The music of Appalachia's Scottish settlers helped define a region and a people. It still keeps some folks up at night, pondering the connections and humming along.
Do you sometimes lie awake at night studying what makes you tick? Thinking about your genetic makeup and how genealogy plays a part in your everyday life? I do. For example, I wonder why I’m drawn to a particular style of music or why certain characteristics in people appeal to me. And I find it puzzling that even if I veer away from that inner compass, I come back.
You see, my family has always been involved in bluegrass music: singing, picking and, my dad, dancing the flat-foot dance. His brother Frank said my daddy dancing with his long, thin legs with pants above the ankle reminded him of strings-a-plaiting. But during my rebellious teenage years I was in denial. Tunes by bluegrass musicians like Ralph and Carter Stanley, Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Sonny and Bobby Osborne were not in my repertoire. After my teenage years, however, I was still deeply rooted in the Appalachian Mountains, which I never left. I accepted who I was – an Appalachian of Scottish descent. And born to love bluegrass, which is a direct descendant of the earliest European music of the Southern mountains.
I discovered that one of my Scottish, Celtic genetic links is from my mother’s daddy, Grandpa William Basil “Bee” Young (Young is a common Scottish surname). Grandpa Bee was a handsome Scot. He was tall with broad shoulders, strawberry blond hair, sky-blue eyes, a strong nose and baby pinkish skin. He was quiet, but whiskey brought out his rebellious nature. He was a coal-mine union organizer. My mom said that I got my coloring from Grandpa Bee. And it stands to reason I also inherited my love for that Scottish-rooted strain of music, bluegrass. Luckily, I didn’t get his Scottish love for whiskey.
During the winter months, there are few bluegrass events taking place within driving distance of my current North Carolina home, especially out-of-doors. So, the annual Ralph Stanley Bluegrass Festival held during Memorial Day weekend on top of Smith Ridge in Coeburn, Virginia, was an event I could not pass up.
I journeyed to the top of Smith Ridge for the three-day festival. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys were the star attraction. Ralph Stanley’s voice at the age of 89, singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” rang across the Blue Ridge mountaintops.
When I returned revived to my semi-city life, neighbors questioned me about my recent vacation. My response was polite, but I was on no vacation. I was on a spiritual retreat, an event to renew, refresh and refuel me back to my Scottish Appalachian musical roots.
Understanding the immigration pattern of the Scottish and Scots-Irish in the 1700s makes this strange behavior a little clearer. I’ve learned much of this from listening to and documenting the oral histories of family members, neighbors and other folks in my West Virginia community, and from other research in photo archives and books.
Our Scottish and Scots-Irish ancestors fled to America because of political and religious persecution. The settlers who made that long, hard journey across the ocean in the 1700s, often sick or starving, brought little or no material baggage. But they did bring their cultural baggage, which included the many ballads, stories and instrumental tunes from their own heritage. Fiddle tunes with bows dusted in kitchen flour filled the air on any given Sunday after church when clans gathered in the “hollers.” They also brought with them their severe and stubborn reputation and their brand of Protestantism, which served as the foundation for our Baptist, Presbyterian and Methodist faiths today. As well as, some say, their talent for making corn whiskey (moonshine) to go along with their distaste for government.
Most landed in Philadelphia, where they intended to settle. But they discovered the good farm land was already taken, and they disliked the British Colonial government as much as the one they had left behind. Thus, the immigrants left Philly and headed west and south, settling in the Appalachian Mountains and becoming some of the first white settlers in that region. The green valleys and highlands not only provided a remote haven and a barrier to the outside world, but reminded the Scotch and Scots-Irish of their homes in the Old World.
The Appalachian region was remote, in the view of the rest of the American public, so the early settlers’ customs and traditions, including music, remained distinct.
Many of the songs the immigrants brought from the Old World were sung unaccompanied with little emotional expression. Instrumental music took the form of dances, which were played on fiddles and dulcimers. The ballads that the settlers sung were centuries-old tunes and stories, comprised of many verses and many variations. Many of the songs were from the British tradition of the single personal narrative which has to do with sexual struggles from the female standpoint, as “Barbary Allen,” “Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender” and “Pretty Polly.”
Over a period of time, ballads’ lyrics were changed by the Appalachian settlers to reflect their new environment. Names of characters in the lyrics and locales were Americanized: “The Oxford Girl” became “The Knoxville Girl,” while “Bonnie George Campbell” turned into “Georgie Collins.” Several widely different versions of the same ballad were sung due to distance between settlements in the mountains and loss of translation from holler to holler.
Ballads “Cuckoo Bird,” “Wayfaring Stranger,” “House Carpenter”; fiddle tunes like “Leather Britches” and “Wind and Rain” are all rooted in Scottish/English heritage, which made that journey across the Atlantic with our ancestors.
In the event that you, like me, are lying awake at night studying what makes you tick, puzzled by your toes tapping when Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys strike up the dance tune “Cumberland Gap,” check the 150 most common Scottish surnames to see if you may have inherited a bluegrass music gene.
Betty Dotson-Lewis, from West Virginia, is the author of several books on Appalachian heritage and social issues.