HISTORY OF AN OLD TIME FOLK TUNE (July 17/07)

When I tell you the name of this tune, some of you senior citizens will probably say to yourself, “yeah, it used to be popular when I was a kid.” Then you’ll hum a few bars of that old country piece to yourself. You won’t be able to help yourself. The tune is still catchy.

But before I tell you the tune’s name, you might be interested to know that it appears to have come from Ireland. In 1903 an Irishman living in Boston, Captain Francis O’Neill, collected and published nearly 2000 Irish tunes, most of which were traditional pieces that had been played in Ireland for generations.

Last winter I sat down at my keyboard to play every one of those tunes. It took me several months this time – I had already done it once before – and in the process I discovered something interesting. Some of the music we think of as New World, especially the square dance and fiddle music Americans claim as their own, is of Irish origin, or at least of Celtic origin, meaning in this case that the tunes came from Scotland or Ireland.

The proof of this is in the O’Neill collection. I found numerous pieces in the book that are played today as traditional American music. Among them is the tune I said I’d tell you about. It’s a fiddle standard that has been in the public domain since the 1920s and it was first popularized, with lyrics added, in the 1820s and early 1830s.

The tune is Turkey in the Straw. One can find it in the O’Neill collection as Turkeys in the Straw; note for note, it’s almost identical to the tune Americans claim as their own. One Dan Bryant added the lyrics to the tune and published it circa 1860. Since then, various songwriters have used the melody of Turkeys in the Straw with other lyrics; the song Old Zip Coon is one example.

A lot of so-called traditional American tunes, besides Turkey in the Straw, have Irish and Scottish roots. Look, for example, at how heavily the Bluegrass genre was influenced by Celtic people who immigrated to America. The creator of Bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, freely acknowledged the Celtic influence on his music. Ricky Skaggs, who undoubtedly is one of the best Bluegrass performers in the world today, also acknowledges the Celtic influence on his music. Listen closely to some of Skagg’s recent Bluegrass compositions and you’ll hear a strong hint of bagpipes.

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