Nieces breathe new life into aunt Jean Ritchie's folk songs
BEREA, Ky. (AP) -- Whether it was songs about the coal mines or the decline of the railroad, the late legendary folk singer Jean Ritchie's music struck a chord with many, particularly those living in the Kentucky mountains.
Throughout her career, Ritchie's family was also drawn into the spotlight, whether it was with her or for their own mountain melodies and traditions.
Community members recently gathered at Berea Arena Theatre to hear the pure, soulful, family harmony ring through the aisles as the Ritchie Nieces, Susie Ritchie, Patty Ritchie Tarter and Judy Ritchie Hudson, all of Berea, along with Joy Ritchie Powers, of Michigan, joined together in song to celebrate "Old Christmas" and benefit CARE (Coalition for Animal Rescue Efforts).
It was a special occasion as the ladies rarely get a chance to sing together. They also said it is a way of keeping folk music, and the songs written by their aunt, who died in 2015 at age 92, alive and in the hearts of new audiences.
Sisters, Powers and Hudson, grew up in Viper, Ky., until they were nearly teens.
While in Kentucky, Powers said she and her sisters were taught songs and party games by their Aunt Edna.
Then, the girls' family moved to Michigan, where they lived near their cousins, sisters Tarter and Susie Ritchie, who at the time were one and five-years-old.
Occasionally, Powers and Hudson babysat their younger cousins and introduced the smaller girls to singing games they learned in Kentucky.
Powers and Hudson both graduated Berea College. Later, Hudson, Tarter and Susie Ritchie made Berea their home. Powers returned to Michigan after completing her degree.
Along the way, wherever they went, Powers said, once people knew the girls were Ritchies, they were asked to sing.
Always a part of the Ritchie family life, music was used as entertainment and socialization.
Powers said the family knew many old songs and ballads brought from Ireland, England and Scotland, and several older members also attended Hindman Settlement and Pine Mountain Settlement schools where they learned many new songs to sing.
"There has always been singing when the Ritchie family gets together," said Tarter.
When the album "Dear Jean" was produced, Powers said, the nieces were asked to sing a song.
"They headlined us as The Ritchie Nieces," said Powers.
The nieces have always loved sharing their aunt Jean's music to the extent they can.
"We can't share the music like she would share it, but we share it as a family," said Susie Ritchie.
Growing up, Susie Ritchie said they didn't get to see their aunt Jean often since she lived in New York with her husband George Pickow and their two sons, but the time spent with her was special. The last few years of Jean Richie's life was in Berea, closer to her family.
Susie Ritchie said, the girls realized their aunt was becoming popular on the music scene, but when they saw her at family gatherings, she was simply their aunt.
Over the years, Susie Ritchie said it was exciting to watch Jean's career grow. And grow it did.
Jean Richie's music led her to sing on stages such as Carnegie Hall in New York and the Royal Albert Hall in London, publish a book titled "Singing Family of the Cumberlands," and write songs that were covered by Johnny Cash, Emmy Lou Harris and more. She was known as the "Mother of Folk.'
According to Susie Ritchie, because of Jean, the Ritchie family was able to have memorable experiences such as having an entire Christmas special on Dave Garroway's Wide Wide World dedicated to their family's holiday traditions, which included carols, Christmas trees and stack cakes.
The Ritchie family was also asked to sing at the National Mall in Washington D.C.
"People knew Jean," said Susie Ritchie. "She made the family known in a wide area.we are very appreciative to have been exposed to and get to do, things, we would never have been able to without her."
During the 1960s, Hudson said she was able to sing a bit with her aunt Jean at a few town folk festivals, the Berea College Craft Fair and the Oscar Brand radio show.
"It was fun," said Hudson. "It was nice to spend time with her."
Now, the nieces turn their attention toward keeping alive the music their aunt, and the entire Ritchie family, loved so dearly. Nearly every year, the women gather at the Hindman Settlement School during Family Folk Week to sing the old songs, as well as the music penned by their aunt.
"It is important," said Susie Ritchie. "I want the people that knew aunt Jean, and those that didn't, to be aware of what she contributed to the folk experience."
When the Ritchie nieces sing, Susie Ritchie said they want those listening to sing with them, rather than simply giving a performance.
"Making music together is at the heart of folk music," said Susie Ritchie. "This is an element that shouldn't be lost. It is a way to relate to one another in a day and age when most entertainment takes place on screens."
According to Susie Ritchie and Hudson, folk music continues to be relevant. It speaks to family relationship, life in the mountains and about place, which is very important to the Richie family.
"Every last one of us will tell you how important place is to us, regardless of where we live," said Susie Ritchie. "We have a strong connection to the mountains and folk music is part of that."