• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Sharing Jean Ritchie’s story with her audiences


Versailles native Rachel Lee Rogers has only been telling Jean Ritchie’s story for a couple of months, but she’s known of the legendary Kentuckian’s folksongs since she was a little girl. Now 36, Rogers says she grew up listening to Ritchie’s music at her mom’s dollhouse and miniature shop on Main Street in downtown Versailles. Missy Rogers often listened to Ritchie’s songs while at work. And because of her choice, Rachel Lee Rogers says she’s been listening to Ritchie “All my life.” Writing a proposal to the Kentucky Humanities Council so she could share Jean Ritchie’s story with a one-person show became an exciting opportunity for this Central Kentucky actor. “Even when she’s not singing,” she says of Ritchie, “her words are lyrical and musical.” Rogers gave her first Chautauqua performance as Ritchie in her hometown last Thursday, Oct. 26, at the Woodford County Historical Society museum. She will return to Versailles for “An Evening with Aunt Molly Jackson and Jean Ritchie,” a free performance – first come, first served – at the Woodford Theatre on Friday, Nov. 10, at 7 p.m. She’s really excited about that upcoming performance because while she’s been away from her hometown for advanced studies in acting at Rutgers University in New Jersey and Shakespeare in London, Rogers says, “Versailles is where I discovered I loved theatre and writing and acting.” It’s where her love of theatre was nurtured as a 13-year-old and grew through her performances including recent turns in “Translations” and “The Odd Couple” on the Woodford Theatre stage. With an English degree and a passion for writing, Rogers says she felt really strongly about penning this story – Jean Ritchie: Damsel with a Dulcimer – she’d perform onstage. She spent nearly two years writing and then refining the script to make Ritchie’s Kentucky story more powerful, while working with historian Ron Penn. He already knew Ritchie and her family, and provided invaluable insight into her life. “Jean was very funny,” says Rogers, “and I try to honor that. So there’s a lot of laughs and just mountain kind of humor that seems familiar to me and I know seemed familiar to a lot of people down at the museum.” Unlike most other historically significant Kentuckians who are portrayed by Chautauqua actors, Jean Ritchie died in the recent past (2015). So a lot of people in an audience may have seen her perform and know her music, or maybe they’re even related to her. “Not everything’s sunny and rosy (about someone’s life). It’s drama. You’ve got to show some conflict, and everybody has that in their life,” explains Rogers. “How would I feel if somebody was portraying one of my family members? So there’s a balance to strike between honoring this person and being honest about her life and knowing that her son is going to come to see it at some point – I hope.” Before her first performance as Ritchie, Rogers watched a KET documentary, Mountain Born: The Jean Ritchie Story, and saw Ritchie’s appearance on Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour. “I’ve tried to walk a fence of ‘I’m not doing an impression of her,’” explains Rogers. “…I want to honor who she was physically and verbally…, but I’m also interpreting her as an actor. So some of it is me…” Rogers describes her Chautauqua performances as a way to connect an older generation with a younger generation that may have never heard of Ritchie or understand her musical legacy. “As the (coal) industry dies,” says Rogers, “we’re losing our identity of these small mountain towns, and it feels important to talk about that.” With her own family roots in Eastern Kentucky, she says Ritchie’s songs – including “Black Waters” – were not meant to be anti-coal, but instead voiced concerns about strip mining and its negative environmental consequences. Ritchie never wanted to be perceived as a protest singer or “kick dirt in the teeth of an industry that gave her two brothers bread and butter money. She recognized the good that the coal industry brought to Kentucky,” explains Rogers. Having studied opera, musical theatre and Shakespeare in college, Rogers says she felt confident being onstage to tell Ritchie’s story. “And then,” she acknowledges, “the dulcimer was a surprise. Something I learned for the role.” Learning to play “was a challenge, but it’s a front porch picker’s instrument,” says Rogers. “It’s such a good instrument for families to have because you can make it as difficult or as easy as you wanted to.” Because her day job has been teaching drama and musical theatre to middle school students in Lexington, she deeply understands why the dulcimer – our state instrument – and Jean Ritchie’s story can and should be a part of what they’re learning. “I hope (the show) goes into some schools because I think it’s a good show for middle and high school kids,” says Rogers, who has performed almost exclusively at public libraries so far. On her journeys to those destinations (often accompanied by her dog, Polly), Rogers says, “I take the quick road down on the interstate and then I let myself wander home. And I’ve seen the coolest stuff just by accident. “Like coming home from Greenville, I took the back road home and I ran into Bill Monroe’s home place. He wrote ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ … Half the job seems to be like being an ambassador for the state.”

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