“And where she’s been and what she’s seen,
no living soul may know,
And when she’s come back home,
she will be changed—oh!”
Lark McCourry is a popular folk singer whose tours regularly take her across the country. But her roots and strong family ties are in the small town in the mountains of North Carolina where she grew up and learned to love folk music, especially ballads— and most especially The Rowan Stave ballad. Lark moved from the mountains to the big cities to build her singing career. But she continues to be haunted by the memory of the The Rowan Stave ballad. She knows the song has been in her family for generations and finally feels compelled to leave her singing tour and travel back to the mountains to begin her journey to find it and restore a piece of her family’s past. Her quest leads her to her estranged father, now a lonely and angry old man living alone, and dying, in the North Carolina mountains.
She also meets Nora Bonesteel, a wise mountain woman who talks to both the living and the dead, and who may be able to help with Lark’s search. Nora believes that old, lost songs are a touchstone to the past, and so is eager to help Lark.
Songcatcher is the story of Lark’s journey. But it also is the story of the lyrical, haunting ballad that has woven its way through generations, across oceans and mountains, from Scotland and Ireland and England to the hill country of North Carolina.
The first settlers in the North Carolina mountains brought the folk songs they’d sung in their homeland with them to their new home and sung them to their children, then to their grandchildren and great grandchildren.
The ballad was first heard in 1759 by a nine-year-old boy after he was kidnapped from the shores of his home in Scotland and taken aboard an English ship as a slave. His name was Malcolm McCourry and during his 10 years on the ship, of all the songs he heard sung or played by his captors, “The Rowan Stave” ballad was the one he liked best. The “strange and terrible” story in the ballad haunted him and also reminded him of home. He learned it by heart and for many years taught it to others he met on his travels.
Malcom’s other remembrance of home was the small white pebble, the “magic rock,” his mother gave him when he was just a toddler to keep him safe from drowning, a fear she’d had since a “wise woman” terrified her with a prophesy when Malcolm was born that “The sea will take him.” He kept the small rock safe during all the years he traveled.
But when he lost his “magic” rock, he was afraid to sail without its protection. So he jumped ship and settled in Morristown, New Jersey because he liked the “little village.” The song went with him when he apprenticed with an attorney, became an attorney himself, and married Rachel, the daughter of the attorney who had befriended him. It was with him when he fought bravely in the American Revolutionary War, and came home suffering from serious wounds and exhaustion. He sang the song to his wife, then to his young son, Zebulon.
Tragically Malcolms son, Zebulon, was left an orphan after both Malcolm and Rachel died of Typhoid Fever, leaving their baby son to be raised by an uncle on his farm. Young Zeb enjoyed entertaining visitors to his village with ballads he’d learned, especially his favorite, “The Rowan Stave.”
As time went on, the ballad was shared with sons and siblings, with children and grandchildren, then continued to weave its way through generations, becoming a part of McCourry family history.
But as families grew and spread from the mountains to the and farms and small towns across the country, this ballad and other ballads and old songs— beautiful songs telling wonderful stories— began to be forgotten, replaced by new songs played in music halls and concert houses. But the old songs were not lost to those who settled in the North Carolina mountains. They had brought the music with them in their heads. Music was an important and constant part of their lives. And there were no concert houses or music halls in the mountains to introduce the new and different music to them.
As we follow Lark’s journey to find the ballad and her family’s legacy we learn the colorful, intriguing stories of other McCourry family members and how their lives impact each other.
Author McCrumb is a master storyteller knitting the fascinating stories of the McCourry family together with the history of The Rowan Stave ballad and other songs carried across oceans and mountains. It’s a book that held my interest and imagination from beginning to end!
P.S. In her notes, author Sharyn McCrumb shares with us the surprising and wonderful fact that Malcolm McCourry is the author’s “four-times great grandfather.”