Interview: Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr on the Music of Appalachia

Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr
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!

Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to AppalachiaGM: You are both known as the creators of much beloved musical institutions—Fiona’s NPR program, The Thistle & Shamrock®; and Doug’s Swannanoa Gathering, the traditional music workshops held on the Warren Wilson college campus in the North Carolina mountains each summer. Fiona, you’ve noted that “connection” is the single word that best clarifies your motivation for collaborating on this book. Could you please elaborate?

FR & DO: Well, Doug and I have a personal connection, rooted in public radio, that dates back over three decades. So that was a motivator in working together, as we knew the long-standing friendship would help us to collaborate across an ocean. We learned pretty early on that we shared an interest in music. During my time living in the United States, I became increasingly fascinated by the connections between music from my Scottish homeland and my North Carolina adopted home. And I could see that Doug was following his own path of discovery, connecting with his Scots-Irish family roots and the music this opened up to him along the way. Yes—these connections were at the heart of it all.

GM: The concepts of “leavings” and exile are important in the chronicle of Scottish emigration. How are they manifested in song?

FR & DO: The Scots and Irish have a remarkably rich repertoire of songs of emigration and parting. Some tell of bitter exile, others are hopeful and anticipate the new life ahead. Some sing of lost love, many express the pain of homesickness. All testify of a very deep tie to the land and the beloved landscapes of home. Songs became companions that helped ease the pain of separation and reinforced the identity of exiles and emigrants.

GM: What are some of the recurring themes in Wayfaring Strangers?

FR & DO: Connection, the ongoing “carrying stream” of tradition, the idea that “living is collecting,” the tapestry of musical and cultural influences are all ideas that recur in the book. Time and time again we were impressed by the community of music and this is a strong theme throughout: the old fiddle tunes and ballads shared at hearthside gatherings in Scottish and Irish cottages, at dances and ceilis (or ceilidhs), in pubs. It’s a musical community echoed in front porch music sessions at log cabins scattered throughout Appalachian coves and hollows. Another theme that emerged in the book is the sense that the music has served as an egalitarian and democratic force overcoming differences of culture, religion, and ethnic origin.

GM: Which musical instruments are predominant in your story of cultures on the move? And what role did the mail order industry play in their distribution?

FR & DO: We have to say that the human voice is the strongest instrument sounding through the pages of Wayfaring Strangers. But in terms of instrumental music, the fiddle, the Appalachian or lap dulcimer and the banjo are the main pillars supporting the living soundtrack of this story. In the late nineteenth century, the advent of mail-order companies allowed instruments—including mandolin, guitar, and autoharp—to find their way into remote mountain communities and so the range of musical sounds grew.

GM: You offer a fascinating glimpse into the role that music played at sea for eighteenth-century emigrants during the Atlantic passage. Tell us about this.

FR & DO: Yes, of all the emigrant journeys probably none was more fraught with peril, and yet more sustained by music, than the passage across the Atlantic. The eighteenth-century crossing could take six to ten weeks. On the sailing ships, quarters were cramped, food was basic and scarce, homesickness set in early, and the threat of disease or death was always lurking close by. So it’s no surprise that ships’ captains, knowing how important music was for maintaining good spirits, gave a high priority to hiring a fiddler for the voyage. In fact, a fiddler was second only to the ship’s surgeon in crew hiring priorities. They provided daily recreation and physical exercise for dances on deck. And of course, ballad singing was always a boost to the spirit and a reminder of shared memories from home. As we worked on the book and talked with some of our “Voices of Tradition,” we really gained a sense of the songs being sources of comfort to the emigrants. And also, of how important song carriers were as members of the community in transit.

GM: Which North American cities were most important landing points for the Ulster Scots?

FR & DO: For the eighteenth-century Ulster Scots emigrants, Philadelphia and its smaller Delaware River ports were far and away the most popular destinations. Philadelphia had become an important port for the linen trade with Ulster and other parts of Ireland. Plus Pennsylvania had a sizeable Quaker community, which was accepting of the Ulster Scots Presbyterians escaping religious repression and economic discrimination. Secondary landfalls in the Colonial South included Charleston and Savannah. New York and Boston did receive some Ulster Scots, but those ports played more of a role to incoming Irish famine refugees of the nineteenth century. Also, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, was the destination for many nineteenth-century Highland Scots.

GM: Why was the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road—the most significant “highway” in colonial times—important for burgeoning musical traditions?

FR & DO: It was actually originally mapped by Thomas Jefferson’s father and the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road originated on Philadelphia’s High Street, close by the docks and wharfs. From there, it continued west into the Pennsylvania frontier and down Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley into the Carolinas’ mountains and piedmont. It was described as “Colonial America’s busiest highway” and ferried the wayfarers’ flow toward uncharted terrain. Conestoga Wagons carried entire families over what was a winding, rutted dirt path. These were driven by the legendary “wagoneers,” the dashing minstrels of the day, and they shared songs and fiddle tunes along the route. Dances were common at the overnight way stations. The fiddle was ever popular but there was also the occasional banjo and the very portable jaw harps. Plus the mountain or lap dulcimer was likely born along the Philadelphia and Wilderness Wagon Roads, having evolved from an earlier German instrument that came into Pennsylvania.

GM: What is a song collector (or “songcatcher” in Appalachian colloquialism) and what role do they play?

FR & DO: The songcatchers were among the many heroes of our Wayfaring Strangers’ tale. Well-known collectors included England’s Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles, and the Appalachians’ Olive Dame Campbell, Jane Hicks Gentry, and Bascom Lamar Lunsford. They would all track the songs into the deepest recesses of Appalachian coves and hollows. Part of what made them so successful was that they first built trust with the Appalachian balladeers, who could be wary of sharing their treasured and very personal music with strangers. Thousands of old ballads and fiddle tunes were captured in this way that might have been lost to history were it not for these dedicated collectors. Remember, almost none of the music had been written down by Appalachian settlers; it had been passed down in an oral tradition. Collectors in Scotland and the United States, such as Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Francis Child, had set down earlier “British Isles” versions of many songs. Sometimes the Appalachian songcatchers over-romanticized what they found, claiming to have uncovered a “time capsule,” and they often completely overlooked the African influences on the music or discarded songs that didn’t fit their theories. But they were able to preserve a monumental music archive—an important part of American culture—through their lifelong dedication. Jean Ritchie, Alan Lomax, John Jacob Niles, David Holt have all carried on this tradition in more recent times.

GM: You note that “The old ballad stories were owned by no one and yet by everyone.” How so?

FR & DO: 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.

GM: African Americans’ contributions to Appalachian music are legion. Which do you consider most significant?

FR & DO: Well, most people think of the banjo as one of the most significant African contributions to American music, as the banjo’s origins are traced to West Africa. But the extensive African contributions within the tapestry of Appalachian music are often underestimated and misunderstood. At the time of the Revolutionary War, one-half of the fiddle players in the South were African American. Their more syncopated, rhythmic, bluesy style had a lasting influence on Appalachian fiddling, and loosened up the more strict Scots-Irish rhythm into what we now call “old time.” The African American reverence for the community of song reinforced the power of communal singing in Appalachia: their church-inspired spirituals resonate through American and Appalachian culture. Call and response work songs and lullabies entered the American songbook. There were many African American old-time string bands and dance callers, invited to play for black and white dances in the Appalachians. That rich tradition is undergoing something of a revival today through performers such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops string band and the Black Banjo Reunion project. Finally and most profoundly, many of the legends of Appalachian music were encouraged and assisted significantly by African American colleagues and mentors. A. P. Carter, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, and Doc Watson, among others, have all acknowledged the generous helping hand they received from African American musicians. In fact, we are delighted to include as one of 124 book illustrations a remarkable artist’s sketch of many of these musicians juxtaposed with their African American mentors. This is a heartening aspect of the story that we have felt privileged to share.

GM: Even Elvis Presley makes an appearance in Wayfaring Strangers. How does he fit into this story?

FR & DO: Elvis fits into every story! Well, his mother was from Scots-Irish origins so we can easily imagine that Elvis grew up hearing the old songs. In the eighteenth century, his father’s direct ancestor came to North Carolina from the heartland of Scottish balladry: Aberdeenshire. And in the South he was surrounded by African American voices of song. In common with the wayfarers in our tale, he was filled with an urge to sing.

GM: Dolly Parton has been very supportive of the Wayfaring Strangers project. How do you feel about her strong endorsement for the book?

FR & DO: We feel blessed to have Dolly Parton sharing her family connection and love of the old music with us in the book’s Foreword. There is no one better placed to reflect upon the journey of the music from its traditional roots into the American cultural mainstream, and Dolly’s perfectly chosen words set such a warm and welcoming tone for us. She pointed us to her unique version of the ballad “Barbara Allen” that is the opening track on the book’s CD.

GM: What kind of impact do you hope Wayfaring Strangers will have on readers?

FR & DO: We find that the more you look, the more you feel drawn down different pathways into diverse traditions and cultures. So we hope Wayfaring Strangers inspires readers to delve beyond these stories for themselves. The tapestry just gets more textured and colorful as you go.

Fiona Ritchie is the founder, producer, and host of National Public Radio’s The Thistle & Shamrock®. Doug Orr is president emeritus of Warren Wilson College, where he founded the Swannanoa Gathering music workshops. Their book, Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia, is now available.