Celtic Influences

Updated: February 28, 2011

The traditions of the Celtic peoples together constitute the single most dynamic ethnic influence on Appalachian music.

The traditions of the Celtic peoples together constitute the single most dynamic ethnic influence on Appalachian music. An estimated 70 percent of the early settlers on the Appalachian frontier emigrated from historically Celtic countries (Scotland, Ireland, and Wales). Many of these settlers intermarried with people from different ethnicities, thus exchanging cultural traditions and widely influencing Appalachian music.

Scottish and Irish settlers brought the baroque fiddle to Appalachia. The recently designed instrument had become widely popular in Celtic countries because it was easily carried and well suited for performing at dances. The fiddle was especially valued in Scotland when bagpipes were outlawed after the Scottish defeat at the battle of Culloden in 1746. American fiddle tunes with Scottish roots include “Hop Light Ladies” (a variant of the Scottish tune “Mrs. McLeod’s Reel”), “Leather Britches” (derived from “Lord MacDonald’s Reel”), and “Too Young to Marry” (which borrowed the melody from Robert Burns’s song “My Love Is But a Lassie-O”). Many traditional Appalachian ballads, including “Wind and Rain,” “Gypsy Laddie,” “Jack Went A-Sailing,” “Butcher Boy,” and “Pretty Polly,” stemmed from Scottish sources.

The Irish influence on Appalachian music became more prominent after people escaping the potato blight in Ireland immigrated to the United States in the 1840s. Soon many Appalachian musicians began playing variations of traditional Irish hornpipes, reels, and jigs. Reinterpretations of Irish tunes performed at minstrel shows in Appalachia included “Cotton-Eyed Joe” (based on the Irish tune “The Mountain Top”) and “Buffalo Gals” (“Battle of the Boyne”).

In the mid-nineteenth century, Celtic American music merged with African American music. Appalachian musicians of Celtic ancestry such as Joel Walker Sweeney, Dan Emmett, and the latter’s banjo teacher, whose first name is not known but whose last name was Ferguson, were among the earliest white rural folk to learn banjo from African Americans. Emmett helped create the Virginia Minstrels, the first minstrel band that combined the fiddle and banjo.

A strong Scottish or Scots-Irish influence could still be heard in twentieth-century Appalachia in the traditional singing of Jean Ritchie (of Viper, Kentucky), for instance, and in the traditional fiddling of Tommy Jarrell (of Round Peak, North Carolina). Several prominent bluegrass musicians active in Appalachia have acknowledged their Scottish or Scots- Irish ancestry, including Jim and Jesse McReynolds, Howdy Forrester, Fiddlin’ Cowan Powers, and Bill Monroe.

A number of folk-revivalist musicians born or based in the region have specialized in exploring the influences of Celtic music and culture on Appalachia. Waynesville, North Carolina–based singer Flora McDonald Gammon, for ex- ample, has been noted for her interpretations of Scotland’s ballad and song heritage, while singer-songwriter and multi- instrumentalist Tim O’Brien has celebrated Irish-Appalachian cultural connections through a series of acclaimed recordings, including his 1999 album The Crossing.

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MLA Style

"Celtic Influences," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2018, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 23 Sep 2018 <http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=50>

APA Style

"Celtic Influences." (2018) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved September 23, 2018, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=50

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