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

Windham Life and Times – June 22, 2018

The 1718 Migration

Londonderry, North Ireland

The Scots-Irish and Why they are Important in American History

In many places in Northern Ireland and North America the 300th Anniversary of “The Great 1718 Migration,” will be celebrated by the descendants and friends of the Scots-Irish. While not the first migration of people from Ireland to America, the 1718 Migration was the first successfully organized migration to America. Significant numbers of families from the north of Ireland traveled on sailing ships to Boston and went on to found communities in America, at first in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine and onwards throughout the continent.

During this season, 300 years ago, the migration from Northern Ireland would have just begun. The small ships Robert and William from Coleraine and The McCallum, The Mary and Elizabeth, and the William & Elizabeth all left from Londonderry with passengers and supplies and  would now be on the high seas. Besides being small for an ocean crossing, these sailing vessels were never meant to carry human cargo which made the journey arduous for all of those onboard.

Over the next several weeks, I plan to retell the story of the 1718 Migration. This will include the reasons why they left Northern Ireland and why their experience in Ireland made them some of the most intractable small “d” democrats in America. The 1718 Migration was the beginning of a giant wave of Ulster Migration to America with many Scots-Irish populating the sparse lands of New England, Western Pennsylvania and the mountainous regions of the south.

One of the most famous Scots-Irish descendants was “Old Hickory” himself, President Andrew Jackson, who in one individual, aptly personified the character of this race of people.  As president, Jackson sought to advance the rights of the “common man” against a “corrupt aristocracy” and to preserve the Union. This was popularism directly from Scots-Irish roots. Born in the colonial Carolinas to a Scotch-Irish family in the decade before the American Revolutionary War,” Jackson freed America from the control of the elites and killed the Central Bank for over one hundred years. This laid the groundwork for great prosperity and growth in America. A time when common people were free to make their fortunes.

In his speech to congress, Jackson’s warnings are even more appropriate for America today. “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society-the farmers, mechanics, and laborers-who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government. There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing.”

This longing to be free from the control and dictates of the elites with the right to enjoy the fruits of ones own labor without being plundered by the powerful and well connected, the desire for a weak central government and “states rights;” all of this is at the at the heart of the Scots-Irish soul and character. You can thank your freedoms to them because they were the very opposite of the Puritans and in many ways explains the differences that once existed between New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

How was the Scots-Irish character different than the Puritans you ask? The Scots-Irish were all in on “live free and die, death is not the worst of all evils,” idea which was coined by General John Stark,  a Scots-Irish descendant born in Londonderry, NH. The Puritan mantra should sound familiar today, since they saw themselves as morally superior and as such, felt that people should shut up, follow their dictates and if a witch or two got burned so be it. The Puritans saw the “Christian community,” or “the collective” as important; the Scots-Irish were champions of individual rights.

As I continue to write this, I am a little worried about my New England roots, however, as a descendant of the Scots-Irish, I feel free to insert the opinion of a southerner into this discussion of the “self-righteous, Puritan, Yankees.” Thomas Jefferson had a strong dislike of Yankees as did many other Americans. “The novelists Washington Irving, James Finemore Cooper, James Kirke Paulding, and Herman Melville, among others, wrote novels that ridiculed the “Yankee” mentality that they all abhorred.  (In Irving’s story of “The Headless Horseman” Ichabod Crane was a Yankee who had come from Connecticut to New York and “made himself a nuisance” so a young New Yorker played a trick on him to send him packing back to “Yankeeland”).  Thomas Jefferson himself once complained that “It is true that we are completely under the saddle of Massachusetts and Connecticut, and that they ride us very hard, insulting our feelings, as well as exhausting our strength and substance.”  This was long before anyone began debating the issue of slavery.  The Yankees said Jefferson, “were marked with such a perversity of character” that America was bound to be forever divided between Yankees and non-Yankees.”

Clyde Wilson,  an admitted apologist of the south, says rather eloquently about the Yankee, that ” The Southern people warned others about the radical utopians of New England, and even went to war to get away from them, but to no avail. Now all Americans, not just Southerners, are subject to the whims of “those people” and their never ending mission to recreate, not only America, but the entire world in their bizarre, sanctimonious image.”

Today, you still find the morally superior “New Yankee” and their hangers on supporting elitist causes worldwide. Yes this is a broad brush, but it more fun than a much deeper and boring analysis, and I have so little room here. These two streams of traits are still at war with each other in America today.  The drive to stifle free speech and protect people from individual opinion has it s roots in the Puritan heritage of community control and self-righteousness. “The deplorables;” decent, hard working folks, “the silent majority” who go to work every morning to support themselves, just want the government and the New “Puritans” to leave them the hell alone; this American character descends in large part from Scots-Irish roots. Jungian’s might see this all as a battle for the soul of the collective unconsciousness of America.  Pay attention; It is!

Samuel Green writes in an American Antiquarian Society article, The Scotch-Irish in America, “For hundreds of years before the beginning of the seventeenth century the Scotch had been going forth continually over to Europe in search of adventure and gain. As a rule, says one who knows him well, ‘he turned his steps where fighting was to be had, and the pay for killing was reasonably good.’ The English wars had made his countryman poor, but they had also made them a nation of soldiers.” And so it was the Scots-Irish who were the most ardent supporters of the American Revolution, comprising 40 percent of the army. It was their descendants from the hills of the south, men who in the vast majority of cases owned no slaves, but felt, in the Jacksonian tradition, that a powerful central government telling the states what they could and could not do was evil, fought and died for the confederacy.

Jim Webb says in Born Fighting,  “I wanted this book to be right and I wanted it to be read—by those who are the product of this cultural migration, by those who have forgotten or ignored it, and those who wish to understand how populist-style American democracy was created and still thrives.” To state it a bit differently, in the context of recent American politics this is the story of the core culture around which Red State America has gathered and thrived. Its tendency toward egalitarian traditions, mistrust of central authority, frequent combativeness, and an odd indifference to wealth make the Scots-Irish a uniquely values-based culture, whose historical journey has been marked by fiercely held loyalties to leaders who will not betray their ideals…  Great lines from country music— an art form created and dominated by the Scots-Irish—are continuing testimony to the pervasiveness of these themes:  “I can be had, but I can’t be bought.. Take this job and shove it, I ain’t working here no more…We’ll put a boot in their ass, that’s the American way…You can stand me up at the gates of hell but I won’t back down….You can’t stomp us out and you can’t make us run, ‘cause we’re them old boys raised on shotguns… And so on. And, so, ever, on again…” (Think Johnny Cash/Tom Petty)

Well, I’ve traveled well beyond the subject at hand, which is the Migration of 1718. Over the coming weeks there will be more about the migration, the people who made the trek and what happened on the way. You’ll see how nasty, insulting and inhospitable the insular Puritans were to the newly arriving immigrants.   In many ways, the Scots-Irish, simply by living their lives, defined some of the most noble attributes of Americans.

If you’re interested is some thought provoking reading check out: Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, by Jim Webb and The Yankee Problem, An American Dilemma, Clyde N. Wilson