Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr
Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr, authors of Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia will be in Perthshire, Scotland, for the Dougie MacLean Festival this week. They’ll return for more music-filled stops in North Carolina in November. See their author page for all upcoming events.
Here is our conversation about the 300-year story of musical migration.
Gina Mahalek: Wayfaring Strangers includes a CD with 20 songs by musicians featured in the book. How do you imagine your readers using it as they read? Is it meant to be a soundtrack of sorts?
Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr: We felt sure that, as our readers got deeper into the story, they’d become increasingly eager to hear for themselves how the music has evolved. So the book’s CD has songs and tunes that are chosen to help illustrate the musical voyage. Some readers may enjoy listening along as they read. Others will want to lay aside the text and immerse themselves in the music. There are so many songs—and multiple versions of songs—that our CD can only ever be a taste. We could easily have made a boxed set! Hopefully it will open readers’ ears to the connections we’re highlighting and they’ll be tempted to embark upon their own musical explorations. There are so many great artists to discover who will lead them further—some are noted in our Discography.
GM: You acknowledge that, “The swell of a thousand voices carried this book to shore upon the waves of ten thousand tales.” Who is this book about?
FR & DO: We reached back to explore medieval troubadours in the south of France, wandering minstrels who fanned out across Europe, and Scottish ballad collectors, composers, singers, and fiddlers. Above all, though, our book is primarily about the nameless families—across many generations—who held onto the one thing that cost nothing, took up no space in their travel trunks, and was perhaps their most valuable symbol of identity: the songs and tunes they carried over centuries and the miles. In particular, we spent years researching these intrepid wayfarers: Scottish emigrants to Ulster in the north of Ireland, who blended their musical traditions with the Irish in their new home and transported these on their Atlantic crossing to America. They often seemed drawn to the distant horizon and their journeys have been a carrying stream of music, fed by so many sources and in turn feeding out along countless tributaries. As Scots-Irish, many found Appalachian homes and new ways of sharing their long-held musical traditions. To tell the truth, at times it felt as if we were traveling along with them, and we developed a real affinity for their unshakeable spirit and their incredible persistence in keeping their music and traditions alive.
GM: Your interviews with key contributors to this living tradition greatly enrich your book. Tell us about these conversations.
FR & DO: In producing and hosting NPR’s The Thistle & Shamrock® through the years, Fiona has had many opportunities to talk with tradition-bearers about our developing book. Many were able to provide insights and guidance. Then as our Wayfaring Strangers project took shape, it also became clearer which artists we should interview specifically for the book. Some were perfectly placed to come onto Fiona’s radio shows, or to join us at Traditional Song Week during the Swannanoa Gathering. We made special visits to some others, such as Pete Seeger. In fact, our visit to his home stands out as a treasured memory of working together on this book. As for the conversations themselves, they unfolded naturally. We found that people were very enthusiastic about sharing their stories. We knew early on that documenting these conversations would become an important and unique element of our book and that we desperately wanted their voices to speak through the pages. Some of these voices are elderly; a few are now quiet. It feels timelier than ever to share their insights and to reflect on the lineage of this music even as the regional accents and styles blur and fade.
GM: What do you think your readers will find most surprising about this musical voyage across oceans?
FR & DO: You mean, apart from how long it took us to write the book?! Generally, we think people will be surprised that there is no one stream, no linear musical journey. We are not starting off in the heartland of Scottish balladry and ending up at the birth of country music. Our story is more dynamic than that—and bigger. It reaches back farther, travels more widely, and flows onward timelessly.
While not necessarily surprised, we were both struck by how the music persevered, through hardship and deprivation, from one generation to the next. Without any of the advantages of modern technology, our wayfarers were able to sustain their music traditions over the long migratory trail of countless years and new lands. It seemed that the music had an enduring power and life force of its own, rebounding even when outlawed, thriving where it might have died.
A couple of specific story elements that may surprise: the role of the linen industry on the music migration and the evolution of the dulcimer on the Great Wagon Road. Intrigued? You’ll have to read the book to find out more!
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