The Appalachian folk singer has died, aged 92. Nigel Williamson remembers her legacy
When immigrants from England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland arrived in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee in the 18th century, they brought with them the folk songs and ballads of the old world.
Two hundred years later when serious research into folk music began, academics were astonished to find that the enclosed mountain communities had perfectly preserved those songs, handing them down orally and virtually unchanged over the generations. It was this tradition that the singer Jean Ritchie inherited. The British folklorist Cecil Sharp collected songs from her family on a research trip to the Appalachians in 1917, but it was Jean, the youngest of 14 children, who became the 20th century’s most vital link in the chain, recording the old songs and ballads in a high, haunting voice just at the point when they were most at risk of dying out and taking them to a new audience.
Ritchie was a profound influence on singers such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez during the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s; Baez dubbed her ‘‘The Mother of Folk” and Dylan borrowed and adapted her arrangement of the ancient ballad titled ‘Nottamun Town’ for one of his most potent protest songs, ‘Masters of War.’
She had a repertoire of more than 300 songs, most of which she had learned growing up in a tiny Kentucky farming community, including songs such as ‘Barbara Allen’ and ‘Lord Randall’ which had been carried across the Atlantic by settlers from the British Isles. She became a noted authority on the origin of the songs and travelled around Britain in the 50s, collecting the primordial versions of tunes her distant ancestors had exported to the Appalachian mountains two centuries earlier.
In a memoir published in 1955, she attempted to explain how the tight-knit rural culture and the geography of the Appalachians had kept the songs alive in their original form, impervious to change and influence from beyond the mountains. Outsiders, Ritchie wrote, always ‘‘complained that they felt hemmed in by our hills, cut off from the wide skies and the rest of the world. For us it was hard to believe there was any ‘rest of the world,’ and if there should be such a thing, why, we trusted in the mountains to protect us from it.”
She was a firm believer in the traditional, untrained method of mountain singing: sweet and lyrical but plaintive and keening. When as a college student she took a few voice lessons for the only time in her career, her father was appalled by the change of style and asked her whether she was ill. She took his point, abandoned the lessons and, as she put it, went back to “decorating a song with shakes and quivers in the old way, shaking up a note and quivering it down.”
She also wrote her own original compositions, which were covered by Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris among others. ‘No one was more important to the survival, appreciation and revival of traditional Appalachian folk music in the 20th and 21st centuries,’ a statement from the American Folklife Centre at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, said on the news of her death.