Jean Ritchie, R.I.P.

The singer Jean Ritchie died on Monday.  When I was still regularly playing guitar and singing, her song “The L & N Don’t Stop Here Any More” was one of my favorites.

But what does she have to do with the study of the Bible?  Something she wrote about the culture in which she grew up struck me, and still strikes me, as important for Bible scholars to keep in mind.  The Cumberland Mountains, where she was from, bear a certain resemblance — at least stratigraphically — to the central highlands of Canaan/Israel/Palestine, where Israelite culture took form.  Here’s what Ritchie wrote, and what I cited in my doctoral dissertation and my book Theologies of the Mind:

It was always a wonder to me how families living close to one another could sing the same song and sing it so different. Or how one family would sing a song among themselves for years, and their neighbor family never know that song at all. Most curious of all was how one member of a family living in a certain community could have almost a completely different set of songs than his cousins living a few miles away.

[Jean Ritchie, Singing Family of the Cumberlands (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955; repr. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988), 128]

It’s worth remembering that much of what we have from ancient Israel is just the way that particular text was preserved in the “holler” where one small group lived.  It might have been quite different one holler over.


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