Interview: Marcie Cohen Ferris on The Edible South

Marcie Cohen Ferris, author of The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region, talks with Gina Mahalek about food as history, place, and power and as an entry to the past.

Gina Mahalek: In 2005, you broke new ground with your acclaimed book Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South. In The Edible South, you offer an extraordinarily ambitious, wide-reaching social history of the foodways of the American South over more than five centuries. Why is food a particularly revealing lens through which to look at key historical events?

Marcie Cohen Ferris (photo by Kate Medley)Marcie Cohen Ferris: Food is history. Food is place. Food is power. When we examine the historical arc of food in the American South, we encounter the tangled interactions of its people over time, a world of relationships fraught with conflict, yet bound by blood and attachment to place. The contradiction between the realities of plenty and deprivation, of privilege and poverty in southern history resonates in the region’s food traditions. Today, southern food has become untethered from the history responsible for this cuisine. This history helps us understand why southerners eat the way they do, and why we think of our foods as deeply southern.

GM: You begin your book with the statement, “I look for food in everything.” How so?

MCF: I can’t help myself, and it drives my mother a little crazy. My childhood letters sent home from summer camp are filled with descriptions of mealtime and special snacks, rather than canoe trips and cabin dramas. My brother-in-law, writer Jim Magnuson, says that when I scan the horizon, the food grid rises up above everything else. Food catches my attention. I can scan a page of a book or an old letter and find food as though it’s highlighted in fluorescent yellow marker. It jumps out at me—snippets of biscuits, cornbread, cake, preserves, elderberry wine—and pulls me in. In the most basic way, food catches my attention because I know what it feels like to eat something delicious, to be hungry, to dislike the taste or texture of a food, to both struggle with food and be enchanted by food. If only for a sentence or a scene, a description of food enriches my understanding. It is a sensual experience, because, in food, an emotional world comes into view—a place of color, imagined tastes, interaction, and memory. Food helps me understand the world around me, but it is also my entry to the past.

GM: Why has the story of the edible South been so hard to find?

MCF: For decades, scholars of the American South have studied the historical manuscript and print collections of the South, but few have paid close attention to the edible history that lies within their pages. While southern letters, diaries, and journals are filled with food descriptions of the early South, finding them—and interpreting their meanings—remains a challenge. Until recently, food was not included in finding aids and catalog descriptions, except under categories such as “cookery” or “remedies and recipes.”

The turbulent social activism of the 1960s and 1970s spawned a generation of scholars who rejected a vision of the past that ignored ordinary Americans, including that most ordinary activity of daily life—eating. Today, food is increasingly recognized as an important tool of analysis in southern cultural and economic history, as well as in the social sciences. Food foregrounds the once-silenced voices of those whose hands and minds defined southern cuisine—women in particular. Enslaved cooks, house slaves, and field hands of the antebellum South, the white and black working poor of the post-Civil War South, and food workers of the contemporary industrial South are central to this story.

GM: What’s the link between southern cuisine and historic preservation in the New South?
Continue reading ‘Interview: Marcie Cohen Ferris on The Edible South’ »

Graham T. Dozier on Letters from the Battle of Cedar Creek

dozier_gunner_PB Over on our Civil War blog, Graham T. Dozier, editor of A Gunner in Lee’s Army: The Civil War Letters of Thomas Henry Carter reveals the candid observations made by Thomas Henry Carter in a letter to his wife concerning the discipline and leadership within the Confederate and Union armies. Dozier begins:

Col. Thomas Henry Carter was an aggressive and disciplined officer in the South’s most successful army. For three years he had distinguished himself as an artillery commander in the Army of Northern Virginia. Now, in October of 1864, while serving as chief of artillery in the Army of the Valley, he was deeply concerned. In letters to his wife, Susan, he described in great detail the crushing Confederate defeat at the Battle of Cedar Creek. He also offered astute observations about the fighting qualities of the Southern army. Carter’s frank opinions not only reveal his frustration over the army’s conduct but also bring to light his views on military leadership.

The battle of October 19, 1864, in the Shenandoah Valley had started out as an almost-total rout of the Union army. The early morning surprise attack by Gen. Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley had overwhelmed two Yankee corps and pushed them to high ground north of the village of Middletown, and Tom Carter’s artillery had played an important role in the apparent Southern victory. Things changed, however, when Early’s force halted its attack for several hours. That gave the Union army the time needed to establish a defensive position and launch a counterattack. The subsequent Yankee assault turned a near-certain Rebel victory into a complete Northern one. Two days later, when Tom took the time to send Susan a letter, he was still stunned. “In the morning [the Confederates] were lions, in the evening lambs. Such facts are incredible to one who has not witnessed them but they are unfortunately too true.”

In the same letter, dated October 21, Carter offered a simple opinion as to why the battle had been lost. “The Yankee discipline,” he asserted, “is immeasurably superior to ours.” In a rare moment of frustration, he lashed out at the behavior of his army’s leaders. “Our Company officers & many field officers are utterly worthless exercising no authority whatever at any time & running as fast as the fastest in battle.” Carter explained what he believed was the key to the problem. According to the aggressive artillerist, the fundamental character of the Southern army was flawed. “Had we a system which could at once reduce these men to ranks,” he remarked, “something might be done. We are too democratic to have a good army.”

Read Dozier’s full post, “The Battle of Cedar Creek: The Best of Days, the Worst of Days,” at UNCPressCivilWar150.com.

Raúl Necochea López: When Historians’ Sources Get Demanding

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We welcome to the blog today a guest post by Raúl Necochea López, author of A History of Family Planning in Twentieth-Century Peru. Adding to the burgeoning study of medicine and science in Latin America, this important book offers a comprehensive historical perspective on the highly contentious issues of sexual and reproductive health in an important Andean nation. Necochea López approaches family planning as a historical phenomenon layered with medical, social, economic, and moral implications. At stake in this complex mix were new notions of individual autonomy, the future of gender relations, and national prosperity.

In a previous post, Necochea López highlights new laws regulating therapeutic abortion in Peru. In today’s post, he shares a story about the struggles and rewards involved in obtaining information from reluctant sources. The materials obtained from this meeting can be found in chapter six of his new book

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“Lord, give bread to the hungry, and make the sated hunger for you,” said the woman praying across the table, Señora Carmen, my reluctant source. Did she mean for her prayer to reach me, a godless aspiring historian? I could not put it past her to aim a cagey barb at my attempt to enlist her help. She saw through it, as I saw through her calm piety, right up to her turmoil upon witnessing a stranger air out the metaphorical skeletons in her closet. Or did she mean the prayer for herself? After all, everything she had shown me over the last few days strengthened the case for seeing the Catholic Church’s officers and lay leaders (herself included) in 1960s Peru as strong proponents of the use of the contraceptive pill. By making her personal papers available she became my unwilling ally, a traitor to her church or, rather, to the carefully whitewashed image the Latin American Catholic hierarchy now spins as the only position it has ever espoused regarding contraception.

Of the two of us, I suspect she thought herself the greater sinner, a Judas who would make others view her church as hypocritical. There is a saying back home about God forgiving sinners, but not those who lead the innocent to sin. After all, she had kept the records. What was this weakness that led her to save the evidence? Perhaps she had not hungered for God enough. Perhaps this is why she never faulted me for disturbing the restful winter of her years. Not only that: Señora Carmen peppered the many conversations we had over the course of several days with clues about her ambivalence: what a wonderful thing the pill had been, for example, how shocked she was when Pope Paul VI commanded Catholics not to use it, and the lengths to which she and her husband had gone not to have any more children. Continue reading ‘Raúl Necochea López: When Historians’ Sources Get Demanding’ »

Edward E. Curtis IV: Teaching about Islam and the African Diaspora

The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora, by Edward E. Curtis IVWe welcome a guest post today from Edward E. Curtis IV, author of The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora. How do people in the African diaspora practice Islam? While the term “Black Muslim” may conjure images of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, millions of African-descended Muslims around the globe have no connection to the American-based Nation of Islam. The Call of Bilal is a penetrating account of the rich diversity of Islamic religious practice among Africana Muslims worldwide. Covering North Africa and the Middle East, India and Pakistan, Europe, and the Americas, Curtis reveals a fascinating range of religious activities—from the observance of the five pillars of Islam and the creation of transnational Sufi networks to the veneration of African saints and political struggles for racial justice.

In the following post, Curtis explains how researching his latest book has changed how he handles the introduction of Islam in the classroom.

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Modern English-language writing about the history and cultures of African-descended people in the diaspora has often been international, transnational, and diaporic in its vision. Looking beyond the boundaries of any one country, African-descended thinkers, poets, historians, religious leaders, and others have framed the history of Black diasporic populations in narratives that include Africans, Asians, Americans, Europeans, Pacific Islanders, and others. This international vision of Black history and identity is a tradition that has inspired the formal study of Africana peoples and their cultures, one that predates contemporary studies of globalization and transnationalism.

And yet with some noteworthy exceptions, the study of Black Muslims in the diaspora remains locked for the most part within the borders of various nations, especially the United States. For many years, I wondered how my own understanding of African-descended Muslims might change if I adopted a truly global perspective on the subject. Having devoted much of my research to the history and life of Islam in the United States, I wrote The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora so that I could find out how the range, the forms, and the interpretations of Islam among Black Muslims were similar or different among African diasporic populations in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, and the Americas.

I was not surprised to learn that most Muslims in the African diaspora are Sunni Muslims, meaning that to a greater or lesser degree, they identity with the majority tradition in Islam that makes incumbent certain basic interpretations of Islam (sometimes called the pillars of faith) and the “five pillars of practice” (the declaration of faith, daily prayer, fasting during Ramadan, pilgrimage to Mecca, and alms for the poor).

But what it means to be a religious Muslim beyond these shared traditions shatters any facile, American-based assumptions about the practices of Black Muslims. Continue reading ‘Edward E. Curtis IV: Teaching about Islam and the African Diaspora’ »

Save 40% on ‘A History of the Book in America’ 5-volume set

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The five volumes in A History of the Book in America offer a sweeping chronicle of our country’s print production and culture from colonial times to the end of the twentieth century. This interdisciplinary, collaborative work of scholarship examines the book trades as they have developed and spread throughout the United States; provides a history of U.S. literary cultures; investigates the practice of reading and, more broadly, the uses of literacy; and links literary culture with larger themes in American history.

Add to shopping cart: A History of the Book in America, 5-volume setThe complete series is now available in paperback for $200.00, but for a limited time you can save 40% on this set (and all UNC Press books in print!) by using discount code 01REL40 at checkout. So the full collection can be yours for $120.00. Buy a bundle, save a bundle. And because your purchase totals more than $75, the shipping is FREE!

Each volume is also available individually. Just use discount code 01REL40 at checkout using the links below to get the special savings.

Volume 1: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World
Edited by Hugh Amory and David D. Hall

This first volume of the five-volume series on the history of the book in America carries the interrelated stories of publishing, writing, and reading from the beginning of the colonial period in America up to 1790. Three major themes run through the volume: the persisting connections between the book trade in the Old World and the New; the gradual emergence of a competitive book trade in which newspapers were the largest form of production; and the institution of a “culture of the Word,” organized around an essentially theological understanding of print, authorship, and reading. The volume also traces the histories of literary and learned culture, censorship and “freedom of the press,” and literacy and orality.
664 pp., 51 illus.

Volume 2: An Extensive Republic: Print, Culture, and Society in the New Nation, 1790–1840
Edited by Robert A. Gross and Mary Kelley

Volume Two of this five-volume series documents the development of a distinctive culture of print in the new American republic. Between 1790 and 1840 printing and publishing expanded, and literate publics provided a ready market for novels, almanacs, newspapers, tracts, and periodicals. Government, business, and reform drove the dissemination of print, and a decentralized print culture emerged where citizenship meant literacy and print meant power. Yet regional differences persisted and older forms of oral and handwritten communication offered alternatives to print.
712 pp., 66 illus. Continue reading ‘Save 40% on ‘A History of the Book in America’ 5-volume set’ »

Interview: Christopher Norment on the beauty of the desert ecosystem

Christopher Norment, author of Relicts of a Beautiful Sea: Survival, Extinction, and Conservation in a Desert World, talks with Carson Rogers about the beauty of the desert ecosystem and the challenges it faces to survive.

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Carson Rogers: The title of your book, Relicts of a Beautiful Sea, speaks to the fragile ecosystems that have survived in the desert, despite change and adversity. Why is this the perfect title?

Christopher Norment, author of Relicts of a Beautiful Sea (photo by Martin Norment)Christopher Norment: The animals that I focus on—the Inyo Mountain slender salamander, black toad, and four types of pupfishes—all are completely dependent upon aquatic habitats, and so have become relicts in an arid world. Without enough water they (like humans) will suffer and disappear. The amount of surface water in the Basin and Range country of California and Nevada, where my book is set, has fluctuated tremendously over the last several million years and the fortunes of the salamanders, toads, and pupfishes have waxed and waned with the advance and retreat of these waters. Imagine standing above Death Valley 150,000 years ago and looking out over ancient Lake Manly, which was six hundred feet deep and eighty miles long. Lake Manly—and Searles Lake, Panamint Lake, and Tecopa Lake, on and on—would have been stunningly beautiful, part of a widespread Pleistocene “sea.” The fishes and amphibians that lived in or near these lakes, or along feeder streams, must have prospered. Now these waters have been replaced by desert and salt pan playas, and “my” species have retreated into refugia, where they persevere, sometimes against great odds.

CR: Why is the issue of desert conservation important right now?

CN: There are a number of reasons, particularly in regard to the American Southwest. First, there still is an influx of people into the region, and they all need water. Clark County, Nevada—home of Las Vegas—and Maricopa County in Arizona have both experienced exponential population growth over the past few decades. This growth is unsustainable and places increasing pressure on the region’s resources, particularly water—and the growing demand for water will in turn affect aquatic ecosystems and the organisms that depend upon them. The increasing need for water will only be exacerbated by climate change and its associated droughts. Decreased flows from the Colorado River and low levels in Lake Mead also pose a problem. California, Arizona, and Nevada all need the same limited waters, and there will be conflict over this resource. Other issues, such as solar energy development, may also be important in some areas, but at the moment population growth, water use, and climate change are the biggest conservation issues facing the region.

There is one positive thing to say about this dire situation, though. It does offer us the opportunity to think creatively and courageously about conservation, ecology, population growth, and economics. We must change how we think about desert waters. As I write in Relicts of a Beautiful Sea, “there is water enough in the desert if you live properly.” The problem is, most of us have not done so, and we show little inclination to change our ways.

CR: In your opinion, what is the greatest threat to the desert and the creatures that live there?

CN: I do not believe that there is one “greatest threat,” but rather that the threat depends entirely upon the particular desert species and ecosystems that you are interested in. For the aquatic ecosystems of the Basin and Range country and the species that Relicts of a Beautiful Sea describes, the greatest threats are overpumping groundwater and ill-conceived surface water diversions. In some situations, though, invasive species such as exotic crayfish and mosquitofish may be a bigger issue. But for other species such as the desert tortoise, solar energy development poses a greater risk. Ultimately, though, the biggest threat to the desert comes from human shortsightedness, stupidity, error, and (occasionally) malfeasance.

CR: You pose the question: “Why should anyone concern themselves with a species that few people know about and even fewer will ever see?” What would your answer be?

CN: This is a question that anyone interested in conserving biodiversity in all of its “forms most beautiful and most wonderful” (that’s Darwin) must deal with, and there is no one set of answers that will work for all species, or for all people. There are good, pragmatic reasons for preserving the species that I write about, as well as all of the other rare species that inhabit this world—reasons that are in the best selfish, material interests of humans. In some cases they may provide services that help protect ecosystems that are important to humans. They certainly act as environmental sentinels, warning us of danger, and suggesting how we might manage our water and future more wisely. And they also provide a window to the natural world, an understanding of how evolutionary, ecological, anatomical, and physical systems work.

But it is not just a matter of cost-benefit analyses, of dollars and cents and balance sheets. For me the most important value of Inyo Mountain slender salamanders, black toads, and pupfishes is the way that they have endured in the face of so much adversity—adversity induced by the natural world and by humans. They are in some ways very fragile creatures, completely dependent on water in an arid world. Yet they also are tough and tenacious. I suppose, then, that for me these creatures work as metaphor and inspiration. They help me go on, and one of the reasons that I wrote Relicts of a Beautiful Sea is that I hope the stories of these animals will do the same for others.

CR: You focus on six desert species: a salamander, a toad, and four different types of pupfishes. What made you choose these particular creatures? Continue reading ‘Interview: Christopher Norment on the beauty of the desert ecosystem’ »

Meet the Families Represented in ‘Tobe': A 75th Anniversary Event

Tobe, by Stella Gentry Sharpe

Tobe, by Stella Gentry Sharpe, originally published in 1939.

Happy seventy-fifth birthday to Tobe, a children’s book about life in rural North Carolina. Published by the UNC Press in 1939, Tobe was one of the few children’s books at the time to feature realistic images of African American children. Through a series of stories and photographs taken near the Hillsborough and Greensboro areas, Stella Gentry Sharpe and photographer Charles Anderson Farrell tell the story of a little boy and his family who were tenant farmers in North Carolina.

To celebrate Tobe‘s seventy-fifth anniversary, historian Benjamin Filene, director of public history at UNC Greensboro, will moderate a panel called “Voices of Tobe,” featuring special guest appearances by several individuals from Tobe, their descendants, and members of their community. To find out more about Filene’s research, see a previous blog post about Tobe.

The Tobe anniversary event will take place in the Wilson Library at UNC Chapel Hill on Tuesday, 21 October from 5:00pm–6:30pm. For more information, check out event details on the UNC University Library page.

Guests at Tuesday’s event will also have an opportunity to view the special exhibit: “Where is Tobe? Unfolding Stories of Childhood, Race, and Rural Life in North Carolina.”

A fully digitized collection of Farrell’s photographs can be found at the University of North Carolina’s Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library.

Originally published in 1939, Tobe is now available as a UNC Press Enduring Edition. UNC Press Enduring Editions use the latest in digital technology to make available again books from our distinguished backlist that were previously out of print. These editions are published unaltered from the original, and are presented in affordable paperback formats, bringing readers both historical and cultural value.

Nathaniel Cadle: Central American Refugees and the “Traditional” Immigrant Narrative

cadle_mediating_PBWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Nathaniel Cadle, author of The Mediating Nation: Late American Realism, Globalization, and the Progressive State. By the early twentieth century, as Woodrow Wilson would later declare, the United States had become both the literal embodiment of all the earth’s peoples and a nation representing all other nations and cultures through its ethnic and cultural diversity. This idea of connection with all peoples, Cadle argues, allowed American literary writers to circulate their work internationally, in turn promoting American literature and also the nation itself. Reexamining the relationship between Progressivism and literary realism, Cadle demonstrates that the narratives constructed by American writers asserted a more active role for the United States in world affairs and helped to shift global influence from Europe to North America.

In today’s post, Cadle discusses how history can lend clarity to the murky contemporary debate about the distinction between “traditional” immigrants and refugees.

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The recent debate over the exact status of the tens of thousands of Central American children attempting to cross the U.S. border reminds us that there is often a very fine line dividing an immigrant from a refugee. It turns out that, according to a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, a majority of Americans—regardless of age or political or religious affiliation—view these children as refugees rather than as illegal immigrants. Of course, the term “refugee” designates a special legal status that carries a wide range of political and bureaucratic implications. In citing the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 as potentially applicable in the case of the Central American children, for example, the Obama administration is making a case that these children have the right to legal and medical aid and that their deportation cannot be fast-tracked, as it often is for undocumented Mexican immigrants.

While our current conception of refugees is largely a product of the Second World War, the people that we tend to think of as having been “traditional” immigrants to the United States were often fleeing the same kinds of unrest and oppression that we now associate with asylum seekers. Continue reading ‘Nathaniel Cadle: Central American Refugees and the “Traditional” Immigrant Narrative’ »

Corinne T. Field: Old Age was Once a Feminist Issue

field_struggle_PBWe are pleased to welcome to the blog today a guest post from Corinne T. Field, author of The Struggle for Equal Adulthood: Gender, Race, Age, and the Fight for Citizenship in Antebellum America. In the fight for equality, early feminists often cited the infantilization of women and men of color as a method used to keep them out of power. Field argues that attaining adulthood–and the associated political rights, economic opportunities, and sexual power that come with it–became a common goal for both white and African American feminists between the American Revolution and the Civil War. The idea that black men and all women were more like children than adult white men proved difficult to overcome, however, and continued to serve as a foundation for racial and sexual inequality for generations.

In a previous guest blog post, Field addresses the phenomenon of “boomerang kids,” namely, recent college graduates who move back home with their parents. In today’s post, Field considers first-wave feminism’s hallmark defense of the value of aging.

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Old age was once a feminist issue. From Mary Wollstonecraft in the eighteenth century to Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the early twentieth, feminists argued that women could only be free if they were willing to proudly grow old. These early feminists believed that men subordinated women by praising youthful beauty and denigrating mature wisdom. Girls consented to their own subjection because, as Mary Wollstonecraft put it, “the adoration comes first and the scorn is not anticipated.” Wollstonecraft and others urged women to stop trying to look or act young and instead demand respect for female maturity.

This vital link between feminism and aging was severed in the 1910s as American feminists embraced a spirit of youthful rebellion. A century later, despite the many opportunities women now enjoy, unrealistic beauty standards remain firmly in place and few women manage to climb to the most senior positions in business, politics, or cultural affairs. Perhaps it is time for young women as well as old to reconsider their foremothers’ most vital insight—to gain sexual equality, women must demand respect for female elders.

Winning respect for female elders was an issue that cut across the color line separating black and white feminists in nineteenth-century America. Continue reading ‘Corinne T. Field: Old Age was Once a Feminist Issue’ »

Fiona Ritchie: Living Is Collecting


We welcome a guest post today from Fiona Ritchie, coauthor, with Doug Orr, of Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. 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 brought with them a wealth of traditional ballads and tunes from the British Isles and Ireland, a carrying stream that merged with sounds and songs of English, German, Welsh, African American, French, and Cherokee origin. Their enduring legacy of music flows today from Appalachia back to Ireland and Scotland and around the globe. Fiona and Doug guide readers on a musical voyage across oceans, linking people and songs through centuries of adaptation and change.

Fiona and Doug will have two North Carolina tours this fall, the first kicking off this Wednesday, October 1, in Durham. For information about upcoming author events and appearances, all featuring live music, check out their author page on the UNC Press website.

In the following post, Fiona shares some of her travels over the years that contributed to the inspiring collection of stories in Wayfaring Strangers.

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Living Is Collecting[1]

A collection of neat boxes and peculiarly shaped jigsaw pieces, each state is clearly delineated on the political map of the United States. Yet the names and dimensions of these fifty territories cannot begin to describe, let alone contain, their countless fluid communities. Dynamic neighborhoods spill across borders, ignoring state boundaries, wayfaring in every direction. Along with a miscellany of ethnic flavors, music is often their travel companion, and curious ears can easily detect the free-flowing currents. These are the song and tune streams that standard maps will never reveal. And with music as the key, fascinating stories of historical communities and their migrations are all there for us to discover.

When NPR first partnered with me in presenting The Thistle & Shamrock®, we talked about using my radio show to open a doorway into a world of evolving Celtic music traditions for public radio listeners. I could never have imagined how far that door would swing open my way, too, helping inspire my search for the depth of connection that underpins our migration story in Wayfaring Strangers.

A public radio conference in New Orleans in 1991 gave me the chance to follow in the footsteps of Professor Longhair, Dr. John, and The Neville Brothers to cohost an NPR event at the legendary Tipitina’s, formerly a gambling den and house of ill repute. After the conference, I headed to Baton Rouge to host a fundraising event for WRKF. This was held in another Louisiana music heritage hot spot, the renowned Cajun restaurant and dance hall, Mulate’s. I cohosted breaks live on air from the dance floor and twirled a Cajun two-step with almost every supporter of the station. Just when I’d collapsed in a chair to catch my breath, the Cajun band took a break and a Celtic four-piece struck up with sets of reels and jigs. From the Canadian Barn Dance to the Cajun Jitterbug, the intense fusion on the dance floor spoke volumes for the potency of musical traditions in Louisiana.

The kilted piper who met me from the plane in the Tanana Valley at 11 p.m. was a brave man indeed. It was January 1994 in Alaska’s interior. My most adventurous public radio station visit saw me fly from Scotland to Fairbanks at the invitation of KUAC and the Fairbanks Red Hackle Pipe Band. I filled a few days with broadcasts, supporter events, dogsledding, and dancing with native Alaskans. I met remarkable people whose Gwich’in Athabascan fiddle traditions were acquired from nineteenth-century Scottish, Irish, and French Canadian fur traders. The people I met displayed tremendous pride in their musical heritage and recounted many details of this dramatic music migration, passed down through a vibrant native Alaskan oral tradition. I returned home revitalized, rededicated, and amazed that a weekly radio hour could be exchanged for such riches at the far horizons of the United States.

Some years earlier, in 1990, I’d hit the road for my second public radio concert tour. We’d flown coast-to-coast the year before. This time our faded Nashville tour bus meandered along the eastern seaboard and no further west than Memphis. In 1954, a young Elvis Presley played his first public concert there at the legendary Overton Park Shell (now the Levitt Shell). Juxtapose the two scenes as, thirty six years later, a half dozen travel weary Celtic musicians landed on that same stage, with a live version of The Thistle & Shamrock®, for a concert sponsored by WKNO. An ancestor in the Presley family had left Scotland for the Carolinas in 1745. Just imagine: he may have known some of the traditional songs and tunes we performed that night, before the same footlights that witnessed the debut of “That’s All Right (Mama).”

The most formative experience from this collection of memories was my encounter with a Scots-Irish man in the mountains of North Carolina. On a battered old tape recorder, he was quietly determined to capture the sound of bagpipes as it drifted up the hillside from the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. His ache for a living connection was almost palpable and, as I describe in the book, the memory of our meeting burned brightly for me as Doug Orr and I collaborated on Wayfaring Strangers. We trace the epic tale of this man’s ancestors and their musical migration from Scotland, through Ulster, and on down the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road into the Southern Appalachians.

Wayfaring Strangers is a story of musical diaspora, reaching back into antiquity and through centuries of turmoil and transportation. Even today it is a musical force that surges back and forth on the Atlantic tide. Now our book is written and the tapestry of Appalachian music is spread before us. The Scots-Irish hues and textures are as vivid and true in the pattern as ever they were. Yet a flicker of temptation may be all that we need to reach out for that tapestry, tease its fibers apart a little, trace a different strand and wonder: where to next? There is always something more to collect along the way.

Fiona Ritchie is the founder, producer, and host of National Public Radio’s The Thistle & Shamrock®. Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia is now available. Connect with Ritchie and Orr on the Wayfaring Strangers Facebook page.

  1. [1] “Living is collecting” is a philosophy shared by Appalachian ballad singer, dulcimer player, and songwriter Jean Ritchie, as quoted in Wayfaring Strangers.