Saturday, August 06, 2022

Erasure and Absorption – 'Irish' music and America

I recently remembered that a kind civil servant that I used to see from time to time when I was Chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency gave me this double album – the select soundtrack of the momentous 1990 BBCNI & RTE, Emmy award-winning, five part TV series Bringing It All Back Home, about the musical connections between Ireland and America. She was (and probably still is) a lovely person, well-intended, and I had high hopes of the music.

When the series, and soundtrack, came out in 1990 I was a hard rock devotee in my last year of school – Def Leppard, Guns N' Roses, the Black Crowes, a bit of Iron Maiden and Metallica. By the time the CDs were given to me around 2007 I'd already spent a good few years immersing myself in Ulster-Scots heritage, I'd been through Appalachia twice and had become enthralled by how well our story was told over there, and was preparing to head to Washington DC to take part in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in July 2007.

The musical standard of Bringing It All Back Home is exemplary, played by a galaxy of world class stars. However, the narrative that underpins the soundtrack leaves out the story of the Ulster-Scots (see the track listing here). The tv series is available online and I have been re–watching some of it.

The influence of Bringing It All Back Home can't be exaggerated, it was something of a game-changer. It was broadcast two years before the genre-blending landmark Another Country album by The Chieftains (link here) and five years before the global phenomenon of Riverdance. Some time around 2005/2006 a photographer friend gave me a mix tape, inc The Chieftains' version of 'Tennessee Waltz' with Tom Jones on vocals. The societal impact of all of this was huge.

What might be called the Irish 'national project' of the twentieth century has created world-shaping perceptions, and a singular dominant story. But the orthodox account of the history Irish music that many consequently tell has seldom, if ever, acknowledged the uniquenesses of the Ulster-Scots – the exact musical forms which were exported by Ulster-Scots, the early era in which the Ulster-Scots emigrated, and the differing American geographies to which various waves of migrations from Ireland went, both the Ulster-Scots, the 'Famine Irish', and others too.

None of this is to claim that any cultural tradition is better than another, but simply to acknowledge that there was, and is, variety.

Some oppose that cultural variety. Some find it to be inconvenient. Many just don't know about it, because of the dominance of the singular 'national project' narrative. For people in any walk of life there is commercial/financial security in repeating and reinforcing 'conventional wisdom' stories. So the Ulster-Scots story is typically either erased, or else absorbed into the island's story.

I might post some specific observations of precisely how the tv series missed the mark.


As a welcome corrective to the creative imaginations of musicians and marketing people, the Irish-centric orthodoxy is expertly redressed in this 2012 lecture at Emory University which is available on YouTube, where Paul Wells, former Director of the Centre for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University (situated south east of Nashville) challenged the narrative. He said:

"... there are a great many assumptions being made ... however it is quite clearly a Scottish, rather than Irish, strain. The widespread assumption about the existence of the strong Irish element in southern fiddling is relatively new. It has become a popular notion only within the past 20 – 25 years, in other words during the period in which Irish traditional music has risen to unprecedented heights of popularity.

Perhaps even more striking than the assumption itself is the degree to which people want it to be true... it is my understanding that prior to the famines of the 1840s and 1850s the vast majority of those who came to these shores from Ireland were the so-called Scotch-Irish or Ulster-Scots... 

... If the music in Knauff’s 'Virginia Reels' (1839) tells us anything about the music of the Ulster-Scots who settled in the South, it is that it was much more strongly Scottish than it was Irish in flavour..."


George P. Knauff's collection was the very first published volume of southern / Appalachian fiddle music, and the only one in the 1800s. The simultaneously "geographically Irish" but also "culturally Scots" people who filled early Appalachia and American South were the Ulster-Scots. Even the most basic grasp of the demographics of Ulster/Ireland and America will confirm that. 

The earliest known fiddle music in Appalachia was Scottish, via the north of Ireland, and transported there by the Ulster-Scots.

• PS: Paul Wells' talk became the 2019 paper Examining the Irish Connection in the Southern American Fiddle Repertoire for the Elphinstone Institute of the University of Aberdeen and is online here as a PDF file.