As host of “The Thistle & Shamrock” on National Public Radio (NPR), Fiona Ritchie has bewitched many a listener with carefully curated playlists of traditional Celtic tunes, stories of her native Scotland, and, of course, that accent—mellifluous with a bit of a burr. No one is better qualified to take stock of Scots-Irish music than the NPR host, and in Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia, she does just that. Ritchie co-authored the book with Doug Orr, a longtime advocate of folk music who is president emeritus of Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina. Although their backgrounds are different—Orr is a North Carolina native—the two music lovers achieve perfect harmony on the page, offering in-depth perspectives on a migratory and enduring art form.
Bascom Lamar Lunsford, known as the Minstrel of the Appalachians, performing at “Singing on the Mountain” at Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina, ca. 1940.
Beginning with medieval-era ballads, Wayfaring Strangers traces the history of Celtic music from its European roots to its arrival in America via Scots-Irish immigrants during the 18th and 29th centuries. Many of the new arrivals from the Old Country settled in the southern Appalachians, where their lonesome ballads and sprightly fiddle tunes became part of a rich mix of regional sounds. Meeting and melding with English, German, and African-American styles, their music became part of a blend that would provide the underpinning for bluegrass and modern folk.
Naturally enough, Wayfaring Strangers lingers in the misty glens of Ireland and Scotland. Paying tribute to Celtic culture, the book provides plenty of background on the instruments, themes and song styles prevalent in those countries. Special sidebars spotlight the fiddle, the harp, and the bagpipes, as well as ballad types and traditions. The authors move smoothly through 400 years of history and arrive in contemporary times to consider the Scots-Irish-influenced music of Doc Watson, the Carter Family, Bob Dylan and Bill Monroe. Interviews with musicologists further clarify the musical ties between Scotland and Ireland, which are symbolized, respectively, by the thistle and the shamrock.
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Doc Watson playing guitar in 1987.
“’Connection:’ how often we use this word,” Ritchie writes. “It holds the promise of tangled textures below the surface, of stories to be told, of discoveries to be made.” As it happens, she shares a special connection with her co-author. During her inaugural trip to the United States in 1980, Ritchie studied for a semester at UNC-Charlotte, where Orr, coincidentally, was a vice chancellor. Impressed with the city and its dynamic music scene, she settled there the following year. She found an early supporter in Orr, who was instrumental in establishing Charlotte’s NPR affiliate, WFAE-FM. Ritchie started out at the station as a volunteer and made her debut, at Orr’s urging, as a radio host in 1981 with “The Thistle & Shamrock.” Two years later, the show was launched nationally by Public Radio International. It’s now one of NPR’s most popular offerings.
No doubt it’ll be Ritchie’s voice fans hear in their heads as they read Wayfaring Strangers. Filled with maps, woodcuts, paintings, and photographs of impossibly picturesque Scottish and Irish locales, the book is a treasure trove of imagery and information. A companion CD with 20 tunes by folk favorites like Dougie McClean, Pete Seeger, Jean Ritchie and Dolly Parton, who contributed the book’s foreword, is bound to inspire a bit of impromptu string-band jamming. Music lovers, prepare to be transported.
Photographs by Hugh Morton; © North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill