By Erik Devaney

During the 19th-century, song-smiths in southern Appalachia, who had absorbed African rhythms from local slave populations, began fusing these rhythms with elements of celtic folk music, thus forming the basis of the country music genre.

The influence of Celtic folk music in the South began before the start of the American Revolution. As early as 1717, waves of Scots-Irish immigrants were pouring into North America. By 1790, 3 million of these immigrants called America home. The Scots-Irish, also known as Scotch-Irish or Ulster-Scots, were Presbyterian Scots who had previously settled in Ulster as a result of Britain’s plan for a Protestant plantation in Ireland.

Separate waves of Scottish immigration to North America occurred starting in 1725 as a result of the Highland Clearances, while Irish Catholics would not arrive on the scene in great numbers until 1847: a result of the so called ‘famine. Despite their ideological differences, these Scottish and Irish immigrants shared a Celtic musical tradition, which employed many of the same techniques for playing, composing and arranging music. These techniques had a profound influence on that ‘country sound’ we are familiar with today.

The Vocal Harmony Hoe-Down
When two or more singers sing in harmony, or harmonize, the notes they sing are different, while the resulting sound they produce is unified and, typically, pleasing to the ears. Of course, the Irish and Scottish didn’t invent the concept of harmony, but they did have a tradition of using it in group sing-a-long settings. Gaelic-speakers in the Old World were distilling and drinking moonshine and crooning harmoniously, the perfect accompaniment for a bit of Poitín, well before Appalachian ‘hillbillies’ began carrying on the tradition in the New World.

Like their Celtic musician forefathers,  country musicians often employ vocal harmonies in the choruses, or repeated portions, of songs. This strategy helps stress the importance and increase the forcefulness of the choruses while also separating them sound-wise from the verses. Check out the use of vocal harmonies in the choruses of Okie from Muskogee by Merle Haggard and compare it to the use of harmonies in the choruses of the Celtic song, Mairi’s Wedding, as performed by The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem.

Enter The Drone
If you find that some country or Celtic songs have hypnotic qualities to them, mesmerizing you as you listen, this phenomenon could be the result of a drone. A drone is a note or chord that sounds continuously throughout most, if not all, of a song, providing an underlying, trance-like accompaniment for the song’s melody. Musicians can create drones vocally or with virtually any pitch-controlled instrument. Country musicians, such as  fiddlers and slide-guitarists, adopted droning from Scottish and Irish settlers, who were accustomed to producing drones with fiddles as well as bagpipes.
Listen for the drone in Fiddlin’ John Carson’s song, He Rambled, and compare it to the drone in the Scottish march, The Campbells Are Coming.
Scottish-Irish settlement in America

Scottish-Irish settlement in America

The Sob Story

Listen to a country music radio station long enough and you will hear a sob story: a song about a father abandoning his son (see Walk A Little Straighter Daddy by Billy Currington), a song about a woman abandoning her man (see When I Call Your Name by Vince Gill) or, worst of all, a song about a boyfriend dumping his girlfriend and then letting his new girlfriend drive his pick-up truck, something he never let the old girlfriend do (see Picture To Burn by Taylor Swift). The nerve of that guy, really, what a plum.
Singing sorrowfully about the heartbreaks we suffer in life may not have been a distinctively Irish or Scottish creation, but Irish and Scottish immigrants certainly brought a tradition of sob stories with them when they showed up on the shores of Amerikay. Subject matter included longing for love (see Black Is The Colour), losing children (see The Wife of Usher’s Well) and leaving behind a troubled home only to encounter new troubles abroad (see By The Hush).

The Drinking Song

Before Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffet sang It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere, before Tracy Byrd sang Ten Rounds With José Cuervo and before Brad Paisley sang the utilitarian-titled Alcohol, Celtic musicians were singing drinking songs that put forth similar, contradictory messages: alcohol is evil (see Whiskey, You’re The Devil), but drinking it can be comforting and a quite joyous experience (see Beer, Beer Beer). Homer Simpson summed up the lyrical style of Celtic/country drinking songs beautifully when he toasted
“Here’s to alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems”
The Fantastic Mr. Fiddle
fiddleThe use of the fiddle in country music pre-dates the use of the guitar. To clarify, a fiddle is, physically, the same instrument as a violin. The difference is perception: most classical violinists get offended when you call them fiddlers, as they consider fiddling to be an informal, inferior type of playing… what a bunch of jerks.
Scottish and Irish immigrants brought fiddles with them to North America and successive generations in the South morphed their Celtic jigs and reels into tunes of their own. Many of the founding fathers of country music, such as Fiddlin’ John Carson, mentioned above, and Eck Robertson, were solo fiddlers. Apart from bringing fiddles and fiddle music to the American South, the Scottish and Irish brought highly energetic and interactive dancing styles to accompany fiddling, which formed the basis for country square dancing.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Banjo
banjoThe banjo does not have Celtic origins.
African slaves brought the tradition of building banjos with them when they were transported to the New World; a tradition that required stretching strings across animal-skin drums.
However, when musically-inclined inhabitants of the Appalachians got their hands on banjos, they used them to play the fiddle tunes that they had learned from the Scottish and Irish.
The plot thickens: in the 19th century, banjos crossed the Atlantic, for a second time, and musicians in Ireland and Scotland began incorporating the African/American instruments into traditional Celtic music. The The Dubliners are a great example of a Celtic folk band that adopted the banjo.

Further Reading:
Ceolas: Celtic Music Instruments
Thanks For The Music: The Fiddle in Country Music History of the Banjo
Who Are The Scotch Irish?

* Erik ran a fantastic web-site called ‘The Bard Of Boston’ which you can check out here even though he stopped publishing a few years back I hope you stick check it out  as some of the articles are extremely interesting and Erik is never dull. You can contact Erik here via his web-site.

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  1. Brent Galster February 28, 2016 at 5:40 pm Reply

    In even Western Canada, there are folk-rock bands with a bagpipe! And fiddle!

    In eastern Ontario between Picton and Gananoque, and also in some places in southwestern Ontario, the Scottish spirit is strong! Highland clearances or not! Add to that the Irish Protestants and later, Irish Catholics…

    Cape Breton even has a Gaelic College with a piping school and fiddle corps. Gaelic hanging on…but likely on its last legs father-to-son…for daily use, anyway! Put away like family silver, barely used!

    And of course Quebec inherited not only the Irish and Scottish but also the Breton songs! Acadia too!

    There is also a town in Alberta called Breton.

  2. Ian MacDonald March 1, 2016 at 8:09 pm Reply

    For those interested in this, I can thoroughly recommend the work of David Wilkie and his band, Cowboy Celtic, who won the cowboy album of the year in Nashville some years ago. The follow-up album was The Drover Road, which followed the links between the drove roads of Scotland and the cowboy trails in North America.
    I was pleased to see on that album they included The Baron of Brackley, which they learned from myself. It tells of a cattle raid in Deeside in 1666

  3. The Big Yin March 10, 2016 at 7:57 pm Reply

    Thank you for posting. Very informative and I had always suspected as much.

  4. Ruairi Maguidhir April 10, 2018 at 2:37 am Reply

    “So called ‘famine'”?

    • LondonCelticPunks April 10, 2018 at 12:29 pm Reply

      the people did die but I would call it a act of war rather than the so called potato famine.

      • Touchy subject May 3, 2018 at 9:15 pm

        One million dead. One million displaced. Try Genocide

  5. […] Something had to influence it though. What are the roots of country and folk music? Go across the Atlantic to Africa and the British Isles. Like rock and roll, country isn’t a lily-white genre. Many of the first country musicians were black and took influences from West Africa and made something new. In Ireland, there is a big country music following – I’d regularly hear county music on Radio Kerry, so it’s no surprise that traditional folk music of Ireland and Scotland inspired country music. […]

  6. […] How the Irish and Scots influenced American folk music, which in turn influenced rock & roll […]

  7. PTB April 5, 2019 at 4:04 am Reply

    I would argue this article doesn’t go far enough in outlining the influence of Scottish music on popular American forms. It’s certainly not limited to country music. Gospel music, for instance, was absolutely brought to America from Scotland (see the work of prof. Willie Ruff in unraveling this). Furthermore, if you listen to traditional Scottish singers it becomes clear that the style of ornamentation has directly influenced the ornamentation used by African American soul, R&B and pop singers. I would also argue that Scottish music has influenced American music more than Irish music has.

    • The Don April 5, 2019 at 7:21 am Reply

      I think you may well be right. Would you like to expand on this article and write a follow up piece? We’d be very happy to publish it.

    • JSP June 8, 2021 at 7:11 am Reply

      It is refreshing to hear someone else mention this musical history on a reply. I have been doing my best to politely share this info on the internet. I can even hear many traditional rhythms from Scotland, England and Ireland that are prevalent in American popular music. Scots snap, or lumbar rhythm, shuffles with backbeats etc. Also scales like the mixolydian that by no coincidence show up again in the 1960s British Invasion. It wasn’t that long ago online and especially in books I bought in 90s, that one would at least get a balanced over view on the combination of European and African music contributions. That is beginning to disappear even with country music. If you haven’t all ready check out Phillip Taggs work on the subject.

      All the best
      Thank you

  8. […] How the Irish and Scots influenced American folk music, which in turn influenced rock & roll […]

  9. […] How the Irish and Scots influenced American folk music, which in turn influenced rock & roll […]

  10. […] How the Irish and Scots influenced American folk music, which in turn influenced rock & roll […]

  11. […] Devaney, Erik, “How the Irish and the Scots Infleunced American Music,” London Celtic Punks, posted Feb. 28, 2016, accessed Mar. 13, 2021,…. […]

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