Wayfaring Strangers traces the evolution of Appalachian music

GENEAOLOGY OF A SONG: From left, Wayfaring Stranger authors Doug Orr and Fiona Ritchie interview the late folk musician Pete Seeger. Photo by Darcy Orr
GENEAOLOGY OF A SONG: From left, Wayfaring Stranger authors Doug Orr and Fiona Ritchie interview the late folk musician Pete Seeger. Photo by Darcy Orr

When Fiona Ritchie (the presenter of NPR’s long-running program, “The Thistle and the Shamrock”) first came to North Carolina, “people heard my accent and they’d say, ‘Oh, I’m Scots-Irish,’” she remembers. “I was confused. I thought they meant one parent was Scottish and one was Irish. It took me a wee while to realize this was a historic reference they were making.”

As regular listeners to her radio show know, Ritchie is from Scotland. She first noticed similarities between Scottish traditional music and the Appalachian folk music and ballads she encountered when she came to study at UNC Charlotte in the early 1980s. It was that interest that eventually led her and Doug Orr to coauthor Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. The book took 10 years to complete, and it is an encyclopedic history of the people and pathways that brought traditional music and ballads from the Scottish Highlands in the 1600s to the mountain coves of Appalachia via Northern Ireland, and which gave birth to many of the musical traditions known in Western North Carolina today. Ritchie and Orr give readings at Warren Wilson College and Malaprop’s on Saturday, Nov. 15, and Sunday, Nov. 16, respectively.

The partnership of Ritchie and Orr illustrates the blending of musical and cultural influences that has shaped genres known as folk, bluegrass and Americana. Orr, a longtime resident of North Carolina, is descended from Scots-Irish ancestors. The Swannanoa Gathering founder, former Warren Wilson College president and  current UNC Asheville interim chancellor, Orr is a lifelong folk musician with an active interest in discovering the roots of the Appalachian music with which he grew up.

Intrigued by the musical similarities between performers from her homeland and those in North Carolina, Ritchie began the research that first led to her award-winning radio show and eventually to Wayfaring Strangers. “Living in North Carolina, all I had to do was open my ears, and I could immediately hear there was a connection [to Scotland] that was genuine, meaningful [and] very old,” she says. “The music has changed and morphed over the years.”

Ritchie says that she found “previous work on the Scots-Irish migration to America talked about [the process] like it was something that started at a particular point and ended at a particular point.” She saw a need for a book that told the full story. “As far as I could hear, [Scots-Irish music] was still an ongoing influence. While there was this period of mass migration of Ulster-Scots to the Appalachians, [the relationship between the two cultures] was an ongoing connection that continued and has even started to come back across the Atlantic over the last century.” The authors wanted their readers to see a living connection.

Wayfaring Strangers takes a broadly chronological approach, detailing the history of how Scottish communities found their way into the coves of Appalachia. But the authors wanted it to be an oral history as well. Orr explains that this was part of their plan from the beginning: “Fiona and I have been friends for 33 years, and about 10 years ago we at were at the National Mall for the Folklife Festival,” he says. “We started talking about a book from both of our experiences. One fundamental part would be interviewing as many voices as we could on both sides. We called them the voices of tradition.”

Drawing on dozens of interviews with contemporary singers and tradition keepers like Pete Seeger, Doc Watson and Sheila Kay Adams — interviews often conducted at the Swannanoa Gathering — the authors combined the historical details of migration with an oral history tracing the passage of old songs from generation to generation and the importance of that history to contemporary performers. A CD accompanying the book includes artists such as Dolly Parton and David Holt performing some of the oldest ballads from Ireland and Scotland.

Ritchie and Orr, steeped in the music as they are, discovered a lot during the writing of Wayfaring Strangers. “The impact of the African-American community was much greater than anyone understood,” Orr says. The banjo, for example, has its roots in West Africa. “The Scots-Irish [influence] was the fundamental base of Appalachian music, but it was a tapestry. There were many other influences — English, German, Welsh, French, Cherokee.”

“The book has two purposes,” says Orr. “One was to tell the backstory of the migration, and the front story was the music.” That’s why Wayfaring Strangers contains extensive timelines, discographies, profiles of contemporary performers and other resources. Intrigued readers can use the information as a jumping-off point for their own research.

“We saw a sign in a bookstore in Virginia: ‘A Good Book Has No Ending,’” says Orr. “That’s the way we hope it will be with this book.”

WHAT: Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr will present Wayfaring Strangers, with performances by Grammy-winners Al Petteway and Amy White
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 15, 3 p.m., at Warren Wilson College’s Kittredge Theatre. Free. warren-wilson.edu
WHEN: Sunday, Nov. 16, 6 p.m., at Malaprop’s. $39.95 single ticket and book/$50 two tickets, one book. malaprops.com

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About Rich Rennicks
Rich Rennicks is a freelance writer living in Asheville, NC. He provides advice for those traveling to Ireland at www.atriptoIreland.com.

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