Regarding the four major cultural influences that we are discussing in this and other Segments, only one group, the Scotch-Irish, has a unified body of music that accompanied them when they emigrated to America.  We think that the impact of their migration on American music goes hand-in-hand with their impact on American history.

Historical Context

In order to understand how two Celtic cultures (the Scots and the Irish) became one (Scotch-Irish), we need to understand better England’s policy toward Ireland.  As King Henry VIII looked to sire a male heir to the throne, he felt impelled to create the Church of England, a threat to the Roman Catholic Church’s unified control over the monarchs of Europe.  By creating the Church of England, Henry VIII also put into motion a unified Catholic response that pitted countries like France and Spain against England.

August 1588 Battle between English and Spanish ships (The Great Armada)

Great Armada

Spain posed the most immediate threat which culminated in the attack by the Spanish Armada in 1588.  Of course, England, in defense of the realm, is always at its finest, whether at sea in 1588 or in the air in 1940. The defeat of the Spanish Armada merely deflected the direct threat, and King Philip II of Spain sought another way to attack England–by gaining a foothold in Ireland.  While the Spanish threat, aided by Jesuit priests was real enough, England’s answer was neither strategically sound nor wise.  Queen Elizabeth I was forced to put down three, separate Irish revolts.  Rather than try to find common ground through which Irish clans could gain power by reason rather than revolt, historians state that English soldiers “murdered men, women, and children in cold blood, or so devastated the land that thousands ate weeds or grass until they died of starvation.  ‘The eagles flew to the Spanish Main,’ it was said, ‘while the vultures descended on Ireland’….”

Four Provinces of Irleland: Ulster in Red;Leinster in Green; Munster in Yellow; Connacht in Blue:Connacht

Ulster in Red

Of the four “Provinces” of Ireland (Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connaught), it was the O’Neill clan in Ulster that proved the most nettlesome.  According to one historical account, we are told that:  “After the crushing of the Irish rebellion in the last years of Elizabeth’s reign, it was decided to hold Ireland in hand by transplanting thither Englishmen and Scots.  Six of the nine counties in Ulster, the northern province, were given over to settlers from Britain.  Some of these were English, but a considerable number were Scottish Presbyterians. Hitherto the Celtic Irish had absorbed the Danes, Normans, and Englishmen who had gone among them, but these dour Scotch-Irish of Londonderry, Belfast, and other parts of Ulster have remained sharply distinct and hostile.”

Portrait of Hugh O'Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone

Hugh O’Neill

In another description, the newly settled lands were called Plantations.  “The most successful of the ‘plantations’ was completed in the reign of James I, principally in six of the nine counties of Ulster.  These had been the lands of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone.

“He was the last of those great Gaelic chiefs who, though acknowledging in theory the sovereignty of the English monarchy, tried to resist the new Tudor administrative machine.  Despite help from Spain, O’Neill was defeated decisively at the battle of Kinsale in 1601.  Finally, in 1607 he abandoned all hope of recovering his former position and sailed from Ireland for ever with his ally the Earl of Tyrconnell.  The event became nostalgically enshrined in Irish folk-memory as ‘the flight of the Earls.’  Their lands were confiscated and ‘planted’ with new settlers.  With these Ulster plantations a profoundly significant addition was made to the Irish population.  For the new inhabitants of Ireland were Protestants.”

A century after the plantations were commenced, “large numbers of the Scotch-Irish were to go to America, bringing Presbyterianism with them to the middle colonies and out to the frontier.”

Unable to afford the high cost of real estate along the coastline, most of the new settlers in Pennsylvania traveled to the frontier areas and were critical parts of the defense against Indian attacks, counterbalancing the pacifist Friends who had settled previously in William Penn’s grant.  


Elizabeth I

We have been using the term Scotch-Irish, a term that can be traced back to Queen Elizabeth I, who used the phrase in a letter of April 14, 1573, when referring to Ulster:  “We are given to understand that a nobleman named ‘Sorley Boy’ [MacDonnel] and others, who be of the Scotch-Irish race….”  

While these migrants to North America were at first usually identified simply as Irish, in later years, after the Irish immigration following the Great Irish Famine of the 1840’s, the older settlers began to call themselves Scotch-Irish to distinguish themselves from the newer, predominantly Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland.

According to one historical account, religious differences caused large numbers of the Scotch-Irish to settle in Pennsylvania: 

“Because of doctrinal differences with New England’s Congregationalists, the Scotch-Irish opted for the religious freedom of William Penn’s colony; and the earliest settlements there were near Philadelphia in the 1720’s.  They reached as far west as Pittsburgh before finding greater opportunities in the southern colonies.”  Billy Kennedy, an author of several books on the Scots-Irish migration, living in Northern Ireland, estimates that 250,000 Scots-Irish came to America from the early 1700’s through the Revolutionary War.  “Many of the Scots-Irish found the English colonial government just as unpalatable as they had in their homeland, so they often pushed from Pennsylvania into new territories beyond British influence.  The sparsely-settled Southern Appalachians served this purpose well…”

Without much cash, they moved to free lands on the frontier, in what the historian Frederick Jackson Turner described as:

“the cutting-edge of the frontier.  They moved up the Delaware River to Bucks County, then up the Susquehanna and Cumberland valleys.  With large numbers of children who needed their own inexpensive farms, the next migration went down the Shenandoah Valley and through the Blue Ridge Mountains into Virginia.  

According to Wikipedia, “these migrants followed the Great Wagon Road from Lancaster, through Gettysburg, down through Staunton, Virginia to Big Lick (now Roanoke), Virginia.  Here the pathway split, with the Wilderness Road taking settlers west into Tennessee and Kentucky, while the main road continued south into the Carolinas.”

The Scotch-Irish Presbyterians were formidable fighters and served during the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s Rebellion that followed.  They also served as middlemen to trade with the Indians.  In general, the Scotch-Irish were strong supporters of American independence from England, with three of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence having been born in Ulster.  The concentration of support could be found in Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas.

One of the Colonels at King's Mountain after Battle was won

Battle of King’s Mountain

According to Wikipedia, one Hessian officer said: “Call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an American rebellion; it is nothing more or less than a Scotch Irish Presbyterian rebellion.”  A British major general testified to the House of Commons that “half the rebel Continental Army were from Ireland.”

Ultimately, the final irony is that the Scotch-Irish militia from Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina were instrumental in winning the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780, a turning point in the American Revolution.  It caused the British to abandon its Southern Campaign and forced Cornwallis, eventually, into an untenable position with his back to the sea in Virginia.

Parallels Between History and Music

There are any number of Scotch-Irish influences that continue to this day. Country singing star, Dolly Parton, wrote a forward for a new book, Wayfaring Strangers.  The book was co-written by Fiona Ritchie, the host of NPR’s “The Thistle and Shamrock,” a program that features traditional and contemporary Celtic music, and Doug Orr, President Emeritus of Warren Wilson College.  It is a story in music about the Scots who left their homeland and came to the United States by way of Ulster, carrying with them their most cherished belongings–their traditional music.

Fiona Ritchie, NPR hostess

Fiona Ritchie

Ritchie, born and raised in Scotland, says that Woody Guthrie, the American folk legend, was inspired by the Scottish poet Robert Burns, who traveled around Scotland collecting songs.  “Woody Guthrie really was of that same spirit,” Ritchie said.  “He traveled around as a sort of troubador, tuning into the traditions of the people he encountered.  And most notably Bob Dylan, who reached back, having been inspired by Woody Guthrie–who was in turn inspired by Burns–Dylan reaches back to the Burnsian approach of picking up bits and pieces of ballads–even just ideas, little bits of tunes–and re-purposes them, recreates new songs for a new generation.”

Orr says the story of the Scottish immigrants is still being played out, by different people in different parts of the world.  “It’s a universal story in many ways,” Orr said.  “The immigration, the movement of peoples around the world, goes on to this day, and we need to remind ourselves that they bring with them their stories, their homesickness for the old place.  It’s a very human story.”

We sense a certain amount of melancholy in all of Scotch-Irish and American country music. One of the most notable characteristics of Scotch-Irish music and its American cousins is the use of harmony.  If you listen to the close harmonies of the Everly Brothers, you detect the employment of vocal harmonies in group settings.  The following quote is from the Erik Alan Devaney website, The Bard of Boston, a wonderful website for further exploration:

“Like their Celtic musician forefathers, country musicians often employ vocal harmonies in the choruses–or repeated choruses–of songs.  This strategy helps stress the importance and increase the forcefulness of the choruses while also separating them sound-wise from the verses.  Check out the use of vocal harmonies in the choruses of “Okie from Muskogee” by Merle Haggard [RIP] and compare it to the use of harmonies in the choruses of the Celtic song, Mairi’s Wedding, as performed by The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem.”

We would also suggest that you look at the use of close harmonies by Peter, Paul and Mary in their folk arrangements.

Other unique features of Celtic song might include the use of a sob story or a drinking song.

Itzhak Perlman at the White House in 2007

Itzhak Perlman

The choice of instruments is also a key element.  While technically, we call the small, stringed instrument a violin, in country music, it is a fiddle.  While many classically trained violinists look down on fiddlers, Itzhak Perlman, one of the great classical violinists, loves country music and fiddles along with the best of them.  As we move from pure country music to bluegrass, we need one further explanation.  The banjo does not have Celtic origins.

African slaves brought the concept of the banjo with them to America, which required stretching strings across gourds or animal-skin drums.

In terms of international cross-pollination, musicians in Ireland and Scotland have begun to incorporate the banjo into traditional Celtic music. 

Scottish and Scotch-Irish customs include the shivaree (part of the courting ritual that involves singing in a raucous way to the bride outside her window). We will see, in another Segment, how this Celtic custom has become an adopted custom throughout the United States and was incorporated into the play Green Grow the Lilacs and the musical Oklahoma!

Lastly, jigs and reels have morphed into dances, such as the square dance, the Texas Two-Step and line dancing.