The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #67594   Message #1632045
Posted By: GUEST,Larry Bethune
21-Dec-05 - 08:07 AM
Thread Name: oral tradition - 'celtic' singing in usa
Subject: RE: oral tradition - 'celtic' singing in usa
As you notice, I am very late to this discussion, having found it surfing for more information on "Celtic" music.

My research, alluded to by Anne Landin in an earlier post, focuses on tunes, not words (directly). I have also been in touch with Dr Willie Ruff (also mentioned earlier) as many of his sources are the same as mine. His conclusion, though controversial, has some merit, from my view, though my own research shows that the music of the Hebrides bears some interesting similarities with music from West Africa and even Ethiopia. But that research is very thin at the moment. It would be ironic if the very clues that Willie and I hear in Hebrides music that influenced African-American music in the colonial America has its roots in Africa. What a hoot, eh?

Someone mentioned ship trade routes as being the "carrier" of these musical viruses and, though I have yet to fully explore that idea, it seems a rich track to follow. I agree with the idea that many tunes (remember, I am not focussing on words) hopped on ships with musicians (not pros but amateurs who had other jobs such as sailors and merchants) and traveled to far away places. The routes between North Africa/Mediterranean and the British Isles were many and full of cultural trading opportunities.

Still, part of my thesis is that, while almost anyone can put words to music, very few of us actually are tunesmiths. Ergo, I believe tunes change very little over generations while the words may change several times even within a generation. Though, of course over many generations, the tunes will change, but the DNA that makes the tune distinct rarely changes. Also, as a composer, I believe that popular (or folk) tunesmiths really deviate very little from their cultural norms, pushing envenlopes ever so slightly; adding new ideas they imagine or hear in other composer's music but only as much as the "folk" will allow before rejecting the new music created from a sort of musical dialectic process.


I am now exploring my belief that Cecil Sharpe et al. made several incorrect assumptions about Appalachian music (let the battles begin!).

Most all folk "music" experts are actually folk "lyric" experts. This thread has been arguing about Celtic and Gaelic and it has been properly pointed out that we are mainly discussing language. Language does affect music within song.

But what happens when tunes meet a new language and a new culture? English people singing Scottish Highland/Island Gaelic tunes, for example?

First, we lose the language. So, a Scottish tune now has English lyrics. Then, because the Gaelic affected the rhythm of the tune (TUG-gah, snap from characteristic Scots Gaelic (Scots GAH-lick versus Irish GAY-lic) and then English language, finding TUG-gah foreign straightens it out to two even eight notes from its characteristic sixteenth-dotted eighth. Then, the pentatonic nature of the Scots music gets, say, a leading tone or seventh degree added to make it sound more pleasing to that generations English ear.

So, the Scots pentatonic and Gaelic-rhythmic tune gets English words and the melody gets altered to fit that culture and make the "folk" happy.

Cecil shows up and hears English, hears six or seven tones, and hears rhythms thta sound English to his ears. Ergo... they songs came from England.


Now, I am not on some nationalistic bent. Actually, my quest leads back to Biblical times, more of "what did Jesus and Moses sing?" So, I have to get busy. But, my path so far leads me to believe Cecil jumped the gun, shot from the hip, a bit, and any other firearm image you can conjure up. My reserach shows a good number of his tunes found in Appalachia to have Scottish and/or Irish roots. I can find tunes that with slight alteration (as described) are older and found in Scotland, for example.

Now, that is no proof that they did not originate in England or Morrocco, for example. Maybe we can never find the actual folk tune Garden of Eden. But, so far, the older tunes I have found in Scotland before they got to England and Appalachia. Perhaps they did morph in England and then traveled to Appalachia. But, I would love to fill in the gap between the Colonial Highlanders (which were many in the Cape Fear Valley and beyond up into Appalachia) and the time Cecil and his songcatchers found what they thought appeared to be English ballads.

Enough. Just thought I'd jump in. Love to hear some response. I do not frequent this board so please be encouraged to send me an email at Also, some of my reserach (older stuff) is up at

Thanks for listening.