GOOD OLD COUNTRY (IRISH) MUSIC (May 25/01)

In the introduction to O’Neill’s collection of Irish dance music the compiler of the book, James O’Neill, said in effect that he makes no apology for including a tune supposedly of American origin, called Old Zip Coon; we know this tune as Turkey in the Straw, a long-time popular square dance and fiddle tune.

In a recent documentary, a narrator stressed that most of the wonderful old songs and especially the melancholy melodies peculiar to Newfoundland, and cherished across Canada as “Newfy music,” are of Irish origin. During Ireland’s famine period massive emigration to Newfoundland made this province a bastion of Irish culture.

In the book, Music an Illustrated Encyclopedia, author Neil Ardley writes that in the southern states, particularly the Appalachian mountains, jigs, reels and ballads that came from Britain and Ireland, developed into hillbilly and bluegrass music.

There’s a common thread in the references to Old Zip Coon, Newfoundland songs and hillbilly/bluegrass music and that is their Irish origin. James O’Neill wrote, for example, that while Americans claimed Old Zip Coon/Turkey In The Straw as their own, there was good reason to include it in an Irish music collection. Some over zealous champions of Irish music will criticise this inclusion, O’Neil said, but “convincing evidence of its Irish antecedents (as a tune called Turkeys In The Straw) came to hand a few years ago in a roll of age-browned manuscript music.”

In his comments on its British and Irish origin, Neil Ardley noted that hillbilly and bluegrass music “are the basis of country music.” In websites devoted to the history of country music, the Original Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers are acknowledged as the founders of country music. One site notes that the Carter Family and Rodgers “accidentally invented country music.”

By now the reader will see where I’m going.

Much of the music we enjoy today, such as Newfoundland, country and western, country rock and folk are either Irish in origin or have been strongly influenced by old Irish music. To be exact, I should say that much of this type of music has a touch of Gaelic, particularly Irish and Scotch Gaelic, in its bloodlines.

I’m sure many people remember the original Carter Family who recorded commercially from the 1920s to the 1940s. The Carters lead the way in popularising country music, influencing generations of country singers. Many of the haunting ballads the Carter Family sang were of Irish origin. One beautiful old Irish melody in particular stands out – the Connemara Cradle Song. This melody was used by the Carters and following country singers as the basis for several songs.

There’s nothing new about this. As a race, the Irish are great music makers. For centuries music of Irish origin has enriched the world. And while Scots may think it sacrilege to claim it, many of the traditional Scottish tunes originally came from Ireland.

I can think of several examples offhand but one in particular stands out. Most of us are familiar with a Scottish tune that salutes the clan Campbell, “The Campbells Are coming.” This tune is an adaptation of an ancient Irish piece called “The Burnt Old Man,” which can be found in many collections of old Irish music.

Many bagpipe tunes beloved by the Scots and claimed as their own can be found in early collections of Irish music. One example out of countless many that exist is the old Irish tune called “Blackeyed Biddy.” One can find this melody in the Scots Guards manual of piping as “The Rock and the Wee Pickle Tow.”

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