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.
Work on the tribute CD project began about two years ago. A perfect triumvirate of Jean’s fans and collaborators, Mick Lane, Dan Schatz and Charlie Pilzer, all three folk music artists (and Pilzer is a Grammy winning sound engineer), got together with the goal to create a tribute album that would mark the legacy of this remarkable woman and artist. The idea was born a while before that when Jean was heard to remark, regarding the Utah Phillips tribute project Singing Through the Hard Times, that she admired that work and would dream one day of a similar project being done for her collected body of work. When she suffered her stroke in 2009, these three men realized that now was the time. Luckily for me, Jon Pickow, Jean’s son who worked with us on Singin’ the Moon Up, recommended me for the project, and I was honored to contribute a song. The album will be released in early September, but to announce its completion, a very special “pre-release” celebration concert was held, with me, John McCutcheon and Kathy Mattea on the bill along with Dan Schatz, Jon Pickow and the Ritchie nieces.
The Union Church in Berea, Kentucky was the site of this CD pre-release concert, located near the campus of Berea College. The church was full of Ritchie family and friends and others who had come from far out of state, and everyone was acutely aware of the once-in-a-lifetime never to be forgotten nature of this night with Jean. In fact, Kathy Mattea mentioned in her set that she believed strongly that in 20 years from now we’ll all be saying about this night that “we were there.”
I wrote in my journal on the way home Saturday morning:
“The confluence of worlds coming together was extraordinary, with love for the woman and her music foremost in the room and spirits. It felt so much like a community family reunion with those not in the Ritchie family feeling like family nonetheless. Their applause was strong and sustained.”
I was privileged to be asked to perform Jean’s great song West Virginia Mine Disaster on the album and did so at the concert. What hadn’t occurred to me before that night was that I would be in the midst of so many women for whom the mining culture was their life, and to sing the song to them would be a profound experience. I began the introduction and mid-way made this realization as the women all listened politely and intently. Of all the times that I had introduced that song to audiences who knew nothing of the culture and the truth of the tragedies, I realized in that moment who was there, ground zero for mining culture and its impact on lives for generations.
Intro: “It came to Jean’s mind that all the mining disaster songs talked about the men’s names and the dates, but none of them talked about how the women felt when they had to stay home. It was taboo then for women to go into the mines, and the women would often wonder, what goes on, when the whistle blows off time.”
Say did you see him goin’? It was early this morning
He passed all your houses on the way to the coal
He was tall, he was slender, and his dark eyes so tender
His occupation was mining, West Virginia his home.
A few songs later it came time for singing Brightest and Best, the Ritchie’s song of “Old Christmas” that had been part of their family for generations. The Singing Family of the Cumberlands (Jean’s memoir) was evidently alive and well in that place that night. All of them had grown up singing this song in harmony as their grandmother Katty had taught them all back so many years ago. And as they have always done, they lent their exquisite and organic harmonies to my lead. So now, with Jean herself sitting at our feet and all her family around singing in harmony:
Brightest and Best of the suns of the morning
Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid
Star of the East, the horizon adorning
Guide where our infant redeemer is laid
And friends, I have to just break down and let the emotional power speak and tell you all: there has been no higher experience for me on any stage anywhere than floating on top of that 400 plus voice of the heavens as we all joined as one voice. The Kentucky writer and educator Loyal Jones puts it right when he reminds us that the Sacred Harp is the human voice, and it certainly was in that moment. Transcendence came to all of us and I was deeply and profoundly grateful to be there, in that moment, to remember and to mark the legacy of that music. I will hold this whole night in my heart forever.
Now to the album: This new two-disk CD set is a marvelous and remarkable work of love and legacy and fantastic music, honoring Jean’s lifetime of authorship, collecting, scholarship, field work, performing and original composition. Kathy Mattea stated that after she had left Nashville she went home to West Virginia and realized that there was an entire body of brilliant music that she had not even discovered before, laid waiting for her, in the music of the coal mining regions of Appalachia. Like a rich seam of gold, she was able to mine that work, finding Jean’s songs among those of many others who had made their mark, to create a new career for her in purely acoustic music.
The reach of Jean’s work into so many artists’ lives is the meaning of the recording, and you can hear how far and how wide the reach of this body of work has travelled. Saying that it is impressive is an understatement: you have Bluegrass renditions of ancient ballads like Dale Ann Bradley’s fantastic version of Go Dig My Grave with Alison Brown, and McCutcheon’s wonderful version of Black Waters with greats such as Tim O’Brien and Suzy Boguss contributing lead verses. You have alongside that the perfect country version of Peggy Seeger’s Young Man Who Wouldn’t Raise Corn and Mick Lane and Pat Broaders and full-on Uilleann pipes providing the Celtic perfection of With Kitty I’ll Go. And nothing can match the exquisite beauty of Judy Collins with Eric Weissberg on One I Love. One thing I love about this recording is that full circle has come around with a few musicians who worked with Jean in the 1960s and ‘70s such as Weissberg, Kenny Kosek and Janis Ian, returning to play here and paying their loving respect.
What I hope, and what the producers hope, is that this album will bring these wonderful works to a whole new generation of fans, as the songs have been so lovingly and beautifully interpreted by some of folk, Bluegrass and roots music’s most prominent and gifted musicians. I’m so proud to be on the album with the following musicians (among the album’s 75 plus performers): Judy Collins, Janis Ian, Pete Seeger, Peggy Seeger, John McCutcheon, Dale Ann Bradley, Alison Brown, Tim O’Brien, Suzy Boguss, Kathy Mattea, Stuart Duncan, Robin and Linda Williams, John McCutcheon, Archie Fisher, Elizabeth LaPrelle, Robbie O’Connell, Rachael Davis, Kim & Reggie Harris,Marcy Marxer & Cathy Fink, Oscar Brand, Lorraine Hammond, Riki Schneyer, Starry Mountain, Jon & Peter Pickow, Atwater Donnelly, Big Medicine, Sam Amidon, Ralston Bowles w/ May Erlewine, Mick Lane & Pat Broaders, Debra Cowan & John Roberts, Dan Schatz and Matt Brown.
Some special notes that will make this CD project a true collector’s item, aside from the great performances: Pete Seeger performs a spoken word poem of Jean’s in what might have been his last recorded work before his death last January, I Celebrate Life. It is short but profoundly moving. An additionally impressive list of artists has provided liner notes: Dolly Parton, Scottish radio personality Fiona Ritchie, Kentucky poet Wendell Berry and Joan Baez, who refers to Jean as the “Mother of Folk.” Parton writes, “Jean Ritchie’s songs are right up there with the Hank Williams and the Carter Family songs.” I couldn’t agree more.
The album is full of a mix of re-interpretations right alongside the most traditional and “Jean-like” performances of the songs, and range from the profound coal mining works mentioned before: From The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore, Blue Diamond Mines and the exquisite Black Waters to simple “play-party” songs like Lord Bateman, Pretty Betty Martin and Jemmy Taylor O, the range reflects Jean’s wide reach into so many facets of folk music. Also included are songs that reflect a large body of collected old-world balladry, remade in her versions, such as Fair Nottamun Town and Go Dig My Grave, along with her remarkable originals that examine life as led in the mountains, songs such as Thousand Mile Blues, High Hills and Mountains and Now is the Cool of the Day.
The organization Appalachian Voices has been a partner in the production of this album, and a portion of the proceeds will go to this Kentucky-based non-profit organization which Jean supports, helping to raise awareness and give a voice to the people of the region to pressure the White House, Congress, state lawmakers and other decision-makers to end mountain top removal. I urge you to look into this fine organization.
I want to quote from Wendell Berry’s beautiful writing for the liner notes for this album, as I believe no one could be more eloquent in describing what one woman has done for us, as human beings and as artists:
“The history of Kentucky so far is tragic exactly because of our failure to recognize and cherish and protect the precious exchanges by which the life of a given place and the human life given back may be made one life, enduring and sustaining. The paramount voice of that tragedy, and of the goodness and beauty of what we have lost, is Jean Ritchie’s – and by her gift, it is ours, to help us to remember and to hope.”
As for “Dear Jean…” please watch for it to be released from Compass Records in early September. I’ll have advance copies with me on the road this summer and so I hope to see you at a show soon so I can share this remarkable and important recording with you. They’ll only be available at shows until released officially, so check our show schedule to come join us in person.
In the meantime, I send you all, my readers, love and blessings, as Jean herself would write.
Award-winning recording artist and critically-acclaimed Bluegrass powerhouse vocalist, Susie Glaze has been called by BLUEGRASS UNLIMITED “an important voice on the California Bluegrass scene.” Her album “Blue Eyed Darlin'” was the winner of the Just Plain Folks 2006 Music Award for Best Roots Album and FolkWorks Magazine’s Pick for Best Bluegrass Album of 2005. “One of the most beautiful voices in bluegrass and folk music today.” (Roz Larman of FolkScene). Susie’s latest release “Green Kentucky Blues” and additional recordings can be found at www.susieglaze.com.