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New York Folklore Quarterly, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, December 1968

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NEW YORK FOLKLORE QUARTERLY
Vol. XXIV, No. 4, December 1968

THE SCOTCH-IRISH AND
THE BRITISH TRADITIONAL BALLAD IN AMERICA
William H. Tallmadge

WHEN Cecil Sharp visited the Southern Appalachian Mountains for nine weeks in 1916, he was surprised to find an environment where the folk-song tradition was a living thing, where “...I could get what I wanted from pretty nearly everyone I met, young and old. In fact, I found myself for the first time in my life in a community in which singing was as common and almost as universal a practice as speaking.”

From a study of the music which he heard, particularly the gapped scales, Sharp (quite correctly) deduced the ethnological origin of the Appalachian highlanders to be the north of England, or the Lowlands, rather than the Highlands, of Scotland.

Sharp believed that the original settlers had emigrated from England or Scotland in the latter part of the eighteenth century or the early part of the nineteenth. This, too, is very close to the truth. However, the settlers of the area in question did not emigrate from Scotland or England, but from Ulster, Ireland. Their actual emigration to Ireland from the Lowlands of Scotland began in 1610, over one hundred years before their main emigration to America beginning in 1717.

The extensive collections of Frank C. Brown in North Carolina, Cox in West Virginia, Reed in South Carolina, Davis in Virginia, drew upon areas where the Scotch-Irish were the first to settle in great numbers, and where their original culture had remained relatively hermetic and isolated.

Elsewhere in the country, particularly in New England, we can no longer be certain that the Scotch-Irish constituted the core of traditional British balladry; nor was the society in other areas of the country in the early twentieth century such as to promote traditional British balladry as a living folk-art. While perhaps as many or even more traditional British ballads have been found in New England as have been found in any one particular southeastern area, the ethnic background of the singers is almost impossible to trace, and as Wilgus remarks regarding the Barry, Eckstorm and Smyth British Ballads from Maine (1929): “...one is certainly not impressed by a flourishing tradition.” Even in those areas of the United States where we cannot prove the Scotch-Irish to have constituted the mainstream of the transmission of the British balladry, there are good reasons for suspecting that they nonetheless constituted an important tributary.
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