Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Tracing my music roots

I’m curious if I can trace my love of Scottish and Irish music through a specific ancestor back to the homeland. As long as I’ve played violin, long before I knew that traditional Scottish fiddling existed, I felt an intense call to play Scottish music. That longing may have originated in my ancestry.
Robert Crum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil in “The Story of English,” published in 1986 and based on the PBS television series, wrote about the cultural impact of the planting of settlers in northern Ireland. The English, always trying to quash, oust and otherwise defeat the rebellious Celts who had the gall to want to rule their own lands and have freedom to worship as they chose, enacted a series of measures intended to break the rule of the Celtic chiefs in Ulster, the northern kingdom of Ireland. (I added that bit of editorializing.) King James confiscated the lands of the Lords of Tyrone and Tyrconnel, say the messieurs, and granted the territory in the north to English and Scottish planters, the bulk of the new tenants coming from Scotland. About 200,000 Lowland Scots — those who lived in the south of Scotland — went to Ulster, mainly to northeast Ireland, in the first decades of the 17th century, and 2 million of their descendants migrated to America in the 18th and 19th centuries and the early part of the 20th century. My McClintick ancestors may have been among those Scots-Irish immigrants.

The authors write that the Scots-Irish transformed a backward Irish province into the most prosperous part of Ireland, but the Scottish towns became walled settlements because the Gaelic-speaking Irish maintained with the usurpers a state of war that still exists today. In Ulster older forms of the Scots language were preserved through separation from England, and those characteristics influenced language in the United States after the emigration began.
Scholars estimate that half the population of Ulster, mainly Scots-Irish, dissatisfied with rising rents, bad harvests and religious discrimination, emigrated to the New World in the 18th century, about 100 years after the first settlements. In the 1720s about 50,000 went to America, and by 1776 almost half of Ulster had crossed and one in seven American colonists was Scots-Irish.
They landed first in New England but were unwelcome and soon found haven in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia being the main entry point. Benjamin Franklin estimated in 1760 that the city was one-third Scots-Irish. But soon the unruly Celts were found to be nothing but trouble. (We Celts are like that; we dislike discipline imposed by outsiders, and we are quite independent of mind, although I suffer from the problem of two opposing forces fighting within me, the ordered mind of the German against the free-spirited poet of the Celt.) They moved inland to German country in Pennsylvania’s eastern counties and traded words and customs with the Pennsylvania Germans, staying in the area for a generation, leaving behind names such as Agnew and Hamilton. They took the scheitholt from the Germans and adapted it to their ancient ballads, renaming their version of the long, stringed zither the dulcimer.
I have played the mountain dulcimer for many years. It’s perfect for Scottish and Irish tunes, and you can almost see the mountains when you hear it played. I also play violin, guitar and assorted mandolins, and many years ago while I played guitar on my grandmother’s front porch in Winona (her maiden name was McClintick), my grandmother said, “My dad used to play that song.” Her father, John Britton “Brit” McClintick, played mandolin, guitar and banjo, my grandmother played piano, and my mother toyed with music in her youth but landed instead on fabric arts. I wish I knew if Brit’s parents played music. I know that Brit was intensely proud of his Celtic heritage, and I like to think that my love of traditional music of the Celts stems directly from that lineage. Even if I don’t know it by finding the facts, I know it in spirit.

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