Jean Ritchie grew up in Viper, Kentucky, one of 14 children in a music-loving family. When she was about seven, she learned to play the hammer dulcimer from her father. Ritchie graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Kentucky with a degree in social work. Her first job was on New York's Lower East Side, teaching children Kentucky songs, ballads, and singing games. As Ritchie's popularity spread, she also mentored up-and-coming folk singers like Rosalie Sorrels, inviting her to play at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival. It was Rosalie's first trip back East. The two have been friends for more than 40 years.
Q: Tell me a little bit about the quality of Rosalie's voice.
A: It's very unique, Rosalie's voice. You know immediately it's Rosalie as soon as she starts singing. There's a timbre to it that no other voice has. Besides being unique, it's something that compels listening. As soon as you hear it you want to say, "What? What is she singing, what is she saying?"
Q: Is it possible to classify her?
A: I would call her a storyteller, and she's very good at it. I think it's important to have the stories for a singer who is a collector and a believer in the heritage. You want to have the life around the song. You want it to be a folk life thing as well as a folk song thing. You want people to understand where it comes from, who sang it, why it was important to them, whether it was the way they played games, it was a game song or whether they rocked babies, it was a lullaby, things like that. You put it in a frame. You have the song and then you have it in its setting and you have the life around it.
Q: Talk about the link between you and Rosalie and the Newport Festival.
A: I was one of the seven original trustees for Newport and about the third year in or so they were asking us for suggestions and I suggested Rosalie. They didn't know who she was and little by little I brought records in and I talked her up and they invited her. So she was invited to Newport and she made a very good contribution that year and I think it helped her and I think it helped us having her there.
"She has almost single- handedly filled in the Utah and the Idaho parts of the country. And her stories and her songs have all reached many people."
Q: What was it about Rosalie that made you want to introduce her to a wider audience?
A: She had done a lot of collections and a lot of work among the Mormons and among the people in Utah and that was a part of the country that hadn't been showcased at Newport and I thought it would be a good addition. And I loved her music and I thought it had a lot in common with other rural music.
Q: One of the things you two share in common is that she doesn't always sing the same song the same way.
A: Especially the old hymns and the decorated songs. They're never quite the same. You never sing them the same way twice. When I play the dulcimer, when she plays her music-- I'm sure she substitutes different chords and things like. We try to make the accompaniment help tell the story as well as the voice tell the story. I notice that her music is very inventive and wandering the way mine is and she's always looking for a better way to say it.
Q: What was it like for her to travel with five children?
A: It was very hard for her. She had one of the hardest lives of anybody I can imagine, to have done all she has done. She has really surmounted many, many obstacles.
Q: What is her place in American folk music?
A: Rosalie's place in American folk music is a very important one. She has almost single- handedly filled in the Utah and the Idaho parts of the country. And her stories and her songs have all reached many people. I think her willingness to travel and to go to different places and to take the messages of her songs and stories has been good. If you just sit at home and write books or if you just sit at home and sing for the church or go to New York once a year and do a big concert, that doesn't do the same thing as getting out among the people and putting yourself in all these little places the way she has done.
Q: It sounds like a great community you all had.
A: Nowadays, I don't know; it seems to me that most of the motivation is money, is making lots of money quickly and getting a big name and getting in a lot of magazines and on the covers and things like that. All the young girls want to be Brittany Spears, and even she is passé by now I guess! They don't want to get out there and slather around like we did and do the hard work.
Q: Anything else you'd like to say about Rosalie?
A: She's one in a million. I can't think of anything that sums her up, but it's been mighty good knowing her.