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Folk musician Jean Ritchie, with two Appalachian dulcimers.

"Manhattoes is a strange isle": Jean Ritchie in New York

March 2016

The Library's seventh floor exhibit for March highlights a small sample of items -- including photos, books, memorabilia, and musical instruments -- from the Jean Ritchie Collection in Manuscripts and Special Collections. Additional items from the collection will be on display at "The Egg," (the Performing Arts Center at the Empire State Plaza, Albany, NY) through May 20, 2016, as part of its project New York Living Legacy - Folk Music Renaissanceexternal link.

Left exhibit case

Jean Ritchie was born in1922 in the small Appalachian Mountain town of Viper, Kentucky.  In 1946, she moved to New York City.  With a degree in Social Work, she had come to teach at the Henry Street Settlement, a not-for profit agency providing social services, arts and health services to underprivileged New Yorkers.  Jean was a gifted singer and musician who brought with her an impressive repertoire of centuries-old traditional songs and ballads handed down the generations in her family.


center exhibit case

Performing at informal parties and small gatherings, she soon came to the attention of well-known singers and folk music enthusiasts, including such luminaries as Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax.  Lomax in particular was taken with her songs, and her clear unaffected singing style.  It was the start of a remarkable performing and recording career, coinciding with the burgeoning popular folksong "revival" of the 1950s and beyond.  Through it all, Jean's husband, photographer George Pickow, documented every detail, and achieved his own worldwide fame as a music and arts photographer.

After George's death in 2010, Jean left Port Washington, Long Island, her New York home of 50 years, and returned to her birthplace in Kentucky. In 2012, her family donated an extensive archive of photographs, books, recordings and performance memorabilia, documenting her 50 years in music, to the New York State Library.


right exhibit case

The Ritchie collection in the State Library includes a treasure trove of musical instruments, in particular an extensive array of Appalachian Dulcimers. Jean's virtuoso playing sparked a worldwide revival of interest in this seemingly simple three-stringed instrument. Many of the instruments in the collection were built by George and his uncle Morris Pickow, with assistance from Jean, partly in response to the popular demand inspired by her performances. At her death in 2015, Jean Ritchie was hailed across America and around the world as the "Mother of Folk."


Exhibit curated by Paul Mercer

Last Updated: November 2, 2021