On a warm late-May night in North London, it was one of the more unusual book-launch parties I can remember. After responding to the customary speech from her publisher, the author picked up a fiddle and joined a guitarist, a double bassist and a banjo-player to play a short set of thoroughly invigorating bluegrass, transforming the upstairs room of an Islington pub into a bar in some deep hollow in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Kentucky.
Emma John, the author of Wayfaring Stranger: A Musical Journey in the American South, earned her authenticity with a stay of several months in the bluegrass heartlands, seeking to turn the long-neglected classical violin technique acquired during her schooldays into a mastery of the music of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. The book is account of the trials she endured, of the friends she made, and of a dramatic outcome which I have no intention of spoiling.
A former colleague of mine at the Guardian and the Observer, John writes beautifully. There are interesting sketches of rural American attitudes in the time of Trump, a fascinating chapter on encounters with southern religion — which is, of course, a crucial part of the music’s genetic make-up — and passages in which she describes the Appalachians with a lyricism that reminded me of William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways. More important, she is a wry and candid observer of her own anxieties and insecurities, the very qualities that might have disqualified her from participating in a music as dependent on self-confidence as bluegrass. She also has interesting things to say about the challenge of learning to improvise within this highly formalised idiom.
She made me laugh quite a lot, as when she notices at a bluegrass festival that “when the bands weren’t singing old songs, or new songs crafted to sound like old songs, they were singing songs about how no one sang the old songs any more.” And there’s a lovely insight in her discovery that bluegrass “wasn’t the sound of home at all, but the sound of longing-for-home.”
All I can add is that I started the book at half past eight on the night of the launch party and finished it at seven o’clock the next evening, having been impelled to neglect several ostensibly more important tasks in the meantime. It might well do that to you, too.
* Wayfaring Stranger is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. The musicians with Emma John in the photograph, taken at the launch party, are Joe Auckland (banjo), Si Cliff (guitar) and Ben Somers (bass).