Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Guest Blogger Sharyn McCrumb on the Roots of Appalachian Culture

A novel of a historian following the trail of
a young woman who escaped the Shawnee in 1799.
In my post of April 20, Deep Geographic Memory, Bagpipes, and Electronic Music, I mentioned New York Times bestselling author Sharyn McCrumb. It is my pleasure to share with you, courtesy of Sharyn, a piece that she wrote on the topic of how the early American settlers brought with them, as they journeyed west into the Appalachians, music and stories from England, Scotland, and Ireland. That culture, once transplanted, acquired small differences, but it reflected--and still reflects--the "old country", even as the Appalachians reflect the landscape of the hills and valleys that these settlers would've called their original home.

I thank Sharyn for giving me permission to reprint this! Please see her bio at the bottom of this post. You can learn more about her and her work at www.SharynMcCrumb.com and www.facebook.com/SharynMcCrumbAuthor.

Wayfaring Strangers

By Sharyn McCrumb 

from the 2017 Mountains of Music Magazine
for The Crooked Road, Virginia's Musical Heritage Trail

Copyright 2017 Sharyn McCrumb

My home’s across the Blue Ridge Mountains
My home’s across the Blue Ridge Mountains
My home’s across the Blue Ridge Mountains
And I never expect to see you anymore.

They must have felt that way once—more than a century before that song was written—when the settlers rolled down the Great Wagon Road that followed the valleys between the wall of mountains that stretched on forever. When the settlers reached the middle of Virginia—about where Roanoke is today—some of them headed west on the Wilderness Road, ending up on the 18th century frontier, in southwest Virginia, east Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, and western North Carolina.

They, or their recent forebears, had already made one perilous journey in a lifetime, across the Atlantic from Scotland or Ireland or England, to settle in the New World, but the eastern seaboard was already getting crowded by the late eighteenth century, mostly full of the people they left Britain to get away from. (Besides: you could see the neighbors.) So they ventured deeper into the mountains, looking for a place that felt like home. They never knew how close they were to being back home; nearly two more centuries would pass before geologists put together the ancient puzzle of earth’s Triassic period to discover that millions of years ago the Appalachians had been part of those same mountains in Britain from which many of the settlers themselves had come.

The new people brought what they could from home—not material things, because the ships were small, so you had to pack light—but they carried with them everything they could fit into their heads, because memories were all they had left of the places they’d come from, and they treasured them. They handed down these memories to their children and grandchildren, which is why in 1914 musicologist Cecil Sharpe found the traditional folksongs he was looking for, not in Britain where they had originated, but in the southern Appalachians, where they were cherished remnants of the past.

Things changed a bit in the new world. If you came over with an unusual name—Rhys (Welsh) or O’Laoghaire (Irish) or McDiarmuid (Scots)—sooner or later some census taker would standardize you to “Reese,” “O’Leary,” and “McDermott.” The songs and stories got naturalized, too. The Wexford Girl became The Knoxville Girl, and Lady Margaret of the Child Ballad was demoted to Little Margaret over here, but the plots of the songs stayed the same, and the tunes were still recognizable. When The Lily of the West was composed, back in Ireland, the “West” was the coast of Ireland: Galway or Connemara. Many years later when people sang the song in America, the “West” they pictured was Kentucky (“When first I came to Louisville, some pleasure there to find…”)

You never know when the family resemblance is going to peek out at you. Years ago, I took a newly-arrived Scottish professor to an Appalachian storytelling festival. The speaker began a tale about an old farmer who was fishing in a mountain stream and caught a big old trout. As the story wound on to the part where the farmer found a gold ring in the belly of the fish, the Scottish professor began to nudge me with his elbow. Finally when the story ended, I asked him what he had wanted so urgently to tell me. “Right,” he said. “About that story the fellow told. First of all, it wasn’t an old farmer; it was St. Mungo of Glasgow; and it wasn’t a mountain stream; it was the Firth of Clyde. And it wasn’t a trout; it was a salmon. – But the rest of the story is correct.”

They brought their fiddle tunes from Scotland, their knowledge of whisky-making from Ireland, and their quilt patterns from a time before history began. (The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.)  But just as English timothy hay became Kentucky bluegrass in the New World, sooner or later almost everything that the settlers brought with them got a North American spin. We were a long way from where we started, but if you look closely, you can see where we hailed from.


Sharyn McCrumb

Sharyn McCrumb, an award-winning Southern writer, is best known for her Appalachian “Ballad” novels, including the New York Times best sellers The Ballad of Tom Dooley, The Ballad of Frankie Silver, and The Songcatcher. Ghost Riders won the Wilma Dykeman Award for Literature from the East Tennessee Historical Society and the national Audie Award for Best Recorded Book..        
       Sharyn McCrumb, named a Virginia Woman of History by the Library of Virginia and a Woman of the Arts by the national Daughters of the American Revolution, was given a merit award for literature by the West Virginia Library Association (2017) and the Mary Hobson Prize for Arts & Letters (2014). Her books have been named New York Times and Los Angeles Times Notable Books, and have been translated into eleven languages.


  1. Wonderful to read...I love her writing style!

  2. Thank you. A delight to read. Good history and true connections. Let us not forget another part of the story of how these settlers (my ancestors) did unto the native inhabitants (another of my ancestors) what had been done unto them and dispossessed the indigenous of their lands and lives.

    1. Sadly,isn't that always the human way in their pursuit of happiness?


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