Appalachian Culture: Is It Celtic? The Answer’s Complicated
Updated: Oct 1, 2022
I want to begin today’s post by thanking God. Regular readers know that I live in Florida. The state has just been hit by Hurricane Ian, a storm that was close to a category 5 hurricane at landfall. It impacted nearly the whole state in some way and still hasn’t quite left yet. As I write this post, Tropical Storm Ian is located in the northeastern part of the state, near Jacksonville. It is forecasted to go out into the Atlantic, turn back west, and hit South Carolina. So, why am I thanking God? Because my family and I are all fine, including my relatives who live on the Gulf Coast where the storm had its most devastating impact. My prayers are with all those who are suffering the effects of the monster storm and those who are about to be impacted by it. Now, on to this week’s topic: Appalachia and the roots of its culture.
In the U.S., the Appalachian region is associated with bluegrass music and cool crafts like quilting. It’s also associated with coal mining, poverty, hillbillies, feuding, and the Scots-Irish. While there is some truth to all of that, Americans have stereotyped the Appalachian region and its people. I can’t cover everything in this post. In fact, the simple statement that Appalachian culture has its roots in the Celtic culture brought to it by Scots-Irish settlers is both true and inaccurate. Why? It’s complicated.
First, there is debate about what and where the Appalachian region is. Secondly, the definition of Scots-Irish varies depending on the source. Finally, whether or not the Scots-Irish were Celts depends very much on which definition of Scots-Irish you choose to accept. The one thing we can all agree on is that bluegrass is one fantastic genre of music. What? Some of you don’t agree? Oh well, on with the clarification of the complications.
Where / What is Appalachia?
Most Americans think of the Appalachians as a range of mountains and foothills in the southern U.S., specifically the Carolinas, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. It’s a place where hillbillies live, drink moonshine, use shotguns to settle disagreements, mine coal, and have hoedowns with lots of fiddle and banjo music. That is a highly stereotyped concept perpetuated by movies, television shows, and comic strips. In addition, it is geographically inaccurate.
The Appalachian Regional Commission says the region includes cities and counties in thirteen different states. In addition to the states mentioned above, the region, according to the commission, includes parts of Georgia and Alabama as well as parts of the northern states of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maryland. Well, actually, Maryland technically is a southern state since it is south of the Mason-Dixon line. But most southerners I know consider it a northern state and, according to www.cbsnews.com, most residents of Maryland do too.
But, Wikipedia argues, Appalachia “lacks definite physiographical or topographical boundaries.” Really? Many people from the region would disagree with that statement and argue that there is a distinct Appalachian culture with its own particular characteristics. And some academics agree. There are university courses dedicated to the study of Appalachian culture.
Since I am not an authority on the subject, I will not weigh in on the issue. I’ll just report what I found in my research and leave it up to as to whether or not any part of New York can genuinely be considered Appalachian.
Most sources agree that the predominant influence on Appalachian culture derives from its Scots-Irish (or as they’re sometimes called, Scotch-Irish) settlers. What the sources don’t agree on is who the Scots-Irish were and are. Some say they originally were Irish who lived in the Ulster region of Ireland (now Northern Ireland) then, pushed out by Cromwell’s clearances (and massacres), they emigrated to Scotland and, eventually, to America.
Others say these people were never authentically Irish. Instead, the sources argue, they were Scottish gallowglasses, mercenary soldiers from Scotland. Considered by some as an elite class of warriors, these soldiers of fortune were of mixed Gaelic and Norse heritage. Still other sources say they were from the Anglo-Scottish border and could be northern English rather than Scottish. They immigrated to the northeastern part of Ireland to escape religious persecution in Scotland. Again, I leave it up to you to choose who you believe.
Be aware, however, that having both Scottish and Irish ancestors does not make you Scots-Irish. For example, my great-grandparents were Irish and my paternal grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Scotland, but I am not Scots-Irish. They are a specific historical group of people, often referred to as Ulster Irish, who, due primarily to religious persecution, immigrated to colonial America.
The one thing sources agree upon is the religion of the Scots-Irish. They were Protestants, predominantly, Presbyterian. They are not to be confused with the Famine Irish who came to the U.S. in the mid-to-late nineteenth century and who were almost invariably Catholic.
I’ll close this section with a question. If some of these “Scots-Irish” were actually Anglo-Saxons from northern England, where does that leave the argument that Appalachian culture is Celtic in its roots? Hmm…
Celtic Influence in Appalachian Music and Folklore
Anyone familiar with Irish trad can hear its influence in bluegrass. It’s not just the presence of fiddles and whistles, but the quick, reel-like tempos, the improvisation, and the lonely-sounding harmonies. In addition to bluegrass. Appalachian music is known for its ballads. Here again, the influence of Celtic music can be heard. The ballads often are either up-tempo, fun stories of adventures or humorous portraits of people and life, or they are mournful, heart-breaking songs of struggle and loss. The lyrics reflect the experiences of everyday working-class people who are just trying to survive this journey called life and who find relief in a little joy and humor along the way. These themes can be found in the traditional music of the Irish, Scots, and Appalachians. In addition, the traditional music of the region includes many reels and jigs similar to those found in Irish and Scottish folk music.
The folklore of the region also shares characteristics with Celtic folklore. There is a healthy dose of the supernatural in the folklore with Irish characters, such as the banshee, showing up in Appalachian tales. And a deftness at storytelling is a trait common to both Appalachian and Celtic folk story-spinners.
It’s obvious, then, that the music and folklore of Appalachia have their roots in Celtic culture. However, there are other influences too. The important role of the banjo in bluegrass comes from the African American blues musicians. Much later, the bluegrass giant Earl Scruggs developed a rapid-fire fingerpicking style that became characteristic of the bluegrass sound. A merging of Irish and Scottish folk music and African American jazz can be heard in the improvisation by Appalachian musicians.
While Appalachian folklore undeniably does have roots in Celtic folklore, the lore also has a distinctly American strain. There are tales of regular people doing BIG things. This is seen in stories about American folk heroes, such as Davy Crockett, Johnny Appleseed, and John Henry. And there are stories of the American Everyman, Jack, a protagonist who frequently shows up in narratives at storytelling contests. Jack is a regular guy doing things familiar and relatable to the people who live their lives in Appalachia.
The folklore includes, as well, stories about the Cherokee, the original inhabitants of the Appalachian Mountains. In a shameful episode in American history, the Cherokee were forced to relocate to Oklahoma.
So, while it can be said that the Scots-Irish who settled in the Appalachian region have left a distinct cultural legacy to the people of Appalachia, they were not the sole contributors to the culture that ultimately developed. And there remains a bit of a debate about what the term “the Appalachian region” precisely means and exactly who the Scots-Irish were and, perhaps more importantly, who they are today.
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Slan go foil!
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