Strayed Way Far Off: Is Country-Western Music Celtic?

In a word, “no.” And yet, this has become the persistent claim of many white Americans who would like to connect their ancestry to a popular, contemporary musical genre which emerged in an area which would seem to have a dominant “Scotch-Irish” ethnic heritage. This is also the thesis of a recent book called Wayfaring Strangers.

I’ve just written a review essay of the book (available in an online journal on this web page) to address some of the problems with the book’s methodology and theoretical framework, which you can read here. There are so many factual errors and misconceptions in the text, however, that I’ve decided to address a few more in this blog entry.

The book’s focus is primarily on the “Scots-Irish” (actually called “Scotch-Irish” in contemporary sources of the mid-19th century to the early 20th century) and their descendants in Appalachia, but also (somewhat paradoxically) on the idea of Celticity. This, as I discuss in the review, is a highly problematic mixture especially when the people whose culture can be more properly considered “Celtic” – that is, the Gaelic-speakers of Scotland and Ireland – are not dealt with accurately or thoroughly. It would be a bit like claiming to discuss the “Indian” culture of the American frontier by examining European colonists who had absorbed some aspects (and members) of local native nations, while largely ignoring the actual indigenous populations and their cultures.

The Scotch-Irish are sometimes called “Ulster Presbyterians,” and a host of other names. The Scotch-Irish are a complex group to characterize and track historically for a number of reasons. They were and are not a homogenous population, and in many ways (and at many times) defy easy definition because their disparate origins and influences. Still, the circumstances of their settlement in Ulster and the political and cultural forces acting on them are important to keep in mind. Tom Devine has described the Ulster Plantation thusly:

Before the Ulster Plantation, therefore, the Scottish Crown had already developed both theory and practice in internal colonialism buttressed by explicit assumptions about the ‘barbaric’ inferiority of the Gaels and their subordination to ‘civilised’ authority. The year 1603 was catalytic in the strategy which eventually led to the transformation of the history of the north of Ireland. Both the English and Scottish monarchies before the Regal Union had been independently attacking the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland. Now, under James I, a single assault from an enhanced base of power became possible. The aim was to drive an Anglo-Saxon Protestant wedge between the two areas of Gaelic-Catholic civilization. It came to be recognized as an Anglo-Scottish partnership, the first joint ‘British’ enterprise of the new ‘Kingdom of Great Britain’.  (Scotland’s Empire, 20)

Even if these plans did not go entirely according to plan, the deliberate nature of this plantation to empower anglophone Protestant culture and disenfranchise Gaelic civilization needs to be recognized. The plantation marks a watershed in the history and cultural makeup of Ireland, and yet the authors of Wayfaring Strangers too often treat it as though it were just another of many exchanges between Ireland and Scotland, of which there had certainly been a long lineage.

They remark, for example, “For thousands of years, people had been crossing the North Channel of the Irish Sea, back and forth from both directions” (p. 59). They further state, “The idea was not new; the Glens of Antrim, with their close proximity to Scotland and long history of clan intermarriage, were the setting in 1380 for Clan Donald establishing a strong foothold of Scots” (p. 69).

The important difference was that the Ulster Plantation was not an exchange between kin-groups as members of a common Gaelic civilization, and so these facile comparisons misrepresent the nature and scale of this protestant, anglophone colonization and the chasm it created from the past. And it certainly did not create a climate conducive to the development of non-anglophone forms of culture.

It often happens that colonists absorb more of the culture of the native people they are supposed to be suppressing than the colonial government expects or likes, and this was the case, in some circumstances and at some times, with the Scotch-Irish colonists in the North of Ireland. Taking careful account of the chronology and the social mechanisms for such cross-cultural exchanges is crucial, however, for any arguments of this nature but the authors are too careless with the evidence.

I have already discussed in the review essay the recurrent error in the book of assuming that social dance music (especially as played on the fiddle as jigs and reels) was already a fully mature and culturally-distinct genre (along with social dancing itself) before migration began in the early eighteenth century. They claim further that céilidhs were shared equally by Protestants and Catholics as a common cultural institution of shared meaning and practice that enabled these musical and cultural forms to thrive between communities (pp. 75-78, 146).

This is far too simplistic of a depiction of social life and cultural exchange. The term céili(dh), as well as other aspects of Gaelic folk culture, including the Gaelic/Irish language itself, did come to be adopted within certain segments of the Protestant community in Ulster, but this was only after the departure of the migrants who went to Appalachia. It was likely this demographic shift itself that facilitated these cultural transfers, as the departure of Ulster Presbyterians improved the relative demographic position of the native Irish. No variant of the word céili(dh) existed in Lowland Scots before the mid-nineteenth century, and it only appears to have been borrowed into Ulster Scots at about the same time, and thus, well past the time frame that the book is intended to interpret.

Those who are not intimately familiar with the varieties of the Gaelic language and its song-poetry can easily overlook the significance of the literary tradition in the Gaelic cultures of Scotland and Ireland, and the diversity of the forms and genres and their relation to social registers and domains. The authors have failed to account for these complexities but treat all music as being much of a muchness, the outpuring of a homogenous and egalitarian group. Take for example this passage:

The product was a fusion similar to the long intermingling of Scottish and native Irish music in Ulster. … As ever, music was the great common denominator for people, regardless of their origins, denominations, and vocations and heedless of the politics and religious dynamics of the day. It was an approach to cultural exchange that would eventually reside and root just as well in the southern Appalachians. (148)

It may well be the case that by the time of the main Ulster migrations in the early eighteenth century, most people in the British Isles were gaining an appreciation for social dancing and were enjoying the innovative musical experiments emanating from fiddles, but Gaels invested much greater social prestige in duain than in fiddle tunes, and anglophones were clueless about and mystified by these Gaelic song forms as well as genres lower on the social register, such as luinneagan and òrain-luaidh.

Music is certainly not a universal language and this is an important counter-point to the book’s implication that the music of Appalachia, including the later development of country-western music, is somehow “Celtic.” This is a fallacy based on a lack of detailed knowledge of the music and literary forms of Gaelic peoples, and a misrepresentation of the Anglo-British tradition. While the book does discuss the Child Ballad and other shoots from the Anglo-British tree, its unhelpful pre-occupation with the territorial designations of “Ireland,” “Scotland,” and “England” facilitates misrepresenting particular expressions as “Celtic” (or otherwise). If the music and literary legacy of the Scotch-Irish is to be given any ethnic label – which may be an inherently illusory exercise – it should be “Anglophone” or “Anglo-British.” Anglophones have a long and rich tradition of folk music and folk culture for which they are seldom recognized, and they are seldom given the credit they deserve for bringing this with them to North America before its rural roots were destroyed in Britain. (See, for example, the Village Music Project.)

Their problematic handling of history and tradition extends into a section discussing the Cape Fear of the Carolinas and Cape Breton island in eastern Canada (pp.126-27). These are areas where large numbers of Scottish Gaels immigrated in large numbers under various kinds of duress: to Carolinas from the 1730s to about 1840, and to Cape Breton island from the early 1800s to about 1840. The information about these settlements and their contrasting fortunes is inaccurate and contradictory. Although the Cape Fear was certainly the largest concentration of Scottish Gaels in North America at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was quickly surpassed by those in eastern Nova Scotia by the mid-nineteenth century (although there is a lack of accurate demographic information from this period; the sources for the text are not stated).

Unlike the Cape Fear, particular forms of Gaelic culture and music have survived in Cape Breton to the present, but the authors overstate the case by making such claims as “they were able to preserve an antiquated fiddle style.” They certainly brought fiddle music as it was being played in the early nineteenth century with them, but that era hardly deserves to be labelled “antiquated.” Fiddler-players have continuously developed their art since then, especially from influences within North America itself. Differences in English translations between Scotland and Canada for the same Gaelic terms and practices seem to have confused them when they state, “Gaelic waulking songs, sung by tweed weavers in the Hebrides, were preserved in Cape Breton as milling songs.” These songs, furthermore, were sung by women all over Gaelic Scotland, not just by weavers and not just in the Hebrides.

Their conclusions about the causes of the demise of the Gaelic culture in the Cape Fear immigrant community – and the nature of Gaelic culture itself – are misguided: “First, their culture was undermined by the fervor of religious revivals. Then, in an unpublicized twentieth-century clearance, they were dispersed to make way for the establishment of the enormous U.S. Army camp at Fort Bragg in 1918.”

What makes a community’s culture “Gaelic” is the use of the Gaelic language, which carries embedded in its words and idioms a way of seeing the world and access to a rich and complex oral tradition. There are places in Scotland, such as Lewis and Harris (in the Outer Hebrides), which were deeply affected by religious revivals of the same time period and which lost a great deal of their secular music and dance, but no one can deny that they are Gaelic in nature. In fact, in a previous blog entry I demonstrate the important role that religion played in maintaining a domain for the Gaelic language of the Cape Fear. The loss of the language was essentially complete by the time that Fort Bragg was established, and even though the base is large, it was only one portion of the much larger area where Gaels settled. So these comments really don’t provide any meaningful insight into the experience and demise of the Cape Fear Gàidhealtachd.

There are many other problems which a corrected revision would need to address. For example:

* It is implied that the Ulster emigrants to Appalachia would have been familiar with the legend of St. Brendan (p. 110), which I find highly doubtful.

* The clàrsach is mistakenly translated as “small harp” (pp. 83, 295), whereas size had nothing to do with it. What was distinctive about it was its wire strings, its curvature, and its association with the Gaels.

* The book makes reference to the “Gypsy Travellers” of England, Scotland and Ireland (p. 195), whereas there were distinct groups of travelling people in different regions of the British Isles that cannot be categorized under the rubric “gypsy.”

* The Gaelic song “Bidh Clann Ulaidh” is described as “ancient” but it cannot be older than the 17th century.

And so on…

With such a preponderance of errors, it is hard to give a glowing endorsement of the volume. There is clearly a very real and rich history here and a significant market of people interested to find out about it. Unfortunately, however, it seems that the North American academy has simply not fostered scholarship that bridges the ocean and enables the two musical legacies to be comprehended and analyzed accurately, particularly when languages other than English enter the picture. We are much the poorer for this lack of development of research into our own history, musical and otherwise, and of our understanding of the many strands that have gone into the American tapestry – including those that are now mostly silent.


Thanks to my friend Peter Gilmore for extended discussion on the context of Scotch-Irish migration and musical developments.


Tom Devine. Scotland’s Empire: 1600-1815. London: Penguin Books, 2003.

Peter Gilmore. “Irish Tunes and Scotch-Irish Myths in Early Western Pennsylvania. Paper presented at Celebrating Northern Appalachia in Word and Song.” 2011.

Michael Newton. “The Gaelic Diaspora in North America.” In The Modern Scottish Diaspora: Contemporary Debates and Perspectives, edited by Murray Stewart Leith and Duncan Sim, 136-52. Edinburgh University Press, 2014.

Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr. Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. 361 pages. ISBN 978-1-4696-1822-7.

One thought on “Strayed Way Far Off: Is Country-Western Music Celtic?

  1. One of the major complaints of the Scots in the Red River Settlement (Selkirk’s Colony) was that the Hudson’s Bay Company only sent english speaking ministers for the Protestant churches. It does appear to be a concerted effort to “homogenize” the populations into one amorphous mass — whether they were First Nation or any other non-anglophone culture.
    While there is a strong influence of Scottish and Irish culture in the cowboy culture, even there the musical connection is nebulous.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s