Wayfaring Strangers: the song, a tale of both physical and spiritual travel, came from the southern mountains of North America to become known and shared across the world. It is a song which has roots in both melody and idea that reach back to Scotland and Ireland as well. Fiona Ritchie and Douglas Orr have chosen Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia for the name of their book, in which they tell the long story, the carrying stream of emigration, travel, and continuing and changing ideas of heritage shaped at first in Scotland, then carried with Scots who settled in the north of Ireland, and carried across the ocean to the American states, finding a place to flourish and grow anew in the mountains of Appalachia.
Music is a powerful source of identity and connection for any who travel. Think about it: when you hear a familiar melody or a song you know from home in a foreign land, it calls forth emotion and memory beyond the words and sound of the song itself — all the more so if you are living in or moving to new land. All the more so in days before recorded music, in times when travel often meant parting from friends and family — never to see each other again.
“I imagine and try to put myself in the place of people who were leaving home all those years ago and traveling to America, and leaving under painful circumstances very often. If you have the gift of these songs with you and you have the memory of them in your mind, it’s like company for you in your life. They are almost your friends that will mind you on your journey. If things are tough, you can think on the stories they can tell you. And the process of singing and the process of remembering the words; it’s a very powerful personal one. Having arrived wherever you are, people who maybe couldn’t remember all the words, they would appreciate being able to share them and to hear those songs again…”
Those are ideas of Irish singer, songwriter, and flute and whistle player Nuala Kennedy, who has herself lived in the United States and Scotland as well as her native Ireland. Such reflections, interview segments, and thoughts are a strength of the book. There is narrative of the social and political history of emigration across the years from Scotland to Ulster in Ireland to North America and along the great wagon roads of early days of travel in North America. There is a variety of illustration, ranging from nineteenth century drawings of daily life to recently created photographs and drawings and paintings of landscapes and dwellings. There is a CD comprising twenty tracks, tracing and illustrating ideas and songs talked of in the narrative. Among the musicians contributing to this are John Doyle, Pete Seeger, Jean Ritchie, Altan with Dolly Parton, Cara Dillon, and Al Petteway and Amy White. Parton, a native of the Great Smoky Mountains, wrote a forward to the book. Then there are the sidebars: explanations of ideas and terms, comments from scholars and collectors, and reflections from musicians, which serve to expand and illuminate the ideas about the carrying on and sharing of tradition which are at the heart of the book.
That’s not so say that the narrative and the CD will not interest to the perceptive traveler; indeed they will. Ritchie, a native Scot and founder and presenter of the radio program Thistle and Shamrock, and Orr, a native of North America and moving force behind the Swannanoa Gathering, where tradition bearers and those who bring musical traditions through in the next generations come to share their music and stories with eager students each summer, have spoken with many artists who make their life’s work the carrying on of musical tradition. Their choices in sharing selections from these conversations, set in context by the narrative and other aspects of the work, give depth and connection to the stories of music, of history, and of travel which they tell.
The stories are bound up with land and landscape, the loving and leaving of it and finding ways to live in a new land, keeping some traditions, changing others, and how all this intertwines with music. If you enjoy traveling in or reading about the Appalachian region of North America, the history of Ireland and Scotland, or the telling of stories through music and the persistence of heritage, then you will want to add Wayfaring Strangers to your library. If you are thinking all this is good but it is a distant part of history and not that relevant to me, I invite you to consider this from singer and songwriter Cara Dillon, who is from Dungiven in Northern Ireland.
“There’s one song in particular called The Winding River Roe which we recorded, and the song’s all about a local man in my hometown who emigrated to America. And he was full of promise for the future and excited like most people were, but they didn’t realize the harsh reality: that maybe they wouldn’t survive the crossing, getting there, and then it wasn’t really the American Dream when they go over there becasue the conditions were so hard. Maybe they only survived, and they never ever returned to see their families again. And the song’s basically all about him reminiscing, saying that if he had one last dying wish, it would be that his soul would return to the place he loved the most…You just don’t get that in a modern pop song these days. You don’t get something so raw that can appeal to people worldwide. Because even nowadays there’s still people leaving home and people emigrating and still finding it hard when they get to the other side to set up and make a living for themselves… The plight of the refugee is a plight that never goes away. With each year that passes, we are focusing on different parts of the world and displaced people experiencing problems, so those songs speak to people across generations…”
As do the stories Ritchie and Orr tell in Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. Give it a read and a listen. These stories will add depth to your travels.
Photographs of the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina and the Western Highlands of Scotland by Kerry Dexter.