Dec 20 2009

Fallen Hero

My ex-husband just sent an e-mail to tell me that Jean Ritchie, one of my all-time idols, has had a serious stroke. She must be in her eighties by now.

For those of you who don’t know Jean Ritchie: she’s one of the earliest Appalachian singer-songwriters to emerge from the hollers into the eyes and ears of the rest of the world during the folk revival. Her music is political, courageous and moving: ballads about black lung and mining disasters and the lives of her people.

I’ve admired her since my other ex-husband introduced me to her in the mid-seventies. Ten years later I had the opportunity to spend a day with her at her house in Port Washington, NY, where I interviewed her for my radio series about childhood. She fed me lunch from her garden. She was poetic and funny.

In one of these programs (In the Secret Garden), she describes her Kentucky home where the ridges in the distance “fall away like petals in a rose.” She recalls her mother looking out over the view and, in every season, sighing, “Lawd, chil’ren. This is the prettiest time.”

Years later I wanted to interview her again for the documentary I was producing about the John Henry legend. On the phone I told her about my project.

“It’s about the John Henry legend and the Appalachian culture that gave rise to it.”

“Gay rights? What on earth does John Henry have to do with gay rights?”

It took me a beat to figure out the miscommunication, and when I did I found it amusing. She didn’t. We decided to give the interview a miss this go ’round.

Here is another of my programs about childhood — Nighttime — in which Jean talks about not wanting to go to bed at night, and sings part of a children’s song:

By the way, I highly recommend her book about her childhood in Kentucky: Jean Ritchie’s Singing Family of the Cumberlands. (Maurice Sendak illustrated it.) She’s a wonderful storyteller.

I hope she isn’t suffering now. I’m very sad.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Fallen Hero”

  1. Syd says:

    I’m so sorry to hear about Jean–re-listening to your Skip–through the shadows reminds me what a talented artist you are–as soon as I heard the girls chanting their jump rope rhyme(?) and the chittering of the frogs/spring peepers, it brought back the whole segment, and I sat transfixed rubber-banded back to the first time I heard this piece…I love Jean’s voice and her sweet way of recalling the song of the skin and bones woman–whoo-whoo-oo-ooh….

  2. Ginna says:

    Dear Sydney,

    As always, your comments are so kind and your diligence in reading this shite so astounding. Thanks.

    Yes, Jean has a wonderful speaking voice and a magical use of language. She is a national treasure: a legend. When she’s gone, she takes too much with her.

    Hope I can figure out how to see you late this month.


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