A Jewish Connection to Folksinger Jean Ritchie (1922-2015)

I didn’t know her music that well. I had one album of hers- a duet with the late, great Doc Watson that had always touched me with its rawness and authenticity. I’ve loved Appalachian mountain music for years, and it permeated the airwaves of my house growing up.  In fact, it is one of the great gifts bequeathed to me by my parents, especially my dad.

While cooking dinner for my family and listening to NPR this past Tuesday afternoon, I heard that 92-year old Jean Ritchie died. I immediately cued up her music on Spotify. The first song to come up was a Scottish ballad I had never heard before, the hauntingly beautiful “Fair Annie of Lochroyan.” Listening to it I thought: how amazing it is that she received and passed on this tune stretching back to when her family lived in the British Isles. How amazing for her family to have carried this tune for years, leading into decades, and for her to have been passed it on, with all its emotion and pathos. What a powerful act.  

Where were we one year ago? Where were you?  What about one decade ago?  How about decades ago?

Daria and I moved to Sebastopol less than a year ago, and very few people that we have met since arriving here  have lived here for more than five, ten, or even 20 years.

To pass on tunes, melodies and songs that are old, let alone ancient, enters us into the magical world of legacy, tradition, and a deep sense of rootedness and belonging. To pass on this sense of musical rootedness beyond a generation, beyond two even, is something rare in our unrooted culture. For us to pass along with reverence, Jewish melodies that may have been sung by our grandparents or great grandparents in the shtetlach of Eastern Europe or the mellahs of Morocco is no small thing. We can celebrate and take great nourishment in music that echoes across oceans and generations. Indeed, it can help us can find our place in the great ocean of human existence.

May Jean Ritchie’s memory, and all the work of joy and cultural transmission that she devoted herself to, be for a great blessing.

For more on Jean Ritchie’s life and legacy, and to hear some of her music, see the NY Times obituary: