Statement on Death of 2002 NEA National Heritage Fellow Jean Ritchie

headshot of dulcimer player smiling

Musician, songwriter, and NEA National Heritage Fellow Jean Ritchie. Photo by Tom Pich

Washington, DC—It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the passing of 2002 National Heritage Fellow Jean Ritchie. A musician and songwriter, Ritchie was also a cultural activist and chronicler of her home region. She received the Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship in 2002 in recognition of her significant contribution to the promotion and preservation of cultural heritage. 

By sharing her music and her commitment to her Appalachian home with audiences around the nation and around the world, Ritchie embodied the dual concepts of ambassador and steward of tradition.

In a 2002 interview with the NEA, Ritchie discussed the impact of growing up in a musical family:

We never realized how important it was until we scattered and got away from each other and began to hear other kinds of music. Growing up we just used music all the time without realizing it. We used it when we were working. We sang when we were around the house doing dishes or out in the cornfield. Or walking along roads and going to each other's houses and having parties.

Music was always a big part of our life but was something we took for granted. When we separated and went our different ways that's what we thought about most, our singing together. It was the most nostalgic thing for us. That was why I started doing it for other people—people seemed to like our sense of community. That came through with the songs. I'd always talk about the family, about various things that we'd do, our work ways and our play ways and our community culture. It got to be that people wanted to hear that as much as they wanted to hear the songs. People had moved to the cities and had gotten isolated and they were all a little bit homesick for their community. I guess that's why people want to listen to me.

Visit the NEA's website for the full interview with Jean Ritchie, as well as a bio and audio of Ritchie singing "Now is the Cool of the Day."


NEA Public Affairs