Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie
5 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Spending time with the music of Jean Ritchie quickly sends one down a rabbit hole of interpretations, variations, fragments, and re-imaginings of Scotch-Irish-English story songs. It can be fascinating to trace a tendril of one ballad to the chorus of another and the thread of a re-worded version of a third.
It can also be exhausting.
Rather more pleasant is allowing Ritchie’s unvarnished voice sweep one away to a world of Unquiet Graves, Maids Freed from Gallows, Rosewood Caskets, House Carpenters, and Orphaned Children. Whether singing a cappella or accompanied by her own dulcimer, by Doc Watson’s guitar and banjo, or by folks like Eric Weissberg (who nicely accompanies Judy Collins here on “One I Love”) and Marshall Brickman, Ritchie takes listeners to places that—within the most popular contemporary Americana performers—only the likes of Iris Dement does today.
As did Hazel Dickens and Ola Belle Reed through their original songs, Dement and (as I learned living with this collection) dozens of unheralded mountain and hill singers, Ritchie transports the listener to a long ago place that only tangentially bears relevance to contemporary times.
Or, it would appear upon first listen.
Because woven into Ritchie’s ballads of courtship, disaster, crime, wonder, sentimentality, and loss are cautionary tales, tragic ballads, and ‘sparking’ songs that connect with motivated modern listeners by the very power of their antiquity and timelessness.
What is sometimes (frequently, perhaps) neglected when considering Jean Ritchie is that standing alongside the “ballads from her Appalachian family tradition,” to borrow a phrase, have been dozens of amazing, timeless creations—among them “The L & N Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” “Blue Diamond Mines,” “Thousand Mile Blues,” and “Black Waters”—that are original compositions inspired by the realities of Ritchie’s experiences.
Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie is a two-disc, 37-track labour of love from producers Mick Lane, Charlie Pilzer, and Dan Schatz augmented by performers who not only have been influenced by and admire Ritchie, but many who have more than passing connection to the Kentuckian who was awarded a National Endowment For The Arts National Heritage Fellowship in 2002.
The set contains a blend of traditional and contemporary ‘folk’ approaches to the material, with a decided emphasis on presenting performers who may not be widely known within the broadly defined folk and Americana fields. Providing further balance, the producers have elected to feature many of Ritchie’s lesser known compositions alongside the many traditional songs for which she is well regarded.
Some who have contributed to this collection are familiar and contribute the expected exceptional performances. Robin and Linda Williams with John Jennings (“The L & N Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore”) Peggy Seeger (“Young Man Who Wouldn’t Raise Corn,”) and John McCutcheon (“The Bluebird Song”) are among the most well-known of the performers.
Select songs have a contemporary presentation. The always formidable and impressive Janis Ian, supported here by Andrea Zonn, Alison Brown, and Todd Phillips, serves up a memorable version of “Mornings Come, Maria’s Gone.” An all-star lineup of John McCutcheon, Tim O’Brien, Stuart Duncan, Bryn Davies, Suzy Bogguss, and Kathy Mattea perform “Black Waters” capturing the emotional, physical, and geographical impact that brutally evasive and injurious coal mining practices have had on the southern United States.
Other performances are more reminiscent of the stark sounds and performances Ritchie grew up immersed within, such as Sally Rogers and Howie Bursen’s “Lord Bateman,” the Starry Mountain Singers “I’ve Got a Mother,” and Archie Fisher’s “Jackaro.”
While a handful of the performers have considerable name recognition, the overwhelming majority are less familiar—at least to me-—but their contributions provide substantive flesh to the beautiful skeleton that would have existed had only ‘stars’ been included. Traditional singers like Magpie (“Farewell to the Mountains,”) the incredible Molly Andrews (“Now Is the Cool of the Day”) and Elizabeth LePrelle (“Fair Nottamun Town,”) Riki Schneyer (“Blue Diamond Mines,”) and Kathy Reid-Naiman (“Pretty Betty Martin”) continue the art Ritchie has inspired for the past fifty and more years, and kick no small amount of major vocal arse in doing so.
Sam Amidom (“The Cuckoo,”) fiddler Matt Brown (“Golden Ring Around the Susan Girl,”) and Rachael Davis (“One More Mile,”) and others including LePrelle, bridge the generations between themselves, Ritchie (who is now 92) and the original inspiration for these songs.
Tying things together, Kathy Mattea performs “Jubilee” with Ritchie’s sons Jon and Peter Pickow, who also appear with Kenny Kosek on “Last Old Trains A-Leavin’.” Suzie Glaze, who once appeared as Ritchie in a stage production, performs a telling version of “West Virginia Mine Disaster.” The Ritchie Nieces contribute “Twilight A-Stealing,” a song Ritchie writes that her family always sang together at the close of their evening porch sing-a-longs.
Ritchie herself appears twice. A delightful 1985 rendition of “Who Killed Cock Robin” (with contemporary Oscar Brand) is light and companionable. A final ’round’ of “The Peace Round” from 1992, augmented with the voices of many who appear throughout this wide-ranging tribute, closes the album on more pensive notes.
For those so inclined, Schneyer’s “Black Diamond Mines” isn’t the only song that includes a taste of bluegrass, but it is the one that most strongly embraces the sound. Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer’s “My Dear Companion” flirts along the edges.
Like Ritchie, Dale Ann Bradley is from Berea, Kentucky, and the five-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year can’t help but have some ‘grass in her approach. Here, Bradley teams with Alison Brown and the Bankester vocalists for a take on “Go Dig My Grave,” and this take should find favour with those who appreciate Bradley’s approach to traditional material. (I have another paragraph or three about this fragment of “The Butcher’s Boy” available, but I had best leave that treatise to scholars.)
One can be forgiven for believing that Jean Ritchie only sang traditional folk music. ‘Folk’ is now a near meaningless catch-all, but descriptive musical terms once meant something. Ritchie herself once quite ardently distinguished her traditional mountain, folk, and old-time music from modern sounds that emanated from southern cities. In her liner notes to the 1962 album Precious Memories, Ritchie wrote:
But, my friends will say, is this folk music? Perhaps not, by the strictest scholarly definition. Some have known authors, some have not changed essentially from their original forms; I would call them valuable and interesting period pieces, the natural outgrowth of the older folk music of the region… But these songs are more than that; they are brimming over with the simple basic emotions that touch us all.
Ritchie was writing about her set containing “new hillbilly” and “city” songs like “The Great Speckled Bird,” “The Wreck on the Highway,” and “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” songs that would—through their very pervasiveness, and no matter who originated them—become standards of country and folk repertoires, as ‘folk’ as any song that had traveled from Europe.
Strange then that some fifty years later she might have just as accurately been writing about this uniformly outstanding tribute.