Six questions with… Fiona Ritchie

Written by broadcaster Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr (with a foreword by Dolly Parton, no less) Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia tracks the musical journey of traditional Scots and Irish songs, transported across the sea by generations of emigrants to America, where they blended with the sounds of their new home.

The book has been a success both in the UK and the US, becoming a New York Times Best Seller and recently winning the 60th Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award. Next Wednesday 27 April, the opening night of TradFest, Fiona charts this musical diaspora with help from musicians Alan Reid, Jenn Butterworth, Laura-Beth Salter, Cameron Ross and Ian Young, who will perform some of the songs featured in the book.

Where has Wayfaring Strangers taken you recently?

I’m enjoying sharing the book with curious readers on both sides of the Atlantic. The most recent outing for this was to the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, where our book event was attended by the singer-songwriter Janice Ian and a member of this generation of the Carter Family. Nashville was a great place to bring our story “home”.

Which other musicians have been your main influences? 
I am inspired by many of the “Voices of Tradition” in my book, including the singer, songwriter, tradition-bearer and song collector Jean Ritchie, who sadly died in 2015.  We will weave some of her songs into our Wayfaring Strangers show at TradFest Edinburgh.

What inspires you when writing? 

In writing my book I was inspired by the intrepid Scots-Irish wayfarers who carried their songs and tunes over the centuries and across the miles.  After they crossed to Ulster and then onward to America, many found Appalachian homes and a new interpretation for their long-held musical traditions. They seemed always called to a more distant horizon and adventure, transported with their music and stories. I developed a deep affinity for their indomitable spirit and persistence in sustaining a great musical tradition. 

Which bands/artists from the contemporary Trad scene, in Scotland or elsewhere, do you rate most?

I am excited by the musicians joining me for my TradFest event!  I’m really thrilled to be joined by a legend of Scottish music, a great singer and an old friend – Alan Reid – who toured the world many times over with Battlefield Band and now plays solo and with Rob Van Sante. We’re also joined by Jenn Butterworth and Laura-Beth Salter who are exciting the Scottish music scene with their mix of Celtic and Americana songs and instrumentals. Cameron Ross is a Glasgow-based fiddler who has been steeped in the Old Time music of Appalachia and will be joined by Edinburgh-based clawhammer banjo specialist Ian Young, so there’s a wonderful mix of music from both sides of the Atlantic.

Have you played TradFest before? Are there any other acts on the programme you’d recommend seeing?

If I could, I’d base myself in Edinburgh and go to it all!

What does Tradition mean to you?

“Music must be part of something larger than itself, a part of humanity” – so said cellist Pablo Casals. Traditional music is very much that: authentic, intimate, and an egalitarian and democratic force in overcoming differences of culture, religion and origin. No one person, or indeed any community, has ever been able to constrain the power of a song or a tune as a force for mutual understanding and shared joy! But it’s the continuous flow of tradition that interests me most: no one stream and no one source, but a merging of many tributaries trickling from streams through place and time and coursing together onward across fresh terrain. Cajun musician Dewey Balfa said “a culture is preserved one generation at a time”. This reminds us that song, tune and story traditions must be replenished, refreshed and cared for. 

Wayfaring Strangers takes place at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Wed 27 Apr, 5.30pm. Book tickets.