain
Wayfaring Stranger Traditional Public Domain
Guide Me Oh Thou Great Jehovah Traditional Public Domain
Mountain Born Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
Thousand Man Blues Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
None But One Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
Love Somebody, Yes I Do Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
The Cuckoo Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
Shady Grove Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
Dear Companion Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
When Sorrow Encompass Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
Skip to My Lou Traditional Public Domain
E Virginia Traditional Public Domain
Madam Will You Walk Traditional Public Domain
Unknown Instrumental
Spikedriver Blues Traditional Public Domain
The Cuckoo Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
The Cuckoo Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
The Storms Are On the Ocean The Carter Family Public Domain
Bye Bye My Roseanna Traditional Public Domain
Soldier’s Joy Doc Watson Hillgreen Music
Sorrow in the Wind Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
Ole King Quick Traditional Public Domain
Amazing Grace Traditional Public Domain
Irish Jig Traditional Public Domain
Jubilee Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
Blackwater Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
The L&N Don’t Stop Here Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
Sorrow in the Wind Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
My Dear Companion Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
My Dear Companion Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
None But One Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
Mountain Born Jean Ritchie Geordie Music
High Hills and Mountains Jean Ritchie Geordie Music

Text by Karen L. Carter-Schwendler. Photo by David Crawford, KET.

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