Unsung Heroes of Americana Music: Jean Ritchie & Susie Glaze-Two Folk Singers, One Voice
Mary Catherine Reynolds
POSTED ON AUGUST 7, 2013
NO DEPRESSION Article
There is a valley deep in the Cumberland mountains of Eastern Kentucky where, during the early part of the 20th century, no radio signal could reach. In the 1920’s the people had no other resource than to sing the songs taught to them by their ancestors who had immigrated from the British Isles many years before. Handed down for generations by the oral tradition of songs and stories, these became woven into their daily life. They were sung and told while the people labored, worshiped and entertained each other.
It’s easy to imagine the ancient voices of the singers as they echoed across the mountains and valleys of Kentucky in those faraway places. It was the voices of the ancestors who had embraced the peaceful practice of ballad and tale. Soon, it would become one voice. That voice would move like a river through the years where the people held the songs in their hearts archived for their children and grandchildren. The songs and instruments used to convey them became a source of entertainment, comfort and wisdom for generations.
That one voice soon became embodied in the childhood soul of a young girl, Jean Ritchie. She would become one of the best loved folk singers of the last one hundred years. Born into that cloistered place in 1922, others have imitated her, but few have captured the essence of her musical bloodline. It was that voice which rang clear and true during a recent interview with Americana folk singer, Susie Glaze, who
today fronts Susie Glaze and the Hilonesome Band in Los Angeles, California. She spoke with a bright enthusiasm about her career in Americana, folk and bluegrass music.
But, her eyes shined the brightest when she spoke of her musical, and in many ways, spiritual, mentor; the Kentucky folk singer, Jean Ritchie.
Glaze has spent a good part of her musical journey interpreting and honoring the 91 year old folk singer.
From her childhood, Ritchie became so immersed in the music of her ancestry, it became a way of life. The songs inhabited her daily chores which included sweeping, churning butter and the hard labor of field work. But, it was in the evening, when most families in America gathered around the radio, that her parents would sing from the treasury of songs handed down for decades. This became their source of strength, their time of bonding and a time of holiness and dance.
When young Ritchie finally did emerge from her East Kentucky Valley, she brought 300 hundred songs with her, all of them stored in her heart and mind. She was a walking treasury of American history in songs.
She had no thought of a professional career in music. Instead, she pursued an education in social work. As fate would have it, she ended up in New York City during 50s, which was the Mecca of folk music culture including future iconic figures like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and The Weavers. It was home to the radical and the intellectual as well as struggling artists and folk music enthusiasts.
But, little that was happening in New York City folk music or Greenwich Village was of much appeal to Jean Ritchie. She did, however, find a way to bring the music she carried into her daily life through her voice and her instrument. During the course of her inner-city work, Ritchie drew from her rich musical heritage of songs to entertain the children she served. It didn’t take long before the word spread about this authentic new folk singer with unique songs and a rarely seen instrument, the dulcimer.
While many of the folk singers of the day(and future generations) made attempts to posture and bring a pretense of their authenticity, Ritchie was effortlessly real, a genuine folk artist. She would produce a legacy of albums and a schedule of club, college and festival appearances for the next 50 years. It wasn’t long before she met the renowned photographer, director and artist, George Pickow. They were married and would have two sons, Jonathan and Peter.
During her career, Ritchie engaged her audience in the diversity of songs from her childhood. Although, many of her peers, like Pete Seeger, were known for writing songs of protests against war, racism and economic inequality, she usually stayed clear of controversial subjects, concerned that she might cause trouble for her family. However, when she did write something in protest, like the classic, “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore,” she used the pseudonym, Than Hall, after her maternal grandfather. The song spoke to the plight of the coal miners of Hazard County, Kentucky near Ritchie’s childhood home. It was later recorded and made famous by Johnny Cash.
Among her fans during the early 60’s, were Joan Baez and Judy Collins, but, probably most notable was a 20 year-old Bob Dylan. Ritchie was present at his first concert appearance in 1961 at the 200-seat Carnegie Recital Hall. Her influence on him would show up later when he pulled a melody from a song called “Fair Nottamun Town,” to create his well-known protest song, “Masters of War.” Ritchie tried to reach Dylan about the melody since he took credit for it as well as the lyrics. However, the singer was inaccessible at the time so Ritchie hired an attorney. Dylan gave her a settlement for the song. However, he kept ownership on the credits, essentially, buying the rights to it.
One can hardly fault Susie Glaze’s enthusiasm for Jean Ritchie. But, the magnetism runs deeper than a simple fan relationship. Glaze with the Hilonesome band have successfully interpreted Ritchie’s legacy establishing it for future generations and fusing it into the cross section of their sound; a melting pot of folk, bluegrass and country,while holding fast to the purity of the roots of Richie’s music.
Glaze herself grew up in in a town just a stone’s throw from Nashville, Tennessee. Being raised in a place that allowed her the opportunity to sing in musical theater would lead her to a role on Broadway in Roger Miller’s award winning musical, Big River, based on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. At one point toward the end of the run, she played along side Roger Miller who played Pap Finn before the show closed in 1987. During her two years with the show, she found her interest in roots music was re-kindled. She began to study the origins of American music. It was inevitable then that she would run into such great artists as Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and, of course, Jean Ritchie.
Weary of the city and anxious to immerse herself in bluegrass and folk music, Glaze moved to Southern California where she met her future husband, Steve Rankin, and joined his bluegrass band. During this time she also met their primary songwriter, Rob Carlson. This formed the nucleus for today’s Susie Glaze and the Hilonesome Band, a new grass/Americana group who are as comfortable interpreting contemporary songs into Celtic and bluegrass as they are keeping to old timey traditionals.
But, for Susie Glaze it was the music of Jean Ritchie, the sound of her voice that stirred her soul and something of musical greatness was born inside of her. Like an old soul reborn from those ancient American times in the Cumberlands, Glaze heard a distant kindred voice and responded in kind. Although she spent much of her early years on the musical stage and singing in L.A. bluegrass bands, her path and her voice led her back to Jean Ritchie and the sound of Cumberland mountain music from the distant past.
While Susie Glaze has continued to develop one of the finest and most original Americana groups in California (or in the country for that matter) in The Hilonesome Band, she stays involved in encouraging others to share in Jean Ritchie’s rich legacy. In 2005, her husband, Steve Rankin, adapted and directed a musical play, Singin’ The Moon Up: the Voice of Jean Ritchie, from Ritchie’s memoir, Singing Family of the Cumberlands. The show premiered at the Pennsylvania Center Stage and it is described on Glaze’s website as a collage of musical theater, concert and story telling. It was followed by a live soundtrack of the show.
Along the way, Susie Glaze and Jean Ritchie have grown into dear friends. Similar to those rare days when Bob Dylan met and sang for ailing Woody Guthrie, Glaze has been able to share the music she makes with her mentor. Her voice struck a chord with Jean Ritchie who said,
“The wonderful thing to me is that when I hear your recording of any song of mine….I feel as though it is myself, singing…It cannot be sung better – differently, but never better….with people like this to trust, my music will go on living, and soaring. And so will I”
A subject of many folk songs is the constant reminder of the temporal nature of our lives. So it is for all of us who watch our guides, teachers and mentors age and slip into that ageless place where we won’t see them again in this life. In 2009, Jean Ritchie suffered a stroke. Although it has cut down on her activity, the reports indicate that she is doing well, enjoying life in her home state surrounded by the love of her family. Unfortunately, she lost her husband, George Pickow, who passed away in 2010.
Jean Ritchie has been a living voice in American music for the last 50 years.
The music has been growing in her soul for nearly a century. For those who have loved her for all of those years, it’s time to join in with her voice and return the songs to her. As of this writing, according to Susie Glaze, a tribute album is currently being completed. It is a just finale for a great folk singer to have many voices band together to honor her solitary voice.
Susie Glaze’s voice has come to be closely identified with Jean Ritchie as they both echo through the Cumberland Valleys of the heart. Glaze is now an instrument for the songs of Jean Ritchie. Toward the end of our interview she told me how Ritchie always taught that the singer should allow the song to flow through her rather than allowing the singer’s personality to get in the way of the story. For Glaze it is the highest of praise when anyone identified her voice with that of Jean Ritchie.
For Jean Ritchie and for Susie Glaze the singer is the vessel who carries the songs and stories of the souls of long ago, longing still to be heard. These two precious voices have become that one voice that still sings into the ages and will be heard for years to come. Perhaps, somewhere in time and space, a young girl may take notice when she hears that voice carrying the song and the story to her from long ago. And perhaps she will sing.
Susie Glaze has a column at the L.A. based, Folkworks titled “Singin’ Up the Moon.”
For more information on Susie Glaze and the Hilonesome Band, visit their website.