Sunday, January 23, 2011

Appalachian Traditional Music

A Short History
By Debby McClatchy

In the 1763 Treaty of Paris the French gave up their American land rights to the English, causing the start of a larger expansion through and into the Appalachians from 1775 through 1850. The population explosion in Ireland (from four million in 1780 to seven million in 1821), coupled with a lifting of travel restrictions from that country, increased immigration to the US. Most of the Scots-Irish coming to Pennsylvania came as indentured servants. When their terms of service were over they found local land too expensive and so went south into the mountains. It is generally perceived that this 'lower' class of immigrant resulted in the 'poor white trash' or 'hillbillies' of Deliverance fame, although the truth is that to survive in the Southern Mountains you needed to be resourceful, healthy, and knowledgeable.

By 1790 any good land was taken or too expensive for most. Still, communities were settled rather late; at the time of the Civil War (1860s) most settlements did not average more than three generations back. All this tended to produce communities that were isolated geographically and unstable, at least compared with the higher degree of order, law, and precedent found on the Eastern Seaboard. Frontier life was rigorous and a struggle; people needed to rely upon each other, and anything social, including religion, was highly important, producing a generally deeply religious population. Musical traditions from home were important links to the past and were cherished and passed down to the next generation.

Traditional Appalachian music is mostly based upon Anglo-Celtic folk ballads and instrumental dance tunes. The former were almost always sung unaccompanied, and usually by women, fulfilling roles as keepers of the families' cultural heritages and rising above dreary monotonous work through fantasies of escape and revenge. These ballads were from the British tradition of the single personal narrative, but the list was selective; most of the one hundred or so variations of the three hundred classic ballads found in American tradition are to do with sexual struggles from the female standpoint, as Barbary Allen, Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender, and Pretty Polly. One is less likely to find Scottish ballads of rape and dominance, or those with men as heroes. A large percentage, perhaps almost half, of the American variations tend to be about pregnant women murdered by their boyfriends.

The ornamentation and vocal improvisation found in many Celtic ballads seems to have led to that particular tonal, nasal quality preferred by many traditional Appalachian singers. But, even as content was changed to reflect American locations, contexts, and occupations, many nineteenth century versions of the Child Ballads still refer to Lords and Ladies, castles, and ghosts, and retain as their central theme love affairs and interpersonal relations. The churches of America were also very influential and usually more puritan in nature. Many fairly explicit lyrics were softened and cleaned up. British paganism was frowned upon, and this censorship resulted in ballads where repentance and doom supplanted sinful behavior.

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