Article Scottish American Song

Mary MacPhee
Mary MacPhee, who performed Gaelic songs from the Hebrides, Scotland, on June 15, 1939. Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell in Berkeley, California.

Scotland occupies the northern third of the island of Great Britain. Despite entering into a political union with England in the early eighteenth century, the continued existence of separate Scottish legal, educational, and religious institutions from the rest of the United Kingdom have contributed to the ongoing distinctiveness of an indigenous Scottish culture and national identity, which extends to the region's vocal music.

Scottish settlers in what would become the United States established several small Scottish colonies in the early seventeenth century in the province of East Jersey (eastern New Jersey) and South Carolina by Quakers and Presbyterians who were experiencing religious persecution by the then Episcopalian Church of Scotland. These settlers spoke English, Scots Gaelic (a language related to Irish), and the Scots language (a Germanic language related to English). Many settlers would have spoken more than one of these languages.

Traditional Scottish psalm singing in the "presenter" style was brought by Scottish settlers in the colonial era. A choral leader, or presenter, would sing a line of text and the congregation would sing a response. This was a practical tool for congregations that could not afford many hymnals and whose membership might include those who were not literate or could not read music. The settlers who sang psalms in this style may have influenced African American religious song in that they often used the presenter style of singing as they organized and developed their own religious traditions.

Canada has a large Scottish population and many Scottish immigrants made their way to the United States through Canada. This presentation includes songs sung by Scottish immigrants to the United States from Nova Scotia, Canada where Scots Gaelic is still spoken today, particularly on Cape Breton Island.

Late in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scholars such as the Harvard professor Francis James Child and the British folklorist, music teacher, and composer Cecil Sharp conducted extensive research into English and Scottish ballads, that is, songs that tell a story. Sharp discovered that ballad culture was more vigorous in the United States than in Britain, where the songs originated. (For more on Francis James Child, see the article, "Francis James Child and The English and Scottish Popular Ballads." )

Scots Gaelic songs sung by women while fulling or "waulking" cloth after it had been woven were sought out by collectors in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as the practice of hand-fulling cloth was disappearing due to industrialization. Fulling, the work of beating the wet cloth on a wooden board by a group of women until it became softer and thicker, created a distinctive rhythm for these songs that helped to coordinate the work. Although many examples of the lyrics were written down, by the advent of sound recording it was necessary to search out elderly singers who could still remember the songs. Some of these recordings were made in North America and the British Commonwealth. Sidney Robertson Cowell recorded two waulking songs from California, one performed by Mary MacPhee, "Fhillie duhinn s'tu ga m'dhi" (My brown-haired lover, I'm without you), and another remembered by Donald MacInnes, "Sugradh ris a nighean duibh," (I would welcome the black-haired lass), who may have learned it from a female relative.

Cowell collected many songs in Gaelic and English from Mary MacPhee, Mary MacDonald, Charlotte MacInnes, and Donald MacInnes all available in this presentation. Charlotte MacInnes remembered some songs written by the poet Robert Burns in the Scots language, such as "Highland Mary," a song he wrote for his sweetheart, Mary Campbell, and "Flow Gently, Sweet Afton," a Burns poem that was set to music by Jonathan E. Spilman. She also remembered some verses from "The Four Maries," a ballad about the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots and her ladies in waiting.

During the folksong revival of the mid-twentieth century, singers performed ballads extensively, including some that originated in Scotland. One example is "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry," a ballad from the Orkney Islands of Scotland that Joan Baez popularized in the 1960s as "Silkie."

The most significant impact of Scottish music on American song has been its influence on American song genres, often coupled with the influence of Irish song. Scholars today are looking at the influence of the religious songs of early Scottish settlers on the development of African American spirituals and Gospel. The roots of country music come from a mixture of Americanized adaptations of Scottish and Irish traditional music, African American rhythms, and popular songs of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.


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Scottish American Song
Subject Headings
-  Immigration and Migration
-  Songs and Music
-  Traditional and Ethnic Songs and Music
-  Articles
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