By Kimber Ray
Jean Ritchie, Kentucky-born folk hero, environmentalist and activist, died this June in her Berea, Ky. home at the age of 92. Widely regarded as “The Mother of Folk,” Ritchie was born in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains. Her family is renowned by folk music scholars for their astounding repertoire of traditional songs and centuries-old ballads, but it was Ritchie’s sweet, distinct voice which carried these Appalachian tunes to a broad audience of listeners.
This same voice also spoke out against environmental and social injustices, particularly those surrounding coal mining communities in Appalachia. Among Ritchie’s most celebrated songs is “Black Waters,” which describes the painful realities of surface mining in Kentucky.
In recent years, her friends — including artists such as Kathy Mattea and Pete Seeger — produced a tribute album called “Dear Jean,” and Appalachian Voices had the opportunity to celebrate with Ritchie at a concert in her honor last year. As per her wishes, Ritchie’s family is donating a portion of the proceeds from the album to Appalachian Voices.
Author, activist and Appalachian Voices board member Silas House considered Ritchie a dear friend. “She was a source of incredible pride for my people,” he writes. “Everyone I knew loved Jean Ritchie, and they especially loved the way she represented Appalachian people: with generosity and sweetness, yes. But also with defiance and strength.”
“The hillside explodes with the dynamite’s roar
And the voices of the small birds will sound there no more
And the mountain comes a-sliding so awful and grand
And the flooding black waters rise over my land”
— “Black Waters” by Jean Ritchie, 1971
Read House’s full remembrance at appvoices.org/remembering-jean-ritchie