Tuesday, March 17, 2015

St. Patty's day book review: Wayfaring Strangers by Richie and Orr

See title at UNC Press
For St. Patrick’s day this year, I’d like to review the new New York Times bestselling book from Fiona Richie and Doug Orr, Wayfaring Strangers: The Music Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. Fiona Richie is most famous for her NPR Celtic music show The Thistle and the Shamrock, which I love but is usually in a horrible time slot like 7pm on Saturday. Besides my love of Celtic and old-time music, I had a personal reason for reading this book—I myself have Scots-Irish ancestry tracing back to the Appalachians.

This book traces migration and music from Scotland to Ireland (in the 1600s) to Philadelphia (in the 1700s) to the Appalachian mountains (late-1700s and later), not to mention other migrations from Scotland and Ireland to America. It full of interesting stories and facts: the 18th-century migration of Ulster Scots across the Atlantic, the Scots-Irish American Indian chiefs, the Gaelic-speaking community in North Carolina that was lost when the government build Fort Bragg, the invention of the mountain dulcimer, how African-American fiddle/banjo duos died out because the recording industry would only record white folks playing that instrumentation, and how American "old-time" music became disseminated to the world, just to mention a few.

While the book was enjoyable and informative, I think there are a few editing choices that made the book at times somewhat difficult and detracted from the wonderful musical journey that is the book's focus. I think the front matter, which starts in Roman times and has a large section on Medieval France, could have been pared down quite a bit. Also, the book has too many extra sidebars and excerpts from interviews with famous musicians. While the interviews are usually interesting, many times they do not really illustrate the points made in the main text. I think the authors could have been more selective on these interview excerpts. As for the the sidebars, they also often took away from the narrative, sometimes repeating information already in the text or stating information that easily could have been worked into the narrative. There were a few times where spans of 6 pages had only just sidenotes and interviews, which made it difficult to pick the narrative back up. I also thought the artwork and photos usually had very little to do with the narrative, and I would have liked more useful and illustrative pictures instead of “here’s some nice mountains!” I understand that this book is kind of a hybrid between a coffee table book and an an academic book, but I still think that the pictures should have matched the text better.

A few other small complaints: while the book is full of stories and personal accounts about the migration from Scotland to Ireland and across the ocean, soon after they immigrants arrive in a America, the personal stories dry up and we are left with more general movements mixed with conjectures from more modern figures, some more authoritative than others. Also, at times there was a lack of technical depth, such as repeatedly bringing up the “high, lonesome sound,” but never defining it. Finally, while the included CD is a welcome addition with good recordings, as presenting a book about music with actual music is important, it was strange that many of the artists on the CD were not really discussed in the book, while other important featured artists (like the Carter family) did not have any recordings.

In the end, if you love Irish or Scottish music, but have never heard of the Scots-Irish or thought that all the Irish came over to America after the 1840s' Great Hunger, you should check out this book. Or, if you love old-time music but don't know about roots in the British Isles, you should check out this book. Enjoy!

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