Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia.
In his landmark study of Appalachian history, John Alexander Williams observed that "the Irish migration proved one of the formative influences in Appalachian history, though it has created additional problems for historians," who must work to capture the complex nature of Irishness in the British Isles and North America (John Alexander Williams, Appalachia: A History [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002], 43). Paul F. Wells and Sally K. Sommers Smith have noted similar issues arising from efforts to trace the influence of Irish music on North American vernacular musics, remarking that "the nature and significance of this impact is widely acknowledged but poorly understood, resulting in frequent oversimplification of complex historical threads" ("Irish Music and Musicians in the United States: An Introduction," Journal of the Society for American Music 4, no. 4 [November 2010]: 395). Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia, written by National Public Radio host Fiona Ritchie and Swannanoa Gathering founder Doug Orr, attempts to trace these "complex historical threads" by telling a story of a musical, dancing, and storytelling people who were almost perpetually on the move, making an indelible impact on the cultures of the people they met along the way. Lushly illustrated with images of traditional musicians, stunning rural landscapes, and maps, and filled with the voices of contemporary musicians on both sides of the Atlantic, Wayfaring Strangers offers a useful general introduction to the relationships between Irish, Scottish, and Appalachian traditional musics.
Ritchie and Orr cast their narrative in three broad chapters: "Beginnings," "Voyage," and "Singing a New Song." "Beginnings" explores the origins of the impulse to combine story and song, beginning with the troubadours, trouveres, and minstrels of the Middle Ages and continuing to the Scottish courts of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries before moving onward to Scandinavia. Particularly compelling is the careful attention that the authors pay to the specific cross-cultural interactions that occurred within individual council areas and the ways that those interactions may have influenced particular musical practices. Ritchie and Orr frequently draw upon ballad texts in their treatment of these histories, treating them as valuable sites of cultural memory. The second chapter--"Voyage"--documents the migration of the Scots to Ulster and onward to North America, using song texts to discuss the factors that encouraged such movement, including Scottish colonial efforts, rent-racking, population expansion, and religious persecution. In this chapter, one gets the sense that the Ulster Scots were faced with the prospect of ever-widening distances between their ancestral homelands and the new frontiers they settled, first crossing the North Channel from Scotland to Ulster and later crossing the Atlantic Ocean to a land of unknown promise. Not surprisingly, Ritchie and Orr spend a fair amount of this chapter exploring the ways that emigrants and the people they left behind captured the complicated emotions of these constant departures in song and rituals such as the "American Wake," a multiday sending-off party that they describe as "heartfelt and harrowing in equal measure" (p. 95). In the last chapter, "Singing a New Song," Ritchie and Orr continue this story of Ulster Scot migration, this time from the burgeoning urban center of Philadelphia--one of the most significant ports of entry for Scots-Irish immigrants in the United States--down the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road and the Wilderness Road into southern Appalachia. Along the way, the authors offer a cursory examination of the musical products of interactions between the Scots-Irish and German settlers (the dulcimer) and African American slaves (the adoption of the banjo), as well as their engagement with native Cherokees. Ritchie and Orr then attempt to offer brief discussions of many of the primary genres of Appalachian traditional music (including old-time, bluegrass, ballad singing, and sacred styles), as well as the ways that various waves of song collectors, folklorists, and revivalists have engaged with the region's rich musical traditions.
Ritchie and Orr should be applauded for taking on the challenge of presenting a narrative that stretches across more than eight centuries and two continents. Moreover, the inclusion of numerous interview excerpts with practitioners and scholars works to personalize a narrative that could be easily overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the migrations described therein. Unfortunately, the scope of the book--as well as its target audience, which seems to be university students and traditional music enthusiasts--necessitated the omission of important details and concise discussions of issues that deserved to be treated with greater nuance. In the third chapter, for instance, the authors present a litany of Appalachian musical styles and discussions of key artists, but, in trying to cover everything, they miss a valuable opportunity to connect musical practices and peoples. Moreover, their discussion of the Scots-Irish influence on contemporary Appalachian musical practices is often little more than a token reference to someone's Scots-Irish ancestry. Still more problematic is Ritchie and Orr's treatment of blackface minstrelsy, which largely omits the important role that Irish musicians played in establishing it as a principal form of popular entertainment in the nineteenth century (see, for instance, Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class [New York: Oxford University Press, 1993], 92-98; Dale Cockrell, Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997], 199 n. 43). Instead, these musicians are presented simply as "white performers in blackface makeup pretending to be black, performing their version of black music, and speaking in exaggerated black dialect" (p. 225). Whether this omission was the consequence of the book's broad scope or an effort to hide the Irish connection to these practices is unclear, but such missed opportunities for discussion undermine the text's overall strength.
As an introductory text, Wayfaring Strangers is a much-needed addition to the literature. Instructors teaching courses on American vernacular musics may find it to be a particularly valuable--and cost-conscious--resource for students. Undergraduate students will undoubtedly be engaged by the book's generally accessible prose, interview insets, attractive photographs, and accompanying compact disc of recordings, but the layout of the text (which sometimes requires a reader to skip ahead three pages to complete a paragraph) makes the book more challenging to read than it needs to be. Wayfaring Strangers will also be of interest to traditional music enthusiasts, who should find the illustrations and interviews to be of particular interest. Scholars, on the other hand, will likely find Wayfaring Strangers to be something of a disappointment, as the book brings little new insight into those "complex historical threads" that Wells and Sommers Smith have identified. One hopes, however, that Wayfaring Strangers will introduce those readers who might be attracted to the text by Ritchie's celebrity, to the names of leading scholars and practitioners and to a more nuanced understanding of the musical connections between Scotland, Ireland, and Appalachia.
TRAVIS D. STIMELING
West Virginia University
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|Author:||Stimeling, Travis D.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2015|
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