Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean RitchieVarious Artists
Album: Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie
Label: Compass
Tracks: 37

Jean Ritchie represents a living connection to a heritage of song, spanning an ocean and several generations. An impressive achievement and status in anyone's book. So I should emphasise that this double-disc collection is a celebration, not a memorial: a lovingly performed and assembled two-disc set that focuses on the songs and their message rather than on the premise of roping in as many star names as possible.

It presents newly-recorded renditions not only of a large number of the best-loved of Jean's own original compositions but also of several key traditional songs that over the years Jean has had a significant hand in bringing to the table. All manner of songs too: songs of peace, songs of love, songs of protest, songs of environmental import, children's songs, hymns, ballads. This diversity extends over Jean's compositional output, for there can't be many who are unaware of the lineage of self-penned classics My Dear Companion; Black Waters; Now Is The Cool Of The Day; Morning Come, Maria's Gone; The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore; Blue Diamond Mines; High Hills And Mountains (to namecheck just half of those appearing on this set). And it's a revelation to discover just how much of the traditional heritage can reliably be traced back to Jean's influence or arrangements she made for the Ritchie family.

On Dear Jean, over the course of over two hours, we're treated to a continuous, exhaustive compendium of the very best of American tradition, in performances that bear the stamp of total authenticity, and simple acoustic settings that are tasteful yet nowhere bland and containing more than just the occasional stroke of genius in their arrangement. From what I hear, Jean herself (at the ripe age of 92) is absolutely delighted with this tribute, and I can entirely understand why, for it's everything a tribute should be, both artistically and musically. Most important, the spirit of love for Jean that comes through in this set is overwhelming, as is the obvious respect for her massive, multi-faceted contribution to the American folk music scene.

Similarly, the list of contributors to this release reads like an international Who's Who of folk and American roots music - and then some! The roster of best-known artists alone, drawn from the topmost drawers of the American folk, roots and bluegrass scenes, includes Peggy Seeger, Archie Fisher, Judy Collins, Janis Ian, Tim O'Brien, Dan Schatz, John McCutcheon, Kathy Mattea, Suzy Bogguss and Robin & Linda Williams… These are joined by a number of equally superb artists whose profile is more the province of cognoscenti (Debra Cowan, Elizabeth LaPrelle, Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer); and then there's a whole host of other performers who are little more than names even to me but without exception they do a great job. Jean herself appears twice on the set, in a pair of live recordings from a few years back (in 1985 on a duet with Oscar Brand, and in 1992 at the Houston Revels leading a large group of friends, many of whom also crop up on this set, in her Peace Round).

Sure, I could easily take up half a page of this mag listing high points of this set, but here's just a few to whet your appetite: Susie Glaze's a cappella West Virginia Mine Disaster; Sam Amidon's account of The Cuckoo; Debra Cowan & John Roberts' rendition of Wintergrace; Katie Reid-Naiman's bright-eyed Pretty Betty Martin; Elizabeth & Sandy Newlin LaPrelle's Fair Nottamun Town; the Starry Mountain Singers' spine-tingling a cappella I've Got A Mother; a sparkling rendition of Brightest And Best from Lorraine & Bennett Hammond; Ralston Bowles & May Erlewine-Bernard's spooky take on Hangman; and an austere but captivating Lord Bateman from Sally Rogers & Howie Bursen. In short, you need this seriously life-affirming set; it positively radiates love and joy, and is nothing short of self-recommending.

David Kidman