I met a man from North Carolina a few years back who was adamant that country and western has its roots in Irish music. I have come across this notion before and it seemed plausible – except that nobody had been able to actually trace any of these roots.
The connection was finally made in a documentary, titled Born Fighting, shown recently on Ulster and Scottish television channels. In it US Senator Jim Webb of Virginia traces his Irish roots, except they are those of the Scots Irish (or Ulster Scots) – Presbyterians who were first hounded out of Scotland for refusing to accept the authority of the Established Church of England. They were settled on lands taken from the Ulster Catholics. But events overtook them and they found themselves under siege from both the Catholics and the Crown forces. The decided to start again and between 1717 and 1775, an estimated 200,000 migrated to the New World.
Many arrived in Pennsylvania and taking the Great Wagon Road soon spread into the Carolinas and Virginia and through their culture, faith and military skills had a huge influence on the development of the USA. They also made great music.
James Webb takes up the narrative:
“Scots Irish musicial traditions have evolved to become a defining sound of America. The music that used to fill the Appalachian hollows now has found a home here in Nashville … Country music is now seen as one hundred per cent American, like so much of the Scots Irish culture.”
The native Irish brought their music to America too – but it was traditional Irish dance music, and its expression was to be found in the close ethnic Irish communities. Their broader contribution was to tap dancing. It wasn’t until the emergence of the Clancy Bros and Makem in the early 1960s that the Irish really joined the stream of American folk music.
We like George Jones in Ireland, but I was never able to connect his music to the Irish tradition, the self pity apart. But I can now place him firmly in the Scots Irish tradition. After centuries of religious and political strife, I now heartily say to them all – “Thank you for the music.”
Interestingly, the Ulster Scots migrants took the same route as the Caledonian ridge which, geologically speaking, runs from Scotland through Northern Ireland to the Appalachian Mountains.
Jim Webb previously covered the subject in book form in 2004:
Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (ISBN 978-0-7679-1688-2).