Windham Life and Times – June 7, 2019

Nutfield 300

A blind man plays the fiddle to a family audience. Coloured engraving by J. Burnet after D. Wilkie, 1806. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

Reverend MacGregor’s Fiddle

Scots-Irish Influence on American Music

E.H. Derby in his address to the Londonderry Celebration of 1869 says, “..and, if tradition may be trusted, even their clergy introduced musical instruments into New Hampshire. I do not refer to the ear-piercing fife alone, or the spirit-stirring drum, whose ‘toot’ so engrossed the ear that Matthew Clark, when presiding over the Session, that he could do no business,— I allude to a stringed instrument of music. The pastor of whom the tale is told had served as a chaplain in the army, and while in camp had learned to play the violin. He brought one to America — doubtless at the bottom of his chest — and in his log cabin, in the dreary winter nights, found solace in the music. But, late one night, an elder heard the ‘linked sweetness drawn out,’ and peeping through the crevice in the cabin, liked the elders who watched Susanna, decried his pastor in the very act of drawing the bow, and reported him to the session; and the elders decreed that he should ‘hang up the fiddle and bow’ for three successive Sundays, in front of the pulpit. And this, I presume, was the first display of stringed instruments of music in New Hampshire. Derry must not, therefore, be forgotten at the great Musical Festival, for which Mr. Gilmore is rearing a structure that reminds of the Coliseum.”

Well if fiddle playing was frowned upon by the early elders of Nutfield, it soon took on a prominence within the community. In Old Portraits and Modern Sketches, 1850, John Greenleaf Whittier reports the following about the fairs held in early Londonderry. “Their moral acclimation in Ireland had not been without its effect upon their character. Side by side with a Presbyterian as austere as that of John Knox, had grown up something of the wild Milesian humor, love of convivial excitement and merry-making, Their long prayers and fierce zeal in behalf of orthodox tenants, only served, in the eyes of their Puritan neighbors, to make more glaring still the scandal of their marked social irregularities. It became a common saying in the region round about, that, ‘the Derry Presbyterians would never give up a pint of doctrine or a pint of rum.’ …Ere long the celebrated Derry Fair was established in imitation of those with which they had been familiar in Ireland. Thither annually came  all manners of horse-jockeys and peddlers, gentlemen and beggars, fortune-tellers, wrestlers, dancers and fiddlers, gay young farmers and buxom maidens. Strong drink abounded… A wild, frolicking, drinking, fiddling, courting, horse-racing, riotous merry-making— a sort of Protestant carnival, relaxing the grimness of Puritanism for leagues around.” The Scots-Irish seem to be characterized by an uneasy dichotomy,  the side by side need for both religious revival and the “hooting and hollering” of a jolly good time!

The same Scots-Irish people who settled in Nutfield were also the dominant cultural force in the settlement of the Appalachian Mountain areas of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.  And these Scots-Irish settlers certainly brought the fiddle with them and used it plenty, in the mountains and valleys where American country music had its roots. There is a great New York Times best seller, called Wayfaring Strangers, written by Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr, with a forward by Dolly Parton, that traces this “musical voyage” from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. These settlers, “brought with them a wealth of traditional ballads and tunes from the British Isles and Ireland, a carrying stream that merged with the sounds and songs of English, German, Welsh, African American, French, and Cherokee origin.”

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger
Traveling through this world below
There is no sickness, no toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I go

I’m going there to see my Father
And all my loved ones who’ve gone on
I’m just going over Jordan
I’m just going over home

I know dark clouds will gather ’round me
I know my way is hard and steep
But beauteous fields arise before me
Where God’s redeemed, their vigils keep
I’m going there to see my Mother
She said she’d meet me when I come

So, I’m just going over Jordan
I’m just going over home
I’m just going over Jordan
I’m just going over home

     Getting back to Pastor MacGregor and his fiddle, Wayfaring Strangers in explaining the origin of the Scottish fiddle states, “Throughout the long history of migrations from Scottish Lowlands and Highlands, the fiddle was the ideal traveling companion, whether for sailors, journeymen, merchants, or emigrants. It was portable, adaptable to new playing styles, the instrument of choice for dances, and perfect both for soloists and playing partners. So it is not surprising that the fiddle eventually followed the Scottish emigration trail all the way to the southern Appalachians. Beginning in the seventeenth century, it took its place as the most popular dance instrument on both sides of the Atlantic. Hanover County, Virginia, hosted the first fiddling contest of colonial times in 1736, held on November 30 in honor of the holiday of St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland.” In Scotland “…the music of the classical violin was the initial attraction, folk-style fiddle playing soon followed. These adaptions of the instrument were no doubt related to the widespread interest in dancing at community gatherings, weddings, funerals, and local festivals and fairs, as well as the ballrooms and drawing rooms of the landed gentry…”

Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage From Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. On Amazon

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