Below is one of the few pictures that have survived from my Uncle Joe McGonnell's "Irish" Music sessions held from 1950 to 1971. At the mic is my Aunt Jo, most likely singing Marty Robbins' song "El Paso," which was her signature song. The sessions were a mix of Celtic music and Country and Western music, which had its roots in Celtic music.
Roots and Rhythms No. 1
by James A. McQuiston, FSAScot
The first time I ever heard the term “Scotch-Irish” was in regard to music, fifty-five or so years ago. I was about twelve-years-old and standing outside my uncle’s western Pennsylvania farmhouse. Inside were a dozen of more musicians. The music had been going on all day and would last into the wee hours of the following morning, as it did once a year, for twenty-one years, when my Uncle Joe McGonnell held his music sessions.
Outside, several adults were discussing the merits of including Country and Western music in the mix, and whether it detracted from the so-called “Irish” music being played. Someone noted that we weren’t Irish, anyway – we were Scotch-Irish.
I asked the difference, but kids were to be seen, not heard, back then.
Uncle Joe could really play the fiddle. He and his brother Bill led the other musicians. Following along was a left-handed mando player, several guitarists, a chubby lady on a piano stool, who played the hell out of those 88 keys, and several people who took turns on the “stand-up bass.”
I attended these sessions for twenty-one years. Now I perform forty or more times a year at Highland Games, Irish Fests, and lots of other venues, playing some of these same songs.
I’ve also led a few sessions of my own… well I organized them, but the fiddlers led them, just like at Uncle Joe’s.
One fiddler might have a blues bent, another an old-timer style, and another a Cape Breton flavor. One musician teaches the other what he or she knows, either by example or, rarely, actually explaining it. One guitar player watches the fingers of another to learn a new chord or new song. And sometimes someone sings a song my own father used to sing.
This is how Scottish and Irish music has been preserved, passed down, and perfected for hundreds of years. The young learn from the old. A melody for this song gets borrowed for that song. A basic tune is given a new ornament by a bored fiddler who thinks, “What if I did this, right here?”
After many years of playing and studying this music I have discovered that there is little distinction between Scottish, Irish or Scotch-Irish music, most of it having come out of the same Gaelic culture.
However, certain styles have arisen in certain parts of Scotland and Ireland that are distinctive.
A few years ago I met the great Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser. He demonstrated many styles of fiddling found in America and related them to specific places in Scotland, where they likely originated.
Alasdair is tied for the best fiddler in the world, in my book, with Natalie MacMaster and Bonnie Rideout – a three-way tie of the best, with several others right on their heels.
I have been so lucky to have met and spoken at some length with all of these famous fiddlers. In fact, both Natalie and Bonnie have appeared on covers of Celtic Guide in the past. Maybe it'll be Alasdair's turn for a story, soon.
It is fair to say that there is no music considered specifically as Scotch-Irish, unless we consider the fife and drum corps of Ulster.
But, on the whole, Irish, Scottish and Scotch-Irish “Celtic” music is very similar, and it might be fair to say that it was the Scotch-Irish who introduced this music to America when they migrated in great masses from Ulster mostly in the 1700s.
In the old days, many Irish harpers toured Scotland as teachers, and often served a particular Scottish chieftain as their personal musician. Meanwhile, bagpipe tunes were growing in popularity, especially at battle time.
When the bagpipe was outlawed, many pipe tunes made their way to the fiddle. As Scots moved into Ulster they brought these tunes with them, to mix with Irish tunes.
No matter in which country these unique songs originated, the Scotch-Irish did what they do best – they adapted and adopted.
As the stereotypical frontier people their music has influence every form of “American” music from jazz to blues, from country to pop music, and even to shape note singing in many southern churches.
Not too long ago a meeting was held between traditional shape note singers from the Scottish Hebrides and those from several southern churches in the United States. Many similarities still existed in singing styles and song structures. The conclusion was unanimous between these two groups that their styles do in fact have the same origin.
Songs have been traded back and forth between Scotland and Ireland for so long that it is often impossible to tell where a melody originated. Sometimes the same tune is used in each country with a separate set of lyrics.
One of the most common examples of this is the song “Loch Lomond,” which in Ireland is called “Red is The Rose,” with completely different lyrics.
Even some pop song have roots in Scottish and Irish music.
Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” is the same melody as “Aura Lee,” an old Irish song. The melody of "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" is similar to a song by Bobby Sands, also of Ireland, called "Back Home in Derry,” however in this case Gordon Lightfoot created the melody first, although it is likely he borrowed from his rich Canadian background. Lightfoot’s first public performance was "Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral" (an Irish lullaby) in grade four.
One of the most famous examples of adapting a melody is the song “Danny Boy,” said to be the most requested song in history.
This song was previously known as “The Londonderry Air,” but had roots even deeper than that, which I found out firsthand in the Ulster town of Dungiven, from where my family left Ireland, in 1735 – Pennsylvania bound. We’ve been in PA now for 282 years now, but still harken back to our Scottish and Scotch-Irish roots.
The McQuiston side of the family came to Ireland from the Scottish Highlands and Islands, in 1565, but the McGonnell side had already been there a long time. They were a branch of the McDonnell family, who simply changed the D in their name to a G, because there were only so many first names to go around. While they immigrated to America from Strabane, County Tyrone, they had spent a lot of time on County Monaghan, previously. They were Catholics at first, and the McQuistons were Presbyterian as of about 1689. By the time they got to America they were both the stereotypical Presbyterian Scotch-Irish.
Oddly, when my dad married my mother, they attended an Irish Catholic church, where the first priest I ever knew spoke with a beautiful Irish brogue. Our neighbors, when I was five, were my Auntie Joyce, from Ireland, and her husband, Ronnie, from England. So I was surrounded by accents from the British Isles growing up. Never get tired of it.
What I was to learn in Dungiven is that the melody for “Danny Boy” was at first a harp tune written for the O’Cahan chief who had died in 1628, and whose clan was losing its land. It is said the chieftain’s harpist went into a cave for two days and came out with this timeless melody. It was known as “O’Cahan’s Lament” for generations. Since Dungiven is very near Londonderry, or Derry as it is more often called, and because the song was an “air,” or a form of an operatic aria, it took on the name “Londonderry Air.” The song eventually had words added to it and became known as "Danny Boy."
I was in Murphy’s Pub in Dungiven about to join in a music sessions and the idea of playing “Danny Boy” came up. I was sitting with an old woodcarver who lived on Rathlin Island and carved Celtic legends out of bog oak. When he heard the suggestion he told me I’d be run out of town if I sang the song as “Danny Boy.” Then he pointed to a plaque on the wall that explained the whole story.
Obviously, I skipped that song!
I am no expert, but the music that has held my interest and that of my family for at least seven or eight generations of fiddlers and guitarists/ singers, from both the McQuiston and McGonnell families, has reinforced my pride in my roots. And so I hope that this article is just the first of a series I’ll be calling “Roots and Rhthyms.”