A crystalline-clear voice and a tireless preservation of traditional music are two of the contibutions to folk music that Jean Ritchie is most respected for, and both shine on the Smithsonian/Folkways release Ballads from Her Appalachian Family Tradition. Mostly a cappella, with a few songs accompanied by dulcimer, these children's ballads are alternately warm and chilling, achingly beautiful and as stark as the bones of the balladeers who wrote the songs hundreds of years ago. The bright melody of "Barbary Allen" could be chanted as a playground rhyme or sung as a funeral hymn, and the brutal love triangle in "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender" resolves with a higher body count than a Sam Peckinpah film, but with the heartbreaking romance of a Merchant Ivory production. The extensive liner notes stray toward the academic, but certainly drive home the point that these songs are older than the original 1961 release date, older than recorded music, and the sentiments found in all of the songs date back to the dawn of language and beyond. Despite all of the long-carved gravestones and lovelorn bloodshed, these recordings still manage to sound warm and familiar as a mother's lullaby, and pull off the remarkable feat of being a historically important document and wonderful to listen to.
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