Pass It On!

The Journal of the Children's Music Network

Sowing Seeds of Love for Traditional Music:
An interview with Jean Ritchie

conducted by Sally Rogers

Jean Ritchie is an icon amongst players of the mountain dulcimer. She taught herself to play mountain dulcimer as a little girl, while her father wasn't looking. Her family was wealthy in song and traditions that she has shared with listeners for over fifty years. The notes on the back of her newly republished book Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians state, "Jean Ritchie is the best known and most respected singer of traditional ballads in the United States. The youngest daughter of one of the most famous American ballad singing families, the Ritchie family of Perry County, Kentucky, Jean still carries on her family's legacy as a singer of folk songs and traditional ballads." I'm sure many people who know her songs don't realize that they come from her. 

PIO! editor Nancy Silber and CMN board member Sally Rogers asked Jean if she would be interviewed for PIO! She agreed and invited them to her home in Port Washington, New York, where they conducted the interview and later chatted over plates of homemade lasagne. Her husband, George Pickow, contributed valuable asides and provided us with photos of Jean. It is our hope that CMN members will be inspired to continue planting the seeds of traditional song that her family has so generously shared over the years. 

PIO!: Jean, songs have been in your family for how many years? 

JR: Oh, untold years; I don't know just how far back it goes. We lose track of people before 1768, which is the date when they came over to this country from the old country. But I'm sure they were singing generations and generations before that, too. 

PIO!: In 1952, when you went to Scotland and Ireland on a Fulbright scholarship, were you hoping to find some of your family's songs? 

JR: Yes. I went to look for the sources of my family's songs in England, Scotland, and Ireland. 

PIO!: And you found them? 

JR: Oh yes, lots of them. I don't know that they were my family variants, but they were either younger or older than my family's songs. Some of the songs that were in my family, the variants were older than anything that could be found when I was over there. 

PIO!: Which ones? 

JR: The ballads mainly, especially the one about Lord Gregory. Kenny Goldstein1 got very excited about it, and said that that's a very old version of this song, more ancient than any of the versions that have survived in the old countries. 

PIO!: When did you meet Alan Lomax?2 

JR: Oh, Alan and I met when I first came to New York. I met him through John Henry Falk, who had come down to do a program at the Henry Street Settlement. John Henry told stories and did monologues. He was wonderful and did great things, often with a political slant to them. He was a very left-wing sort of person. He believed in all the things I thought were right, like about caring for people and the poor and this, that, and the other. When he would tell a story, everybody would be hanging on his words. He asked me to go up to meet Alan Lomax because he said that Alan would really appreciate what I did. Alan and his father had been collecting in my region but they didn't meet our family. They were just miles away, but didn't quite get there. So it was nice to meet him. 

PIO!: Had they heard of your family? 

JR: Yes, they had. People had told them about us. Alan was working at Decca Records then. I went up one day after work, and he stayed to see me. I sang him a few ballads, and he said, " I want to record everything you know for the Library of Congress," and I said, "Oh, that will take a while, because there are a lot of songs in the family!" That sort of staggered him. He said, "Well, you should do a book." So, he was responsible for my doing The Singing Family of the Cumberlands. He just kept encouraging me. And he did record a lot of the songs. 

PIO!: What other collectors came to your family? 

JR: Well, Cecil Sharp came to the Hindman Settlement School. Hindman is the county seat of Knott County [Kentucky], which is where my father was born and raised. His grandfather gave the land for the school and encouraged education. In 1917 or 1918 it was very rough around there. They didn't have cars or anything. You had to go by mule and wagon, and if the wagon wouldn't go, you went by mule or you walked. They carried their equipment, and it was quite hard to get around. So, he told all the children around to tell all their parents and the old people that they were there, and that they'd love to hear any songs that the families had. People came out in droves, because they wanted to see this queer man from England, and this funny woman that was with him that made sort of squiggles on the paper. 

My sister Una and her cousin Sabrina were there, and they were best friends. Sabrina was Dad's first cousin's daughter. We called him "Uncle" even though he wasn't really our uncle, but he was Uncle Jason Ritchie. So Unie and Sabrina sang for Cecil Sharp because they knew some songs. Then the weekend came and they wanted to sing "Fair Nottamun Town," but they couldn't think of the words. Cecil Sharp got all excited and said, "You must get this!" The other one that he was crazy about was "The Farmer's Cursed Wife," because our family's version has a whistle in it. Sharp had heard that it used to be sung in England with a whistle, but it wasn't anymore, so he was very excited to find it still having the whistle here. So, Unie went home with Sabrina for the weekend, and they got Uncle Jason to sing for them. They learned the songs, and then they came back and sang those two songs. And they sang others too, like "Barbry Ellen," and things that he had coming out of his ears. But he loved these two, "Nottamun Town" and "The Farmer's Cursed Wife," or "The Little Devils," as we call it. And that was their contribution. That's what got printed in Sharp's book when it came out. 

PIO!: Now I had always thought that you had written "Nottamun Town," or was that just the verses? 

Jean: No, no, no. It's just that we had preserved it. That's another story that comes under your copyright theme.

Jean teaches a play-party game to children at the 
Henry Street Settlement in New York City.
photo by Rae Russel

PIO!: Well, let's move onto that. 

JR: Well, Bob Dylan had used my tune for "Nottamun Town" for his song "Masters of War," and I just wrote a little letter to what I thought was him. Of course, it went to his lawyer. I wrote that he was using a tune to my family song, and at least he should say, "Music traditional from the Ritchie family," because I believe in preserving sources. But there was no answer at all. So, it made me a little miffed! I told another lawyer about it, and he said, "I'll write for you." So little by little, I guess, Bob Dylan finally heard about it, because he said, "Oh, we'll settle this out of court." So, he sent some money and said that he would take his name off as composer, which he did. But he never did say where the music came from. 

PIO!: Why was he averse to saying where it came from? 

JR: I don't know. You can't talk to people when you're working through lawyers; they don't let you say anything. I never got to see him or anything, although you know when he first got started, we were friends and we were together in the Village [Greenwich Village, New York City] all the time. But all of a sudden he became unapproachable. 

So then, the Kingston Trio came along, or maybe they came first—I'm not sure anymore, I get my dates mixed up. Well, the Kingston Trio was at the Newport Festival singing, and we met. Later George3 was taking pictures somewhere—maybe he was doing the picture for their album in the city—and Dave Guard said, "We put Jean's song 'Shady Grove' on our album in a medley." I never had any claim on "Shady Grove," but the way my dad sang it was our version, and I wanted them to say that on the album. So, that's how I got started copyrighting things. I asked the copyright people about it, and they said, "If you have had this in your family this many years, and have made changes that you know about, and it is a variant that is different than all others that you know about, it's copyrightable with these changes, and you have to say what they are." I do say things like, "Shady Grove (or Nottamun Town), Ritchie family version, new and additional words and music by Jean Ritchie." And I point out just what the changes are. 

PIO!: And that's what it says on "Nottamun Town." I guess that's why I was thinking that you had written a bunch of new words for it. 

JR: Not a bunch of them, but there is one verse that had two lines. The first two lines were missing. So I made them up. The one where "They laughed and they smiled, not a soul did look gay, they talked all the while, not a word did they say." Those are my words. And then it continues, "I bought me a quart to drive gladness away, and to stifle the dust for it rained all the day." So, if I add little things like that, I say what I've done. And I say where the song has come from. I believe that when scholars are looking for information on these songs, they should be able to find it instead of everyone speculating and guessing. You should tell them as much as you know, so that they have that information. 

PIO!: I was just thinking about your 'Than Hall story, how you chose your pseudonym. This seems like a good time to talk about it. 

JR: Well, that was in the late fifties and early sixties when I was writing the strip mining and the coal mining songs. My mother was still alive. She was a very sweet, gentle person. And she didn't like politics at all, and she didn't like us to sit around and talk politics. If we came to the table, we had to talk about the weather! About the beautiful flowers, or about each other and how much we love each other and all that, just personal family things. The minute people started talking about politics, she got up and left the table. That's the way she used to be. 

To keep people from complaining to my mother that her daughter was out there doing protest songs and marching in parades and things like that, I thought I'd take my grandfather's name, which was Jonathan Hall. I submitted Jon Hall as a pseudonym. It turned out that a Jon Hall at that time was the president of BMI! And they said I absolutely couldn't take Jon Hall as a pseudonym, even if it was my own name. So I decided to make it the end of the name then, 'Than, because people used to do that. If there were two Jonathans in the same area, they'd call one Jon and one 'Than, and put an apostrophe on the front. And it was kind of a nice name, it was kind of different. So I took 'Than Hall on my own written songs, on the coal mining songs, for two reasons: first, was to protect my mother. But the second reason was that I felt that they would be better received in those days if they came from a man. 

Jean shares a song with American writer and poet Carl Sandburg.
photo by George Pickow

PIO!: And your kids' songs! I wouldn't say that I grew up knowing your kids' songs, but they are certainly among the first that I learned when I was beginning to sing with kids; like "What'll I Do with the Baby-o," and "Shady Grove," "Goin' to Boston." Your dulcimer book was the first dulcimer book that I had ever read, ever seen. You certainly have been my mentor all these years. All these songs are now quite available to children through primary school music books, but for you they were just part of your daily life. So, somehow I'd like you to describe how music fit into your daily life as a child, and how that is so different from now. 

JR: Well, I think children today have so much to choose from; there are so many choices of things to be interested in. We didn't have those choices. We lived very rurally, out in the mountains. The nearest house was almost out of sight, and nieces and nephews lived two miles around the hill. In the summer time, you got up in the morning and had breakfast, went to the cornfield and worked, or worked in the garden with your parents. One night during the week was a celebratory night, and you could go to someone's house and play games. We couldn't dance, but you could play games. That was where play-parties came from, because playing was not sinful and dancing was. We didn't do square dancing anyway: we called it "running sets," for as many as will. In later parlance it got to be called "Kentucky running sets." It was not like contra dancing, not in lines. You had a big circle and partners, but you didn't have a square of four. You had as many as could get into the circle. One couple would lead out and do the figure all around the circle, and then a second would lead out and do maybe that same figure, maybe another, all around the circle. Meanwhile, the rest of them were visiting, talking, clapping, singing, swinging each other, going to the kitchen to get a drink or a nip of something. Or maybe one man would do a little clog tune. There were a lot of things going on in the circle besides the dance, so that was a way of visiting. 

Children were underfoot. Occasionally somebody would take a child into the dance. They began very young because they knew all the figures and they could get in as soon as they were old enough not to be a hindrance. The babies were there, too, because no one wanted to stay home. They were on the floor sleeping, and after a while they got put on a feather bed in the back room. That's a story I often tell about how verses got made up to some of the songs, back there, amusing the children. That was the one time during the week that we had a party, and it was almost every weekend, especially during the summer when the nights were long and you had more daylight to get back and forth to different people's houses. Everybody worked in the fields, so there was something to celebrate at the end of the week. What else were you going to do? There were no movies, no radio, no television. Once in a great while somebody would try to start a roadhouse, but the church would come and close it down. So, that was what we did for recreation, a lot of play-parties. 

PIO!: One I've been using and did today is "Hunting the Cows." 

JR: Oh! Now, that one I made up. "Hunt the Cows." 

PIO!: How did you make that one up? That is such a well-known song. Can you tell us the story? 

JR: Well, the tune comes from "Down in the Meadow." Do you know that one? 

PIO!: Oh, yeah! 

JR: [Sings] "Wake up, you lazy bones and go and hunt the cattle, wake up, you lazy bones and go and hunt the cows!" And then you repeat that as you step out the one way. And then you step out the other way. Then I did "Duh duh duh dum." That comes from a Danish game that I learned, Seven Jumps. And in Seven Jumps there are no words, it's just the tune. So I just took that slow part out and put words to it. And the other part of "Seven Jumps" is different. It works very well with the two things together. 

PIO!: Did any songs come from your own life or from some event? For instance, "Old Raggy": is that about a real person who came through your area? 

JR: Well, we always told stories like that, about the old woman with the pack on her back coming along, and the dogs jumping out and biting and chasing the children and so on. There were old legends and stories that had that image in it, and I just put it in a song. 

PIO!: So, did you make up "Old Raggy"? 

JR: Yes. Well, we loved dramatizing games, acting out games. 

PIO!: Did that come out of the time at Henry Street Settlement, or did that come out of just your time with kids? 

JR: No, it was just from playing with children when I was little, and remembering what we used to play. We used to play a lot of acting games that had no music. There was one old traditional game that I used to do for Revels [seasonal productions of traditional music] all the time. All the kids are playing on the floor by the chimney, and the old woman comes down the road. She knocks on the door, and the mother is sweeping with the broom, and she says, "Come in!" And then she says, "What do you want, Old Gramma Hobble-gobble?" And the old woman says, "I want some fire to light my pipe." "I don't have any fire." "But I see smoke coming out the chimney." "Oh, that's just the children playing in the ashes." "You got children! Oh give me one! I'd love to have one!" "Well, I can't give you my children, you know I can't give you my children!" "Yes, you can. If you don't, I'm going to go away and tell a big pack of lies about you!" [Pause] "Well, okay, you can have one." In the end there's a pulling thing, like tug of war, and someone comes and gets them out. She gets them all into her prison, which is a ring, and then the mother comes and gets one child out, and then the two of them go and get everybody out. But there's no music in it. So, the memory in my mind when I did "Old Raggy" was that story. 

PIO!: Did you do "Skin and Bones"? 

JR: No, I didn't, but I have added to it and it has some changes in the tune, here and there. That's the one that people like the most, and it's the scariest one for children, but they love getting scared! 

Jean and her students at a one-room school during World War II, 
alternating with her studies at the University of Kentucky 
photo by George Pickow

PIO!: In fact, my first and second graders learned it last year, and already they're saying, "Can't we do the one about the bones!?" It's so good for teaching them how to sing, with the dropping notes. 

JR: And I wrote the one "All Little Ones Are Sleeping." I did that especially for kids to rest by. It's very soothing. 

PIO!: So, can you tell me a little about what brought you to the Henry Street Settlement and your work with the kids there? 

JR: I majored in social work at the University of Kentucky. I was going to go back to Hazard, Kentucky, and work there if I could. But there wasn't anything to do there except welfare; there were no programs there. So my advisor at U of K said, "I know these people at the Henry Street settlement in New York. Why don't you go there and see what social work program they have?" I graduated in 1946 and social work hadn't gotten very far by then. So, about 1947 I came to New York to look around and I went to Henry Street to work for their summer camp program at Echo Hill on Croton Reservoir. They liked what I did in the summer, so they asked me to work through the winter. My job there was to do group work with seven-, eight-, and nine-year-old girls after school. The girls all got together in the basement of the place and I played Kentucky games and the dulcimer—all the Kentucky things. That's all I knew. And they loved them. They also taught me games from their backgrounds, so it was a nice kind of swapping thing. 

People would come by the door, hear the dulcimer, and ask, "Oh, what is that?" And I'd tell them. Then they would ask me to come and bring it to their school and sing for their kids. Then other people would come and say that they were having a party on Saturday night, so would I come and bring my dulcimer? Others would say that they had a ladies' club, and they'd like me to come and entertain them. And they would pay me twenty-five dollars. 

So, that's how I got started doing little things like that on the side. A lot of it was working with kids. I can't remember the games that they loved. They were all so wild, just getting out of school. They were like people coming out of jail! They were throwing chairs at each other and things like that. So I'd play games that were in that mood for a while until I got them settled down. They loved the one "Sugar Loaf Town." It's an acting-out game: you choose sides, and then one side marches forward and says, "Here we come!" And the other side marches back. 

"Where you from?" 
"Sugar Loaf Town." 
"What's your trade?" 
"Come a little closer and get to work!" 

So then the first side was marched to come a little closer. They have decided an action they're going to act out, say, making corn bread, or making bread (and making bread in New York meant something different than in Kentucky.) In Kentucky, we would have done something like this: [Jean kneads an imaginary loaf of bread]. And in New York, they were going like this: [she stirs a bowl of corn bread batter]. So, everybody came forward, but first they were stirring, and then they were going like this [she kneads], so it took a while to figure out what they were doing. Once you guess what they're doing, someone hollers, "Making bread!" And then they all run and try to catch them and get them back on their side, and so on. A lot of the things that I would talk about in New York, the old way of doing things, people had never heard of: like churning the butter, and stirring off the molasses. That all had to be explained to them, because maybe their grandmothers had done that, but not them; or maybe they were from such different backgrounds that they never stirred off any molasses. I'm sure they all churned butter, though. 

They loved that kind of acting game, so I had to play them for about half of the period until finally they got tired and we could sit down and do softer things. There's really a ritual that you sort of have to go through to calm kids down, until they get used to you doing things that way. Every day they expect you to do the same thing. At first they don't want to stop and do anything quiet, but after a while they will put their heads down and let you sing a quiet song. 

PIO!: And what quiet song did you sing? 

JR: Well, "All Little Ones Are Sleeping." But there were others that worked, too, like "I See the Moon." I'm trying to think of ones that I didn't tamper with or make up. 

PIO!: "Dance to Your Daddy" you didn't make up? 

JR: No, just the second verse. Well, the moon song was very popular, and I didn't really make that up; I just made a quieter tune to that one. The other tune was almost "dancey" to me [demonstrates the two tunes], so mine was more sleepy. We would do that one, "God bless the moon and God bless me, there's grace in the cabin and grace in the hall, and the grace of God is over us all." That was an old verse that I found when I was in England. So I put that in with the moon verse. I also used to sing cowboy songs to them, like "Desert Silver Blue beneath the Pale Moonlight." That was a sleepy one. 

PIO!: Now, how did you learn cowboy songs? 

JR: There was a period in the mountains when cowboy stuff was very, very popular. That's where the term "country western" came from: from early recordings, and from early radio, and some early old-timey groups that used to go out west to record. Like "Desert" [see above]: when it was sung very sleepily, children loved it. People all around the country loved cowboy things. It swept the country for a few years in the thirties and forties. 

PIO!: What year was this? 

JR: 1947. That was my first year at Henry Street. I was there for about two years, and then George came along, and he took me out of all that. Well, actually, I met George at Henry Street. He came down one night to a square dance. His girlfriend at the time invited him to go to Henry Street to hear "that Kentucky girl down there who sings." George had a lot of folksong records and she thought he might be interested. Finally, he did go and he met me, and… 

PIO!: That was the end of that! 

JR: George went away for a year, and I got a job doing music here and there for various schools and so on, just bringing in enough income. But I was getting really overworked at Henry Street. It was a twenty-four-hour job, because I lived there. They would come to me at night and wake me up to ask me things, and throw things at my window and make me come down and settle some argument or something. I got really tired working so hard there, so I wanted to take a rest. There was a shop that had opened up in Rockefeller Center called Southern Highlander Handicraft Shop. And it had nothing but things from back home: dulcimers, woodwork, Kentucky pottery, and everything. 

I met Mitch Miller at the shop there. I had to demonstrate dulcimers to everybody who came in. Mitch came in one day, and he liked the dulcimer and the sound of my voice. So he asked me to sing on this little series of children's records that he was doing, called Rounds and Roundelettes. That was my first commercial record. I never saw any money from it. I think he paid me something for singing it, something like fifty dollars. But he was nice, and I enjoyed meeting him. Pearl Bailey and Eleanor Roosevelt also came in at various times. You never knew who was going to walk through there. 

It was about that time I met Oscar [Brand] and started being on his show every week, doing a weekly thing on WNYC radio. The name of the show was The Folksong Festival, which is still on. 

PIO!: What's the connection between your songs and how they got into all these music books for kids? 

JR: Well, people began to ask me for permission to put them in schoolbooks. They must have first heard them on records. Some of them got put into books before I made any records. Phil Merrill used to give them to Silver Burdett. 

PIO!: Who's Phil Merrill? 

JR: He's the piano player for CDSS, the Country Dance Society here in New York. We used to go dancing there all the time, and I used to sing for him. He came down to see me at the house one day and took down several of my songs, all the early ones. Then he sold them to Silver Burdett, I guess, but I didn't get anything for it. And from that, I guess, one thing led to another, one textbook company would see what another one was doing. Then they began to come to me directly, and I placed several of them myself. The very top one is "Skin and Bones." 

PIO!: Although "Goin' To Boston" is up there, too. And that came from you? 

JR: Yes, that is our family game. 

PIO!: So, just how does it feel, knowing that you are in schools across the country. Does that give you a kick? 

JR: Oh, yes! It's hard to believe it sometimes. Like, people giving me all this credit for "single-handedly" bringing back the mountain dulcimer. They love that phrase, "single-handedly." 

George: But it's practically true. 

JR: It is true that at the time I was singing with the dulcimer, the only other ones were John Jacob Niles, who learned it from us, and Andrew Rowan Summers, who also heard about it through me, so I guess… 

PIO!: Well, there you go: "single-handedly!" 

JR: I was the one that got up on stage with it. There were a lot of people playing it, but they were playing it for themselves and for their families in their homes. 

PIO!: When you were growing up, who played the dulcimers? Your dad played, not your momright? 

JR: My dad played. My mother could play a little, but she never thought of playing because everyone thought of it as Dad's instrument. I was the brave soul that got it down and played it without my dad seeing me, because he probably wouldn't have let me. And finally, when it came out that he knew I was really interested in it—he was amazed that I could play "Aunt Rhody" and everything—he let me play it more. When I was about seven I was allowed to handle it, but I'd been playing since I was about five. 

PIO!: I wanted to ask you about ballad singing. I've loved ballads forever. When I was in sixth grade, my mother received The John Jacob Niles Ballad Book as a present. She was teaching music at the time and she thought, "Oh great, I'll use all these wonderful traditional songs with children." Then she started reading them, and realized that they were all about blood, guts, and violence; matricide and patricide and infanticide; and she decided that she couldn't. Of course, not all ballads are like that, but certainly as a child, you grew up singing "Lord Gregory," "Barbry Ellen" [sometimes "Barbara Allen"], and "The Brown Girl." What's the attraction? 

JR: Stories. Telling stories. In the summertime, we sang the stories on the porch. In the wintertime, we sat around the fire and told stories. We told more stories than we sang in the wintertime, but it was a matter of the weather. It was nice and cozy sitting around the fire, and they told "Tigs and Tags and Long Leather Bags," and "All My Gold and Silver," "Jack and the Northwest Wind"—all those stories. But in the summer, we were out there in the still air, the water's running in the branch, and the moon's coming up, and you just feel like singing. So, you sing the stories. And we did sing mostly ballads, when we were singing out there: "Jackaro," and "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender." "Jackaro," of course, is a happy one; it turns out happy in the end. But, "Lord Thomas" is a very, very sad one; everybody dies. 

You used to be rocked to sleep with those songs. You didn't think that they were gory or anything; they were in a rocking rhythm, and Mom was singing. She was amusing herself more than the baby. Or the older sisters would sing the ballads and rock. Actually, you didn't think or stop to analyze what the song was saying; it was just a song. And at the end, if they all got killed, it was very sad. You could cry if you wanted to, or you could say, "Ah, poor people," or "Oh, it served them right," or take sides. 

I guess the other thing is that when you sing a song one hundred times, even if it is gory, you get so used to it, you don't think about the words; you just sing it to its conclusion. Everybody knows what's going to happen when the song starts. There were some happy ones, and there were some sad ones, but the sad ones mostly had the prettiest tunes, and got chosen more than the happy ones. I don't know what the other reasons are. 


And so, fine readers, this is our introduction to you of traditional singer Jean Ritchie. While Jean has indeed nearly single-handedly re-popularized the mountain dulcimer, there are many hands and voices such as yours that will continue to spread her songs to children around the country. And while you're at it, tell them a little about the mountain singer who carries on that long family tradition of song. 

Many of Jean Ritchie's dozens of books and recordings can be ordered directly from her website:; by e-mail:; or from June Appal, 306 Madison St., Whitesburg, KY 41858.

1 Dr. Kenneth Goldstein is a well-respected folklorist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Renowned American folklorist and song collector, recently deceased.

After a lengthy career as a touring musician, songwriter, and recording artist, Sally Rogers is now a music teacher in Pomfret, Connecticut. She is a longtime CMN member. This interview was transcribed by Sammie Haynes.