Monday, 3 January 2011

The Ulster-Scots roots of country music (1)

There is a long tradition of music in Nashville and the first settlers brought that love of music with them.  It is recorded in John Donelson's Journal that religious services, music and dancing were part of the two-day celebration when the flatboats arrived at the Bluffs.

Today Nashville is regarded as the capital of country music.  Regular radio broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry, a country music programme, began in 1925 and went on national networks in 1939.

The Ulster-Scots contributed in many ways to the making of modern America and one of these was their contribution to the folk music of the American people, from which country music developed.

It was the Scotch-Irish who travelled down the Shenandoah Valley and it was they who settled the country music heartland of Appalachia.

Peter McCabe, a former editor-in-chief of Country Music, wrote the book Honkytonk Heroes and in it he described the Scotch-Irish roots of American country music:
It was the Scotch-Irish settlers, bringing their traditional songs and instruments to the Appalachian mountains, to the South and later to the West, who gave birth to what eventually became known as country music.  These settlers preserved many of the songs and sounds of the old country, as is made evident by so many folk or country ballads now called American which have similar versions, with the same lyrics or message - cousins, you might call them - in Scotland, Ireland or England today.  ... But inevitably the new environment prompted new songs - new stories to tell, new tragedies to lament, new myths and legends to perpetuate - and in place of bagpipes and lutes there appeared zithers, guitars and banjos.  and yet, even here there are similarities.  The wail of a fiddle in a bluegrass song bears a striking resemblance to the haunting sound of Scottish bagpipes.
According to the musicologist William H A Williams:
Ireland's initial impact upon American music came predominantly from Ulster ... Whatever their influence in terms of cabin and barn styles, field layout, town planning, and so on, it seems likely that he greatest and most lasting contribution of the Scotch-Irish was music.  And however one may define their particular religious and ethnic identity, musically they should be considered Ulstermen, for they brought with them the mixture of Scottish and Irish tunes which is still characteristic of large parts of Northern Ireland.
  • Peter McCabe, Honkytonk Heroes: New York, 1975
  • W H A Williams, 'Irish Traditional Music in the United States', America and Ireland: 1776-1976: The American Identity and the Irish Connection: 1980

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