Fiona Ritchie tells Fiona O’Brien about the emigrant musical journey which inspired Appalachian generations and her book Wayfaring Strangers
When Fiona Ritchie arrived in North Carolina as a student, loving life immersed in American culture, she could not believe that she would find herself in the midst of a Highland Games, as authentic as the ones back at home in Scotland.
“My new friends took me to all-night diners and drive-in movies, ball games and beach parties,” she says in the introduction to her book Wayfaring Strangers.
“When several people suggested I take in the spectacle and carnival of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, I was lukewarm,” it reads.
“Why would a Scot go to a Highland Gathering on one of her final precious weekends overseas? Give me more swimming holes and tailgate parties!”
But Fiona did attend the games, primarily to take in the scenery of the majestic Smoky Mountains, and it was then that she began to discover the phenomenon that was Scots-Irish heritage.
“I was the least Scottish looking person at the Games, everyone was dressed in tartan and I was wearing these cut off shorts – it was so funny!” she tells me.
“When I first went out to the States as a student I was really very naive about what the connections were between the UK and Ireland. You knew there were people in the US that had that lineage, but you couldn’t tell that it was so often.
“Within that first six months people would say to me that they were Scots-Irish, and I just assumed it meant that half of their family was Scottish and the other half Irish, it took me a long time to uncover what they meant.”
Fiona returned to North Carolina after she completed her studies at the University of Stirling, and soon joined new radio station WFAE-FM where she began to host the Thistle & Shamrock. It started off as featuring a small vinyl collection that reminded Fiona of home, but the combination of good music, a host with a clear passion for the material, coupled with her easy to listen to, lulling Scottish tones the show became a weekly national programme within two years.
“I was in the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time partly, working at a new radio station with a lot of young people with a lot of great ideas.
“I was really young, looking back at it was incredible. When you’re young you just jump into things without getting daunted, but I suppose in your early 20s you don’t really know what you don’t know.”
Her and her friend and former boss Doug Orr through their love of music began to speak of writing a book that would chronicle the history of how the Ulster immigrants influenced American music.
“We would meet up in larger groups of people to play music, listen to music, go to concerts. So over time when we’d periodically bump into each other we would talk about the idea of investigating it further and writing a book.
“I suppose in terms of actually realising it, we’ve probably been working on it for a decade in one way or another and then pretty intensely over the past five years to just really bring it all together. It’s been a long journey for us too.”
And it’s a project that really justifies the amount of time that has gone into its creation, the book starts with a personal couple of letters between the two co-authors that details how they embarked on their journey before immersing themselves in the musical history of emigration.
The book tells of the first Ulster Scots that settled in America and how that created a shared back catalogue of music that has been passed down generations.
“There seems to be this common theme, a hankering for home and in this age, we can’t comprehend how hard that must have been for people. But the music and that sense of loss and longing is still there.”
“I think as we worked on the book a lot of the music kind of selected itself, but there could have been dozens and dozens and dozens of other tracks on there. The discography allows people to delve into other music and find stuff that can really speak to them.
“Some were especially selected but the rest reflect the journey of the music so we wanted some that were written here, or rooted from Ulster that reminded people of the crossing, like Rambling Irishman, which very much reminds people of that journey.
“Then we wanted songs that had been recorded over that were clearly of that lineage that had been sung and had travelled, people like Sheila Kay Adams, seven generations of her family have sung ballads, that originated in Scotland and had travelled down through her family.
“Another obvious one was to take a song like Gypsy Laddie which is sung in Scotland and Ireland and which when it travelled to the US became Gypsy Davy or Black Jack Davey. Including that was to try to convey the journey of a song and let people hear how it had changed by playing one version and then the other.”
And it’s not just the CD that brings the book to life with voices, Fiona believes the stories told by the contributors enriches the soul of the story as much as the music.
“We did get lots of really great people and I think it really does bring the book to life when you transcribe somebody’s words, you can kind of hear their accent, you know whether they’re Scottish or Irish or American, it kind of gives the book, hopefully to readers, brings it to life a little bit.
“Some of them were quite elderly, and some have actually passed on in the time that we were working on the book, so it started to become more and more urgent to get their insights and reflect on their lineage while these people were still with us.
“We were so honoured really to meet some of them and have their memories all preserved within the book. With mass media now, we really have less of a feel of that sense of regional voices, and family story that was maybe embedded in the one place.
“But it’s lovely to think that it is possible to get to speak to people who grew up with that kind of music. You feel as though it’s maybe the last chance to grab that sense of heritage and a focus to share it.”
One of these voices is from Dolly Parton, who actually wrote the foreword for the book, and who Fiona believes epitomises the whole concept of songs being passed from generation to generation.
“Dolly was so generous to write the foreword for our book which we were obviously thrilled about and just felt blessed that she wanted to share that. I like to think that she fastened on to it because it did speak so much about her family’s musical journey from the traditional roots from this side and then over the Atlantic to America which threw her into the touch of mainstream.
“She pointed us to her version to the ballad of Barbara Allen, so we HAD to have that on the CD it’s just so perfect. The track really opens it up as Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh of Altan sings with Dolly Parton and they trade versions of the English Appalachian version and in the Irish language. It really encapsulates that journey of music in audio.
“I feel as well with Dolly, that she captures the most important sense of ballads in that although she is such a big star, often when she sings she’s not drawing attention to herself, she’s just delivering that song and putting it out there to be heard.”
“The song becomes a thing in itself, so I think it’s that spirit of wanting to share music and becoming a vehicle to deliver something that goes way back before you were ever around and will continue way on until after you ever sang it, which I think sets it out from other genres.”
Dolly Parton is not the only big name that Fiona analyses in the journey, but reflects on The King himself, Elvis Presley, who although is synonymous for the influences he derived from African-American music, drew inspiration from the Scots-Irish genre as well.
“When you do a wee bit of scratching around and you find out that Elvis Presley’s mother was from that Scotts-Irish tradition and that the Presley family had come from Aberdeenshire. You learn that he was someone who grew up in the South and must have been exposed to a lot of these old ballads, but he was obviously influenced by African American roots, as were a lot of the Appalchian musicians.
“It’s a chapter of the story which has quite sadly been overlooked by a lot of people who have chronicled this story who have separated it out as a White European story but all you need to do is look at the amount of people who played the banjo in Southern and Appalachian music, and the banjo came from Africa.
“We managed to speak to the Carolina Chocolate Drops who were very helpful. But back then there were a lot of African American string bands, and it wasn’t until the 20th century’s growth in the recording industry which ended up split them into black music and separate white music.
“But the whole thing for us has been this tapestry which has been our model. You had African American, German, English, Welsh Cherokee influences woven in and although the strongest thread is Irish and Scottish, if you took any of the other smaller threads out you would lose this whole unique tapestry.”
Fiona herself is due to collect an MBE from the Queen for her services to broadcasting and the promotion of Scottish music.
“I’ll be getting a letter soon to find out when I’ll be travelling down to London for that. It came out of the blue it’s exciting, but my kids are SO excited. They are just looking forward to this fabulous day, and it will be a lovely family occasion.
“But it was so out of the blue to find out, it was lovely. I suppose it was most touching because it’s a recognition for services to broadcasting, which I’ve spent my whole life doing working on but I’m also touched that my services to Scottish traditional music were picked up on. People involved in this type of music, it’s a labour of love for a lot of them, so I’ve been trying to get the word out about this unique Celtic music my whole life.”
Wayfaring Strangers; the musical voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia
by Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr
The University of North Carolina Press