American folk singer Jean Ritchie died last week at the age of 92. Her name might not be as well known today as other folk musicians, but perhaps no living person epitomized the link between modern music and the American folk tradition quite like Ritchie. She was born in Perry County, Kentucky, in the Cumberland Mountains, in 1922. she was the youngest of 14 children in the Ritchie family. Her family’s place in American folk music history is nothing less than monumental. In the 1920’s, folk scholar Josiah Combs used, in part, the Ritchie family’s repertoire for a 1925 doctoral thesis that was the first scholarly work on the British ballad tradition in America. British folklorist Cecil Sharp did extensive field work late in his life on English folk songs that had survived in the backwoods of America. In 1917, sharp collected songs, in part from Ritchie’s older sister Una and May.
Ritchie’s break would come while teaching at the Henry Street Settlement in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Famed folklorist Alan Lomax began recording her for the Library of Congress. New York was a catalyst for the folk revival movement in the late 1940’s, and Ritchie took an active part in reconnecting audiences with the music of America. She was a regular guest on the Folksong Festival radio show and recorded hours of songs and oral history with Lomax. In 1952 she was signed by Elektra records, where her releases through the 50’s and early 60’s influenced younger artists in the folk revival scene, which by that point had become a highly profitable business.
Ritchie leaves behind a tremendous legacy of music, and her haunting, brooding voice seems more powerful than ever–like the plaintive wail of a past that alludes us–a past the modern world seems ever more ready to discard. When I listen to Jean Ritchie, though, that past seems to comes back, like a memory I’ve forgotten somewhere along the line. Here are four of Ritchie’s best. Two traditional (Hangman and Barbry Allen) and two of her own compositions (West Virginia Mine Disaster and The L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore)