Wayfaring Strangers: Afterword for a New Second Edition

UNC Press is incredibly pleased to announce the publication of the second edition of Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia by Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr, foreword by Dolly Parton, and with a new afterword by the authors that is excerpted below in its entirety.

The New York Times called Wayfaring Strangers upon its publication in 2014 “essential . . . a gorgeous gift book.”

Watch for a follow up blog post focused on the accompanying Spotify Wayfaring Strangers playlist that will feature music notes on tracks curated by Fiona Ritchie for this new edition.

Reflecting in 2021 on the passage of time since Wayfaring Strangers was first published in 2014, it helps to reach once again for the words of the late Scottish poet, songwriter, and collector Hamish Henderson. His metaphor of the carrying stream, the unknowable source of tradition and creativity, ever flowing and always replenished, is reassuring when performing arts have been stilled by a global pandemic. Whenever the carrying stream appears quiet on the surface, we take comfort in the knowledge that it is, in fact, never still. Onward it flows, meandering along a never-ending course. Henderson also wrote about injustice, dignity, equality, international solidarity, and harmony with the natural world. At this particular time, his poetry and activism speak to us, perhaps more than ever, and remind us of the power of words and music.

Much has changed since 2014. Against a backdrop of dramatic social and political reorganization, cultural dialogues across the Atlantic World have gained new momentum. The Transatlantic Sessions television series produced for BBC Scotland and RTÉ Ireland, featuring performances by Scottish, Irish,  English, and North American folk roots and country artists, is now critically acclaimed on all shores. Bluegrass and Americana music fuel the popularity of the growing I-Grass/Celtigrass genre (Irish-influenced bluegrass). In 2019, Carnegie Hall’s landmark festival, Migrations, the Making of America, held performances and events all across New York City. The celebration showed how American culture has always evolved through the movement of people who are often forced together by their circumstances. The musical legacies of transatlantic crossings from Scotland and Ireland provided a focal point for this ambitious festival.

Since we started our work on Wayfaring Strangers, a particular thread in the musical tapestry continues to galvanize conversation, as a generation of young Black artists retells the story of the banjo. It had originated in Black communities but was locked down as a white instrument by a fledgling recording industry only too keen to obscure its African origins. The members of Our Native Daughters and other artists continue to correct the banjo’s narrative. This work calls on us to honor all facets of the musical journey chronicled in this book and to recognize the diversity that created, and continues to enrich, American music. Today this quest encompasses the Black Banjo Reclamation Project and extends through storytelling and literature. Multidisciplinary Kentucky artist Frank X. Walker introduced the term “Affrilachia” in his writing on African American and Appalachian identity, and he is a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets. When all hues and textures are equally visible, Appalachia’s interwoven culture is at its most enthralling

Our journey since publication has made wayfarers of us, too. We exchanged amazed glances in August 2015 at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the world’s largest public celebration of the written word, where Wayfaring Strangers opened the evening program. In 2019 we visited New York City, signing books at Carnegie Hall as part of Migrations: The Making of America, amazed again that the book had paved our way to such a storied location. We collaborated on a concert with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Berklee College of Music at Glasgow’s City Halls, as part of Celtic Connections, and with Peggy Seeger and Alan Reid at the Birnam Book Festival.

Our book tours and presentations included stops in Portobello, Belfast, the Ulster-American Folk Park, Washington, D.C., Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Along the trail, people shared their stories with us, and the warmth, and sometimes the tears, of audience members who were moved to offer their own family histories and musical experiences has stayed with us. It reminds us that we might all try to carry on the important work of tradition-bearers, interviewing senior family members, friends, or companions so that their life experiences are captured and preserved. Among the more than three million recordings and radio broadcasts in the sound archives at the Library of Congress are many rare gems captured in family homes on wax cylinder, digital file, and every sound technology in between. It is precious stuff indeed. A favorite sign in a Big Stone Gap, Virginia, bookstore that reads “a good book has no ending” reminds us that new Voices of Tradition will continue the story. We will be forever grateful to our original voices, the forty-three tradition-bearers who shaped the book’s narrative, sharing their wisdom and anecdotes from locations across the map. Eight of these voices are now silent, a sad marker of the passing years, but their voices speak clearly from these pages, and their musical legacies will live on.

The three mainstay locations on our tour map—Scotland, Ulster, and Appalachia—have been cultural overachievers. The philosophers of the eighteenth- century Scottish Enlightenment greatly influenced America’s founding fathers, and their enlightenment culture reverberated globally through intellectual and scientific discovery. Major literary figures such as Robert Fergusson, Robert Burns, and James Macpherson emerged during this era, and their works traveled across the Atlantic as part of the Scottish diaspora. From North to South, the island of Ireland nourished poets, writers, and troubadours honing their crafts by the hearths of their cottages and inns, among them Seamus Heaney, W. B. Yeats, and Joe Holmes. Amid the coves and hollows of Appalachia, despite relentless economic impoverishment, the “way back yonder” ballads and tunes became a wellspring for Jean Ritchie, Doc Watson, David Holt, the Seegers, and so many others, a songbook legacy that music historian Ron Pen calls “the music that America comes home to.”

Charting the musical voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia, one of history’s great migration sagas, and sharing stories at book presentations, we remain mindful of this: while some of these people traveled of their own volition in the hope of freedom from poverty and persecution, others did not travel of their own free will. Deportees from debtors prisons and indentured servants all faced ongoing restrictions and harsh conditions. Through the generations, their traits of resilience and tenacity drove these settlers to establish new communities in the New World. This was, of course, a landscape already long inhabited by Indigenous tribal nations who in turn became dis- placed in their own country.

We are all immigrants within some branch of our ancestral family tree, and the forces that compel human movement are unstoppable. A multicultural pluralistic society, for all its advantages, is still too often beleaguered by the suspicion of “otherness” that plagued earlier waves of migrants, and walls are raised, both literally and figuratively. Gathering together through music offers a space for compassion and understanding, a bridge across the barbed wire, transcend- ing the barriers of language and custom, as it did for Ulster fiddler Joe Holmes and the inclusive musical community he described in our book: “This sort of ceilidh with song, story and dance was common to many houses in County Antrim and other parts of Ulster irrespective of religious affiliation and background . . . fireside philosophers, rustic bards, storytellers, balladeers, traditional musicians and dancers . . . ordinary people with extraordinary skills and imaginations.”

The COVID-19 global pandemic created a void—no ceilidhs or concerts—and musicians, venues, and arts organizations suffered greatly, their incomes disappearing overnight. From the Mount Airy Old-Time Fiddlers Convention in North Carolina to the Niel Gow Festival in Perthshire, music festivals were canceled, and many moved to online platforms for remote performance and teaching. As musical life migrated to the internet, prospects for international collaboration expanded, and some artists voyaged far and wide to connect, exchange, and explore. Nowadays, rare vintage vinyl collections are uploaded, and the riches of field recordings, once tied to geographical locations, are accessible worldwide to researchers and sleuth- ing musicians. And so a generation of young Black woman artists discovers that the banjo really does be- long to them, for example, and young ballad singers everywhere access song and sound archives to learn from tradition-bearers now long gone. These online resources became a creative lifeline when the pandemic compelled most musicians to take indefinite down time. Online life also brought far-flung communities even closer together, including a Sister Cities/Twin Towns partnership between Asheville, North Carolina, and the villages of Dunkeld and Birnam in Scotland, formally established on location in 2017. With the advent of travel restrictions and the suspension of in-person gatherings during the pandemic, participants in celebrations, musical exchanges, and church services linked hands across the water to their twinned communities using streaming technologies to unite a fractured world. For all the enjoyment of online musical projects, however, providing performances free or by donation is not sustainable for most artists. The brightest creative sparks ignite when people are sitting shoulder to shoulder and sharing together. The community of music that flourished by the Ulster hearth of Joe Holmes, and thrives today in settings like the Swannanoa Gathering music camp at Warren Wilson College, will take its place once more at the heart of the traditional music scene.

Finally, as we add another chapter to this journey, we offer a wayfarers’ toast to our esteemed publisher, the University of North Carolina Press, always a source of undying and masterly support. UNC Press is one of the oldest and most highly respected university presses in the United States, a status richly earned, as we can attest, from our earliest book conversations to the publication of this new edition.

In 2022, our friends and colleagues at UNC Press mark their centennial. In celebration, we offer these lines from a poem by Jackie Kay, Scotland’s Makar (national poet laureate) from 2016 to 2021, commissioned by Edinburgh’s Hogmanay to mark the end of 2020. We dedicate it to UNC Press at 100 and to all of you who venture along the wayfaring path of discovery.

But the lone piper fills the pipes with air;
our individual breaths blow oot in prayer,
wee church or secular, over these rooftops;
to travel endlessly and not to stop . . .

Till the hands wring the minutes out of the clock
and the new year turns its key in the old year’s