Monday, May 08, 2017

Wayfaring Stranger - Episode 3: "“the Ulster-Scots, that’s really where traditional bluegrass comes from"


(Declaration of interest - I appear in this episode, but leaving that aside…). It has taken me a couple of weeks to gather my thoughts on this. Here we go.

In a more informed culture, the three absolutely wonderful episodes of Wayfaring Stranger, presented by the equally wonderful Phil Cunningham, might be nominated for a Grammy Award. Indeed, Episode 1 included Rhiannon Giddens, whose album Factory Girl was itself Grammy nominated earlier this year. 

Episode 3 opened with Roseanne Cash, the daughter of Johnny Cash, playing the song Girl from the North Country. She was followed by the West Virginia mandolin legend Tim O’Brien who quite naturally said –

“the Ulster-Scots, that’s really where traditional bluegrass comes from.. you hear people in the mountains of West Virginia singing about Ireland’s green shore - they were people who had a lived for a generation, two or three, in Ulster and then moved and kept moving until they settled in the mountains … and kept the old tunes and songs alive that became what we call bluegrass..."

I saw Tim O’Brien playing with the late great Doc Watson at the Museum of Appalachia in 2002, with my parents, my wife and our then only, and four year old, son Jacob. I have the photos of Jake with Tim & Doc picking away in the background behind him. That autumn/fall we drove around east Tennessee for two weeks, playing tapes of old-time country music I bought in roadside filling stations, and my mother knew more of the songs than I did.

But back to the programme. Next up was footage from the Ulster American Folk Park with bands playing The Old Gospel Ship, followed by On the Sea of Galilee hit me like a double sledgehammer; being from a coastal community I grew up with these two songs. 

The programme then went back in time to the first fiddle contest, on St Andrews Day in 1736, from which we were brought through 200 years plus of continuous tradition, majoring on the early recorded music era. Henry Gilliland’s seminal tune Arkansas Traveller was played by Sara Watkins (try to stop your foot tapping when you hear it). His pal Eck Robertson got a mention. Disaster songs, murder ballads ... Tim O’Brien picked through Down in the Willow Garden with a deceptive and deft simplicity, its sweet melody making the brutal story all the more powerful. It’s a song I have known for at least 20 years - but I had absolutely no idea it was first written down in our very own Coleraine, as Rose Connolly.

You need to get a taste of the rough & ready, and maybe even a little bawdy, Skillet Lickers - superb and literally spirited music. They were led by Clayton McMichen, who I am told gave some interviews about his Ulster ancestry. From the Saturday night sin, to the Sunday morning repentance, every shade of human experience is expressed in this old stuff.

Personally I was thrilled that the McCravy Brothers made the cut, my brother and I used to sing their songs at Sunday School socials, learned from 78s that our grandparents had and which I now have. I choked up with a flood of nostalgia when Sara Watkins sang Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave it There with her ukulele - speaking to me so powerfully of my mother’s last few agonised years of life when her faith in the sufficiency of Christ was her sole delight –

“if your body suffers pain; and your health you can’t regain;
and your soul is almost sinking in despair;
Jesus knows the pain you feel; He can save and He can heal;
take your burden to the Lord and leave it there…"

Music changes, it picks up influences as it travels, it leaves influences behind. Bluegrass, invented by Bill Monroe around 1945, was really the hip-hop of its day, which mixed and sampled existing old sounds and from them created something new. Dock Boggs did the same, fusing blues rhythms with old-time melodies. The important interaction between Scotch-Irish Americans and African Americans is a theme I’ve posted about here a few times. In itself that’s a big and important story.

Throughout the three programmes the quality of contributor was impeccable, apart from me of course. It was a privilege to help the producers a wee bit. They went to extraordinary lengths to get to grips with deep, persuasive, meaningful content, to carry out fresh research, to follow trails which made new connections.

What Wayfaring Stranger has done is, I believe for the first time, ‘pinned down’ the origins of country music as being overwhelmingly Scotch-Irish. Most people who know the material would have known this already, but it has not as far as I’m aware been framed with such clarity until now. As I have said in previous posts, over recent generations early American music has been presented as being Scottish and Irish in origin, but with the specificity of ‘Ulsterness' not understood and not presented. Wayfaring Stranger has put that right.

Wayfaring Stranger is I think even better than An Independent People, the much-acclaimed series on Ulster Presbyterians from a few years ago.

If it was me, I’d give them a Grammy. 

• Episode 3 is available on BBC iPlayer here.