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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia, by Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr

This is a book that is going to stay with The Discreet Traveler for a long time. As the title suggests, it is about travel—the migration of music, and the people who sang and played it, from one country to the next (and back). If there is anything I love as much as travel and books, it is music.

I bought Wayfaring Strangers because I was born and raised in the southern Appalachian region, and I’m a lifelong fan of folk music. By “folk” I mean traditional music, but also the many permutations of it, such as the folk revival in popular music in the early 1960s. One of the key things I learned from this book was that the lines are blurred. Who is to say that “I Wonder As I Wander,” a carol with a known composer, is more “authentic” than a lullaby recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary, one of the first songs I ever knew—written by a slave mother whose name we'll never know?

But I quickly discovered that there’s a lot more to Wayfaring Strangers than just one line of musical history. Take the song "Wayfaring Stranger." It’s on the enclosed CD (itself a gem that adds a third dimension to the words and illustrations); it’s been recorded by artists such as Joan Baez; it’s a shape note hymn in The Sacred Harp. Reading about the latter tradition of sacred music, I discover that, in addition to a white and black tradition, it’s also sung by a Cherokee community in the mountains that somehow escaped deportation along the hideous Trail of Tears. Shape note singing, until recent decades only carried out in a few such traditional communities in the South, is now being revived by people of many ages, races, and indeed religions on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. As with other varieties of folk music, it is not about rehearsal and performance but about participation and joy.

This journey back and forth, both geographically and in time, takes place over and over again with songs, musical styles, and people. The vaudeville favorite “Danny Boy,” while set to “The Londonderry Air,” does not have traditional lyrics from the mists of time, but from an opera librettist who, furthermore, was English. More egregiously vaudeville, the blackface “minstrel” tradition was such a cruel caricature of black Americans that they gave up playing string band music, even though the banjo originated as an African instrument. Practically the only African American to keep up old time music before the heirs of the present generation was a fiddler named Joe Thompson. Reading about him and his cousin Odell, I suddenly realized that I’d actually seen them play, at what must have been one of Odell’s last performances (in the early 1990s). Chills ran down my spine as I remembered these two very elderly musicians singing the Appalachian composition  “Mountain Dew”!

I hadn’t realized the living history I was witnessing at that folk festival, but I did pick up a few recordings of others interviewed in this book, including Sheila Adams (from Madison County, North Carolina) and Irish-born John Doyle. So some ballads and tunes were familiar to me from their singing and playing. Most of the interviews were conducted by coauthor Fiona Ritchie, known from National Public Radio as the host of The Thistle & Shamrock, and it started to seem that every artist from the past 50 years is in here somehow, as influence or influenced: Doc Watson, Jean Ritchie, Dolly Parton, Al Petteway, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, the Seeger family. Judy Collins recorded Billy Edd Wheeler’s songs; Knoxville’s Everly Brothers’ harmonies influenced Simon & Garfunkel, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles. 

The movement of music was two-way, also, with Jean Ritchie, Peggy Seeger, and other Americans traveling to Britain and Ireland to trace the roots of songs, and in turn influencing British musicians like Ewan MacColl. His most famous composition, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” written for Peggy Seeger, was a hit for Roberta Flack—who, it turns out, is from Black Mountain, NC. And before that, the Scottish-American ballad "Black Is The Color" was made famous all over the world by yet another singer born in the North Carolina mountains—Nina Simone! Celebrating my fortieth birthday in a Paris bar, I’d recognized the endlessly sexy voice coming from the speakers, but had no idea it belonged to a woman from Appalachia. (When I first emigrated to Canada, I got the impression that all sorts of musicians and other entertainers were turning out to be Canadian and I’d never known it; this book gives me the sense that everybody is Appalachian.)

The story is about much more than the geographical migration of one type of music. It’s about many types of music and song traveling back and forth with people to whom they were important, then further cross-pollinating with the songs and instrumentals of other people. The movement of the “Scots-Irish” to Pennsylvania and, ultimately, to a town like Johnson City, Tennessee is my family’s story and mine. Reading, listening, or singing along, one feels part of a musical community that spans many places and across generations. If it sounds like I'm describing a spiritual experience, I am.

Read this book, glory in the pictures, and listen to the CD (repeatedly). Then get out there and explore the places and the kinds of music that interest you. And try it yourself. I know I’m going to.