Thursday, December 17, 2009

A letter from Jean ~


A trio with Cari Norris.

My friend and mentor Jean Ritchie recently suffered a stroke, and is in the hospital. Her many friends in the traditional music world wish her the best, and many of us are writing back and forth, sharing our memories of all the kind and generous things that Jean shared with us. She is the same age as my Mom, and like Cebah, she had a great sense of fun and a razor sharp wit. Those of us who dared transgress the boundaries of tradition that she considered appropriate to her music know well just how sharp that wit could be. I'm still smarting from it.

So did Bob Dylan, when she made him pay up for using one of her tunes, uncredited, (Masters of War) as his own. I'm sure if he had only had the decency to ask she would have let him use it free. She has been described, accurately, as "the Queen of American Folk Music." I've never counted them, but I know that I've learned at least 50 of her family's ballads and songs. On many a car ride with Jean, she patiently sang ballad tunes for me until I had them memorized. When I was working on The Ballads of the Barefoot Mind, she wrote many emails answering my endless questions and carefully clarifying points concerning how she learned the ballads from her parents and her Uncle Jason. When I asked permission to use her lyrics and family tunes, she quoted a lovely old song that gently reminded me that they were already my own.

Jean wrote this email to one of her folk music friends who wasn't feeling well a while back, and posted it on the Mudcat traditional music discussion board. It is such an insightful and brave introspection:

"Here. We're back- son Jon from a two-week hospital stay,still having tests after getting home as they still can't find what the trouble is. George from another series of test, taking 18 different pills a day, soon to be told to start dialysis. Myself growling around the house with a hundred aches and pains. I can see and feel big changes coming, and know that this long Growing-Old part of our lives is coming to an end--- We ARE old! I start reading sympathetically about poor OLD people, and suddenly it hits me: What? I myself am 86. What do we do with our house? Man- all these taxes, who'll pay them next year? Will we go to a nursing home? Have a live-in nurse? I tell you, it's so hard when you finally realize that Life makes you keep on learning- right up to the end. I guess, as long as I can understand Life's messages, I'll be able to go on.

And I tell myself, "Just think of all the people that ever lived in this world. How many problems and worries and tragedies have they endured, along with the fewer joys and goodtimes and successes? And, when you come down to it, one is one and all alone and evermore shall be so. Or another way of putting it, You got to cross that lonesome valley by yourself.

I don't dread it, once I accept it. I have so loved my Mother and Father, all my gaggle of sisters, my three brothers (only one out of all of them is still in the world with me). We hurt with them if they have pain at the end, but we cannot go with them or ease that journey. Someone said, "The dead always look peaceful." I believe they are. I believe that they have walked the valley and found at last the destination we all are are striving to find. What else is Life, but a trip towards something higher and better? People who have almost died, have talked of being in a dark tunnel with a faint but bright light far ahead; then their passage is forbidden and they have to turn from the light and return to Life- to do an unfinished task there? To help or guide someone else for awhile longer?

I wonder- but it doesn't matter, does it? None of us can live forever. We must live Life to the fullest, then give those behind us a loving farewell. That's what I hope I can do.

I'll stop, because I don't know what I'm trying to say, but I thought it ought to be said. I guess I was trying to understand, myself, that not all of us CAN live to be old, or WANT to, and so arrive earlier at that entrance into the next world. In my personal prayers, I always say in my thoughts, "Lord, I'll stay as long as You need me, so show me what to do..."

Big Mick, feel better, and I hope that Fate, or Karma, or whatever, eases up on you. I know you'll be needed in this Life for a long time, so take the reins that have been handed to you, and have a good, long run. You have many who love you and are running along with you, and that lonesome valley is still far away.

Love to you all, Jean
PS: Darn- I bet y'all will think this is a stupid letter, and tomorrow I may think so myself! But it's what I felt like saying."


SBD said...

Ah, Jean, I can still hear you singing with Henry, the peacock, on Dutton Hill

Dan Dutton said...

I thought of Henry too when I was posting this! What a day that was! Then there was the night Jean, Martha Connerton, and her whole troupe of NYC dancers stayed here. The dancers, mostly Latino, couldn't believe they were out in the woods, that I had the hottest and newest Brazilian music, and they celebrated that by dancing on the roof of the old studio all night! The thump thump thump from the stereo, echoing all over the hill, did not please our Mother ~ but the next morning, Jean, bless her, managed to mediate (young people will be young people... or something to that effect) & sweeten her up at breakfast before the wrath could be exacted!

Apifera Farm said...

What a wonderful, important letter [even though she muses it might be considered stupid]. I think she captures something I 've heard from many older people nearing the end of this life's place - amazement that it does end, no matter what you're spiritual beliefs. Peace to her, and a letter important for you right now on many levels.

Cathy said...

I've heard many stories about Jean, so I have a sense of what a remarkable person she is even though I haven't met her. What a wonderful gift she gave you, Dan! And I have no doubt she considers you and your music and art a gift to her as well.

MTE said...