By Kathryn Keiserman
Jean Ritchie, known as the “Mother of Folk,” was a folk singer, songwriter, and Appalachian dulcimer player originally from Viper, Kentucky. Growing up as the youngest of 14, Ritchie memorized hundreds of folk songs passed down by family and other members of the community. She brought this traditional music, as well as a traditional Appalachian dulcimer, with her when she moved to New York in 1946.
Ritchie is known for reviving interest in the Appalachian dulcimer, which had become a hallmark of her style by 1949. Her husband, photographer and filmmaker George Pickow, set up an instrument workshop for them under the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn so they could sell the newly popular dulcimers. She was asked the question, “which album has the most dulcimer?” so often that in 1992 she released an album called The Most Dulcimer.
Ritchie had an academic interest in the traditional Appalachian music that was such an important part of her life. She was especially interested in tracing the roots of American folk music to the original European versions. She was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in 1952 so she could travel to trace the links between Appalachian folk music and Irish, Scottish, and English folk music. In 1954 she released the album Field Trip, which included both recordings of Ritchie and of European Folk singers.
Ritchie was a full time singer-songwriter by the 1950s. As the “Mother of Folk,” she performed all over the world, including such venues as Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall. She received the National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2002; this award is the United States' highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.
Ritchie and her family moved to Port Washington, New York in 1956. She was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2008. After suffering a stroke in 2009, she returned to Kentucky where she lived until her death in 2015. She was survived by two sons, Jon and Peter Pickow, both of whom continued her musical legacy. Peter Pickow has written several books about music and the guitar, and has performed in the annuel Jean Ritchie concert held at the Port Washington Public Library. Jon Pickow began his own singing career by appearing with his mother at music festivals and concerts. He produced and performed on many of Ritchie’s albums, singing and accompanying her on the banjo and Appalaichan dulcimer. He moved from Port Washington to his mother’s hometown in Kentucky shortly before his death in December, 2020.
Jean RItchie's obituary in the New York TImes can be found here.
New York TImes