Scottish and Irish Elements of Appalachian Fiddle Music

The following is a very interesting undergraduate thesis written by Matthew S. Emmick of Butler University in 1995. It was sent to me by a fiddling friend, Greg, as part of our ongoing discussion after my post the other day about What is Old-Time Music/What is Old-Time Fiddle.

Read the entire thesis – Scottish and Irish Elements of Appalachian Fiddle Music


In his thesis, Mr. Emmick discusses:

Demographics of the Scottish and Irish in Appalachia: While the Appalachian Mountains is a vast chain of mountains which stretch from Southern Quebec to Northern Alabama, Mr. Emmick’s limits his discussion to the linguistically and culturally distinct region of the Appalachian Mountains in the Southeastern United States which has given us what is commonly referred to generally as the Appalachian fiddle music genre among other similar and colloquial names. This area includes Southern Pennsylvania, all of West Virginia, the Western two thirds of Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and Northern Georgia.

Migration of Scots-Irish from Ulster

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, this region was populated by immigrants both from overseas and other parts of America. There were significant settlements of English and Germans, but the vast majority were Scots-Irish, Scottish, or Irish. As can be seen from the immigration patterns, discussed at length, the Appalachians owe not only their historical foundations, but their cultural institutions to people of Celtic heritage. This strong Scottish-Irish culture greatly influenced and can be seen in almost every aspect of Southern life, and thus, in the significant musical style and heritage that grew out of this region and persists to this day.

Musical Style: The fiddling traditions of Ireland, Scotland, and Appalachia have been passed down aurally for hundreds of years. Music making in Ireland, Scotland, and Appalachia is generally informal at gatherings involving music, dancing, socializing, eating, and drinking. The music is in binary form. “Gapped” scales and the medieval church modes are at the heart of the Scottish, Irish, and Appalachian melodic traditions. There is a “modal ambiguity”. Irish music can be described as smooth and flowing, as a result of its even and repeated rhythms. Scottish fiddle tunes can generally be classified as rough and jagged, owing to frequent use of dotted rhythms and wide melodic leaps.

The majority of Appalachian fiddle tunes are “direct imports” from the British Isles. Although these tunes share the structural and tonal characteristics of the Scottish and Irish tunes, many have undergone a “watering-down” process. Appalachian tunes have simpler melodic figures and can even omit entire sections of melodies found in the Irish and Scottish traditions. This is considered to be a stylistic evolution ‘relating to the fast tempo at which the Appalachian fiddlers play, as well as the lack of leisure time in early American life. Another common trait of Appalachian fiddle tunes is the joining of a purely traditional first strain with a more modern second strain, and Appalachian fiddlers have developed a much faster playing style than Irish or Scottish fiddlers.

Performance Practice of the Three Idioms: Methods of playing and manipulating the tunes vary and create three regional performance styles that are distinct. They are the Irish Performance Practice, Scottish Performance Practice, and Appalachian Performance Practice, and each is characterized by such elements as type of fiddle instrument, how the fiddle is held, shifting patterns, bowing styles and patterns, note grouping, phrasing, ornamentation, accents, and more.

From the documentary The Appalachians. The Presbyterian Scots-Irish from Ulster in the north of Ireland influenced this region of America with their music, religion, moonshine, independent spirit & love of freedom.
Following the trail of the Great Wagon Road, Mark Wilson traces the road from Pennsylvania to North Carolina to discover the influence of the Ulster-Scots on the music of North America.

While the traditions of Ireland and Scotland are in no way the only formative influence on Appalachian fiddling, they are undoubtedly the most prominent. The evidence of immigration records as well as the large number of tunes and musical elements that the three regions have in common prove that the Celtic influence has been the guiding force of the Appalachian fiddle tradition.

For anyone interested in Old Time Music and Old Time Fiddle Music and it’s origins, this thesis is an excellent source of information.

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