Pete was seventeen years of age in 1936 when he accompanied his father to Asheville to attend Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. During Fiona Ritchie and my Wayfaring Strangers book interview with Pete at his home above the Hudson River, Pete recalled that “ordinary working people were making fantastically good music.” The youthful Pete Seeger was mesmerized as Lunsford presided on the spotlighted stage over a parade of square-dance teams, family string bands, singers, fiddlers, and banjo players. There Pete had his formative exposure to the five-string banjo played by Samantha Bumgarner, from whom he acquired his first such instrument. Pete recalled that Lunsford patiently showed him basic banjo licks that Pete would practice and perfect over subsequent years.
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It is generally known that the American banjo’s origins trace back to West Africa and a gourd-like instrument the gnomi, among other names. However, the plantations were something of an incubator for music of the African American slaves in a variety of forms: the fiddle, learned at the plantation house; the call-and-response work songs from the toil of the plantation fields; spirituals stemming from church worship—often clandestine services or camp meetings with hidden messages of freedom’s call; and the hush lullabies sung by mammies to their babies, and sung with irony to the children of the plantation overlords.
In Scotland, Ulster and Appalachia, the songs have always been viewed as more important than any one individual singer. The anonymous authorship of much of the repertoire meant that no one questioned the fact that people often had their own family versions of ballads, or that they varied in different geographical areas. The tradition of singing and passing songs on has had an unbroken momentum across time and place. In fact, the urge to make music and share it has been even more vital than the repertoire itself. Like any good story, a good song (and the ballads are all stories after all) will live on. It’s the same with strong melodies: they also often have independent lives and may be paired up with many songs and different dances. No one owns this stuff. It belongs to everyone.
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.
Help us make a great book even better! We need your support to insert a CD of music in every copy of a forthcoming book about Scots-Irish music in Appalachia. Listen to a sample to hear what’s in store.
UNC Press needs your help in a matching funds challenge to pay for inserting music CDs in a forthcoming book about the Scots-Irish music of Appalachia.