Few people might consider that watching one segment of an early morning television show could become a life-changing event.
But that’s what happened to me in 1954 when feeding my newborn daughter, Andrea, while watching the “Today Show” hosted by Dave Garroway. He interviewed Jean Ritchie, a New York Settlement House worker who was originally from Appalachia and played a new-to-me-instrument called a mountain dulcimer that she strummed with a feathered quill.
The haunting tunes she sang in a thin clear soprano voice struck me powerfully. Never before had I heard anything like this. Later, I discovered that it was the modal scales on which her tunes were based that created the plaintive quality that bowled me over. Immediately, I purchased one of her LP recordings, learned to sing these new tunes and started collecting albums of other folk music stars of the day: Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Rambling Jack Elliott, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and dozens more.
Ultimately, Jean Ritchie became the Yellow Brick Road leading to my becoming a folklorist. First, I learned a large part of the American folk music repertoire. Next, I started playing folk guitar and later taught it; Then I attended UCLA where I earned a B.A. in anthropology and an M.A. in folklore and mythology. Afterward, I utilized my new-found knowledge to teach folklore and pop culture at California State University Los Angeles, where I stayed for 20 years.
* * *
Flash forward 10 years from that 1954 “Today Show” segment. I found out that Jean Ritchie was scheduled to perform at the Ash Grove, the premiere Los Angeles folk music venue of that time. On a lark, I sent her a very homespun letter saying that members of my guitar club were fans and if, while in L.A., she would come over, we would be honored to meet her and “break bread” together. I mailed the letter and forgot about it – until the day she phoned. In her twangy voice she agreed to come over but with the proviso that I transport her to her evening gig at the Ash Grove. “Of course,” I excitedly agreed.
Jean was a delightful guest describing the role of music while growing up in her home. For example, she and her siblings sang specific songs while performing particular chores. After lunch she performed an enchanting dulcimer concert. This was a magical moment: from first watching her on TV in my living to now seeing her perform live in my living room. She mesmerized my guests and me.
After all the visitors had left, Jean rested in my bedroom while I prepared supper. During the meal, my toddler, Amy, who was in a high chair, took her spoon and kept banging it against her water glass while Jean was trying to talk. Exasperated, Jean loudly announced, “I can’t stand the competition!”
That shut us all up. We were so used to the dinner table din that we didn’t hear the noise. It took Jean to point out this disruption. And ever since Jean’s pronouncement, “I can’t stand the competition,” this commentary has become one of our family’s favorite sayings.
All these memories of Jean Ritchie and her influence in my becoming a folklorist washed over me a few weeks ago with news of her death at age 92. My last conversation with her took place in the car while we drove to the Ash Grove that night more than 50 years ago, and I felt remorseful. I never told her how her “Today Show” appearance had changed my life.
But it’s never too late. “Thank you, Jean Ritchie!”
Norine Dresser is a “I Can’t Stand the Competition!”who shall forever be grateful to Jean Ritchie who led her down the wondrous path to becoming a folklorist.