Ritchie graduated from high school in Viper and enrolled in Cumberland Junior College (now a four-year University of the Cumberlands) in Williamsburg, Kentucky, and from there went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in social work from the University of Kentucky College of Social Work, in Lexington in 1946. At college she participated in the glee club and choir and learned to play piano. During World War II, she taught in elementary school. After graduating she got a job as a social worker at the Henry Street Settlement, where she taught music to children. There she befriended Alan Lomax, who recorded her extensively for the Library of Congress. She joined the New York folksong scene and met Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, and Oscar Brand. In 1948 she shared the stage with The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, and Betty Sanders at the Spring Fever Hootenanny and by October 1949 was a regular guest on Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival radio show on WNYC. In 1949 and 1950, she recorded several hours of songs, stories, and oral history for Lomax in New York City. Elektra records signed her and released three albums: Jean Ritchie Sings (1952), Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family (1957) and A Time for Singing (1962).
Jean Ritchie was inducted into the University of Kentucky College of Social Work Alumni Hall of Fame in 1999. Later, the Alumni Hall of Fame became the College of Social Work Hall of Fame in order to incorporate prominent social workers who did not study at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work.