[by Ken Hunt, London] At the time of the inspirational illustrator Maurice Sendak’s death, obituaries concentrated on his connections with Mozart, Prokofiev, Janáček and suchlike. On the occasion of the death of the US folksinger Jean Ritchie (1922-2015), it is time to remind about his bigger sound palette connections, notably one that coloured his early art. One commission revealed other musical tastes.
Sendak illustrated one of the most important, early books of the US Folk Revival, Jean Ritchie’s Singing Family of the Cumberlands (1955). Ritchie, the book reminds, “born in Viper, Kentucky, in the Cumberland Mountains” in 1922, was an authentic voice whose repertoire like ‘The Cuckoo She’s A Pretty Bird’ traversed folk into rock – to Janis Joplin, for example – and maybe even into R&B with Inez & Charlie Foxx’s Mockingbird – a take on the traditional Hush Little Baby. Shady Grove? A version appeared in Ritchie’s book.
Sendak provided line illustrations for each of the book’s 13 chapters. They capture an emergent style. Some are flimsy-flitty.
Others prefigure a style to which he would return with The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm (1973). Singing Family of the Cumberlands provided him with a pictorial realm blurring folk song and folk tale and opportunities to use quasi-psychological imagery – notably face-to-the-wall oddness – and depictions of marriage juxtaposed with constrained livestock, square dancing and rocking the cradle. Many of the book’s illustrations are dry runs for what came later. We must hope that when art historians get their teeth into his legacy, his folk legacy will be better appreciated.
Jean Ritchie’s Singing Family of the Cumberlands illuminates so much. In 1955 folk music carried so many proletariat and radical associations. Hard to imagine after so many decades but Singing Family of the Cumberlands is still in print, most recently with the University Press of Kentucky in 1988, though that may now be outdated. That edition is still around.
The author’s obituary of Jean Ritchie published in the ‘paper’ edition of The Independent of 5 June 2015 is at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/jean-ritchie-served-as-inspiration-for-bob-dylan-shirley-collins-and-joni-mitchell-10298307.html