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Celtic music in the United States

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Celtic music in the United States

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Irish and Scottish music have long been a major part of American music, at least as far back as the 19th century. Beginning in the 1960s, performers like the Clancy Brothers become stars in the Irish music scene, which dates back to at least the colonial era, when numerous Irish immigrants arrived. At first, these were mostly Scots-Irish Presbyterians, whose music was most "closely related to a Lowland Scottish style" [1].

The most significant impact of Celtic Music on American styles, however, is undoubtedly that on the evolution of country music, a style which blends Anglo-Celtic traditions with "sacred hymns and African American spirituals". Country music's roots come from "Americanized interpretations of English, Scottish, Scots and Scots-Irish traditional music, shaped by African American rhythms, and containing vestiges of (19th century) popular song, especially (minstrel songs)" [2]. This fusion of Anglo-Celtic and African elements "usually consisted of unaccompanied solo vocals sung in a high-pitched nasal voice, the lyrics set to simple melodies (and using) ornamentation to embellish the melody"; this style bears some similarities to the traditional song form of sean-nós, which is similarly highly-ornamented and unaccompanied [3].

Celtic-Americans have also been influential in the creation of Celtic Fusion, a set of genres which combine traditional Celtic music with contemporary influences.


Irish American Music

Irish emigrés created a large number of emigrant ballads once in the United States. These were usually "sad laments, steeped in nostalgia, and self-pity, and singing the praises... of their native soil while bitterly condemning the land of the stranger" [4]. These songs include famous songs like "Thousands Are Sailing to America" and "By the Hush", though "Shamrock Shore" may be the most well-known in the field.

Francis O'Neill was a Chicago police chief who collected the single largest collection of Irish traditional music ever published. He was a flautist, fiddler and piper who was part of a vibrant Irish community in Chicago at the time, one that included some forty thousand people, including musicians from "all thirty-two counties of Ireland", according to Nicholas Carolan, who referred to O'Neill as "the greatest individual influence on the evolution of Irish traditional dance music in the twentieth century" [5].

In the 1890s, Irish music entered a "golden age", centered on the vibrant scene in New York City. This produced legendary fiddlers like James Morrison and Michael Coleman, and a number of popular dance bands that played pop standards and dances like the foxtrot and quicksteps; these bands slowly grew larger, adding brass and reed instruments in a big band style [6]. Though this golden age ended by the Great Depression, the 1950s saw a flowering of Irish music, aided by the foundation of the City Center Ballroom in New York. It was later joined by a roots revival in Ireland and the foundation of Mick Moloney's Green Fields of America, an organization that promotes Irish music [7].


  • An Irish tune
    • Irish harmonica tune from the Library of Congress' California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collection; performed by Aaron Morgan (harmonica) on July 17, 1939 in Columbia, California.


  • Bayor, Ronald H. and Timothy J. Meagher (Ed.) (1996). The New York Irish. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Carolan, Nicholas (1997). A Harvest Saved: Francis O'Neill and Irish Music in Chicago. Ossian Publications. ISBN 1900428113.
  • Sawyers, June Skinner (2000). Celtic Music: A Complete Guide. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0306810077.


  1.   Miller, Rebecca. "Irish Traditional and Popular Music in New York City: Identity and Social Change, 1930-1975", cited in Sawyers, pg. 225
  2.   Sawyers, pg. 229
  3.   Carolan, cited in Sawyers, pgs. 237-239
  4.   Sawyers, pgs. 242-243
  5.   Sawyers, pg. 247
  6.   Sawyers, pgs. 189-190
  7.   Sawyers, pg. 198

Further reading

  • Gedutis, Susan (2004). See You at the Hall: Boston's Golden Era of Irish Music and Dance. Northeastern University Press. ISBN 1555536107.
  • Grimes, Robert R. (1999). How Shall We Sing in a Foreign Land?: Music of Irish Catholic Immigrants in the Antebellum United States. University of Notre Dame Press. ISBN 0268011168.
  • Moloney, Mick (2002). Far From the Shamrock Shore: The Story of Irish-American Immigration Through Song. Crown. ISBN 0609607200.
  • Williams, William W. H. (1996). Twas Only an Irishman's Dream: The Image of Ireland and the Irish in American Popular Song Lyrics, 1800-1920. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0252065514.

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This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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