Version: Music and History

Back when I was doing my undergraduate, for my final year dissertation class I was in a group looking at aspects of Irish Diaspora history. My own project was on the impact of Irish emigration on American folk music. In particular, I was concerned with pre-Great Famine migration from Ireland to the United States – by and large this meant Ulster Protestant migration to the Appalachian region. The links between English, Scottish and Irish ballad traditions and those of the Appalachian regions are well-established, although at the time it was revelatory for my historical knowledge – the transformation of music across time and landscape was truly incredible. Ever since then, in the tutorials I give to first year students of twentieth century Irish history, I ask them in one class to examine two separate political traditions in Ireland by examining the texts of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic; As well as that  I get them to consider representations of these opposing political viewpoints via song.

I should state by the way, that for me at least, using songs to teach history is no cheap trick, no attempt to pander. Song is a powerful historical actor in its own right (witness the national anthem for instance). For many, song might be the only means of expression afforded to them – its orality means it transcended (and transcends) a need for literacy, an important thing for many of those in society who have no means of otherwise expressing themselves. Of course, it can also reinforce existing attitudes, contemporaneously or later on, as is the case with the songs I use in my tutorials. Usually I get them to consider the lyrics of The Foggy Dew (below is just one version  of the song, with others performed with slight lyrical variations by  The Clancy Brothers among other groups):

And then, the song used to broadly, if a little crudely, represent the opposing political tradition of unionism was The Sash My Father Wore:

In general, the point is to show to them that through musical culture, whether through ballads or otherwise (compare the image of the Lambeg drum so associated with the Orange Order to the Fife and Drum combinations so popular in Irish nationalist bands) people express their differing experiences of the world, even though there is often shared themes (loyalty, a sense of tradition, heroism etc).¹

As a tool generally, songs can be a good entry point for students to grasp what can sometimes be difficult, not to say subtle, variations in expressed opinion. Of course, balladry is a naturally biased artform and only one side tends to be given any credence by the author or the performer of the piece. As another Irish example, consider the two varying means of remembering James Connolly below. The first is perhaps a more typical one, as a great nationalist hero:

While this next one, sung here by Cork writer Patrick Galvin, emphasises Connolly’s socialism far and above his nationalism – though in both instances he is a lamented figure:

You could even take the songs by Dominic Behan, Brendan Behan or Ewan MacColl as exemplars of ‘new’ traditional ballads in the twentieth century that present counter-narratives to dominant ones of pro-treaty nationalism and capitalism (anti-treatyite in the case of the brothers Behan or anti-capitalist in MacColl’s case); This isn’t a peculiarly Irish phenomenon of contested meaning through song. In the United States, goes the case of famed railway-man Casey Jones. In one (and it must be said the best known) song sung about Casey he embodies a particular American spirit of never-saying-never. This song was published in 1902, and was a huge vaudeville hit. In this version, he is a brave man who selflessly gave his life for others:

There’s even a Disney cartoon about him. But this isn’t the only lens through which Jones is viewed. In this instance, in a version of the story written by Joe Hill and sung here by Pete Seeger he is very much the villain of the piece – a mere scab, whose only reward is “wooden medal”:

What makes these interesting is that musically both songs are more or less identical – it is in their lyrical content only which they differ. In fact, Pete Seeger recorded both versions of the Casey story. Another remarkable example of song as history is one made famous by The Dubliners, The Monto. Written in 1958 by Irish Times music critic George Desmond Hodnett, the song appears to take place around 1900 (based on references to Queen Victoria and the Boer War). Here’s a version of it performed by The Dubliners on Irish television programme The Talk Show in 1970:

Utterly authentic in its historicity, it is nevertheless an anachronism, written almost 60 years after the fact. One could be easily fooled that this was the real deal, a turn of the century broadside style ballad – but it’s nothing of the sort. So, the ballad can be a space of contested control of the past, just like history books can be. We can get multiple versions of our past from any one place, from any single tradition, but a good historian will welcome the contradictions, seek to make sense of them, and whistle to their own tune.


¹ Seek out Fintan Vallely’s Tuned Out: Traditional Music and Identity in Northern Ireland, Cork: Cork University Press, 2008 for more on music in the Northern Irish context.


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