THE READING ROOM: British ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ Finds Bright Land of Bluegrass in America
A yearning for home lies at the heart of the traditional hymn “The Wayfaring Stranger.” While the longing the song describes is for a “bright land” where there will be no more sickness or sorrow, and a land where “God’s redeemed” keep their vigils, the hunger to find such a place can also apply to the search for our heart’s home, or, in the case of British journalist Emma John, our musical home. Part memoir, part travel diary, and part music history, John’s warmly told, often humorous new book Wayfaring Stranger: A Musical Journey in the American South (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) invites us to accompany John on her own pilgrimage as a “wayfaring stranger” who’s “just going over” to a home she didn’t realize she had but that welcomes her as one of its own.
A few years ago, John, a violin player who had packed her instrument away in its case to gather dust, heard the “ecstatic anthems, wistful lyrics and wild instrumentals” of Mumford & Sons blaring over the airwaves in London, and, even though her relationship with popular music was “estranged to nonexistent,” the music flooded her “neural networks, and she didn’t hate the sensation.” After the encounter with the banjo-driven sound — “which some people around here referred to as ‘bluegrass’” — John suddenly heard the word “bluegrass” everywhere, and groups around London had started playing their version of the music. Going to hear some of those groups, she noticed they all featured fiddle players in the background who “emerged at intervals to put the rest of the instruments to shame with melodic riffs and jaunty solos.”
The “strange, Americana-inspired sound intrigued” her, she writes, and pretty soon she dusts off her violin case and hops on a plane to North Carolina in hopes of discovering the roots of bluegrass, and in hopes, perhaps, of pulling out her violin and learning the bows and scrapes and runs of the tunes in order to sit in with some bluegrass pickers. As she travels down the meandering bluegrass trail — which takes her from Taylorsville, North Carolina, to Rosine, Kentucky, to Boston and back to Boone, North Carolina — she discovers, of course, the unity and diversity of bluegrass, and she also finds her spiritual and musical home.
During the earliest days of her travels, she pulls out her violin to play music with the couple she’s staying with, Fred and Doris. “It was the first time playing my fiddle in two decades. … This music felt like a portal to another world. It wasn’t just that life around me was different; I was different. … The songs, the stories, and the kindness of strangers had given me a taste of an alternative existence I’d never imagined for myself.”
Through the rest of the book, John shares stories of the many individuals she meets who invite her into their music circles, warmly asking her to join in when they see she’s carrying her violin case, and she also shares her own reluctance to join in, her feeling of not measuring up, her fear of missing notes on a solo. Sometimes John is too self-deprecating and timid for her own good, but her tentative tone allows her both to shine a light on the musicians around her and to soak up the music lessons and the history of the music that she’s encountering.
John learns about the tendency in bluegrass to declare allegiance to the old stuff or the “new crap” in a conversation with Bryan and JM one night in Boone, after the two had been “debating the relative merits of the greatest bluegrass fiddlers, names like Chubby Wise and Bobby Hicks and Benny Martin and Vassar Clements and Kenny Baker.”
“You know what I like in this old stuff?” Bryan asks. “The roughness in it,” he explains. “I hate the new crap. It’s not my style.” When John asks what counted as the “new crap,” he replies, “anything since the eighties.” Another friend, Isaac, joins in and says, “anything past the fifties is modern to me.”
John stumbles onto the tenacity with which many bluegrass fans hold onto the steadfastness of their own definitions of bluegrass when she encounters the Punch Brothers and their music one afternoon at an outdoor concert on Staten Island. She’s at first nonplussed when these hipsters walk onto the stage, and she wonders what she’s gotten herself into. She realizes that the aspects of the progressive bluegrass that attract her — “music that was vibrant and modern-edged, but also complex and note-heavy — were the very attributes that made it unattractive to my more traditional-minded friends.” She concludes that “this was emotional territory: not a question of whether these modern forms had merit, but whether they counted as bluegrass at all. After all, bluegrass had rules. …There was a general agreement that bluegrass should sound like bluegrass, not like jazz, or classical, or rock, or a mishmash of all three.”
Between some of the chapters, John includes short interludes that include a “brief and incomplete history of bluegrass” in seven parts, a “short history” of John’s violin, a handful of banjo jokes (“What’s the difference between a harmonica and a banjo?” “When you play a harmonica, you only suck half the time.”), and six topics of bluegrass songs: “the old homeplace, trains, cheatin’, drinkin’, killin’, chain gangs.”
At the end of her journey, John spends a few days in Raleigh, North Carolina, at the annual gathering of the International Bluegrass Music Association. The constant series of showcases and informal jam sessions in hallways and hotel rooms underscores the lessons she’s learned on her journey and also makes her feel as if she’s found her home. “I wasn’t sure of even bluegrass’s basic rudiments any more. I’d been taught that the music I loved had strict rules — and discovered that they were constantly broken. I’d been sold a history shaped by bitter feuds, only to discover that its joyously unlikely collaborations were just as defining. I knew that bluegrass was riven in two by diametrically opposing cultures. And I’d also seen that they mostly got on just fine. … I may have arrived a stranger, but this place, and its people, hadn’t allowed me to keep my status for long. Acquaintances had turned friends had turned family. Now my own memories were soaking into the landscape.”
Emma John knows that a good tale sits at the heart of many bluegrass songs, as well as the ability of the song to drive around many different musical corners as players on the fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar, and bass take their turns chasing notes up and down fretboards and weaving them around the other lines in the songs. Like a great bluegrass tune, Wayfaring Stranger warmly draws us into its rambunctious or rhapsodic take on life.