Monday, November 23, 2009

Ulster and Hillbilly Gospel music

As some of you will know, Graeme and I have had a busy Autumn on the road with our (very amateur) musical project, The Thompson Brothers. We have very limited ability, but people who are cut from the same cloth as us understand full well what we're doing - pointing towards a style and heritage of gospel music that used to be very prominent in rural Ulster-Scots communities. The musical style has a long pedigree here, going back to the hymns which sprang from the 1857 - 1859 revivals in Scotland, Ulster and America. These hymns then were published in hymnbooks in all three places, a variety of instruments added (pump organs and string instruments being the most obvious examples) - they were later recorded on 78s and LPs, and so we've all ended up with a transatlantic musical blend. Here's something I noted down a few years ago, in February 2005:


During the 1920s and onward, recorded music started to make its way to Ireland. Old 78rpms were being recorded in the USA and were eventually turning up on this side of the Atlantic.

For Irish traditional musicians, the story goes that American recordings of the likes of Michael Coleman (see this page for a biography) were sent back to Ireland and had a major influence on the Irish traditional music scene.*

From our own family collections, it seems that the early American recordings of Hillbilly Gospel music had the same impact on evangelical Ulster Scots homes. For example, my grandfather’s collection was full of Carter Family, Hank Williams, McCravy Brothers and Southern Gospel Quartets - as well as Scottish music and hymns by William McEwan.

So it’s no surprise that if you were to listen to the hundreds of independently-produced Ulster gospel records of the 20th Century, you would hear echoes of Roy Acuff, the Carter Family and the Louvin Brothers, through the songs, the lyrics and the musical style. Hillbilly gospel music is essentially Scotch-Irish - no wonder people here love it!


On Saturday night past Graeme and I were playing in Aughnacloy, County Tyrone. Also playing were other folk including the Pride of the Birches Accordion Band. The band are great, they play lovely sacred music and hymns in a sincere and non-showy style, and a lot of the members of the band are from a huge Murphy family! I took the opportunity to ask Alan and Joe Murphy if they had ever heard of The Murphy Gospel Group (old LP cover shown here). Sure enough, they told me that these Murphys were from around Lisburn and had a long career of playing hymns in wee churches and missions all around that part of the country in the 70s and 80s. Apparently the woman singer is still alive - hopefully still playing her mandolin!

Murphy LP Cover LR.jpg

We have long-dead relatives who played mandolin and guitar in wee gospel trios in the mission halls of the Ards Peninsula in the 1930s and 1940s; when my father was renovating the old farmhouse (built about 1800, he worked to the Ralston/Johnston family who owned it when he was a wee boy, and he then bought it when I was 2, in 1974) he found hidden in the rafters an old autoharp case and a hexagonal concertina. The tradition is there, someone just needs to spend time recovering the pieces before it's all swept away in an X-Factor tidal wave.

* for a very good analysis of this, see "Let Erin Remember - The Irish-American Influence on traditional music in Ireland" by Hilary Bracefield in "Writing Ulster No 5 - America & Ulster: a cultural correspondence" Belfast 1998 - ISBN 1 85923 102 0


Barry R McCain said...

Very nice article...

Barry R McCain

Unknown said...

Very informative article and to top it all that's my dad Dee Murphy playing the violin with the Murphy Gospel group. Alex Murphy

Mark Thompson said...

Hello Alex - thanks for your comment, that's brilliant! Do you have any other photos of the Murphy Gospel Group? Just before Christmas I was in touch with Mrs Gibney in LIsburn who I am told was the mandolin player. I sent her a letter and a CD in the post, but she has never replied. I was hoping to find out more about the Group. Please get in touch with me if you have any information about them. Regards, Mark