Jean Ritchie and the Value of Place

The revered traditional singer left us with a lifetime of songs and lessons on how we might all learn to value our cultures of place a little more.

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Jean Ritchie's version of "Shady Grove."

Jean Ritchie, the Appalachian traditional singer who died early this month at the age of 92, found new audiences for rural songs in the nation’s largest cities.

Ms. Ritchie’s story is well known and well documented – by her and others. When she sang her Eastern Kentucky family’s traditional songs to friends and acquaintances in the New York City area, she received their rapt attention. They saw something special and asked for more.

We know Ms. Ritchie valued the songs of Appalachia long before she set foot in New York. And it wasn’t news to her that the region’s songs had deep cultural antecedents and historical significance. But seeing the reaction of city audiences to her music must have strengthened her own sense of the cultural treasures her family and others had taught her.

Not every rural person who moves to an urban area receives such a welcome. But many saw new value in the culture of their homeplaces when they ventured forth to be part of new communities. For me, some of that new perspective on the value of my home region of Eastern Kentucky came from gracious people who were genuinely interested in the place where I was raised. Another part of it came from seeing my own family and region’s cultures in a new light when they were suddenly absent. And I’ll admit that some of that perspective came from “stubbing up” when I felt someone was besmirching my place of origin.

Fortunately for the world, Ms. Ritchie’s experiences of sharing her art outside her region was a positive one. And that helped her create a career that included performing and studying the music of her region, reviving interest in the mountain dulcimer, and writing her own songs. (My favorites are “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Any More” and “The Bluebird Song.”)

We wonder whether something similar is happening with former rural residents in their 30s who are migrating back to rural counties. (That’s the topic of this morning’s story from the USDA Economic Research Service.) Researchers say these “returners” came back at roughly the time they began to raise families. These folks sought the comforts of extended family and access to things that can make rural parenting easier, researchers say.

I’d be willing to bet that many of these returners also had newfound appreciation for home after doing without for a few – or several – years.

I believe the culture of place is important and valuable. It can be an asset, no matter where you are from. Ms. Ritchie’s unique role in preserving, promoting, and creating art about her place was one of the things that instilled this value in me. There are many of us around who are deeply grateful for that gift.

Tim Marema is the editor of the Daily Yonder.

 

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