various artists,
Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie
(Compass, 2014)

The liner booklet that accompanies Dear Jean shows Jean Ritchie and Woody Guthrie sitting together backstage, ostensibly comparing notes, in a photograph presumably taken sometime around 1950. The two were part of the early New York City folksong revival, though Ritchie (born in 1922) was 10 years younger, and they played to audiences that generally, not entirely, overlapped. Today, Guthrie, whose life and career were much shorter than the still-living Ritchie's, is known to any culturally literate American, while Ritchie is remembered by those who are interested in folk music.

Though the written evidence suggests that few have given thought to the subject, Ritchie and Guthrie were comparable figures in some important ways. They were different, of course, in that Guthrie was erratic and reckless in his personal affairs (owing in part, biographers speculate, to a then-undiagnosed neurological disease which eventually killed him). Undeniably a great songwriter, he also composed a lot of forgettable ditties that have passed, mercifully, from historical memory. His political sympathies -- apparently as much Stalinist as left-liberal -- will remain forever controversial.

On the other hand, Ritchie married and enjoyed a stable family life, and her songs, if fewer in number than Guthrie's, are clearly the product of careful, considered writing; the throwaways, in other words, are pretty scarce. If Ritchie's disciplined ways cause her to be a less colorful human being than Guthrie was, they make her no less an artist. Whenever the subject of extraordinary folk-based songwriting enters the conversation, Ritchie ought to be spoken of in the same breath as Guthrie.

Both came out of rural backgrounds (Oklahoma and Texas in Guthrie's case, Kentucky in Ritchie's) and grew up surrounded by homemade music. Both found their destinies in New York City. Both sang old-time songs and their own originals fashioned from traditional models.

The world probably doesn't need another Guthrie tribute album, but the current project, comprising two CDs with offerings from a range of rooted artists (most prominently Judy Collins and Pete Seeger), is not only welcome but overdue. It is a worthy tribute indeed, all 37 cuts of it. Pardon the wretched cliche, but you know a labor of love when you hear one. The chance to celebrate Ritchie's life and work has brought out the best in all concerned.

Happily, the content is not confined solely to Ritchie's original compositions, superior as they are. Other numbers are drawn from the traditional ballads and songs that Ritchie also recorded, after learning them in her childhood in Viper, Kentucky. I can think of a few pieces I'd like to have had resurrected that aren't here (her secular hymn "None But One," the traditional "Old Bangum"), but I know that there is only so much aural space available even on a generously supplied package like this one.

I'd be hard-pressed to pick out favorites, not because I don't have them (or some shifting approximation) but because I fear I'd slight other outstanding performances. So if I choose these for particular praise, it's because they were the first to strike my ears on the initial spin. Robin & Linda Williams (with John Jennings) offer an intense, banjo-driven arrangement of Ritchie's often-covered "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore," not quite like anybody else's version. Sally Rogers & Howie Bursen harmonize compellingly on the Child ballad "Lord Bateman." The hard-hitting "Blue Diamond Mines" gets an appropriately fierce reading from Riki Schneyer. Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer fashion a riveting vision of Ritchie's melodic neo-parlor ballad "Dear Companion." There's an impressive modern reinvention of Ritchie's "One More Mile" by Rachael Davis. Plus a whole bunch more, just or nearly as good, to keep you coming back for yet more pleasure and reflection. By the way, has there ever been a more movingly conceived environmental anthem -- done here splendidly by Molly Andrews -- than Ritchie's "Now is the Cool of the Day"?

I hope Dear Jean finds a wide audience, and I hope it restores Ritchie's name and work to the top of the folk canon. These are songs that merit long, long lives.

music review by
Jerome Clark

11 October 2014

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