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IRISH-AMERICAN MUSIC THRU 1900
EARLY IRISH IMMIGRANTS AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF AMERICAN FOLK CULTUREThere were two great waves of immigration from Ireland to North America.
The first was in the 18th century when an estimated 250,000 Irish emigrated between 1717 and 1770 alone. Most were Presbyterian Scots-Irish planters who had lived in Ireland for generations.
PLANTATION POLICY AND PENAL LAWS
- In 1541 English king Henry VIII was made King of Ireland as well, and so began colonization and direct rule of the Ireland by the English. Fearing any incitement to rebellion Henry decreed that music and poetry were to be ruthlessly attacked, and that harps and pipes were to be destroyed. Henry's break from the Roman Catholic Church and his establishment of the Church of England resulted in more than a century of persecution of Catholics in England, Scotland, and Ireland.
- In 1606 English monarch James I instituted the Plantation Policy whereby Irish lands -- mostly in Ulster province -- were confiscated and rented to English and Scottish Protestants, beginning the sectarian conflicts that are a common theme in Irish history, and are often referenced in Irish music.
- Catholic gentry sought to reverse the plantations, end anti-Catholic discrimination, and achieve self-governance. Their ranks were increased by a peasantry hurting from bad crops and high rents. The ensuing rebellion of 1641 led to atrocities, massacres, and thousands of Protestant deaths.
- When Charles I ascended to the English throne, he sent the Puritan zealot commander Oliver Cromwell to subdue the rebels and conquer Ireland. Cromwell despised Catholicism, which he considered heresy. Cromwell's campaign began by massacring 3500 people in the city of Drogheda. The Cromwellian war lasted nine months, but guerrilla fighting extended the conflicts for another two years. At the end, an estimated 600 thousand were dead
- To further punish the rebellious Irish, disempower Catholics, and strengthen British rule of Ireland, King William III enacted the Penal Laws. So many Irish landowners were evicted and so much land confiscated that by 1778 Catholics held only 5 percent of the land in Ireland.
"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:
- Solo fiddling: "Sally Goodin" is a song that was universally known throughout the South from the time of the U.S. Civil War and is still a perennial favorite in old-time music. The tune was first recorded in 1922 by the Texas fiddler Eck Robertson. His classic recordings were the first commercial recordings of country music. Robertson’s recordings document a period when American country fiddlers began to develop styles distinct from the Scotch-Irish pioneers.
- The scratchy sound of a recording from 1922 can’t diminish Robertson’s genius. This excerpt from his three-minute recording of Sally Goodin shows why he is revered among fiddlers, and reveals some of what distinctive features of American fiddling. It sounds like there are two fiddlers playing, because Robertson is always bowing across two adjacent strings. He also makes quick switches between high and low strings, giving his playing a jagged style and syncopated rhythms. He constantly varies the same few musical phrases, never repeating exactly. The way he slides up to high notes like a blues singer.Yet on top of all that technical refinement, his playing has a rugged sound, and an almost percussive effect.
- Fiddle, banjo, guitar: Another classic old-time tune is "Sal's Got Mud Between Her Toes." Like many instrumental standards, the words to the tune have been mostly forgotten. Guitar offers several benefits to the Fiddle and banjo combination. The guitarist can strum chords, emphasize rhythms, and create a bass line on the lower strings.
- Fiddle duo "Puncheon on the Floor" with Czech guitarist and bassist. Fiddle duo Wayne Erbsen and daughter Annie play traditional tune "Puncheon on the Floor" with Czech guitarist and bassist during Erbsen’s old-time music workshop in Europe. (A puncheon is a barrel of liquor.) Erbsen collects historic American music and performs on banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin. He has authored dozens of books and is an instructor in Asheville North Carolina.
- String band with mandolin: Foghorn String Band, "Grigsby's Hornpipe." The hornpipe is a folk dance popular in Ireland and England since the sixteenth century, with a slow tempo and lilting rhythm. American fiddlers however were prone to turning everything into a fast reel. By the 19th century the jig would begin to virtually disappear from American fiddling. Eck Robertson first recorded "Grigsby's Hornpipe" in 1927. This version by the professional old-time music group Foghorn String Band includes fiddle, guitar, bass, and mandolin.
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.
- The Callahan Brothers and Their Blue Ridge Mountain Folks play "Old Joe Clark," a folk tune with added lryics about Kentucky mountaineer Joe Clark. Lyrics to the song and biography of Clark can be found here.
Fiddling was a feature of country music well into the 1950s in honky-tonk bands.
- Jerry Rivers plays "Old Joe Clark" on Hank Williams With His Drifting Cowboys, 1949
The close linkage of early country music and step dancing has been beneficial to the preservation and transmission of both. Just as those early forms of American music blend diverse traditions, so American dance forms took styles and dance steps from different sources. Irish and Scottish reels and jigs mixed with the folk dancing of American Blacks, as well as Cherokee step dances.
American Folk Dance Music
The American forms of step dancing are known under the umbrella term clogging, which includes Appalachian buck dancing and flatfooting. American step dancing also has roots in Juba dance and African American buck dancing.
Irish set dancing (couples dancing in set steps and patterns known as figures) was transformed into American square dancing and clogging, 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.
IRISH-AMERICAN MUSIC IN THE 19TH CENTURY
IRISH IMMIGRATION TO THE U.S. IN THE 19TH CENTURYFrom 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.]
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.]
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]
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. [musicals101.com]
"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.