Music in Global America




These conditions led to the rebellion of 1798, inspired by the French Revolution. The revolt was the first of the attempts to free Ireland from British rule, and was commemorated in many ballads during the following century. The rebellion was crushed by the British army, and in 1801 the Act of Union was passed, uniting Ireland politically with Britain and ensuring direct control of the island by the British.


The Plantation Policy ultimately set off a wave of immigration from Ireland to the United States. Most immigrants were Presbyterian descendants of Scottish and English ancestry, planters who had lived in Ireland for generations. They were eager to escape intermittent famines, religious persecution, heavy taxes demanded by absentee English landowners, and tithes owed to the state church. "Scotch-Irish" is the term (used exclusively in America) to describe the majority of Irish emigrants during the 18th century. Scotch-Irish, as well as Irish from provinces other than Ulster, were pioneers in settling  the colonial "back country" of the Appalachian Mountain region, where they worked as tenant farmers. These immigrants were crucial to America's victory in the Revolutionary War, and to opening the Midwestern frontier.

In the Colonial and Federalist periods, Irish, Scottish, English, and African-American traditions melded to form new hybrids and unique forms of music and dance. In turn, the instruments and songs of early American folk music were vital components of the traditional music renaissance in Ireland in the second half of the twentieth century. 

In the Appalachian region, Scotch-Irish fiddling melded with the banjo and fiddle music of free blacks and ex-slaves. (The banjo is an instrument adapted by black Americans from African instruments of similar design.) Other instruments joined the fiddle-banjo combination in the nineteenth century -- guitar, string bass, and mandolin. These instrumental groups made up of plucked and bowed string instruments are string bands. The uniquely American music they play is called old-time music.

Examples of fiddling and instrumental combinations:
Bluegrass is a related style of folk music that emerged around 1930. In bluegrass individual band members -- fiddle, banjo, and/or mandolin -- take turns improvising on a given tune, while the other members, including guitar and bass, support the soloist, as demonstrated in this video of "Sally Goodin." Old-time and bluegrass collectively came to be known first as hillbilly music, and later as country music. Bluegrass became popular nationally through recordings, radio, and hundreds of low-budget "cowboy movies" in  the 1940s.  
Fiddling was a feature of country music well into the 1950s in honky-tonk bands.

American Folk Dance Music

American old-time music and bluegrass are intimately tied to the development of American folk dance. Just as those early forms of American blend diverse traditions, so American dance forms evolved from mixtures of Gaelic step dance, Juba dance, and a group of related dances known variously as flatfooting, African American buck dancing, Appalachian buck dancing, and freestyle dance. Out of these related styles the great black American dancer William Henry Lane, known as Master Juba, brought  that most American of art forms, tap dance, to the world in the mid-nineteenth century.

Irish set dancing (couples dancing in set steps and patterns known as figures) was transformed into American square dancing, accompanied by old-time music and bluegrass. In this example fiddler Herman Crook and string band accompany the Melvin Sloan dancers, who demonstrate square dance and take turns showing off individual step dance skills. Though this is an old film, square dancing — as well as the other forms of American folk dance described above — are activities still enjoyed throughout the U.S. 



From 1820 to 1860, nearly two million Irish arrived in the United States and Canada, most to escape the Great Famine of 1845–1852.  Untold hundreds died from typhus and dysentery in the crowded, lice-infested "coffin ships" that provided only subsistence rations to the starving exiles. Corpses dumped overboard fed sharks who followed the ships. Upon arriving, these who were too weak to beg simply languished on piers while others had barely strength to "crawl on their hands and knees" to hospital.

Irish immigrants who did survive the crossing tended to settle in large cities where they could create their own communities for support and protection. "The majority were from rural backgrounds unfamiliar with city life. They had no knowledge of the work practices and ethics of an industrialised society and a sizeable proportion had no English. Their world view is what is now described as pre-modern; their customs and social patterns were communalistic, non-literate and traditional." [Dennis Varley, Music of Ireland, 2nd ed., Dublin: Merlin Publishing, 2001.]

Irish men and women both had a hard time finding skilled work in the U.S. due to the stigmas of being both Irish as well as Catholic. Prejudices ran deep in the North and could be seen in newspaper cartoons depicting Irish men as drunkards and Irish women as prostitutes. Many businesses hung signs out front of their shops that read "No Irish Need Apply." The initial backlash the Irish received in America led to their self-imposed seclusion, making assimilation into society a long and painful process. 

By 1870, forty percent of Irish women worked as domestic servants in New York City, making them over fifty percent of the service industry at the time. The wages for domestic service may have been higher than that of factory workers, but the freedoms were virtually nonexistent as women were made to live with their employers family and work around the clock. Irish work gangs were hired by contractors to build canals, railroads, city streets and sewers across the country. Many Irish workers died while constructing the Brooklyn Bridge. In the South, Irish workers underbid slave labor. One result was that small cities that served as railroad centers came to have large Irish populations. ["Irish Americans," Wikipedia]

Meanwhile in New York City, American musical comedy was being born in theaters on the lower east side of Manhattan with a series of shows starring Edward (Ned) Harrigan and Tony Hart. "I have sought above all," said Harrigan, "to make my plays like pages from actual life." The characters who appeared in his musical comedies were "beggars, maids, street-sellers, landlords, hod-carriers, Germans, Jews and Irish of the city of immigrants." [Dennis Varley, Music of Ireland, 2nd ed., Dublin: Merlin Publishing, 2001.]

Produced between 1878 and 1884, with dialogue and lyrics by Harrigan and music by David Braham, these musical comedies featured characters and situations taken from the everyday life of New York’s lower classes...The action was always set in the scummiest wards of downtown Manhattan, with Harrigan playing politically ambitious Irish saloon wonder "Dan Mulligan," and Hart winning praise as various characters, most notably the African American washerwoman "Rebecca Gallup" … The songs were in the popular style of their day, with lots of sentiment mixed with street-smart humor set to simple, catchy melodies. The lyrics were redolent with slang, ethnic accents and imperfect grammar—speech forms which had not been set to music before. []

"McNally's Row of Flats" is the title song of Mick Moloney's album of Irish American songs of New York. This excerpt from the beginning of the song, —and the image below — depict the immigrant neighborhoods of Manhattan's Lower East Side, like the Five Points section where Ned Harrigan grew up. The entire song as well as the other album tracks are posted on YouTube.

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