Of all the top bill performers who have performed at the New Jersey Folk Festival in the last dozen years, perhaps Jean Ritchie most embodies what Pete Seeger and other folk singers call “the folk process.” Ritchie, 86, lives comfortably in Port Washington, NY, with her husband, noted photographer George Pickow, whose work has appeared in National Geographic and Life magazine, and her son, John, now in his early 50s.
“We sat on the porch in the evenings and sang,” Ritchie says, describing her childhood in rural Viper, Kentucky, where she was born in 1922. Ritchie was the last of 12 siblings. Only one brother, who will be 90 this summer, is still alive. “This was all before television and even before radio, it was pre-everything. The first radio we had, you had to listen on an earphone. I didn’t ever see a TV until after I came to New York City.”
Ritchie came to New York City in 1947 to further her career in social work. Her performing “career,” such as it’s been, began quite organically, when friends began asking her to play the dulcimer and sing at parties. Ritchie says both her parents sang, but only her father played the dulcimer.
“We didn’t have any guitars or banjos around,” she says. “We only had Dad’s dulcimer. The rest of us would play it when Dad wasn’t looking,” she says. One day her father heard her playing his dulcimer when young Ritchie was 9 or 10. “When he heard me play ‘Aunt Roady,’ he yelled to my mother, ‘Lordy, Abby, this lady is a musician!’”
“We all played together as a family at Saturday night parties. People would dance a while and then rest a while. That was the only audience I had until I got into school, but I didn’t really become a ‘performer’ until I got to New York,” she says.
Ritchie points out in Depression-era rural Kentucky, there weren’t many things families had to pay for with actual money. “My father was always, first and foremost, a farmer. My mother and the rest of us young `uns would help out with the family garden plot.
“One time, to make a little extra money, he got an eyeglass repair kit and learned how to repair them, so everybody around was quite proud of him,” she remembers, adding that her father also worked in the grocery store about a mile down the road.
“My mother was an herbalist, a nurse, because everybody had to know those things in those days,” she says. “Like when a baby was born, all the women went to the house and helped birth the baby. You just learned those things as you lived.”
Ritchie regrets she did not learn more from her mother about herbs and their natural healing powers, “because my older sisters could do it, they’d go out in a field and come back with a basket of things that were good in a salad and many had medicinal uses as well.”
Ritchie graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Kentucky in 1946 with a degree in social work. Upon graduation, her professor suggested she seek out an opportunity at the Henry Street Settlement in lower Manhattan. “There weren’t any social work jobs in Kentucky at that time,” she says. “So I went to Henry Street Settlement and stayed there for three years. My performing career happened through the social work I was doing. I had children’s classes there, and I taught them games and sang with them. People would come by and hear the music and see the dulcimer and get inspired. They’d say, `I’m having a party on Saturday, why don’t you come by and bring your dulcimer?’ And all I was doing was playing the songs I had learned from my folks.”
Over the years, as she got invited to more parties and later, coffee houses to perform, she began writing her own songs, which were often autobiographical and carried on the folk tradition she had learned in eastern Kentucky.
“The very first concert I did that wasn’t for children specifically was at the Ladies Club in Yonkers,” she says. “And then the Country Dance Society in New York put on an evening concert with me in the basement of the Greenwich Mews Church. That was my first solo concert.”
She met her husband, photographer George Pickow, who has also shot thousands of album covers, at Henry Street Settlement. “Working in the evening program, I was working with a group of teenaged girls. We would get together and play ping pong, and he came down with a girlfriend. As he was passing by he saw all of us playing ping pong. His girlfriend introduced us. I told him about a square dance that weekend. His girlfriend said she could’t come, but he said he’d like to. Later, he told me he was dying the whole time, because he had been in an auto accident when he was 18, and he was in pain the whole time. He later said, ‘I was making myself do it,`cause I wanted you to keep dancing with me.’ We became a couple and it wasn’t too long before we got married in 1950,” she says. “Of course I’d only met him in 1949.”
As her career as a folk performer evolved from coffee houses and women’s clubs to theaters and folk festivals, she occasionally had the rage to write. “Once in a while a situation would come along and I’d want to talk about it, so I’d write a song of my own,” she says, adding that she didn’t really write her own songs until 1955. That year, she also performed at one of the country’s first folk festivals, in Berkeley, California, in 1955, when her son was just a year old.
Ritchie went on to perform at the very first Newport Folk Festival in 1959, organized by George Wein, who is still around and runs both the Newport Folk and Newport Jazz festivals every August in Rhode Island, and the JVC Jazz Festival in New York City. Wein still has a big role in running “the mother of all festivals,” the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, held the last weekend in April and the first weekend in May every year.
In 1998 in ceremonies in Memphis, Ritchie was presented with the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance’s Lifetime Achievement Award for her historic, ground-breaking contributions to traditional folk music in a career that spans more than six decades. Ritchie was also the very first musician to record for a fledgling Elektra Records in the early 1960s. Elektra, founded by Jac Holzmann, is the legendary label that grew into a powerhouse of a record company in the 1960s with the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. Princeton native Joe Boyd had a role in that growth.
At the New Jersey Folk Festival she says, “I’ll be singing some of my old songs and some of my original songs. The first song I ever did write was ‘Black Waters,’ and it’s still being sung and recorded like crazy, because now the coal business is on everybody’s mind these days. I’ll also do ‘The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore,’ and ‘Now Is The Cool of the Day.’ That’s another one that people ask for a lot and seem to like.”
New Jersey Folk Festival, Eagleton Institute Grounds, Rutgers’ Douglass Campus, George Street & Ryders Lane, New Brunswick. Saturday, April 25, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Music, crafts, food, and games. Bring your instruments. Rain or shine. Free admission. Singer-songwriter showcase features Jean Ritchie with Appalachian dulcimer music, Dukes of Destiny with blues and roots, Atzilut with Arabic and Hebrew concert for peace, and Ukelele Club with “Salute to Hawaii Statehood: 1959-2009.” Free. Rain or shine. 732-932-5775 or njfolkfest.rutgers.edu.
Science, Fashion, and Puppies, Oh My — The First-Ever Rutgers Day
The New Jersey Folk Festival is just one of nearly 400 events that comprise the first-ever Rutgers Day, which will feature free performances, demonstrations, tours, and kid-friendly activities, on Saturday, April 25, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“Rutgers Day is a chance for people who might not ordinarily visit our campuses to get an inside glimpse of their state university and experience its social, cultural, and intellectual vibrancy firsthand,” says Rutgers president Richard L. McCormick. “In these difficult economic times, it is more important than ever to connect the university’s resources to those we serve.”
Activities throughout the campuses are organized around 10 broad themes: Jersey Roots; Global Reach; Experience the Arts & Humanities; the World of Work; Kids’ Stuff; Get to Know Rutgers; Science and Technology; Walk into History; Health, Sports & Recreation; and All Things Green.
Popular events such as the Zimmerli Art Museum’s Family Fun Day and the Faraday Physics Lecture are on the schedule, while students and friends of the Classics department will strut the runway in a historically accurate ancient Greek and Roman fashion show (circa 29 B.C.) on the steps of Brower Commons. Rutgers chefs will offer cooking demonstrations and ice sculpting by chisel and chain saw. Visitors will be able to step into a geological time machine, ponder the universe with a cup of espresso at the Philsophy Cafe, watch performances on six stages across the campuses, learn about workplace trends and skills that are in demand in New Jersey, create and star in your own comic strip, solve a “CSI: Rutgers” mystery, learn about the world of primates from anthropologists who study them, let your avatar do the walking through a “virtual Rutgers Day,” test your putting with the Turf Club, clock your fastball, and check out the “Seeing Eye” puppies being raised by students. For a complete schedule visit www.rutgersday.rutgers.edu.
Rutgers Day, Rutgers campuses, New Brunswick. Saturday, April 25, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The first ever Rutgers Day features nearly 400 events, with free performances, demonstrations, tours, and kid-friendly activities. Activities are grouped into 10 themes: Jersey Roots; Global Reach; Experience the Arts & Humanities; the World of Work; Kids’ Stuff; Get to Know Rutgers; Science and Technology; Walk into History; Health, Sports & Recreation; and All Things Green. Free admission and parking. 732-445-4636 or www.rutgersday.rutgers.edu.