“Singing The Traditional Songs Of Her Kentucky Mountain Family” by Jean Ritchie - album review

features in: Album Chart of 1952Album Chart of the Decade: 1950s

TJR says

Back in the first decade of the 20th century, British scholar Cecil J. Sharp famously declared the traditional English ballad a “moribund” art form. Back then, he hadn't reckoned on America’s southern Appalachian Mountains where, as he personally discovered in the 1910s, a rich and thriving tradition of ballad-singing was still thriving. There he met two of Jean Ritchie's elder sisters, who were able to help him with his collecting. “English folk songs from the southern Appalachians, collected by Cecil J. Sharp; comprising two hundred and seventy-four songs and ballads with nine hundred and sixty-eight tunes, including thirty-nine tunes contributed by Olive Dame Campbell, edited by Maud Karpeles” was published in 1917! Here, in the middle of the century, Jean continues to confound Cecil's earlier gloom. On her debut album, she shares some of her favourite “story songs” of murder and romance. There are wondrous tremors… infectious whistlers… barking tales of halloween madness… and an Appalachian dulcimer plucked in minor key empathy with tales of life, love and loss. 3 songs are sung a capella. The album is completely charming, even in amongst the dark tales. Bob Dylan thought so too and would remember “Old Virginny” (a seventeenth century song of English origin) for his “Man of Constant Sorrow”.

Kenneth Goldstein's liner notes are excellent:

In Jean Ritchie, we have the personification of one of these 'great' tradition bearers. The youngest number of the famous "Singing Ritchies of Kentucky", Jean is recognized as a highly talented singer not only in her own community, but has become the best known traditional singer in America. This is no mean feat in a nation where there is a sharp cleavage between the “natural” rural native and the “sophisticated” urbanite, the “real”-and-simple and the phony-and-brash, the relaxed-and-unselfconscious and the affected-and-pretentious. That Jean has been widely proclaimed by audiences on both sides of the vast socio-psychological barrier is perhaps the finest testament to her “greatness” as a folksinger.

Hers is one of the largest repertories of any singer in America; her singing style is the finest representative of what may be broadly referred to as the “southern white” mountain style; and her performances, whether of ballads or songs, are enthralling, attention-demanding, and engrossing. And all of these are perhaps found in this recording. Today, when a collector finds someone who knows three or four of these ballads, he is apt to turn somersaults; to find as many as twenty in an entire state would be a major collecting experience. So, when finding one singer who has that number in her repertory it is a near-world-shaking occurrence. But Jean's repertory of these ballads is not to be congratulated merely for its size-for both her texts and tunes are superb examples of their kind. And in Jean's performance of them we are treated to one of the great experiences of ballad listening. We should be grateful for the invention and perfection of the tape recorder and long-playing phonograph record for they give us an opportunity to bring this experience into our living-rooms; it is the next best thing to seeing her perform these ballads.

Cecil Sharp would have been thrilled to know the old art form was alive and well.

The Jukebox Rebel

A1 [01:48] 7.4.png Jean Ritchie - O Love Is Teasin’ (Traditional) Folk
A2 [02:13] 7.2.png Jean Ritchie - Jubilee (Marian Skein) Folk
A3 [02:18] 8.4.png Jean Ritchie - Black Is The Color (Traditional) Folk
A4 [01:01] 6.2.png Jean Ritchie - A Short Life Of Trouble (Traditional) Folk
A5 [01:58] 6.1.png Jean Ritchie - One Morning In May [version one] (Traditional) Folk
A6 [01:38] 6.4.png Jean Ritchie - One Morning In May [version two] (Traditional) Folk
A7 [02:38] 7.7.png Jean Ritchie - Old Virginny (Traditional) Folk
A8 [01:09] 8.2.png Jean Ritchie - Skin And Bones (Traditional) Folk
B1 [01:45] 6.9.png Jean Ritchie - The Little Devils (Traditional) Folk
B2 [01:27] 6.2.png Jean Ritchie - My Boy Willie (Traditional) Folk
B3 [01:01] 5.2.png Jean Ritchie - Hush Little Baby (Traditional) Folk
B4 [01:58] 7.0.png Jean Ritchie - Gypsum Davy (Traditional) Folk
B5 [02:26] 6.6.png Jean Ritchie - The Cuckoo [version one] (Traditional) Folk
B6 [01:34] 6.7.png Jean Ritchie - The Cuckoo [version two] (Traditional) Folk
B7 [01:37] 6.0.png Jean Ritchie - Little Cory (Traditional) Folk
B8 [01:24] 5.7.png Jean Ritchie - Keep Your Garden Clean (Traditional) Folk

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