Celtic Influences on American Fiddle Style

by James Kimball

Celtic music has strongly influenced American fiddle traditions for just about as long as the violin has been part of new world culture. Scots, Irish, Welsh and Bretons, along with their distinctive music, all made their way to North America; but it was the Scots and Irish who most widely impacted the fiddle traditions of the United States and Canada.

Scottish playing styles and tunes were particularly influential in earlier American culture and remain especially strong in the Canadian Maritimes, witness the very popular Scottish-Canadian traditions which are kept alive and well by a host of Cape Breton fiddlers from Nova Scotia. Many of the earlier Scottish tunes, dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries, became standard fare and remain in common practice across both the United States and Canada: My Love She’s but a LassieMoney Musk, McCleod’s ReelFlowers of Edinboro and Soldier’s Joy are all Scottish tunes which became and remain classics in American tradition.

Of all the Celtic influences, however, it is the Irish which has impacted American fiddling most widely. The Irish themselves have represented a variety of traditions, characterized by geography, religion, occupation and education. Artistically important, though a clear minority in numerical terms, were the Anglican or Church of Ireland Irish, especially associated with Dublin and the educational world of Trinity College. Many of Ireland’s leading English language poets, writers and composers have come from this group, including Samuel Lover (Victor Herbert’s grandfather) and Michael Balfe, both of whom wrote songs which were sung and played in the 19th century American popular market. The leading Irish song writer of the early 19th century, however, was Thomas Moore, a Catholic poet composer who shared the Dublin and Trinity College experience. Moore’s English language songs adapted and popularized a large number of traditional Irish tunes, many of which (e.g. Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms’Tis the Last Rose of SummerThe Minstrel Boy, etc.) remain familiar to many Americans.

Thomas Moore
By After Thomas Lawrence – Christie’s, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15162572

A much larger population group and a major factor in American folk traditions of many kinds were the Scots-Irish. These were the English-speaking, predominantly protestant immigrants who came from the more northern counties of Ireland and were descended, for the most part, from lowland Scots who had earlier moved into Ireland. Their music traditions can be characterized as a blend of Scottish and Irish repertoire and styles. In America they became central to the western expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many settled in rural areas across America, others throughout the southern Appalachians and then further west into the Ozarks. In the American south, Scots-Irish fiddle traditions blended with African-American and other American styles to create the southern “old-time” traditions — which in turn influenced bluegrass. Across the north, the short bow playing techniques and tune repertoire of Northern Ireland strongly influenced local rural dance fiddling traditions which survive to the present – including those of New York state.

The third, and musically most distinctive group of immigrants out of Ireland, were those from the more southern and western counties, mostly Catholic, many speaking Gaelic, and coming in great numbers starting especially in the years of the potato famine, during the 1840s and later. They came from rural areas and some took up farming in the new land; but most settled in urban areas, famously in Boston, New York City and Chicago, as well as in several Canadian centers, one of the most Irish being St. John, New Brunswick. Early on, these urban Irish often settled near each other according to which county they had come from; they shared Irish Catholic parishes and schools and many of the old country folkways – especially music and dance. It is this music, mostly passed on through oral tradition and within these urban Irish enclaves which has evolved into the distinctively “Irish” traditions we hear today. A rich network of sessions, festivals and dance schools, enhanced today by numerous publications, recordings, touring musicians and websites guarantees that this music is not going away. This Irish music has developed its own very strong following across North America and abroad.

Published tune collections, featuring distinctively Irish jigs, reels, hornpipes, airs and the like, have been available in America since at least the mid-19th century. Patrick Haverty, himself an immigrant and an ardent Irish nationalist, published his 300 Irish Airs in New York City in 1859. Boston music publisher Elias Howe gave us Ryan’s Mammoth Collection in 1883. This collection of 1050 tunes, including many classically Irish or Irish-American jigs, reels and hornpipes, sold well enough in its own day; but a re-titled version of the same collection published by Chicago publisher M. M. Cole in 1940 did even better. This is the popular collection still in print and known as 1000 Fiddle Tunes.

Other fine collections of Irish tunes included those put out by Francis O’Neill, Irish immigrant, tune collector and Superintendent of Police in Chicago in the early 20th century and those of Frank Harding (whose parents immigrated from Ireland), in the same period in New York City. Harding’s various collections of jigs and reels sold widely across America in the first three decades of the 20th century.

Touring performers specializing in Irish music or dance have been part of the American scene since the variety and vaudeville shows of the 19th century and continuing to the present. One particularly influential musician was fiddler Michael Coleman, who first came to America in 1914. In 1917 he was touring on the Keith Vaudeville circuit and starting in 1921 he was one of the first and best to record genuine Irish traditional fiddle tunes. He continued to make recordings until 1936 and in time his distinctive county Sligo style of playing came to dominate the traditional Irish scene. James Morrison, Paddy Killoran and Andy McGann were among many other fine traditional musicians who brought the Sligo repertoire and intricate playing styles to America, where they survive in the able hands of many of today’s Irish-American players.

Celtic music has long been part of the American music scene and in many forms and styles. Some tunes and playing styles sound very American to our ears – as a lot of distinctly American music evolved from Irish and Scottish traditions. Others sound very close to what was played in the old country, as new generations of musicians discover and learn from older traditions. The whole makes for a wealth and variety of fiddle traditions that is hard to match anywhere else.