Sunday, March 29, 2015

Three Chords And The Truth

a post from last year...
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When I first started reading the novels of James Lee Burke, Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtyDaniel Woodrell, Carson McCullers and William Faulkner it didn't initially occur to me how strange it was that I understood all the dialect words. Burke and McMurty's great westerns and McCarthy's early books set in rural Tennessee often used such Ulster Scots colloquialisms as "sleekit," "skitter," "shite," "piece," (for bread or a snack) "wean," "fixin," "crittur," etc. all of which were very familiar to me growing up in Northern Ireland. Later I understood why this was so. Cormac McCarthy's Tennessee books in particular paint a vivid picture of the Ulster Scots migrants to Appalachia and the world they live in: clannish, violent, musical, economically poor but culturally rich. I liked the fact too that these novelists wrote about blue collar working people (an increasingly rare phenomenon in American literary culture). The Ulster Scots (or Scotch Irish if you prefer) migrated from northern Ireland to America in the eighteenth century taking their customs, dialect, poetry and especially their fiddles with them. It's been well said that America's greatest contribution to world culture has been its music. African Americans invented Jazz, Blues, R&B and Rap, but the Ulster Scots invented country music or rather country music grew organically from their preexisting folk music and country music has a largely pessimistic outlook on the universe that comes from the bleak, fatalistic folkways of the Ulster Scots.
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Too few people realise that the history of the Irish in America does not begin with the potato famine but goes back a century earlier to the 1740 migrations from Ulster. The best book about this hidden history is probably Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer, but Senator Jim Webb has written an entertaining primer called Born Fighting, both of which are well worth a read. Part of Jim Webb's premise is that the Ulster Scots' fighting and a feuding ways meant that they were predisposed for military service and that Scotch-Irish officers were the backbone of Washington's Army, the Union and Confederate Armies in the Civil War, the Doughboys of WW1, the GIs of WW2 and Vietnam. There may be some truth in this. Although I've never had any desire to serve in the army (all that shouting puts me right off) my dad was in the Royal Navy for twenty years and my grandfather fought in the trenches in WW1 for the duration. And of course it's well known that the British peacetime army was largely made up of Irish and Scots. Biology and culture are not destiny but maybe this is why I write (fairly) violent crime novels, not romance fiction. Mercifully though all the country songs I wrote as a teenager have gone to that great storage locker in the sky.