APPALACHIAN MUSIC MOSTLY BASED ON BALLADS, INSTRUMENTAL DANCE TUNES OF ANGLO-SAXONS
By Dallas Bogan
Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. This article was published in the LaFollette Press.
I have always had a keen interest in bluegrass music. Just where did this culture, as I call it, come from? After careful research I found it to be of Celtic origin. The descendancy of the Celtic people is Irish, or Scots-Irish, or Welsh, or Scottish.
The Celtic people settled the Appalachian region and immediately they found they had almost as much as they could handle. This mountainous region was full of bears, Indians, the wilderness, severe weather, and ,of course, the mountains, just to name a few. Their ethnic origins were not important at this time for they had escaped their oppressor, poverty and persecution. Now they had a new world to conquer.
Leaving Europe and coming to America was justly hard for a spell, but after just one generation they had overcome and forgotten the barbaric livelihood of the mother country. Today, some 300 years later, hardly a trace of their ancestry is visible.
The Treaty of Paris, in 1763, caused France to give up its American land to the English, setting in motion the start of a large expansion through and into the Appalachians from 1775 through 1850.
Most of the Scots-Irish came to Pennsylvania as indentured servants. When their terms were served they found land too expensive and so went south into the mountains. To survive this ordeal in the Southern Mountains, you needed to be resourceful, healthy and knowledgeable. Frontier life was difficult and a laborious struggle. People needed to rely upon each other, which included social and religious events, the latter of which was a highly cherished virtue.
Irishmen were living in Appalachia before the days of the American Revolution. However, many folks think they arrived here in the 19th Century during the potato famine.
These Catholic Irishmen found a difficult problem in their new land. There was at this time an absence of priests and churches in the new country that practiced Catholicism. Their religious life, being of utmost importance, found many other ordained organizations in which to participate, such as Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists, the latter for which most partook. If one were to look into the Baptist rolls today they could possibly find such names as Murphy, Mullins, and O'Brien.
Musical traditions from the home country were important links to the past which were cherished and passed down from generation to generation. Time-honored Appalachian music is mostly based upon anglo-saxon ballads and instrumental dance tunes, the former always being sung unaccompanied, and usually by women. These ladies were fulfilling roles as keepers of the families' cultural heritage, and rising above grim boring work through envisions of escape and revenge. These ballads were sung from the British tradition of the single personal narrative.
The vocal "fill-in" found in many Celtic ballads seems to have led to that element of nasal quality preferred by many traditional Appalachian singers.
The churches of America were very influential and usually more stuffed-shirt in nature. Many lyrics were sedated and cleaned up. British rule was frowned upon; this censorship resulted in ballads where repentance and doom replaced sinful conduct.
Of the two different types of Appalachian music one came from the African tradition, which reflected an actual event or movement with real characters. The second ballad style was from the popular music source of the parlor or sentimental ballad. The latter derived mostly from the Victorian or Edwardian eras, and thus were presented in Minstrel Shows, eventually lapsing into a folk culture through sheer duplication.
As was mentioned earlier, the African-American slaves conveyed a real tradition of group singing of community songs of work and worship. This culture was usually lined out by one person with a call and response action from a group. The impact of the African music began to change the rhythms of Appalachian singing and dancing.
Introduction of the banjo to the Southern Mountains after the Civil War in the 1860's energized this process. This instrument was originated in Arabia, and then brought to western Africa by the spread of Islam, and from this point it ended up in America. The banjo was designated as a slave instrument until the popularity of the Minstrel Show, which began in the 1840's. Its different rhythm type produced a different clog-dance and song beat by the turn of the 19th Century.
One type of music stood out in Appalachia more than any other, religious; white country gospel music excelled by far the greatest. The Colonial period found that the press was controlled by the clergy who had no interest in this "earthly" type of music.
There were three types of religious music-- that of ballads, hymns, and revival spiritual songs. The latter directly descended from the African song tradition.
Instruments of many types, along with the banjo, were used in the song of the Appalachians. The fiddle was at first the main instrument as a piano would have been too expensive to purchase. Initially, the tones and musical qualities of the fiddle portrayed those of the ballad. The "reel" is generally thought to have been created in the Scottish highlands in the mid-eighteenth century. In the 1740's, Neil Gow, a Scottish fiddler, is credited with developing the the rhymic short bowstroke technique that eventually fashioned the Appalachian moutain fiddling.
Another distinctive Appalachian feature was the "rocking of the bow" on the fiddle. Many players began to use tunings different from the standard classical to intensify the high lonesome sound. Words were applied to the fiddle tunes and when the fiddle player needed rest, the "caller" would take over and give the fiddler a break by singing the calls.
Popularity of the guitar began about 1910. With this addition the fiddle player, who mostly played alone, now had a rhythm section. The guitar produced an even backup of a measured beat; it also lent its music to the singing traditions in the same way.
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