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Article Irish American Song

Billy Murray & Ailleen Stanley
Billy Murray & Ailleen Stanley.Bain News Service, publisher. [n.d.] Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ggbain-02588. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Irish immigrants constitute one of the most expansive immigrant communities in the United States. The largest Irish American communities are to be found in New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco, with many more Irish Americans living in other urban centers across the country.

Irish immigration to the United States began in earnest in the eighteenth century owing in the main to severe economic hardships and social and political upheavals back home. Indentured servitude was a particularly common way of affording the cost of passage from Ireland to the United States, and the Irish made up the majority of indentured servants in some colonial regions.

It was the cataclysmic Potato Famine of 1845-1851, one of the most severe disasters in Irish history, that instigated the greatest exodus of Irish immigrants to the United States. Millions of impoverished Irish immigrants flooded into the country seeking food, shelter, and jobs. Many Irish were conscripted to fight in the Union army during the Civil War.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Irish immigrants often settled in rural areas, farming as their families had in Ireland. However, in the mid to late nineteenth century, large numbers of Irish immigrants came to urban areas, often needing to develop new skills. Irish workers of this period, both skilled and unskilled, gravitated towards jobs in teaching, law enforcement, and construction industries.

Irish Immigration ebbed and flowed in the twentieth century. Numbers spiked after World War Two. After Congress passed legislation limiting immigration during the 1920s and again in the 1960s, the numbers of Irish immigrants to the United States declined. From the 1980s until the mid-1990s there was an influx of mainly young, well-educated Irish immigrants driven to the United States by high unemployment back home. This ebbed again during the economic boom in Ireland from 1995 until 2007 (known colloquially as the "Celtic Tiger"), but in 2008 recession in Ireland once again began to cause people to emigrate, often to the United States.

Irish Americans have contributed significantly to the vocal music landscape of the United States. This included songs and music in a wide variety of forms: traditional Anglo-Irish folk song , the sean-nós "old style" Gaelic song, "high art" Irish American song, hybridized Irish American popular song such as Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley, contemporary folk music, Irish American big band and showband music, and Celtic rock.

An example of an Irish song brought to the United States by early Irish settlers is "The Girl I Left Behind Me." The song was adapted as an American march song, "Black Eyed Mary," which is about an immigrant longing for a girl left behind in Ireland. Several Civil War versions exist, including one printed in Philadelphia with the original title, "The Girl I Left Behind Me," but with the girl left behind in Pennsylvania. Another using the same tune, also printed in Philadelphia, is "Jeff Davis, O! My Joe Jeff," a Union marching song lampooning Jefferson Davis.

Sean-nós, Irish traditional song, has been passed down through the generations orally. Traditionally, the phrase "sean-nós," literally "old-style," referred to songs sung in Irish Gaelic, nowadays it is often used to describe the older singing style, whether the songs are in English or Irish. The style is one in which a solo, unaccompanied voice performs melodies that are richly embellished with melismatic and intervallic grace-notes.

John McCormack. Arnold Genthe, photographer
John McCormack, between between 1915 and 1926. Arnold Genthe, photographer. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

During the early twentieth century, the operatic tenor John McCormack (1884-1945), was a strong influence on American performance of Irish songs. Already an internationally famous singer when he first visited the United States in 1909, he performed opera, art songs, popular songs, and traditional Irish songs to enthusiastic audiences. He made the first published recording of "It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary" in 1914. Among his recordings for Victor in the United States are patriotic songs favoring a free Ireland, such as "The Wearing of the Green," and popular Irish songs such as "Roses of Picardy." He became a naturalized American citizen in 1918, but continued to live, perform, and own property on both sides of the Atlantic.

During this same period another tenor, Billy Murray, the son of Irish immigrant parents, performed popular romantic and comic songs on the American stage, and had an extremely productive recording career. He included some popular songs related to his Irish heritage in his repertoire, such as "Irish Eyes," "My Irish Maid," and "The Irish, The Irish."

The popularity of Irish music in the early twentieth century prompted many artists who were not of Irish heritage to sing and compose Irish American-style tunes. Folklorist Mick Moloney has noted that close proximity of the Irish and Jewish immigrants in cities like New York and Chicago led to collaborations in the songs of Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley. [1] The comic team of Ed Gallagher and Al Shean (Albert Schoenberg) was one such collaboration, with their famous sung comic dialog, "Mister Gallagher and Mister Shean," which became a hit in the 1922 Ziegfeld Follies. [link to be added later] Nora Bayes, a popular Jewish American singer who performed comic songs in dialect, including some in Irish brogue, also made more serious tributes, such as "When John McCormack Sings a Song," and, a song that looks forward to freedom for Ireland following the 1916 uprising, written by German American songwriter Fred Fisher, "Pull the Cork out of Erin."

The Library of Congress houses many examples of Irish American folksongs. One example is a performance by Asa Davis, an Irish American from Vermont, who sang an Irish version of "The Farmer's Curst Wife" at the Library of Congress in 1948. Captain Pearl R. Nye, who had a large repertoire of songs and ballads learned on the Ohio and Erie Canal, sang "Erin's Green Shore" for collectors Alan and Elizabeth Lomax in 1937 (the recording begins with an American version of the English folk song "The Roving Gambler"). The brothers Warde, Bogue, and Pat Ford, who were of English and Irish ancestry, sang some Irish songs for collector Sidney Robertson Cowell in 1939, such as "Barney McShane," "The Wild Irish Boy," and "Finnegan's Wake."

Irish instrumental music for dancing became as popular in Irish communities in the United States as in Ireland. Collector Francis O'Neill documented the folk music of fellow Irish immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century, such as his recordings of the famed uilleann pipe player, Patrick Touhey. For example, O'Neill recorded this performance of "Scotch Mary." Instruments are not always available when people want to dance, however, and so Irish tradition provides a solution. Dance tunes can be sung, often with humorous or nonsensical lyrics, such as this recording of Warde Ford singing "Jimmie Lanigan" (1939).

Irish American big band ensembles became very popular in the 1930s among the urban, Irish American population. These bands, which performed in Irish dance halls scattered across the country, featured instruments commonly found in American big bands of the era and covered popular American, Irish American and traditional Irish songs.

With the influx of new immigrants in the wake of World War II, demand for popular Irish and Irish American music increased, outpacing interest in traditional Irish music.

In the 1950s, a craze for Irish showband music swept over dancehalls in Ireland and Irish American communities, eclipsing the big band sound. Showbands performed American rock and roll hits, (e.g. by Elvis Presley), skiffle, Irish pop songs and country and western tunes. The line-up usually featured drums, lead and bass guitars, a keyboard instrument, and a brass section of trumpet, saxophone and trombone. One or two lead singers fronted the band. Instrumentalists contributed backing vocals. Comedy routines were sometimes featured. When Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendment in 1965, fewer Irish immigrants came to the United States. The dearth of unattached young people looking for a good time spelled the end of the showband era, and Irish dance halls all over the country were forced to close down.

The revival of traditional Irish music in the 1960 and 1970s began with fast-paced, beat-driven folk songs sung in English and accompanied by guitar. Ornamentation of traditional Irish song was simplified or eradicated and singers sang primarily in unison or with basic harmonies. This style was popularized by the singers Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, who were Irish immigrants living in New York when they began performing in the late 1950s.

Celtic rock bands, combining traditional Irish instruments (such as the uilleann pipes and fiddle) and both traditional and original Irish songs with the instruments and rhythmic energy of rock music, emerged in the 1970s. More hard-rock--focused than showbands, Celtic rock groups thrived among the Irish American communities in Boston, New York and Chicago.

Since the days of Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional Irish music among the Irish American population. Irish Pubs and social halls run regular seisÚns (Irish music jam sessions). The United States plays host to numerous Irish music and dance festivals including the Irish Arts Center's Irish Traditional Music Festival in Snug Harbor, Staten Island, New York; the Philadelphia Ceili Group's Irish Music Festival; the Milwaukee Irish Music Festival; and the Washington Irish Folk Festival at Wolf Trap, Virginia. In addition, stage productions and videos incorporating traditional Irish music, such as Michael Flatley's "Riverdance" and the television specials of the female vocal ensemble "Celtic Woman," have brought Irish song and dance to a wider audience.

Irish vocal music can also be heard in major concert halls such as Carnegie Hall in New York, Washington DC's Kennedy Center, and Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. Radio shows such as NPR's The Thistle & Shamrock, a widely syndicated weekly radio and podcast series devoted to Celtic music, have also done much to promote Irish and Irish American vocal talent in the United States far beyond the Irish American population.

In Addition to John McCormack, notable Irish American vocal music artists from the past include Victor Herbert (1859-1924), a Dublin-born conductor and popular composer of operettas; Bing Crosby (1901-1977), a singer and movie star; Gene Kelly (1912–1996), a singer, dancer and movie star; and Rosemary Clooney (1928-2002), a singer and movie star. Contemporary, well-known vocal artists of Irish American descent include Bruce Springsteen, Shania Twain, Tim McGraw and Tori Amos.


  1. Moloney, Mick (2009). "'If It Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews': Irish and Jewish Influences on the Music of Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley." Benjamin Botkin Series Lecture at the Library of Congress.[back to article]


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  • Irish American Song


  • -  Immigration and Migration
  • -  Songs and Music
  • -  Traditional and Ethnic Songs and Music
  • -  Articles

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