American folk music singer, songwriter and Appalachian dulcimer player Jean Ritchie was born in Perry County, Kentucky, on 8 December 1922, into a ballad-singing family, a few years after Cecil Sharp collected songs from her older sisters Una and May. Jean was the youngest of fourteen children.
She took a degree in social work at the University of Kentucky, where she sang in the choir and glee club and learned to play the piano. During World War II she was a schoolteacher, and after graduating, she taught music to children as a social worker in New York, meeting and making friends with Alan Lomax, who recorded her for the Library of Congress. She also met Lead Belly, Oscar Brand and Pete Seeger, and was soon recording and broadcasting extensively. She released three albums with Elektra Records.
Although she preferred to sing unaccompanied, she sometimes accompanied herself on autoharp, mountain dulcimer and guitar. She sang hymn tunes as well as ballads, and also wrote her own material, sometimes under the male pseudonym Than Hall.
She and her husband George Pickow ran a business with Jean's relative Jethro Amburgey, manufacturing mountain dulcimers.
On a Fulbright scholarship to trace links between British and Irish songs and American ballads, Ritchie spent eighteen months recording and interviewing singers. She also wrote a book about her family, Singing Family of the Cumberlands.
Much awarded, Jean Ritchie became known as the 'Mother of Folk', and she died at her home in Berea, Kentucky on 1 June 2015, aged ninety-two.