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From the American Revolution to the present day
The Songcatcher traces one American family from the Revolutionary War to the present by following an English ballad as it is handed down through the generations.
The Songcatcher tells the story of pioneer settler Malcolm McCourry beginning in 1751, when nine-year old Malcolm was kidnapped from his home on the Scottish island of Islay and to serve aboard a sailing ship. As an adolescent Malcolm turned up in Morristown, New Jersey, where he apprenticed with an attorney, later becoming a lawyer himself. He fought with the Morris Militia in the American Revolution. In the 1790's Malcolm McCourry left his wife and children, and in the company of his daughter and her husband, he made his way down the Wilderness Road to western North Carolina, where he homesteaded, married, and raised a second family.
As an old man in the Carolina back country, Malcolm sang the ballad "The Rowan Stave" to his grandson. The child grows up to be a soldier in the Civil War, and he passes the song to his nephew who sings it for the tourists in the boom-town era of the 1880's, and so on.
Many writers begin their careers by writing about their own lives and families, but I wrote more than a dozen books before I ventured into family history in the course of a novel. I found Malcolm McCourry while I was doing the research for an earlier book, and I was so intrigued with him that I made him the focal point of The Songcatcher, mostly because I thought he had such an interesting life, and only incidentally because he was my four-times great-grandfather.
The Rowan Stave, the ballad that is the centerpiece of this novel, is not an authentic old song. It was written for this book, because I thought that I could not find a song so obscure that no reader would be familiar with it, so I composed one. However, it is true that my family did hand down authentic folk songs from one generation to the next as part of our oral tradition. It took me a while to find this out, though. My father left the mountains for World War II and never went back, so my contact with my mountain kinfolks were limited to visits in the summer and sometimes at Christmas.
- Hear a sample of The Rowan Stave: Listen
When I was in college, folk music was in vogue, and-- in lieu of going to some of the more tedious classes at UNC--I bought a $10 guitar at a pawn shop and learned to play. Then I bought a Joan Baez album of folk songs, and tried to play them with the half a dozen chords I had managed to master. A few weeks later I went home for Thanksgiving, determined to impress my father with this new skill his tuition money was making possible. I summoned him into the living room and began to play (badly) my latest conquest from the Joan Baez oeuvre. I had just managed to sing the first line, "A fair young maid all in the garden..." when my father joined in. He was a little Hank Williams on the tune, but letter perfect on the words. I was aghast.
"How do you know this song?" I demanded. "It is the very latest in college music." I had gone down to the Record Bar on Franklin Street and paid $6.98 for that album. Parents aren't supposed to know the cool people's songs, I thought.
My father smiled. "Why, that's John Riley you were singing," he said. "I had that song from my grandmother, and she had it from her grandmother."
When I got back to Chapel Hill, I read the liner notes on my Joan Baez album. John Riley was a Child Ballad, it said. That meant that Francis Child had collected it in the 18th century on the Scottish borders. So the song was 200 years old. It had been brought to the North Carolina mountains by the settlers who homesteaded there after the Revolution. It had been handed down in my family from parent to child for seven generations.
And I went to the Record Bar and paid $6.98 for it.
I never forgot that lesson, because to me it symbolized the fragility of one's heritage. Each of us is the link between the past and the future, and it is up to us to pass along the legends, the stories, the songs, and the traditions of our own families. If we don't they will be lost, and your children may not be lucky enough to find a bit of their past going for $6.98 in a store somewhere. They may never find it at all. Since then I have been mindful of seeking out my heritage and doing what I could to preserve it and celebrate it so that my children, and all the children of the Appalachian settlers will have it as a cornerstone for the future.
The story told in the ballad The Rowan Stave is a Scots legend about the mother of the Brahan Seer, telling how she got the stone that gave him the Sight. I wrote the words, and my friend Shelley Stevens, a dulcimer player and a singer with the Ohio folk group Sweetwater, wrote the melody.
In a way this story of a heritage preserved in song is Roots with a tune. It is really a story that happened in many places: Australia, Nova Scotia, wherever the people of the British isles settled with nothing left of home but the memories. I am chronicling the version of the story I know best: the Scots who settled the southern mountains of Appalachia. There is a kinship among all these expatriates: they are many squares of the same quilt. We are all descended from people who became strangers in a strange land. I hope that readers will pick up on the universality of the story, and not think of this book as a quaint dispatch from an alien place. It isn't. It's a distillation of the American experience.
So... carry it on.