Ulster-Scots Music

 

Ulster-Scots musical traditions are derived form a variety of sources.

 

Up until the end of the eighteenth century, itinerant harpers regularly crossed back and forwards between Ulster and Scotland, playing for the Gaelic and Anglo-Irish aristocracy, as well as prosperous Ulster-Scots families. The Harping tradition declined as European classical music came to occupy the attention of the ruling classes, but before they disappeared from the scene, harpers interacted with fiddlers and pipers in Ulster, and some of the features of the Gaelic song tradition were preserved, particularly in the emerging genre of Orange songs

 

Much of the dance music of Ulster is part of a folk reportoire that developed across the whole of the British Isles, including Jigs of Irish origin, Reels and Strathspeys from Scotland and Hornpipes which originally came from England. Most of these were in a standard format of two sections of eight bars each, except for strathspeys which normally consisted of four bar sections.

 

James Christie snr. and his grandson James Christie jnr, playing fiddle tunes in the Byre

 

The dance reportoire was closely related to the marching tunes played by military bands: usually fife and drum ensembles, that became common with the growth of part-time military organisations including the Irish Volunteers, the Yeomanry and the Militia.

 

The parading tradition was carried on in the 19th century by newly formed fraternal groups such as the Ribbonmen and Orangemen, who shared a common reportoire of tunes, in addition to some that were considered ‘party tunes’ such as the Hibernian ‘St. Patrick’s Day’, or the Orange ‘Lilliburlero’.

 

A distinctive reportoire of tunes in hornpipe time developed around the Lambeg drum and fife tradition, which again was common to both Loyalists and Nationalists, although it has been largely abandoned by nationalists in recent years.

 

The 'Rhythms O Ulster group from the USFO performing with Fifes and Drums at the St. Patrick's Day parade, Ballina, Co. Mayo, 2004.

 

The evangelical revival which swept Ulster-Scots communities in 1859 caused many to turn away from dance music, which was seen as associated with alcohol and immorality, but it introduced a new reportoire of hymns and gospel songs in the Ulster-Scots language, which is currently being explored by the Co. Down band ‘The Low Country Boys’.

 

The Low Country Boys performing with the USFO: Ballygowan Church Halls, Co. Down, April 2004.

 

Towards the end of the 19th century, accordion bands became popular, drawing on both the folk canon and on hymn tunes for their reportoire. During the same period, pipe bands started to increase in popularity. Pipers drew on the types of tune listed above, and developed more complex variants upon them, which were suitable for playing as marches.

 

In the twentieth century, the fife and drum tradition faded in all but a few heartland areas, and flute bands came to dominate the parading scene. Eclectic in their tastes, they adopted military marches and music-hall tunes as well as tunes from the fifing tradition, often transformed from the swinging hornpipe time which suited the slow progress of the Lambeg drum, to a more conventional quick-march time. In more recent times, film scores and pop tunes have been adopted with equal aplomb. The appearance of the ‘part-music flute band’, again towards the end of the 19th century, came to form a bridge between the local folk traditions and those of European art music, as they developed from playing folk tunes with simple harmonies, to becoming virtual ‘flute orchestras’, encompassing music by composers as diverse as Sousa and Verdi, and adaptations of music from more far-flung traditions such as samba and tango.

 

An ensemble from the Ballyclare Victoria Flute Band performing at a cultural showcase event in Government Buildings, Stormont, April 2004

 

Whilst these developments were occurring within Ulster-Scots communities in Ireland, the music that Ulster-Scots emigrants had taken to the southern states of the USA was also changing in different ways, producing ‘old-time’ hillbilly and gospel musics, and later Bluegrass, and combining with other European and Afro-American traditions to produce Western Swing, Country, Rhythm n’ Blues, and Rock n’ Roll.

 

An interesting point in the development of the latter is that the distinctive backbeat which characterised early Rn’B and Rock n’ Roll has often been attributed to Afro-American influences. Whilst Afro-American traditions undoubtedly had a massive influence on the development of these genres, a backbeat was not a strong feature of the Jazz, Boogie-Woogie or Plantation songs that preceded their development. These were characterised by more complex syncopated rhythms, which may ultimately owe much to the polyrhythmic complexity of African drumming traditions. For the origins of the simpler backbeat, it may make more sense to look to the Strathspey, and to a lesser extent, the Reel, which had used backbeats since they were introduced to the South by the massive Ulster-Scots immigration of the 18th and early 19th centuries, and which influenced Bluegrass, in which the accent is also on the offbeat . In the 21st century, the musical transference is reversing, as Ulster-Scots find something which speaks to them in the musics of America, and traditions which crossed the Atlantic, and were transformed by the voyage, return and are transformed again.

 

Interviews with members of the USFO show that transmission of musical knowledge within Ulster-Scots communities overwhelmingly takes place within the three overlapping institutions of family, church and marching band. From this base, people may branch out in many different directions, from Classical to Country and from Rock to traditional Irish. It is perhaps chiefly to the band tradition that we can attribute the very large numbers of people involved in playing all kinds of music within Northern Ireland: I would suspect a higher proportion of the populatiion is involved in music-making than anywhere else in western Europe.

 

At the end of this quick survey we can see that Ulster-Scots music is not simple to define – in fact its defining features are contradictory ones characteristic of an age of globalisation – on the one hand, embedded in small local communities, on the other, subject to multiple cultural influences on a global scale.

 

To the Ulster-Scots Folk Orchestra, cultural connections to the Scottish Highlands, Lowlands and Borders remain important, as do those to North America, particularly to the heartlands of Scotch-Irish settlement in the Appalachians and the South. These merge with traditions such as the Lambeg drum, unique to Ulster, and dance music shared with other parts of Ireland, to create a music which is globally connected and closely related to other musics within Britain and Ireland, and yet unique in its combination of local and global elements.

 

The Boys O Soorhill - Inspiration for the USFO

 

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