Our Narrator Rambles On About That Which He Can Not Describe
Yes, I know. It’s not about Ambrose Bierce or World War One. It’s even a book less than a year old.
It’s about music. In fact, this is the first review I’ve ever written about a book on music. That’s ’cause I don’t read books on music. (The first and only other one was I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon.)
To my mind, in the dark ages before the world was illuminated by the Web of a Million Lies, music reviews (at least the ones I saw) consisted of things like “The Skull Island Dinosaurs’ ‘Make It Pay’ sounds like an uptempo, reversed backbeat version of ‘Drownin’ in Tar’ crossed with the moog of the Skank Road Kills.’ In other words, not terribly useful if you’ve never heard any of the reference points.
Given that I play no musical instruments and that my grasp of musical terminology is pretty tenuous despite watching all of Professor Greenberg’s lectures on Understanding the Fundamentals of Music, more technical descriptions are lost on me too.
These days, you can just hear the samples and works for yourself online. In that spirit, I’ll be putting links to various performances of some of my favorite artists and songs, a practice unlikely to be repeated.
Of Entebbe and the Black Watch
It all started right around July 5, 1977. I remember the date because news of the successful July 4th Israeli raid on the Entebbe airport was on the radio.
My grandfather put a record on his stereo. It was the bagpipes, specifically a recording of the Black Watch.
That he would have bagpipe records wasn’t all that surprising. He had a Scots surname. His father had been a founding member of the Caledonia Society in the small North Dakota town where he lived.
I even have a childhood memory of seeing the Black Watch doing a tour stop at a town in South Dakota near where we lived. It seems improbable that such a noted group would be stopping at such a small town, but it was definitely a pipe and drum band of some sort.
Banjos and the Chuck Wagon Hour
My father dabbled in playing banjo by ear and liked to listen to some radio show featuring bluegrass and old time gospel music, but we had almost no recorded music around the house until I was in high school, bought a cassette player, and joined a record club. My taste was bizarrely eclectic, but the only singer I bought that approached the music covered by this book was Dolly Parton. She, in fact, writes the forward to this book and shows up on the accompanying cd.
I Hear the Pipes a Playin’ — Again
My attending Macalester College had absolutely nothing to do with its Scottish connections or its pipe band. But it used to hold a Scottish fair. Going to it became a habit. In the days before the Internet, it was a convenient place to pick up cds of Celtic music, but I didn’t avail myself of that right away.
Ken Burns’ Civil War and Disposable Income
The debut of Burns’ documentary in 1990, more disposable income, and a visit to my parents came together to get me interested in American folk music (and by folk I mean stuff composed by Anonymous, not the stuff from the 1960s). Specifically, my father had taken to making dulcimers, had gotten his first stereo system, and introduced me to a series of four National Geographic albums done for the American Bicentennial. They featured cowboy songs, steamboat songs, and songs from the American Revolution and American Civil War.
I was also buying cds every year at the Macalester College Scottish Fair and becoming a fan of Men of Worth, a duo that played many years in a row at the fair.
Somewhere in the 1990s, I stumbled across, on National Public Radio, the Thistle & Shamrock show hosted by Fiona Ritchie who co-authors Wayfaring Strangers. It was there, for instance, I heard Brian McNeill’s masterful album of trans-Atlantic Scottish migration, Back o’ the North Wind, and numerous recordings of the famous and long-lived Battlefield Band.
I used to record episodes of The Thistle & Shamrock. I still have the cassette tape for one titled “Celtic-American Connections”. Essentially, it was the forerunner of this book. One of the recordings on that show, Patrick Street’s “Benton’s Jig/Benton’s Dream“, is even on the book’s accompanying cd.
There were a few hundred cds were bought following up on that show. Most of those musicians and singers show up in this book. One of my favorites, Missouri’s Connie Dover, is missing here. Her work embodies the theme of this book, but I suppose somebody had to be cut.
Coming across the locally produced Bluegrass Saturday Morning (part of which is host Phil Nusbaum’s nationally syndicated Bluegrass Review), led to more cds and some deeper knowledge of the genre and its cousins, the blues and “old timey music”.
Sometime, many years ago, for unknown reasons, I lost track of Thistle & Shamrock. And then, with a shuffle of the schedule, I heard it again right after Bluegrass Saturday Morning. And Ritchie was pitching this book.
Nurture, nature, and my past all conspired to bring me to this book. I don’t really believe we’re destined to read any particular book, but, if I did, this is the one I would think Destiny brought to me.
Review: Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage From Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia, Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr, 2014.
This book took a lot of jigsaw pieces in my head and shook them all in to place. My years of listening to Ritchie’s Thistle & Shamrock show and bluegrass music and my knowledge of American and Scottish history all fell into place to give my brain a grand, coherent narrative of the subject.
I was acquainted with many of the musicians, singers, recordings, poets, and historical events mentioned, but there was plenty I learned:
- Why American blacks became so dissociated with the instrument, the banjo, they brought from Africa.
- How the final gatherings of family and friends before some crossed the sea became the inspiration for many songs.
- Why the bagpipes did not cross the sea to America and how the dulcimer entered Appalachia music.
- The efforts of American “songcatchers” to continue the work of Robert Burns and Walter Scott.
- The differences in performance and recordings between bluegrass and “old time music”.
- Why the 1927 recordings in Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia are considered the “Big Bang” of country music.
- The relation of the Ulster Scots to the “regular Scots” and the immigrants who came to America. (My Scottish forbears were of the stream that went through Canada and not the Appalachians.)
- The influence of Cherokee culture on Appalachian music and the close ties between the Cherokee and descendants of immigrant Scots. (Well, except Andrew Jackson.)
The book has a wealth of ancillary material: a discography of suggested recordings, biographies of the figures mentioned, a timeline putting the history and music into context, and notes for the accompany cd.
There are a few minor gripes. Some of the excerpted interviews with major figures involved in this story will have been heard by even casual listeners of Thistle & Shamrock. Bits of those interviews are also repeated in the main text. The authors overwork their river of culture metaphor. Pete Seeger, troubadour for dictators, gets let off too easy with the description “social activist”.
Still, I think anybody but a very knowledgeable scholar of the subject will learn something. And the accompanying cd is worthwhile too. I have a lot of bluegrass and Celtic music, but I was completely unfamiliar with the sean-nos style of accompanied singing developed in Ulster that’s featured on one-track.
I happened to be reading Dreams of Fear: Poetry of Terror and the Supernatural, S. T. Joshi’s collection of weird poetry, at the same time as this book. Walter Scott and Robert Burns show up in both. That’s not really surprising given the supernatural aspects of some Scots ballads. Miller and Hamer’s “Willie’s Lady” has a particularly nasty woman cursing her daughter-in-law. The book’s cd has two versions of “The Farmer’s Curst Wife” in which the Devil, to his regret, hauls a man’s wife off to hell. And, among other things, “The Cruel Sister” answers the question about what you would do with a dead body. (Make a harp out of it, of course.)
Another odd echo to my usual reading is the mention of Fred Davis Chappell, poet laureate of North Carolina. He also dabbled in the Cthulhu Mythos.
More on Pete Seeger
While I don’t agree with Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the man who gave Seeger his first lesson in the five-string banjo, that folk music was all right until Pete Seeger got mixed up in it, Seeger’s life is a big time cautionary tale not to take your political thought from poets or singers.
When I say Seeger was a troubadour for dictators, I mean that literally and specifically. The dictators were Joe Stalin and, when he was Joe the Georgian’s ally, Adolf Hitler. Seeger was a real card-carrying communist. In May 1941, he released his album Songs for John Doe which tried to convince America to stay out of that whole war with Hitler.
Things got a little embarrassing on June 22, 1941 when Germany invaded Russia. His allegiance to the Comintern compelled Seeger to go around to various shops and buy up as many copies of Songs for John Doe as he could. Now that whole war with Germany seemed like a good idea.
The whole thing is covered in Seeger’s wiki and in greater depth in an article by Ronald Radosh, ex-fellow traveler, historian, and a friend of Seeger’s. In later years, Seeger went from Stalinist to communist.
Orr and Ritchie were obviously friends of Seeger, and I’m not going to dump my Seeger music. But I’m also not going to forget he apologized for a lot of murder in the world.
Some Concluding Music Links
I was never really very fond of Kathy Mattea the country singer, but I like the Kathy Mattea of folk and bluegrass albums Coal and Calling Me Home. Both cover the work of a variety of songwriters including Jean Ritchie who always struck me as sort of like her friend Bob Dylan — better as a songwriter than performer.
Not mentioned in Wayfaring Strangers are 1920s duet Whittier and Grayson, the first to record so many future old time and bluegrass standards including “Tom Dooley” (Grayson’s uncle helped capture Tom Dula, the man the song is based on).
The Carter family sits astride the confluence of Appalachian and earlier Celtic music. A couple of good introductions to their work are The Carter Family: 1927-1934 and The Unbroken Circle: The Musical Heritage of the Carter Family, an album of covers by modern singers and musicians.
I promise not to write about music again.