04 January 2021

Wayfaring stranger now in paperback (update)

The BIB editor writes:

On 18 Dec. 2020 John Lawless on Bluegrass Today welcomed the appearance in paperback of Wayfaring stranger: a musical journey in the American South, by the English writer Emma John, who in earlier life trained under a hard teacher to be a classical violinist. In the book, she goes to the USA to find bluegrass, meets innumerable bluegrass people, becomes a fiddler, and discovers that playing music can be enjoyable and transformative (all her national false modesty and self-deprecation vanishes in the process).

Thanks to the late Frank Robinson of Derry, I read this book in hardback in 2019. I enjoyed it immensely, and it should do as much for any bluegrass lover, just for the sheer number of familiar figures that appear. Emma John had instruction and/ or good advice from (among many more) Pete Wernick, Matt Glaser, Michael Cleveland, and the Kruger Brothers; met (among many more) Wayne Henderson, Tim O'Brien, Alison Brown, Bobby Osborne, Roland White, and Carl Jackson; and saw many others perform in different settings and places. Her impressions were overwhelmingly favourable.

The book is very often very funny, but not faultless; she had to pick up a lot of bluegrass history in a hurry, and (despite help from impeccable bluegrass scholars) a journalistic desire for a neat effect led her astray at times. Is it true that after breaking with Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt 'faded from view'? Or that Scotty Stoneman only played hokum fiddle? Also (in view of John Lawless's phrase 'the traditional music community', this is a necessary warning) she claims to have been immune or averse to old-time music and flatfooting.

Nevertheless, the core of the book is the experience of playing bluegrass music, and I find her descriptions of that experience completely convincing and often deeply moving. Over ten years ago Frank lent me another book which purported to describe a search for the moving spirit of flamenco, and at the time I wondered what the bluegrass equivalent would be. As a Daily Telegraph reader, I hate to admit that a Guardian writer can get anything right, but all in all I think that in Wayfaring stranger Emma John has nailed it. The book can be ordered from her website, from the Guardian online bookshop, and from other usual channels.

Update 26 Jan.: Henry Carrigan's favourable review of the book appeared on No Depression on 21 Jan.



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