For centuries, poor migrants from the Scottish Highlands made their way to the US in search of a better future. With them came music, stories, songs and memories. With live shows banned on both sides of the Atlantic during the Covid crisis, reporter James Mahon and producer Alex Preavett took the opportunity to hear from folk and bluegrass musicians as they reflect on the impact their music can have and how it keeps culture and history alive.
Chattanooga bluegrass group Southwind feel the musical ties between both nations on opposite sides of the world are more alive today than ever before.
“As the immigrants moved out from that new England area into the edges of North and South Carolina, east Tennessee into the Appalachia, they took those songs from their country into the mountains and continued to write their own stories, travelling songs, dancing songs, songs about the troubles and trials that they went through, stories about love and heartache and toil and trouble”.
These stories became the foundations of Bluegrass, with fiddles brought over and mixed with African and Caribbean instruments including the banjo.
“I was born into it. My grandparents played and I was raised by them and that’s all I’ve ever known is playing bluegrass. Thank goodness,” explains members of Chattanooga based folk and bluegrass group Barefoot Nellie and Company.
4500 miles away in the Scottish Highlands, Michelle has made the opposite journey taken by so many in the 1800s. She left Mississippi to Scotland to marry Scottish musician Rab Woods and explains that we should not forget the journeys our ancestors have taken.
“A lot of Scottish people did not choose to leave Scotland. They were forced to through the Highland clearances. So when they got to America, they were very much not ready to move on, not with their lives, as far as their musical lives or with the kinds of foods that they ate, or you know, just anything about their culture. So I think they, the immigrants very much had a nostalgia for the old country. And so I think that that just fell to the generations. You have people now that have a nostalgia for a place that perhaps they’ve never been.”
For Scottish and Irish traditional musicians, the differences between modern Bluegrass in America and the tunes and reels they play in Europe vary but have significant similarities.
“Every style of fiddle makes the most sense when you think about the dancing that goes with it. I think with bluegrass, sometimes people pretend that there’s not a dance tradition with it, but even Bill Monroe would clog like half a tune on stage often. So the flat footing really and the clogging goes really with the bluegrass style. Whereas in Scottish traditional music, well so I find when you play for Scottish dances, you’re trying to play them off the ground, there’s quite a lot of time spent in the air,” explained Jeri Foreman an Australian fiddle player who’s now based in Glasgow.
For Southwind, the global crisis has given their members time to focus on the real value of music and its impact for crowds across the Volunteer State.
“It’s a way to pass on our history through song, that’s the way it’s been handed down from year to year, our fathers passed it to us, their fathers passed it to them. There was an oral history long before there was a written history. So the arts, music, and visual arts and so on and so forth, are very important.”
For Rab Woods in Oban on the west coast of Scotland, the global crisis has given him more time to record and write new material and he explains how despite being so different, it’s the love of Bluegrass and its history from his homeland that continues to inspire him.
“Music has been the heartbeat of humanity for thousands of years and a way of expression and bringing joy to people and that’s always the way it should be.”
Artists featured in this documentary and series
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