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.


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.