Sunday, August 28, 2022

Ulster-Scots Music: "Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws"

The quote above is from Scottish writer and politician Andrew Fletcher. He understood the power of music, story and song. Few of his ilk do so today.


Music is the universal expression of the human race, whether through rhythm, song, or instrument. It's a creative endeavour and so is seldom, if ever, 'fossilised' and frozen in time.

A trawl through the earliest printed Ulster-Scots sources always reveals some great material: 

• The Montgomery Manuscripts, collated in the late 1600s by William Montgomery, from first-hand accounts and family traditions, are always a great place to start. It includes references to the lute, bagpipes, drums,  trumpet, violin, flute, recorder, cornet, hautboys, and 'the huntsman's musical instrument' which must have been a type of horn.

• The 1700s sources are pretty scant, because printing was still a fairly limited industry, but towards the end of that century the printing presses of Ulster were busy churning out volumes of local poetry and local songs by the Weaver Poets. Within the same era as the far more celebrated Belfast Harp Festival of 1792, these are full of references to music and songs.

• The Scottish sources from the 1700s also overlap into Ulster – some of the tunes in the Scottish Musical Museum which Robert Burns worked on included tunes from Ulster and Ireland, Burns confirmed so in his notes – including the melody he used for Ye Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon

• The 1700s was the century that saw massive Ulster-Scots emigration to the USA. People take music. The two sounds which were exported from Presbyterian Ulster were the fiddle of a Saturday night, and the unaccompanied vocal harmonies of a Sunday morning.

- FIDDLE: The first published collection of American fiddle tunes was George Knauff's renowned Virginia Reels in 1839, of which about 20% are Scottish in origin. So any references before 1839 are highly important. Here are two: 

1) There's a reference to an unnamed fiddle-playing Presbyterian minister at Londonderry, New Hampshire, circa 1730, one of the second wave of Ulster emigrants to arrive there.

2) Larne-born and raised author James M'Henry (1785–1845) emigrated to America in 1817, aged 32. His novel The Wilderness was set in 1750s Ulster-Scots Western Pennsylvania and has a short, but very important, list of dances and specific tune names. This is especially valuable because The Wilderness was published in 1823 – 16 years before Knauff's Virginia Reels.

- VOCALS: An Anglican minister in the frontier Carolinas, Rev Charles Woodmason, an avowed opponent of the Ulster-Scots, had to admit in 1760 that in a church service he had conducted "On the 31 (Sunday) I gave service to about 400 people among whom a great number of Baptists and Presbyterians… excellent singing. The women sing as well or better than the Girls at the Magdalene Chapel, London – they all come from Virginia and Pennsylvania – not an English person or Carolinian among them".

There is so much richness and depth. More to follow...