Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Wayfaring Stranger with Phil Cunningham - BBC (Episode 2)

17880235 10155251771357878 3419343576724069774 o

'Authentic, emotive and true'.

That's part of what I tweeted as the end credits rolled on episode two of 'Wayfaring Stranger' when it aired last Thursday night. It is hard to describe what it is like to wait nearly all your adult life for a programme of such quality and depth and to see it materialise in your own living room. A lifetime of listening, tracing the origins of early recorded music and before, years of reading, a honeymoon and also family holidays in Appalachia which were actually thinly-veiled research missions, years of seeing many of the jigsaw pieces but with no author or producer to have ever found the missing ones and then assemble them into a single picture. Until now. Until 'Wayfaring Stranger'.

Never underestimate the power of nostalgia to evoke memories. When Sheila Kay Adams sat on her porch with a five string banjo, playing 'Where the Soul of Man Never Dies' with Phil Cunningham pulling sweet yet sombre chords from his piano accordion, this was my mission hall life transported thousands of miles from where I and my ancestors were rared to a New World of rural North Carolina - and yet a world to which none of us truly belongs. I'm getting emotional just writing this blog post.

Why? Because music and stories can do that. You can hit me with a thousand facts, or just sing me one song. The song has the power.

And then came Ricky Skaggs, and Jerry Douglas, and Tim O'Brien, and Frank Newsome, and Fiddling John Carson, and Jimmie Rodgers, and the Carter Family, and William Walker, and - look, if you don't know who these people are then you owe it to yourself and your heritage to find out.

Many of the songs and tunes played were ones that I grew up with, that my late mother sang, that her mother sang, that her father collected on 78s, that I now have, and which appeared in popular hymnals on both sides of the Atlantic from the mid/late 1800s right up to the present day.

It was an honour to see my scratchy old 78 of Fiddlin John Carson being played on the programme, which I had loaned to the producers, Fiona and Sean. Last July I saw Carson's Ulster fiddle in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville (my photo is below). ‘Pluperfect awful’ it might have been to Ralph Peer’s New York ears, but it meant something deep and powerful to Scotch-Irish country folk. I have now seen his musical story – our musical story – at long last properly told.

And the closing sequence, with the distinctive instrumentation of Johnny Cash’s superb, mournful, American Recordings version of Wayfaring Stranger as an outro, brings the whole story right up to the beginning of the 21st Century.


BBC iPlayer logo svg copy

• Watch Episode One of 'Wayfaring Stranger' here on BBC iPlayer
• Watch Episode Two of 'Wayfaring Stranger' here on BBC iPlayer


Tim O'Brien plays some of this song in the programme, this is a live version from YouTube:

IMG 5243