Bound for new settlements in the United States, Scots-Irish immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries crossed a fearsome Atlantic Ocean, sometimes called by its ancient name: the Sea of Green Darkness.
This world was a place of great beauty and greater danger. Raging storms tossed ships like toys, and seafarers claimed monsters abided in the dark green depths.
Voyagers crammed belongings into trunks, but one precious item didn’t need packing: their musical traditions. The ballads and tunes from the United Kingdom and Ireland comforted immigrants on Atlantic crossings. And it followed them in wagon trains down the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley into the Carolinas, past Salisbury and Charlotte and onward to the mountains.
In the high country’s misty coves, music from the Old World merged with sounds and songs of English, German, Welsh, African-American, French and Cherokee origin. And it’s a legacy that continues to impact musicians today
That story unfolds in a richly illustrated new book that will be released Monday by the University of North Carolina Press: “Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage From Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia,” co-authored by Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr.
Ritchie, 54, is a Scottish radio broadcaster and creator of National Public Radio’s popular weekly Celtic music program, “The Thistle & Shamrock.” In the 2014 Queen’s Birthday Honours, Ritchie was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire for her services to broadcasting and Scottish traditional music.
A former vice chancellor and faculty member at UNC Charlotte, Orr, 75, is president emeritus of Warren Wilson College, founder of the WFAE public radio station and founder of the Swannanoa Gathering, a series of folk music workshops conducted at Warren Wilson College each summer. Currently, he is interim chancellor of UNC Asheville.
Dolly Parton chimes in
The book includes interviews with modern-day songwriters on both sides of the Atlantic. People like Doc Watson and Sheila Kay Adams share their own family stories to help bring history to life. A CD features 20 songs by musicians profiled in the book.
In her foreword to “Wayfaring Strangers,” country music star Dolly Parton wrote: “This music is close to my heart and part of my DNA.
“I grew up in the Smoky Mountains listening to these ancient ballads that had crossed oceans and valleys to become an important basis for American folk, bluegrass, and country music.”
William Ferris, senior associate director of UNC Chapel Hill’s Center for Study of the American South, called “Wayfaring Strangers” a “stunningly beautiful book.”
“It underscores how powerfully important the music was and helped keep their (immigrants) spirits lifted and help them set down roots in the New World.”
While much has been written about traditional ballads and songs, he said it’s been “in a more scholarly way or in a more popular way.”
“This book sets the record straight,” said Ferris, author of “The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists.” “It connects the dots of the migration of Scots-Irish and Irish families to North Carolina and Appalachia and how they brought their music with them. These songs linked them to their roots in powerful, heartfelt ways.”
‘An American tapestry’
For both authors, the book was a personal project. Orr had been to Scotland researching his Scots-Irish roots, and Ritchie made musical discoveries on her own in the U.S.
Ritchie and Orr met in the 1980s when both were involved in the Charlotte folk music scene and in public radio.
Ritchie had been an international student at UNC Charlotte for a semester in 1980 and returned the next year to work at WFAE. On her travels around the South, she stopped at a campsite outside Nashville, Tenn. where two veteran musicians were jamming on a dobro and fiddle.
The dobro player was none other than Beecher Ray Kirby, known as “Bashful Brother Oswald,” a member of Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff’s famed Smoky Mountain Boys band.
As a Charlotte resident, Ritchie gradually discovered she lived in the heartland of old-time music. “It was a nice kind of awakening,” she said. “I developed an insatiable appetite for old-time music.”
Meanwhile, Orr was a lifelong student and fan of traditional, Celtic, Appalachian and country music.
More than a decade ago, Orr and Ritchie had their first planning meeting about a book on the Scots-Irish “carrying stream” of music that migrated to the Appalachians.
At the 2008 Swannanoa Gathering, they started work on the project, and made the final push to finish it three years ago. “We became totally immersed,” said Orr. “We both felt we were fellow travelers.”
On both sides of the Atlantic, they researched the story, writing independently but trying to blend the narrative into one voice.
At times, Orr felt like like those seagoing wayfarers who danced to tunes on a ship’s deck. Or that he rode with them in wagons driven by wagoneers who sang and fiddled on the way south. “On the ocean and wagon road, the music was with them the whole time,” Orr said.
When they settled into mountain coves and hollers, the music blended with other sounds to form what Orr called “an American tapestry.” At time of the Revolutionary War, he said, onehalf of the fiddle players in the South were African-American. Later, there were African-American string bands, a tradition that continues today through such performers as the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
African-Americans would influence the music of such artists as A.P. Carter, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson and Elvis Presley.
Meeting Pete Seeger
A sense of urgency hung over many of the interviews Orr and Ritchie conducted with musicians because of their advanced age. The co-authors caught up with legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger at his home above the Hudson River near Beacon, N.Y.
Seeger, who’d just finished chopping wood, invited them in for lunch.
“Anecdotes flowed around the kitchen table as Pete shared his memories and passions in that honest, true voice, sometimes breaking into song,” Ritchie recalled. “We wanted voices like his to speak clearly through the pages of our book. There are many of these passages in the book, transcribed directly from interviews.”
Seeger, who died in January at age 94, is among them.
Ritchie and Orr hope these voices will speak to readers and that they’ll reach out to their own families and communities – and hear their stories.