Yes Virginia, There is an American Culture

Repeat an idea often enough within a cultural space, and people will eventually assume it must be true.

In Southern Appalachia, the pre-eminence ascribed to “Scots-Irish” cultural influence – especially as regards music – has been repeated so often that people have come to take it “as Gospel”.

These constantly repeated American assumptions have even created a “feedback loop”, in which modern Northern Irish Protestants take it as given that their culture is “Ground Zero” for the culture and music of Appalachia.

This “Scots-Irish equals Appalachia” nexus is simply untrue.

The music played in the inns, taverns, ordinarys, public houses, and indeed the brothels, of colonial America was largely the product of 17th and 18th century English and Scottish broadsheet balladry.

A song like this – I Wish My Baby Was Born – used in the soundtrack to the Civil War-era film Cold Mountain (and thus seen as exemplary of “old-timey” mountain music) has clear roots in early 17th century English ballads about girls in English ports lamenting their sailor sweethearts who “love ’em and leave ’em”.

This Northern English and Scottish music would of course have informed and influenced the music of Northern Ireland – after all, 17th century Ulster was being colonised by Englishmen, Scots, and Welshmen.

But to see this music as quintessentially “Scots-Irish” is a nonsense.

A song perhaps first heard in a dockside tavern in Bristol, England way back in 1630 might have travelled along many, many tracks and byroads before ending-up in the hills along the North Carolina/Virginia border. The song could have reached America via sailors from any port in England, Ireland, Wales, or Scotland (and probably arrived via multiple routes).

So just because one Appalachian family claiming “Scots-Irish” ancestry was known to play a certain old folk song or fiddle tune, does not in any way make that song or fiddle tune particularly “Scots-Irish“.

17th century fiddle tunes and popular ballads were quite literally the pop charts of their day – not some ancient “proof of ethnicity”, fossilised in amber.

The Ulster Irish were just one of many ethnic groups bringing the same “pop music” with them on their colonialist voyage along the American frontier…

The Gaelic still spoken by some Highland Scots – to this very day – DID actually originate in Northern Ireland (Dalriada) during the Middle Ages, but no one would dream of calling the traditional culture and music of today’s Scottish Highlanders “Irish”.

The idea of profoundly mixed-ethnic Appalachians citing one or two remote ancestors from three centuries ago (along with a 17th and 18th century musical style which spanned the entire British Isles) as evidence of a clear present-day “Scots-Irish” ethnicity, is simply ridiculous.

Music, food, and language change to suit their surroundings, much in the way St. Nicholas has been transformed over centuries to match the needs of Slavs, Germans, French, English, Dutch, and Americans.

Sometimes it really is correct to just call some things “American”, and accept the multi-ethnic history which goes with it.

If there has to be an original wellspring for old time music, it will be found closer to Knoxville than Belfast.

#BeforeWeWereWhite #OldTimeMusic #ethnomusicology


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