A couple weeks ago, I finished Singing Family of the Cumberlands by Jean Ritchie. It was a recommended book for a class I took in the fall of 2002 and I’m glad I finally decided to read it.
Jean Ritchie was the youngest of thirteen children, growing up in Viper, Kentucky, in the Appalachian Mountains. Her family was well known–and well documented–for singing ballads, in the Anglo-American folk tradition. That is to say, they sang ballads that came over with English, Scottish and Irish settlers and could still be found on both sides of the Atlantic. The best documented of these were the Child Ballads, but that could be a whole other post.
Written in 1955, the book is a memoir of her childhood. As fascinating as her descriptions of growing up in the early part of the 20th century in an isolated part of the Appalachians are–and they are–what really makes this book special is the songs. Interspersed in the book are transcriptions of the ballads. Say there’s a vignette about learning a particular song around a fireplace on Christmas. Well, the song is there in the book, both music and words, if you want to sing along.
The writing is wonderful and evocative, too. She immediately sets quite conversational tone and it feels like she’s telling you her family stories from the armchair next to you. In that sense, it reminds me a lot of Cash by Johnny Cash.
If you have any interest in Appalachian music or culture, I’d recommend this book.
Jean Ritchie’s still alive and she still does occasional live performances. Her website seems to have expired though, so I’m not sure where to get more info.
And as a bonus, here’s Jean singing a duet with Emmylou Harris. Gorgeous.