Jean Ritchie, a singer, musician and writer who helped spearhead a revival of folk music in the 1950s and 1960s with her heartfelt performances of the traditional songs of her native Appalachia, died June 1 at her home in Berea, Ky. She was 92.
A niece, Judy Hudson, confirmed the death to the Associated Press. Ms. Ritchie had not given a concert since suffering a stroke in 2009.
The youngest of 14 children, Ms. Ritchie grew up in Kentucky’s Cumberland Mountains, where her family had lived since the 18th century. She helped till the fields and churn butter with handmade tools, as music accompanied every part of her family’s life, from work and worship to marriage and death.
Many of the songs originated in the British Isles and were handed down from generation to generation, often with regional variations. The traditional English ballad “Barbara Allen,” for instance, became known in Ms. Ritchie’s family as “Barbry Ellen.”
After settling in New York in 1946, Ms. Ritchie was discovered by folklorist Alan Lomax, who was responsible for bringing Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and other performers to wider audiences. Lomax arranged for Ms. Ritchie’s first concert, in 1948, and made recordings of her singing for what is now the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
“There is no one else in her category,” Lomax told the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1989.“She has devoted herself to her heritage and the struggle to convey it in all its majesty and beauty.”
With her clear, uninflected soprano voice, Ms. Ritchie helped spark renewed interest in traditional folk music. She became a fixture at Greenwich Village coffeehouses and often appeared on the New York radio broadcasts of folk singer Oscar Brand and occasionally on television. She played a key role in introducing younger musicians to the mountain dulcimer, an elongated stringed instrument that she strummed on her lap while singing.
She was cited as a seminal influence by Bob Dylan. In addition to performing centuries-old folk songs, Ms. Ritchie wrote many original songs, including “Black Waters,” “Blue Diamond Mines” and “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” — the last of which was recorded by Johnny Cash.
Over the years, she performed at Carnegie Hall, at London’s Royal Albert Hall and, in 1959, at the first Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, along with Pete Seeger, Odetta, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. She remained a staple of the festival for decades.
Ms. Ritchie, who was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Kentucky, helped document her musical heritage with many recordings and by writing several books, including song collections and a musical memoir, “Singing Family of the Cumberlands” (1955).
“It was always a wonder to me how families living close to one another could sing the same song and sing it so different,” she wrote. “Or how one family would sing a song among themselves for years, and their neighbor family never knew that song at all. Most curious of all was how one member of a family living in a certain community could have almost a completely different set of songs than his cousins living a few miles away.”
The Ritchie family was known for its musicality for generations and made a point to learn new songs from friends and neighbors.
“We learned from many different folks and without trying to,” Ms. Ritchie wrote, “so when someone asks us, ‘Where’d you learn that one?’ we just can’t say for sure.”
Jean Ruth Ritchie was born Dec. 8, 1922, in Viper, Ky. After teaching in a one-room schoolhouse during World War II, she received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Kentucky in 1946.
In New York, she worked at the Henry Street Settlement, an educational and social services center on the Lower East Side. She received a Fulbright fellowship in 1952 to explore musical traditions in Britain.
The same year, she released her debut album, “Jean Ritchie Singing the Traditional Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family.”
Ms. Ritchie married photographer George Pickow in 1950, and together they published several books and operated a dulcimer-making shop. They lived for many years in Port Washington, N.Y., where they ran a record label and music publishing company.
After her husband’s death in 2010, Ms. Ritchie moved to Berea. Survivors include two sons, Jon Pickow and Peter Pickow, both of whom sang on their mother’s recordings; and a brother.
Except for a few singing lessons in college, Ms. Ritchie learned music from her family and neighbors and seemingly from the mountain air she breathed. She once expressed shock that some people would be reluctant to sing without formal training.
“I want to take them by the shoulders and shake them,” she told Newsday in 1980. “I never would have had any lullabies sung to me if my mother had to study first.”