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FIONA RITCHIE & DOUG ORR - Wayfaring Strangers - The Musical Voyage From Scotland And Ulster To Appalachia

FIONA RITCHIE & DOUG ORR - Wayfaring Strangers - The Musical Voyage From Scotland And Ulster To Appalachia
The University of North Carolina Press ISSN: 9781469618227

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a steady stream of Scots migrated to Ulster and eventually onward across the Atlantic to resettle in the United States. Many of these Scots-Irish immigrants made their way into the mountains of the southern Appalachian region. They took with them a wealth of traditional ballads and tunes from the UK and Ireland. This music then merged with sounds and songs of English, German, Welsh, African American, French and Cherokee origin. Their enduring legacy of music has been hugely influential on American music and to this day, music from Appalachia stills flows back to Ireland and Scotland and around the globe.

This book tells the story of migration in a way words alone never could. It is the weaving of the voices of present day musicians, in the form of short extracts from interviews conducted by Fiona Ritchie, which breathe life into the pages. The inclusion of a CD, featuring 20 songs by musicians profiled in the book, adds another dimension to this important work, but the book is more than capable of standing on its own.

The musical links between Britain, Ireland and America have been explored in many ways in recent years. This book is published by the University of North Carolina Press but it is far removed from a dry academic tome. I was going to say that the book was written from an American perspective, but that would probably give the wrong impression of its content and relevance. Rather I will say that it is written by people who have been immersed in this culture in its American home, whilst at the same time fully appreciative and connected with its roots back in Scotland and Ireland. Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr have clearly invested a lifetime of knowledge and interest into this project. Their love and passion shines through on every page.

Fiona Ritchie is the founder, producer and host of the US’s National Public Radio’s The Thistle & Shamrock, a radio programme which has been broadcast through an extensive network of local radio stations throughout America for many years and which has been the American listeners’ window on the music now broadly defined as ‘Celtic’. Fiona’s own journey from Scotland to America in the early 80s, and more recently back again to raise her family in Scotland, is for another time, but suffice to say that she is fairly uniquely grounded in this music, both from an American, Scottish and Irish perspective. Doug Orr is President Emeritus of Warren Wilson College where he founded the Swannanoa Gathering music workshops. The Swannanoa Gathering has been a meeting place for musicians from both sides of the Atlantic who go to the summer schools in North Carolina to teach and to learn. These annual workshops have a significant influence on the tutors as well as their participants.

Given Fiona and Doug’s experience with radio and live music, it comes as no surprise that they know how to communicate. Nor is it a surprise that they have come up with a book that is quite different in the way it tells the story. I’ll leave it to them to explain why they were inspired to write the book in the way they have, with a quote from the introduction of Wayfaring Strangers. “Perhaps then for some, books are primarily a place where traditions can be recorded and preserved, a repository of things ‘as they were’. For us however, the musical migrations described in Wayfaring Strangers live and breathe. They are best experienced through today’s tradition bearers and the music they share. This is why it is fundamental to our book that their voices speak through its pages. They have a story to tell that illuminates the grey journals of history with a warm living flame. You will not hear them claim that their forebears alone laid the foundation stones of Country Music or Rock & Roll, as if such clear cut lineage can ever be established; they are simply immersed in Hamish Henderson’s ‘Carrying Stream’. Today’s performers and raconteurs are included to highlight the sheer vibrancy, the ‘living tradition’, of this musical culture. For this is the key to its irresistible appeal and enduring curiosity about its history.”

The book is divided into three main sections: Beginnings, Voyage and Singing a New Song. Beginnings looks at the background of songs and storytelling throughout history and gives a good overview of the history of Scots and Irish immigration. I thought that this might have been a section that I would have skipped over, but I found it really informative. Voyage focusses in more detail on the movement of the Scots-Irish to Appalachia. Singing a New Song, the final major section of the book, took me on less familiar territory. Again, I thought that it might have been less relevant to my main interests, but again I found it interesting and relevant. On reflection this is not surprising given how the folk revivals in the UK and America have intertwined. To give you an idea of this section, the subjects covered include Shape Note singing, the African influence on American music, Appalachian dance, Doc Watson, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Carter Family and The Seeger Family.

There is ‘a contextual timeline’ which is good fun and informative. Here are two examples to give you a flavour: 1770s: Doc Watson’s Scottish ancestor Tom Watson emigrates from Edinburgh to America with his new wife, eventually settling in the North Carolina mountains. 2004: St Andrews University confers the degree of Doctor of Music on Bob Dylan, recognising the inspirational role Scottish traditional songs had played in his music.

Throughout the book we have what they call ‘Sidebars’ and ‘Voices of Tradition’. The sidebars are short panels, amplifying or telling a story relevant to the main text. ‘Voices of Tradition’ are short extracts from interviews by Fiona Ritchie. Both of these devices add colour and make it a book that you can either read cover to cover, or dip in and out of. There is also a section with brief profiles of the ‘voices of tradition’ people, a glossary, notes and bibliography. I can see this book becoming a well-thumbed book that you will find yourself reaching for whenever another piece of music comes into your mind - “I wonder what Wayfaring Strangers has to say about this?”

I have made little mention of the CD, largely because I think that the book stands alone and the CD could be considered a bonus or even a separate entity. The CD adds an element of multi-media to the book, although I think that the real potential could come at some point in the future when the ‘Sidebars’ and ‘Voices of Tradition’ might become hyperlinks to even more resources.

In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and suggest that it should be on an essential read list for anyone with an interest in songs and traditions. It will inform and resonate with them and add colour to their enjoyment when singing or listening to these songs. It is deep enough for the serious scholar yet light enough to be absorbed by anyone and guaranteed to fill gaps in the average person’s knowledge. It breathes life in the subject; a solid read yet particularly easy to pick up and explore in parts. The book is beautifully illustrated throughout and for around the price of a couple of CDs, it is remarkable value for a lavish book with over 330 pages and a 20 track CD.

This book couldn’t have been written by anyone without a lifetime of experience and love of the subject and has set a new standard for projects of this nature. They have certainly hit the mark.

The Swannanoa Gathering -
The Thistle and Shamrock -
University of North Carolina Press -

Pete Heywood

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This album was reviewed in Issue 104 of The Living Tradition magazine.