SINGIN’ THE MOON UP BECOMES DULCIMER JAZZ
For these past two years, since this column’s inception, I’ve been honored and privileged to have the chance to write about my dear friend and mentor, Jean Ritchie. Doing research into Jean’s life and work, fleshing out my own scholarship on her vast, beautiful and hugely influential body of work, has been a joy. Now it’s time to announce a transition, a great evolution of sorts: the introduction of “Dulcimer Jazz” from Los Angeles musician, Joellen Lapidus.
Joellen and I recently presented a tribute concert to Jean Ritchie at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica. During our rehearsal for the show we had some good and interesting talk about Jean, as well as great playing and singing. When Joellen was improvising on her dulcimer I noted her great innovations, calling it “dulcimer jazz.” Joellen liked that for a title and I suggested a new column for FolkWorks. So, here it is: with this transition article, we introduce the new column, which will jump into my space and carry on the legacy of Jean Ritchie.
I CELEBRATE LIFE
REMEMBERING JEAN RITCHIE
I CELEBRATE LIFE
I celebrate Life!
I tangle my fingers in its long-haired grasses… with gladness.
I beat upon its breast with futility.
I lie across its loin with joy.
I give to it and take from it sweet juices of abundance with… pain and pleasure.
I replenish it with my tears and the vibrations… of my laughter.
Until it sweeps me off, I will not leave it,
This World, this Earth!
This Universe, this Time and Space!
This Chance at finding God!
MAY DAY DAY
We now find ourselves in the spring of the year and one of the finest songs of the season is Jean Ritchie’s original composition May Day Day. Here’s some scholarship on the song.
From our show “Singin’ The Moon Up ~ The Voice of Jean Ritchie”:
TALL TALES FOR A LONG WINTER NIGHT
“LORD THOMAS AND FAIR ELLENDER”
I remember when working on Singin’ the Moon Up – The Voice of Jean Ritchie at Penn State University in the summer of 2005, we had many long ballads to memorize and get ready to perform, most of which were sung a cappella. I spent many a long afternoon riding in my car listening over and over and over to Jean’s recordings of these songs until I had them memorized myself, and I found it transporting. I was drawn back easily in my imagination to the times and scenes of the stories within these long tales (mostly of woe!).
Jean has always told me that the long ballads that were passed down through the generations were carried because of the telling nature of the stories: they were like morality tales, though the children who heard them and learned them in the mountains didn’t think that at the time. They just loved the adventure. And adventure there was, with “stobbings” and cutting off heads and, yes, “kicking them against the wall!” I asked Jean whether those violent acts in the songs would frighten her and her siblings and other young children or even traumatize them. But she said, no they didn’t: they were just “amazed that romance could cause an action like that to be taken.”
SIGNS OF ENDINGS ALL AROUND US
I write this month’s column from the place of Christmas approaching, so there are surrounding flows of energy around me now encompassing those year-end events, sacred and otherwise, that mark the passing or ending of things and the expectant energy of a new year or re-birth. Hopefully as this new year comes in and you’re reading this after it’s come through, the “iconography” (if you will) of this writing will apply as we move forward into this re-birth of a new year.
JEAN RITCHIE – THE MOTHER OF FOLK MUSIC
CELEBRATING THE RELEASE OF “DEAR JEAN - ARTISTS CELEBRATE JEAN RITCHIE”
Dear Jean - Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie brings together a diverse group of musicians to honor the "mother of folk music," Jean Ritchie.
“As the ‘Mother of Folk,’ Jean is a living museum of impeccably rendered songs passed down from singer to singer, influencing and inspiring generations.” —Joan Baez
“When I grow up I want to write just like Jean Ritchie. Seriously, I love every song she’s ever written. I love her simple yet beautiful melodies and the honest, heartfelt truth in them.” —Dolly Parton
Dear Jean ~ Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie was released in early September, and I’m making its release the subject of this months’ column, offering up a kind of announcement and discussion of the album, not necessarily a review. Being one of the artists on the album, I won’t review it in the formal sense, but I do want to announce it to my FolkWorks readers, as I truly believe it is a seminal work of art, an important collection as tribute to the great American folk music icon, Jean Ritchie.
TITLE: PICNIC IN THE SKY
ARTIST: JENI & BILLY’S BIG PICNIC BAND
LABEL: WAYSTATION RECORDS
RELEASE DATE: aUGUST 2014
I last wrote about the Nashville duo Jeni & Billy in the fall of 2008 when I reviewed their release of that year, Jewell Ridge Coal.
Since that time, Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp have been busy traveling throughout the US, United Kingdom and Canada, as well as recording. Their follow up to Jewel Ridge Coal was a fine studio album, Longing for Heaven in 2010, and then in 2013 they released Sweet Song Coming ‘Round which was a live-performance album collated from their 2012 US tours.
This new release, Picnic in the Sky, is quite the departure for the duo but also a revival of sorts, one of a different set of roots: big country classics that are realized in most dramatic form with a full band accompaniment and arrangements.
DEAR JEAN ~ ARTISTS CELEBRATE JEAN RITCHIE
A PREVIEW APPRECIATION
The entrance applause was unmistakable. The buzz from the 400 plus audience inside the church was audible, and then, both suddenly and gradually, then powerfully, the buzz grew into a thunderous standing ovation as the lady entered the room. Profoundly, gracefully, we all knew that inside that sound was the music of a giant who had entered our midst, the unsung and still beautiful, Jean Ritchie.
In May of this year, May 23rd to be exact, a remarkable event occurred in Berea, Kentucky, now home to the seminal American folk music artist, author, scholar and composer, Jean Ritchie. It was a night of deep appreciation for this now 91 year old lady, a victim of a stroke four years ago that has left her mostly speechless but still able to sing, remember lyrics to her songs, and direct the singing in group formations until late into the evening! And that she did, from her seat on the front row at the Union Church, as the producers and a few of the artists from the upcoming tribute album Dear Jean - Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie and an audience numbering in the hundreds, fans, friends, family and collaborators, joined to sing her songs and celebrate this deeply rich legacy in American folk music.
When I was a little girl singing with the family on our front porch summer evenings, I used to wonder whether the people and the happenings in our old-time songs were real. Did beautiful ladies always live in castles? I had never seen a castle — log and frame houses, sitting by dirt roads — that was the main kind of building in Viper, Kentucky. Just what did a ship look like, and could a man really die for love alone? Why did so many of our songs talk about London Town? And Dublin City? And Bonny Scotland?
Thus begins the story of how Jean Ritchie began an epic journey to the shores of Ireland, Scotland and England to find out where her family songs had come from. There were so many that they collected and, as she writes above, the origins were so foreign to her experience growing up in the mountains of Kentucky.
Jean and Pete
With the sad passing of Pete Seeger in late January I want to write this time mostly about Jean Ritchie’s long friendship with one of her most famous friends.
As I’ve written here in columns past, Jean Ritchie never expected to be the professional musician that she became. She went to New York and found herself swept up into the Folk Revival as one of its most authentic ambassadors for traditional music. And as part of that phenomenon for her and for American music, she met and worked with and became friends with such artists that became legends in their own time ~ and such was Pete Seeger.
Brightest and Best
I can think of no better way to mark the winter solstice and new year than by telling the story of Christmas in the Eastern Kentucky mountains. This was a time of rest and reflection for the families that dotted the cold and frosty hills. The harvesting was done and everyone could step aside from their usual chores and spend time with each other, taking shelter from winter weather and readying the holiday celebrations and family reunions. This time of year is perfectly summed up in Jean Ritchie’s song Wintergrace.
JEAN RITCHIE’S BALLADS
In thinking what to write about this month I looked around my room and into my own heart to think of what to tell you as the “most” important thing about Jean Ritchie than anything else, something that I would recommend to you. And I hit on this:
One of the most unique and important aspects of Jean’s musical life was not just her original songwriting (which is superb and ground breaking in itself), but her family’s songcatching – their collecting from the many resources in the mountains around them, the generations of descendants of the original settlers of Appalachia from England, Ireland and Scotland, including her own family of course. This aspect of Jean’s work and life permeated everything she did as an artist certainly as it was part of her upbringing. This element of her musical “scholarship” was especially and brilliantly captured on the Smithsonian Folkways album from 1961 “Jean Ritchie - Ballads From Her Appalachian Family Tradition” – now in re-release.
UNSUNG HEROES OF AMERICANA
It’s my true delight to share a fantastic article by Terry Roland with you all on my regular column this month. His article “Unsung Heroes of Americana Music: Jean Ritchie & Susie Glaze-Two Folk Singers, One Voice” was published August 6th on No Depression website and can be found here.
I also wanted to share Jean Ritchie video which contains excerpts from her documentary “Mountain Born”
From Nottamun Town
to Masters of War
One of the most fascinating stories of the time spent working with Jean Ritchie on our tribute show in 2005 (from which the title of this column takes its name (with the addendum "The Voice of Jean Ritchie")), was the story that Jean revealed to me in a casual aside one afternoon when we were preparing to go on the radio together for a live interview near State College, Pennsylvania. We were in rehearsal for the stage show at Penn State's Centre Theatre.
I was talking about Bob Dylan and Jean told us the first of two amazing things: in April of 1963, Izzy Young, who ran the Folklore Center in the Village, had organized the Dylan concert at Carnegie Hall. Izzy begged Jean and her husband George Pickow to come to the concert because with Dylan being an unknown, Izzy was frantic to find an audience for the concert. So they went, and, as Jean’s husband George related to us, they were mostly underwhelmed at this scruffy, nervous, unprepared and mumbling singer up on stage.
West Virginia Mine Disaster
Hello again, Friends,
I’d like to devote the column this time to the great Jean Ritchie original song West Virginia Mine Disaster.
I first heard Jean herself perform this song several years ago at a music festival where we were appearing together. It is sung a cappella, and she did so, sitting in a chair under a tent with lots of folks listening. It was transformative for me. The story of a woman whose husband disappears into the mines one day never to return was one that hadn’t been told quite like that ever in my experience. And, true to Jean’s introduction of the song when she sings it, it hadn’t ever been written from that perspective before either ~ of the woman’s view of things when a tragic accident falls on a mining community.
Singin’ the Moon Up
Hello friends and welcome to my brand new column for FolkWorks. I’m delighted to join such a wonderful company of writers and I look forward to contributing to the discussion of folk music with my particular specialty in mind.
In this bi-monthly column I will be writing about subjects relating to Appalachian singing styles and a selected history of this music. I will be drawing upon my own personal experience with the great American folk music icon Jean Ritchie. The column will incorporate anecdotal material as well as references to her prolific songwriting and influence on the Folk Revival movement. I will be quoting short lyric sections, drawing from source material as well as including pertinent videos.
Some of you may ask whatever happened to Jean Ritchie. I’m happy to report that she is doing fine and has now returned to live in her native Kentucky after so many years of living in New York, her adopted home. Here is a short update: