Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The Ulster Fiddle in America - six tunes from 1823

The 1700s was the century that saw massive Ulster-Scots emigration to the USA. People take music wherever they go. There were two main musical sounds which were exported from Presbyterian Ulster – the fiddle of a Saturday night hooley, and the unaccompanied vocal harmonies of Sunday morning Psalms-singing. And maybe a few folk songs too.


James M'Henry (1784–1845) deserves to be better known. I have mentioned him here a few times, especially his searing riposte in 1825 to Sydney Owenson and other writers who depicted Ireland as a mono-cultural island. He was born in Larne, inherited family stories of the Hearts of Steel, witnessed the 1798 Rebellion, and emigrated to America. In his novel The Wilderness, or Braddock's Times: A Tale of The West which was published in New York in 1823 but set in western Pennsylvania in the 1750s, he includes characters who speak Ulster-Scots, and gives this description of the emigrants' dance and fiddle repertoire:

"They accordingly set off with "Nancy Dawson," to which they tripped airily and nimbly along in measured movements, with great art, sprightliness, ind vivacity. Now, (for every ten or fifteen minutes they changed their mood, and Peter had as often to change his tone,) the light corant, the gay cotillion, the merry riggadoon, the measured waltz, and the sprightly jig, succeeded to each other, and were rattled off to the successive tunes of the Irish Washerwoman, the Soldier's Joy, the White Cockade, Patrick's Day, and Morgan Rattler." (from page 79)

• Nancy Dawson
Named after an English stage performer, the tune is a slight variation of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, but first appeared under the title Nancy Dawson around 1760.

• Irish Washerwoman:
Possibly English in origin, but first published under this title in Neil Gow's A Third Collection of Strathspey Reels &c for the Piano-forte, Violin and Violincello, 1792.

• Soldier's Joy:
Used by Robert Burns in The Jolly Beggars/ Love and Liberty, 1785.

• White Cockade:
First published in James Aird's Selection of Scotch, English and Irish Airs, 1782.

• Patrick's Day:
First published in The Caledonian Pocket Companion Book XI, 1750s.

• Morgan Rattler:
First published in Robert Petrie of Perthshire's Collection of Strathspey Reels and Country Dances, 1790.

• So the chronology works – all of these tunes were composed within M'Henry's era and it's entirely plausible that he heard them being played during his east Antrim childhood, and also in emigrant Pennsylvania among Ulster-Scots emigrant communities.


• As posted here recently, the critical cultural context to this is that the earliest collection of American fiddle tunes was George P Knauff's Virginia Reels of 1839 (see link here). This makes the M'Henry reference above, 16 years earlier, from the pen of an Ulster-Scots emigrant, to be hugely important.

• The pics posted here are two that I took of Georgia-born Fiddlin' John Carson's fiddle, brought from Ulster by his ancestors in the early 1700s, and now on display in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee, in July 2016 (Wikipedia here).