Library of Congress
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)
It has been a busy month on this end. My four-years of work on the documentary film “Dixie” nears completion. That is to say, there are still months of 12-hour days ahead as my editor Trent Reeves and I put the final touches on the film. I have read quite a few books on the song “Dixie,” it’s composer, Dan Emmett, it’s ties to the African-American Snowden family, and race relations in the U.S. in general. This is, of course, beside the thousands of first-hand accounts and news articles buried in archives around the country.
The last book I have read for the project is “Mickey Newbury: Crystal & Stone” by author Joe Ziemer. I had the chance to interview Mr. Ziemer over the weekend about Mr. Newbury’s life and work. Why Mickey Newbury for a film about the song “Dixie?”
Mickey Newbury was a Houston-raised singer-songwriter who began his recording career in the 1960’s, just as conflicts over race were reaching a boiling point in the U.S. Mickey took in what was happening in the culture and began recording a series of introspective country albums in Nashville. His songs were covered by, among others: B.B. King, Solomon Burke, Tom Jones, Willie Nelson, Eddy Arnold, Roy Orbison, Kenny Rogers, Joan Baez, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, John Denver, Tammy Wynette, Linda Ronstadt, Bill Monroe and Olivia Newton-John, to name a few. Oh, and Elvis Presley. This is where “Dixie” comes in.
Mickey saw what was happening in the culture and the way “Dixie” was being used, specifically by certain white-robed groups who like to burn crosses. He wanted to do something about it, so he composed “An American Trilogy,” which combined “Dixie” with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “All My Trials,” a traditional slave song. The result was one of the most powerful compositions of the 20th Century. Elvis began covering it in his Las Vegas act and the song soon spread around the world, becoming an anthem or sorts around the world. Of course, there’s a lot more to the story than that, but I have to save that for the movie. If you want to know more about Mickey Newbury himself, definitely pick up Joe Ziemer’s book on Amazon.
I will be posting more often now. My thanks to those of you who are following the blog, it is appreciated. I look forward to learning more about you all as “Dixie” finishes up.