Monday, 28 January 2013

The Ulster-Scots & The Fiddle.

Fiddle music is of course very popular in Ireland... but few know that the fiddle (or more technically, the violin) along with traditional reels were introduced into Ireland mainly by Ulster-Scots. And within a few generations the Ulstermen took their fiddle music with them to the frontiers of America where in their areas of settlement around the Appalachia it evolved over time into Old-Time and Bluegrass styles....


The Fidula (medieval fiddle) had been known in Ireland at least since the 1500's but the style of music played on them was much different than the traditional Irish music heard today. The fiddle we know today (the Violin) arrived through Ulster probably early in the 17th century, and with the great movement of people from Scotland to Ulster at that time the popularity of the instrument (and the now traditional reels and strathspeys) spread quickly around the country in areas where the planters settled and beyond.

The main form of entertainment in the country in those days was dancing.  What did the common folk use for music?  Mostly they ‘lilted’,  meaning they sang the tune using only their own voices.  Or sometimes the pipes might have been played.  But when the fiddle came along it proved very popular for it could be played for much longer than lilting or the pipes without running out of breath! 

In the eighteenth century, itinerant harpers moved regularly backwards and forwards across the Irish Sea between Ulster and Scotland.  They  played for both Gaelic and Anglo-Irish landlords and also for the prosperous  Ulster-Scots families. By the end of the eighteenth century  harping was in decline as the well-to-do turned instead to European classical music.  However the harpers interacted with fiddlers and pipers in Ulster, and some of the features of the Gaelic song tradition were preserved, particularly in the emerging genre of Orange songs. 

Much of the dance music and songs of  Ulster was similar to the party music of other parts of the British Isles.  In Ulster the reels and strathspeys, which originated in Scotland, mixed with the jigs which came from Ireland, , and hornpipes which came from England. This gave Ulster its own distinctive form of dance music.

Different styles of fiddle music developed in Ulster, the two main ones were:

County Antrim Style
This is a mixture of several different Irish fiddling styles and Scottish fiddle techniques.  Its main influences are the Sligo style and the Donegal style.  It consisted of short, sharp bows with little extra ornamentation in contrast to the Sligo style.

Donegal Style 
The main feature of this style of fiddle playing is the especially skilful use of the bow.  If you were watching a fiddle player using this style from a distance, the bowing would look curved rather than straight up and down.  The fiddler’s left hand concentrates on the melody. The Donegal Style is probably unique in that it takes the drone of the pipes into its sound.  This is  not surprising as the Donegal fiddlers were strongly influenced by Scotland.

Scots-Irish music in America

The distinctive styles of many modern-day American country, bluegrass and folk music performers can be traced directly back to the 18th century Ulster-Scots or Scots-Irish settlers. And the dance tradition of Appalachian region in the south-eastern part of the United States has also very strong Ulster-Scots roots. This is music and dance which crossed the Atlantic during the great waves of emigration and, in the modern idiom, it is a rich cultural expression which is being taken back to the homeland.The Ulster-Scots sound of drone notes, associated with the pipes and fiddles, are very pronounced and the story-telling balladry of the Scots-Irish diaspora remains deeply rooted in what is American country and folk music today.

These were a people who brought with them to North America the old Scottish, Irish and English folk songs and ballads, and in remote communities in the Appalachian, Cumberland and Great Smoky Mountains, the songs stayed unaltered until the 20th century. Music lightened toil for the early Scots-Irish pioneers, with the fiddle giving the lift at weddings, and Jew’s harp providing accompaniment along the wagon roads to the new settlements. Dulcimer, banjo and mandolin were other favoured instruments on the American frontier, traditional backing for the nasal vocals of the hardy settler people. The fiddle, distinctively Scots Irish, was the main instrument for playing the tunes and providing the backing for the traditional songs. It was the first musical instrument in the Appalachian region 200/250 years ago. There might just have been one fiddle in a whole community and one player.

The Appalachian mountain people where Scots-Irish culture is so strong, have maintained a folk-song culture for several centuries and leading balladeer and folk historian from the early 20th century Cecil Sharpe related how he discovered that nearly every one he met in the mountain region, young and old, could either sing or play an instrument. The ballads which Sharp collected in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, the Carolinas and North Georgia were in the traditional vein, with Scots-Irish influences a very dominant strain. Popular Appalachian folk songs and tunes like the Girl from Knoxville, Barbara Allen, The Irish Washerwoman, Haste to the Wedding, The Virginia Reel, The Green River March and Turkey in the Straw are in that tradition. 

The music of the American frontier was primarily vocal, through the singing of hymns and folk songs. In the very early settlements in Pennsylvania from the 1720s the fiddle provided the musical background for the reels and jigs which the Ulster-Scots enjoyed. In the austere and, at times lonely surroundings of the frontier, music was the source which brightened the lives of the settlers.

•  Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonnie Doon 
•  Marie’s Wedding 
•  Auld Lang Sang 
•  A Man’s A Man for a’ That 

•  Flower o the County Down 
•  The Muttonburn Stream 
•  A Prayer 
•  The Wanderer 
•  Greyba Lasses 
•  Henry Joy McCracken 
•  Big May Fair o Ballyclare

•  Remember the Alamo 
•  A Scots-Irish Tune 
•  The Scots-Irish 
•  Beautiful Dreamer 
•  The Camptown races 
•  Oh Susanna 
•  The Fortyniners Theme Song

1 comment:

  1. The photo comparing Ulster to Appalachia gave me a cold chill. I grew up in the mountains of East Tennessee and spent many an evening listening to the old folks make music. We're mighty proud of our heritage and I thank you for the work you've done with this blog.
    Chadd Newman