Sunday, December 30, 2018

'American Negro Folk Songs' - Harvard University Press (1928)


Ironically, written by someone called Newman I. White (the Professor of English at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina), this book is obviously of its time in its usage of particular terminologies. Where it gets really interesting is in the chapter entitled ‘Religious Songs’ (online here) and specifically of the cultural sharing of music and hymns which took place between what the author terms ‘mountain whites’ and black people.

In our era, claims of ‘cultural appropriation’ between people groups insist that there must be a negative context - of the power of one group, who oppress and exploit another group -  for what would previously could well been regarded as 'cultural sharing'. This controversy over a statue of songwriter Stephen Foster in Pittsburgh provides one example of that.

Yet there is plenty of evidence to show that class is/was as much of a social issue as race - and that musically speaking, poor people shared songs and tunes and playing styles across imagined racial divides. White complains that often there was little distinction between the religious songs of the blacks and mountain whites. Exactly.

Marshall Taylor

African-American Kentucky Methodist minister Rev Marshall William Taylor published a volume of ‘Revival Hymns and Plantation Melodies’ in 1883, which is online here. Taylor’s biography is fascinating:

“...Marshall William Boyd (alias) Taylor was born July 1, 1846, at Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky, of poor, uneducated, but respectable parents. He was the fourth in a family of five children, three of whom were boys, viz.: George Summers, Francis Asbury, and himself; and two girls, Mary Ellen and Mary Cathrine. He is of Scotch-Irish and Indian descent on his father's side. Hon. Samuel Boyd, of New York; Joseph Boyd, of Virginia; and Lieut.-Gov. Boyd, of Kentucky, were blood-relations of his, and all descended from the "Clan Boyd" of Scotland. His mother was of African and Arabian stock. His grandmother, on his mother's side, Phillis Ann, was brought from Madagascar when a little girl, and became the slave of Mr. Alexander Black, a Kentucky farmer, who at his death willed his slaves free…” - full bio online here

Poor people survive together. They fall in love together, make families together, they share life together. Cultures blend around the edges and so the races mix too. Music is one perfect example of that, as is Marshall Taylor’s complex ancestry - and above all, spiritual songs express a shared human condition, a shared hope, and a ‘for whosoever believeth on Him’ gospel. Here’s another Kentucky pastor - Claude Ely - with his raw and raucous 1934 composition ‘Ain’t No Grave’ that proves that fusion.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

'The Ulster Month' in 1922: When Ireland opted to 'Leave' but Northern Ireland opted to 'Remain'

The present day has echoes of nearly 100 years ago. Here’s a repost of this from September 2014. Ireland had opted to “Leave" the UK and set up the Irish Free State. But the Northern Parliament was given a month to decide what to do. it decided - by a vote of 40 for and 12 against - to ‘Remain’ in the UK:


Few people appreciate that Northern Ireland also seceded, from the Irish Free State, which had been effectively formed by a Treaty on 6 December 1921. A year later it had been adopted. During the following four weeks of 1922 - known as 'The Ulster Month' - provision was allowed for the Houses of Parliament of Northern Ireland to opt out of the new state. The inevitable happened - an address was presented to the King the next day which said:

"... MOST GRACIOUS SOVEREIGN, We, your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Senators and Commons of Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, having learnt of the passing of the Irish Free State Constitution Act, 1922, being the Act of Parliament for the ratification of the Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, do, by this humble Address, pray your Majesty that the powers of the Parliament and Government of the Irish Free State shall no longer extend to Northern Ireland ..."

The King's response on 8th December 1922 was:

"... I have received the Address presented to me by both Houses of the Parliament of Northern Ireland in pursuance of Article 12 of the Articles of Agreement set forth in the Schedule to the Irish Free State (Agreement) Act, 1922, and of Section 5 of the Irish Free State Constitution Act, 1922, and I have caused my Ministers and the Irish Free State Government to be so informed ...'.

The vote in the Northern Ireland Houses of Parliament had been 40 for secession to 12 against.


Political historians will know far more about this period than me. I think this story deserves to be better known. And there are a whole series of “what if” scenarios to speculate about… perhaps if more flexible solutions had been offered, or found, the 20th century might have worked out differently.


Ulster Month 2

Ulster Month

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Scarvagh 'Sham Fight' was saved in 1904 by Henry Thomson's whiskey money

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Often Ulster’s unionist story is told as a selective, religious and conservative tale. But that’s not the full story - the more I read the more I’m finding whiskey money all over the place. James Craig, the future Prime Minister of Northern Ireland was part of the Royal Irish Distilleries global empire, and he even bought a hot water geyser in Iceland in the 1890s with a view to setting up a plant there (link here - a story widely known in Iceland).

• Further south, I recently discovered that Abbey Presbyterian Church in Dublin was built in 1864, entirely by the money of Glasgow-born Dublin wine and spirit merchant Alexander Findlater - at a cost of £13,000 which today is around £1.25million. His brother William Findlater was a merchant in Londonderry, and their sister Helen Findlater also settled in the Maiden City.

• Dublin's Christ Church Cathedral was restored in the 1870s by whiskey distiller George Roe to the tune of £230,000 - around £21.5million today.

• Interestingly, even the Irish whiskey giant John Jameson (1740-1823) whose surname is probably the most famous Irish whiskey brand, was actually a Scottish lawyer and distiller based in Dublin. He was born in Alloa, where he later died and was buried.

The annual ‘Sham Fight’ at Scarvagh House has been going for 185 years, re-enacting in very small scale the Battle of the Boyne. In the mid 1800s there were similar fights at Gilford and Banbridge. Tradition tells that in 1690 when William III’s army was camped at Scarva, a local man called Reilly brought cherries and fresh eggs to the troops, and as a reward William promised him as much land in the area as he could walk in one day. So Reilly set about it the very next morning, staking out the boundaries and later planting marker trees where the stakes were. The famous old manor house was built in 1717. A newspaper report of 1939 said that the trees were then still standing.

The ‘Sham Fight’ was originally held in the open at Aughlish crossroads. However according to the Dublin Evening Mail of 16 August 1865 a ‘counter-demonstration’ was held in the village by a group of around 350 ‘Fenians’, who marched from Laurencetown to Gilford and then towards Scarva. The 60th Rifles from Newry were sent to keep the peace, along with local police.

The Reillys then offered that the event be relocated to within their estate for 1866 - seemingly with Mr Reilly himself performing the role of William III. The Dublin Evening Mail gave an amusing account on 6 October 1866 of the first one -

‘… a most alarming condition of good feeling and jocularity was proved to exist between the Protestants and Roman Catholics of the district. The Roman Catholics and Orangemen are good friends at Gilford ...' 

The 1867 Scarva events - as reported in the Newry Telegraph - read like a full-scale day-long carnival with 15,000 visitors and the fight lasting for just over an hour. Scarvagh estate remained in the Reilly family until 1904, when it was put up for sale and the future of the ‘Sham Fight’ was at risk.

Enter Henry Thomson Jr (1840-1917), a local whisky millionaire (see previous post here) and prominent Unionist and Orangeman, who had been an MP in the 1880s as well as High Sheriff for County Down. He bought the Scarvagh estate and in doing so preserved the future of the ‘Sham Fight’ in perpetuity - he also gave land for Scarvagh Orange Hall to be built and which opened in 1908.

Other Thomson properties included Ballyedmond Castle, Downshire House and Altnaveigh House where in 1884 a vast 12th demonstration was held, with a reported crowd of 50,000 people and participants. Another branch of the Thomson family lived at Ravensdale in County Louth.

Henry Thomson died in Scarvagh House in 1917, was buried in St Patrick’s churchyard in Newry. His coffin was carried into the church by the officers of Altnaveigh LOL. and his obituary in the Belfast News Letter stated:

‘he secured to the Orangemen the right to use for ever eight acres of the Scarvagh House demesne for celebrations on the 12th and 13th July and the 12th of August each year. By this and other gracious acts he earned the undying gratitude of the Orange Institution, and his memory will be fondly cherished by the members of that Order in all parts of the Empire.

Newry reporter


A memorial Orange hall in Newry was built in his honour. His properties, and seemingly the whiskey business, were inherited by his nephew, Henry Broughton Thomson (1870-1939) who became a politician in British Columbia, was Food Controller for Canada during the Great War and later the Chairman of the Liquor Control Board.

In 1936, just three years before Henry Broughton Thomson died, Scarvagh estate was sold again, this time to Alfred Buller of Orangefield in Belfast, a land steward for Major Blakiston-Houston.


Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Gibson Monongahela Pennsylvania Whiskey - the biggest distillery in America in 1900

This brand is now owned by a Canadian company but its origins are in 1856 when Ulsterman John Gibson (born in Belfast in 1794) bought 40 acres to build a distillery on the banks of the Monongahela River. He had been active in the spirits industry in Pennsylvania since about 1837. It became a huge operation and a settlement called Gibsonton Mill grew up around it. His son 22 year old son Henry inherited the business in 1883 and renamed it John Gibson’s So & Co. Prohibition killed the business until 1972 when the brand name was revived.

(The ‘Gibson’ script logo on the bottles looks suspiciously similar to the one which Orville Gibson would later stamp on the headstocks of his guitars and mandolins)

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