Various Artists: Dear Jean – Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie

A tribute to a singer, her songs and her legacy, and a collection of very special music in itself.
Various Artists
Dear Jean - Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie

Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie acts as both a tribute to an amazing singer and person, and a reminder of the power of song, story and legacy in Ritchie’s life. Housing a total of 37 tracks over 2 CDs, the collection encompasses performances of some of Ritchie’s most famous songs, both self-written and traditional. Honouring her contribution to music both close to her Kentucky home and on an international scale, Dear Jean has performances from some of traditional folk music’s most well-known, and interesting, names.

Ritchie’s career began as a social worker, teaching the songs she had learned at home to children in New York in the 1940s. Recordings followed starting in the 1950s, when she spent time in the company of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Alan Lomax.

Ritchie has always written, always collected songs, and, through means such as the current collection, passed her music on to new generations. Her songs have been often recorded by other artists, and her message has been not only of her home, but of her concern for that home’s environment and people. Indeed, the stories in the songs on Dear Jean speak of the local impact of often outside corporations and their actions upon the land she continues to hold dear. The power of the songs, and of the legacy they create and continue is matched only by their power. Opener “Black Waters” is masterfully handled here by John McCutcheon, Tim O’Brien, Suzy Bogguss, Kathy Mattea, Stuart Duncan and Bryn Davies. The fact that such big names are involved in the project is testament to the appeal and importance of Jean Ritchie.

The contents of Dear Jean reflect and invoke the spirit of the Kentucky hills in which Ritchie grew up. They capture the place, and the real, everyday life of the past and the present. Songs like “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore”, “High Hills” and “Mountains and Blue Diamond Mines” were written by Ritchie, popularized by herself and others, and here return with as much power and grace as they have always had.

The mood and feel of the performances on the album make as much of an impact as the songs, too. Molly Andrews’ “Now Is the Cool of the Day” is spine-tingling, and Janis Ian’s “Morning Come, Maria’s Gone” seems simple, but is full of life, emotion and empathy. “West Virginia Mining Disaster”, tastefully delivered by Susie Glaze, is a genuinely affecting tale of tragedy and loss.

These are real American stories and songs. Pete Seeger was recorded before he passed, delivering a spoken recitation of Ritchie’s “I Celebrate Life”. Old favourites like “Shady Grove” and “The Cuckoo” are given fresh, invigorating arrangements by Sparky and Rhonda Rucker and Sam Amidon, respectively, and Dan Schatz’s “Thousand Miles Blues” is as blissful and heartfelt a version of the song as you could wish for. Ritchie’s songs, and the traditional songs she sang, are both alive and well on Dear Jean. “Dig My Grave” (aka Died For Love) — scary, sad, affecting, emotive and true.

The delivery of the songs on the album is very much in keeping with Ritchie’s versions. Some feel age old (“One I Love”), but all have feeling and understanding (“My Dear Companion”, “Wintergrace”). The album as a whole displays a range of different roots styles, from singers accompanying themselves to more country/bluegrass-type band arrangements (such as “Last Old Train’s a-Leavin’”). There are well-known songs, alongside songs particular to Ritchie. There’s even room for a fiddle tune (“Golden Ring Around the Susan Girl”).

Atwater-Donnelly’s “I’ve Been A Foreign Lander” manages to be both huge and sprawling, and also delicate and intimate, whilst Rachel Davis opts for drive and passion on “One More Mile”. “Hangman” and “Jackaro” are both intimate, descriptive version of songs with British origins. A 1985 recording of Ritchie and Oscar Brand performing “Who Killed Cock Robin?” is funny, touching and tender –- a view of what it is like to sit and sing with Jean.

Another live recording of Ritchie, this time from 1992 is fused with a group backing, featuring many of the singers whose versions make up Dear Jean. And this fitting end of “The Peace Round” shows even more of the power, feel and sense of community which the album, and Jean’s songs as a whole, are all about.

RATING 8 / 10