Episode 29 – Jean Ritchie part 1 of 2 – Dr. Jones explores the life of folk singer and social worker Jean Ritchie with Dr. Kay Hoffman

Episode 29 – Jean Ritchie part 1 of 2 – Dr. Jones explores the life of folk singer and social worker Jean Ritchie with Dr. Kay Hoffman

Ep 29 –  Jean Ritchie part 1 of 2 – Dr. Jones explores the life of folk singer and social worker Jean Ritchie including her connection to the UK College of Social Work and an unaired interview segment with friend and former UKCoSW dean, Dr. Kay Hoffman

On the next two episodes (ep 29 & 30) we explore the life of folk singer and social worker Jean Ritchie. In this episode, we will talk about Jean’s history in connection to the University of Kentucky’s College of Social Work, including an unaired interview segment with the UK College of Social Work former Dean and faculty member, Dr. Kay Hoffman. Jason Johnston, our producer, and I are big fans of Jean’s music and we will pay tribute to her by playing and singing a few of her songs. Please visit https://socialwork.uky.edu/jeanritchie for a special dedication page to Jean, with pictures, links, and full Mp3 downloads of the songs you have heard.

Ep 29 Track List and Music Links

1. Barbary Allen by Jean Ritchie from British Traditional Ballads in the Southern Mountains, Volume 1 © Folkways
2. The L & N Don’t Come Here Anymore – Blake & Jason
3. Wayfaring Stranger – Blake & Jason
4. Hangman by Jean Ritchie from British Traditional Ballads in the Southern Mountains, Volume 1 © Folkways
5. Blackwaters by Blake & Jason
6. Pretty Saro by Blake & Jason
7. Shady Grove by Jean Ritchie from Marching Across The Green Grass and Other American Children’s Game Songs © Folkways 1968


More resources:

  1. Wonderful Tribute
  2. More bibliography from KET
  3. UK Alumni Page
  4. About Jean’s social work practice
  5. Alan Lomax Recordings




Transcripts are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription and may contain errors. Please check the full audio podcast in context before quoting in print.


Episode 29 – Jean Ritchie part 1 of 2 – Dr. Jones explores the life of folk singer and social worker Jean Ritchie w/ Dr. Kay Hoffman

[00:00:02] Hello and welcome to the social work Conversations podcast produced by the University of Kentucky College of Social Work. My name is Blake Jones. Here we explore the intersection of social work research practice and education. Our goal is to showcase the amazing people associated with our college and to give our listeners practical tools that they can use to change the world. <Barby Ellen song – Jean Ritchie>

[00:01:15] On the next two episodes we explore the life of folk singer and social worker Jean Ritchie. In this episode, we will talk about Jean’s history in connection to the University of Kentucky’s College of Social Work. Jason Johnston, our producer, and I are big fans of Jean’s music and we will pay tribute to her by playing and singing a few of her songs. So sit back relax and enjoy this exploration of a Kentucky treasure: Jean Ritchie.

[00:01:51] <L & N Railway Song – Blake Jones & Jason Johnston>

[00:02:50] Blake Narration:

Jean was born on December 8, 1922, in Viper, Kentucky. Viper is in the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky. She was the youngest of 14 siblings, and she was one of ten girls who slept in just one room of the family’s farmhouse.

Jean was born into a very musical family, and this early appreciation of traditional ballads and folk music led her to carry the tradition on, not only in Kentucky but around the world. She performed with Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and many others.

<Wayfaring Stranger Song – Blake Jones & Jason Johnston>

Jean has been described as the “mother of folk music.” Her primary instrument, the mountain dulcimer, made a perfect backdrop for her lilting, high soprano voice. In the 1950s and ’60s, she became an international ambassador of traditional folk music, and her travels took her to the stages of Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival.

<Hangman – Jean Ritchie song>

Jean was married to George Pickow, a folk music historian, in 1950, and they remained a powerful team until George’s death in 2010.

Although Jean was best known as an internationally acclaimed folk singer, we also appreciate her in our College because she was one of our first graduates. Jean graduated from the UK College of Social Work in 1946. While she was here, she taught herself to play piano and participated in the Glee club and choir. After graduating from the College, she moved to New York City, where she got a job teaching music to children at the Henry Street Settlement.

In 1999, Jean was inducted into the UK College of Social Work Hall of Fame. She returned to the University of Kentucky many times to perform, and she always had a deep love for her home state.

In episode 19, we talked to Dr. Kay Hoffman, a close friend of Jean’s and our College’s Dean for many years. Here is an unaired part of that interview where Kay talks about her connection to Jean…

Kay Hoffman Interview Segment from Episode 19 from September 2018

Blake [00:07:27] I know that you have met a lot of interesting people in your career as a social worker and one of those people that I wanted to talk with you about as Jean Ritchie who was a graduate of our college in 1946.

Kay [00:07:44] The FIRST graduate of our college.

Blake [00:07:45] She was the very first one and you know I I went to Berea College as an undergraduate.

Kay [00:07:52] I remember you did.

Blake [00:07:54] I learned about her music and started playing some of her music. I only got to meet her one time at a concert somewhere but heard a lot about her and just love her music. I wonder if you could just talk about your relationship with her. How did you get to know her. Why was she so important to us.

Kay [00:08:12] Yes she is important and she died as you know a few years ago and which was a really big loss to the music community and to Kentucky and really to our college. But when I became dean in 1998 one of the things that I wanted to do is try to reconnect or connect with our alums and of course I found out Jean Ritchie is the first person who graduated from this – it was a program you know and I think it was in arts and sciences or a department. And so I was able to find her. She had a summer place down in Hyden, Kentucky and they she and her husband George Pickow lived up in Port Washington Long Island. And so I found her and gave her a call and she said Well I’m not going to be in Kentucky and that I don’t know sometime. How about just coming on down. So I drove down and met her at her house which put her in charge this place which looked exactly like. I thought it would in my imagination. Great big front porch rocking chairs the whole deal. And they enjoyed a lot of time down here in Kentucky especially they loved the fall and she loved spring in Kentucky. She loved spring so we got acquainted and then when she would appear now and then here in Lexington you know I would always see her and she would always spend some time and then when and when Phyllis Phyllis and I were Phyllis was Phyllis Sander was our our development director (Phyllis Lee now) we started the Hall of Fame and I think that Jean was our second person that we inducted into the Hall of Fame. And she was absolutely delighted and made a big party you know and and she sang and she played her dulcimer and and everyone was just enchanted by her. So at that time we were getting we were able to to raise some money to start some scholarships and professorships and all of that. So we had a Jean Ritchie fund that we had begun in which we still have. And they they gave money to start that fund and as did some of Jean’s friends. But she told me a lot about – How it is that she. Why was it social work that she started it and what happened? How did she become like one of the most famous folk singers really in the United States? Well she she after she went to UK or where she graduated and in social work and she went into social work just because she thought, “Gosh this is the kind of stuff I want to do” I want to work with the people who she had grown up with. That was what she wanted to do. But while she was here and really all through her life she was a musician. And I’ll tell you something I think she had the prettiest voice. It was so sweet almost angelic. I’d love to listen to her sing. And apparently a lot of other people did too!

Blake [00:11:45] ha ha.

Kay [00:11:45] She got a Fulbright to study music in London but she also got a job in Toynbee Hall which was you know the one of the first settlement houses in maybe the first one in the world. And so she worked at Toynbee Hall and she worked with kids and with with immigrants and she taught music and she taught singing and she also met George Pickow her husband and he knew that she was a talent you know he he could spot it. And so after she stopped working at Toynbee and her Fulbright studying – actually was studying folk music because she was you know she studied the early folk music before it became Appalachian folk.

Blake [00:12:33] right.

Kay [00:12:33] The roots of folk music and that’s what she studied and and so she she wrote a lot of songs and she read a lot of songs early in her career and those songs were in some ways based upon what she had learned in this study and the root study of folk music. So I mean I got I got acquainted with her just because I reached out to her and she returned it in the most lovely and graceful way. And and so I had George and and and Jane to my house a few times and we had dinners and then we had some other people over some other alumns poor little parties because you know Jean was getting older and she she liked smaller events. She she loved. She loved to be the center of the discussion. But she had so much to say and and George loved it too. Actually, he was a really funny guy. He has a lot of fun to be with. And he adored his wife. And he managed her career. I mean from the very beginning and then he and she died really before he did so that. But he didn’t live very long after Jean died. They were like this. They were close. Yeah. So you know my she loved our college. She loved the field of social work. She loved how music could tell stories about the people that she loved in in her world of folk music.

Blake [00:14:23] Yes she was really an activist through her music.

Kay [00:14:26] Absolutely.

Blake [00:14:27] One of my favorite songs of hers is black waters. Yeah. About the dirty water in eastern Kentucky or the polluted water from runoff from the from the coal mines.

<Blackwaters Song> guitar and mountain dulcimer accompany male voice – Blake Jones singing – Lyrics: I come from the mountains Kentucky’s my home. Where the wild deer in the blackbird so lately did roam.By the cool rushing waterfall the wild flowers dreams and through every green valley there runs clear stream. Now there’s scenes of destruction on every hand And only black waters run down through my land. Sad scenes of destruction on every hand. And only black waters run down through my land.

Blake [00:15:35] It’s really interesting to me. She worked with Pete Seeger and other people. But she was known all over the world as this woman from Viper, Kentucky. Every time I drive them around Hazzard and by for I always think of her youngest of 14 kids. Was able to travel around the world.

Kay [00:15:55] She traveled everywhere

Blake [00:15:57] And sing songs about activism and change and and really social work.

Kay [00:16:01] she really did. Yeah she never got over that. I mean that was one of the happy things. You know I was I may have mentioned earlier to you that I had these two really lovely encounters with Emmylou Harris who sang some of Jean’s songs and when I talked I was I told Jean’ one day when I was talking to her I said you know I’m going to go to D.C. and I’m gonna go see Emmylou Harris because my brother was having a birthday party who was sort of had a crush on Emmylou Harris and he invited a whole lot of his friends to the Warner Theater to hear Emmylou perform. So then we got to meet her later on. And I. And then in the evening. And I said to her you know I’m I’m Kay Hoffman I’m from Lexington Kentucky and and Jean Ritchie was a graduate of our college and I know really well and she loves you. She’d which she did. She thought Emmylou had a voice kind of like her own except Emmylou was a little bit stronger than hers. But oh Emmylou said “Oh I love her music – my dear companion.”That’s the song that Emmy Lou loved and and so did Jean. She was one of her favorites. So. And then when I saw Emmy Lou another time here at UK when she came and performed I just went up to her afterwards and said hey you know remember Jean Ritchie. Oh I love Jean Ritchie. So…

Blake [00:17:32] You know I’m so drawn to people that leave a mark in this world. And. I have my own Jean Ritchie story. So right around the time when my oldest son was born this has been 18 years ago. I just started listening to her music and I would play it for him as a baby and he was this cute little bald headed baby you may remember.

Kay [00:17:56] I remember.

Blake [00:17:56] He’s going to college now.

Kay [00:17:58] hard to believe.

Blake [00:17:59] Yeah but I tried to find her too and I thought I’m just going to send her a picture of Noah and just tell her you know her music meant so much to me at Berea. I play it out in gigs and I just I just love her and I like she never answer me and I found some e-mail somewhere and I sent her a picture of Noah and she responded to me with a very long e-mail that was just very sweet. What a beautiful child. Thank you for your nice words I love Kentucky you know and I still have that e-mail from her you know and she was older even then and that was so special to me that she would kind of take the time to respond to that. I think that’s the kind of person she was.

Kay [00:18:41] She was you know she was a sort of down-home kind of person and and she loved to laugh and tell stories and and though she really did love to be the center she also was a good listener.

Blake [00:18:55] Mm hmm. Mm hmm.

Kay [00:18:57] So it was a pleasure an absolute pleasure to be with you.

Blake [00:19:01] Well I know we’re proud of her and you’re you’re proud of her as a graduate.

Kay [00:19:06] I am very proud of her. And I was so happy when I learned that she was our first graduate when I came to UK.

Blake [00:19:11] Yeah. I didn’t know that either. That’s that’s wonderful that makes her music so much more special to know that.

(end of Kay Hoffman interview Section)

<Pretty Saro – instrumental by Blake & Jason >

Blake : Jean died on June 1, 2015, leaving behind a rich musical and professional legacy that continues to inspire.

In the next episode, we talk to singer-songwriter Carla Gover. As a young woman growing up in Letcher County, Kentucky, Carla talks about how Jean mentored and inspired her to carry on the traditions of mountain music. Carla will also sing a few of Jean’s songs.

Thank you for joining us for this special episode. Please visit our website and show notes for a link to a special dedication page to Jean, with pictures, links, and full Mp3 downloads of the songs you have heard. You can also go directly to the page by visiting socialwork.uky.edu/jeanritchie

<Shady grove song>

Blake [00:20:48] You’ve been listening to the social work Conversations podcast. Thanks for joining us. And now let’s move this conversation into action.

Announcer [00:20:58] This production is made possible by the support of the University of Kentucky College of Social Work, interim Dean Ann Vail and all the faculty and staff who support researching contemporary social problems and prepare students for the social work profession. Hosted by Dr. Blake Jones produced by Jason Johnston with thanks to our Webmaster Jonathan Hagee. Music by Billy McLaughlin. To find out more about the UK college of social work and this podcast visit http://socialwork.uky.edu/podcast