Infinite Culture

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On The Link Between African And Irish Music

What is link between music of African origin and music of Irish origin? I had a discussion recently with a Tucson-based drummer about the origin of the word “jigaboo.” He referenced the film Gangs of New York, which is set in 1863. At one point in the film, there is a scene that depicts blacks dancing to an Irish jig—an occurrence that gave rise to a word describing the dancers, black people, as “jigaboos.” When considering the evolution of musical forms, it’s easy to begin to travel back in time, to consider how songs and rhythms were shared and evolved.

Plantation Dance, South Carolina circa 1790 featuring banjo and calabash. Image #NW0159 courtesy of the Virgina Foundation for the Humanities.

I’m currently working on a production with the Portland Chamber Orchestra called “The Story of Rhythm.” In this performance piece, I consider the survival of music and rhythm from West Africa, from Yorubaland—a region loosely defined now as Nigeria. Throughout the Americas, but very clearly in Brazil, Cuba, and Haiti, many of the rhythmic structures, songs, and dances survived in tact. Of course they evolved in their new homelands, but in a place like Brazil, for example, it is still possible to find songs in Yoruba. The pantheon of orishas from the Yoruban religion, Ifa, melded with Christianity and its pantheon of saints. Rhythmically, musical forms can be clearly traced through bell, clave, and drum patterns.

And so, through memory, using our two most fundamental instruments—the body and the voice—early slaves in the Americas began to preserve their religious and cultural traditions. In this context, it’s interesting to consider the concept of “punctuated equilibrium” which derives from evolutionary biology, but I think applies quite well to evolution in cultural terms. Traditions and norms survive in a kind of stasis for long periods of time until some kind of unusual, revolutionary, or traumatic event creates an environment for change.

Going back in time, here are some wonderful historical facts that could easily have influenced the movement of culture and music from Africa to the British Isles. The Phoenicians reached West Africa and the British Isles as early as 445 BC, and returned to those regions over hundreds of years by boat and by land. The Romans reached Britain in 43 AD and stayed for nearly 400 years. Africans, slaves or otherwise, were not uncommon throughout the Roman Empire. From the 8th to the 11th century, the Vikings traded with, and enslaved, people from Europe, the British Isles, and North Africa. During this same time period and beyond, from the 7th to the 15th century, the Moors lived in the Iberian Peninsula of southern Europe, which was part of an empire that reached well into West Africa. As early as 1444, black Africans were brought to Portugal and sold as slaves, and the first black African slaves arrived in the New World as early as 1501. Travel and trade was alive and well, and the exchange of music had to have been part of the process.

But that history doesn’t reveal a specific event that might link African and Irish music. It only suggests that, over the course of hundreds of years, just as people traded goods and captured others as slaves, that music was traded and captured as well. And the origin of the backbeat? That appears to be like asking, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

In the United States, the Civil War is an important event in American musical history for several reasons. In Irish music, the fiddle was present in the 17th century, and that establishes its presence in the U.S. at the time of the largest influx of Irish immigrants in the middle of the 19th century—nearly a million Irish from 1845 to 1852.

There’s a great music history book by Nick Tosches called Where Dead Voices Gather. The central purpose of the book explores the mystery and musical innovation surrounding Emmett Miller, a white, blackface singer, musician, and comedian famous for his innovative singing and music in minstrel shows. Minstrelsy became popular in the 1840s, during the same time period of the massive Irish arrival.

In Blue’s People, Amiri Baraka writes about the early blues, “But the use of instruments on a large scale was also something that happened after the Emancipation; the very possession of instruments, except those few made from African models, was rare in the early days of slavery. The stereotyped pictures that many of the apologists for the Southern way of life used as flyleaves for their numerous novels after the Civil War, depicting a happy-go-lucky black existentialist strumming merrily on his banjo while sitting on a bale of cotton, were, I’m sure, more romantic fiction than fact.”


Baraka goes on to describe the common instruments among the slaves as “drums, rattles, tambourines, scrapers (the jawbone of a horse over which a piece of wood was scraped), and the like.” He also describes blues as a vocal music that, after the Civil War, became influenced by the guitar. Blues singers had to conform to the instrument’s range, but vocal traditions also influenced the range of the guitar. On the popularity of the guitar, “Perhaps the reason why the guitar was at once so popular was not only because it was much like the African instrument, the banjo (or banjor), but because it was an instrument that still permitted the performer to sing.”

Minstrelsy is a fascinating phenomenon in American history. Whites began donning blackface and performing as “negroes,” mimicking ways of speech and song, writing their own songs to perform in front of white crowds. And it began twenty years before the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s difficult to reach back to those murky days before recorded music, and it’s also difficult to tell who influenced who, which came first…

Tosches writes about the music of minstrelsy and vaudeville, and the importance of the fiddle in those early days. “It was the symbiosis and synergy and estuary of those nineteenth century fiddle-based string bands, black and white, that brought forth, simultaneously, before the ascendancy of the guitar, what came to be called the blues and country music.”

The fiddle. The arrival of Irish immigrants. An established slave culture in the U.S. that featured rhythm and music, work songs, field songs, that utilized things like the sound of a hoe hitting the ground on the “4.” And then an event like the Civil War that makes the scene from Gangs of New York possible.

Who owns the backbeat? Where does the history of the interaction between the Irish Celts and Africans begin to intersect? There is some genetic evidence that traces the Irish Celtic people to the Iberian Peninsula (Blood of the Isles by Bryan Sykes); there are stories of ancient Britons being a “dark-skinned people” (Ancient And Modern Britons, David Mac Ritchie); there seems to be substantial evidence of the presence of black Africans in early Europe (Nature Knows No Color-Line: Research into the Negro Ancestry in the White Race by J.A. Rogers), and the historical movements of people and empires supports that.

What does it take for an element of culture to transform? An idea, I think, and just one person willing to act on that idea. And maybe some serendipity and luck. If we hadn’t had Emmett Miller and minstrelsy, would we still have the blues and country music as we know it?

When I think about story and how things are passed on, I envision the power of music, song and dance overcoming obstacles to communication—the lack of shared customs, a shared language, interpersonal familiarity. Fear, even. Music can overcome those obstacles, and probably did. I think Irish music was influenced by African and Mediterranean musical traditions, and I think the confluence of Irish music and African music in pre-Civil War America laid the groundwork for country and blues. Traveling back through time, wow, what a story to tell.


29 comments on “On The Link Between African And Irish Music

  1. Posicionamiento en Buscadores
    February 16, 2011

    Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I’ve truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!

  2. Paula Domkowski
    March 11, 2011

    I love reading a post that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to comment!

  3. Maya
    March 12, 2012

    Hi, as a screenwriter w/ two characters discussing this very topic, it was great to stumble across your blog.
    One aspect, I’ve thought of were the years just before some of the more inhuman race laws were enacted; when indentured Irish and enslaved Africans worked and lived side by side.
    The African and Celtic soul do feel indelibly linked. No where is this link more apparent than in forms of music.

    • Rafael Otto
      March 13, 2012

      Hi Maya – Interesting to think about the differences between indentured servitude and slavery and how race played an distinctive role in the long-term social impact for Africans and Europeans in the US.
      Would love to hear more about your screenplay – will it focus on music in some way?

    • billybobcat
      August 11, 2013

      Whites stole jazz ,now it’s The blues.
      Irish slaves had it tougher than black slaves, are you kidding me.

  4. 66witches
    April 24, 2012

    I think it is fairly obvious that early American blues and even “negro spirituals” were pretty heavily influenced by music of the British Isles that had come to the USA. The contribution is often overlooked in the understandable desire some have to claim blues as “Black Music” but I think that shortchanges the truth. It could never have come directly from Africa in that form but needed the multi-cultural traditions of America in order to develop. One thing that’s immediately striking is the subject matter – traditional and ritual music of Africa such as that of Yoruba, tends to be very de-personalized. The focus is on spiritual entities beyond the individual personality. Outside of the ritual, there was also the role of musical “bard”, or ancestral historian, called the “griot” in some languages, and again, memory and recitation rather than individual expression were the emphasis. In the absence of the written word, it’s clear to see why that would be important and of course European culture has Homer and other poets of antiquity who were more concerned with recording (and embellishing) than inventing “literature”. But European culture, on the other hand, has a much longer history of individualism than Africa and so the personal experience had already given rise to so-called “high art” with poetry no longer expected to always have “universal” appeal. So by the time of the slave trade, there was already a strong European tradition of the personal lament, the “oh woe is me, life is sure hard” sentiment. Particularly as the folk songs often arise from the underclasses, the sad tale of unfair oppression already a common feature of folk songs of Ireland and Scotland, subjected to English rule. Likewise, there is also a big contribution to the blues easily spotted in the lovesick gloom of some Spanish and Portuguese gypsy songs, with their Moorish influences, minor keys and emphasis on the interval of the 4th. So I would say that in terms of both lyrical content and harmonic form, Western music would actually be the main source for the blues. Blues songs sound more similiar to Irish laments than they do to Yoruba chants. But it was the unique way these influences were then fused with the polyrhythms of Africa, the sound of the African voice and the poignancy of the Black American experience of slavery and suffering that birthed the blues. You couldn’t really have one without the other. It’s a shame, to me, that this musicological fact so often gets swept under the carpet.

  5. restaurants in Cape Town
    November 22, 2012

    Really helpful blog post on On The Link Between African And Irish Music
    Infinite Culture!!
    Keep publishing.

  6. feminineocean
    February 11, 2013

    Very informative and illuminating. I just can’t help but continue to see the circle going on as so many rock musicians admitted influence by black blues musicians.

    • Rafael Otto
      February 17, 2013

      And the cycle continues, from James Brown to Fela Kuti, from reggae to hip-hop, jazz and neo-soul, across the Atlantic and back again the influences continue to build across the globe.

      • feminineocean
        February 18, 2013

        Last week, listening to the national Native American radio show, I heard a discussion about the influence of Indigenous American music on New Orleans music and the Blues. It was very interesting and they played a couple of clips, one Black New Orleans, one Native American and you could hear the similarities. The failure for this connection to be acknowledged, even by black musicians and scholars was a sore point with several of the speakers. Would be interesting to hear and read more about this connection.

  7. Rafael Otto
    February 18, 2013

    Would you be able to send a link to that radio show – sounds right up my alley!

  8. Marta Burton
    April 14, 2013

    A forgotten history of the Irish enslaved in the colonies during Cromwell’s reign puts Irish slaves (really actually slaves) in the Americas and Barbados at the same time. The earliest slaves in the Americas were Irish. In fact more than half of the population in the colonies were white slaves. In Barbados Irish were forced to marry African slaves to breed more slaves….this must have impacted the music much earlier than when the trans-Atlantic trade was in full swing. I’m still learning…but this is significant to my understanding slavery and the unique music that grew out of it.

    • billybobcat
      August 11, 2013

      Whites stole jazz ,now it’s The blues.
      Irish slaves had it tougher than black slaves, are you kidding me.

  9. Marta Burton
    April 14, 2013

    Thought I’d follow up on my post with one of my resources from Irish Examiner:
    100,000 Irish children sold for slavery during 1650s
    Tuesday, January 29, 2013

    By Conall Ó Fátharta
    Irish Examiner Reporter
    During the 1650s, over 100,000 Irish children between the ages of 10 and 14 were taken from their parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England.
    According to John Martin of the Montreal-based Center for Research and Globalisation, in a new article, The Irish Slave Trade — The Forgotten ‘White’ Slaves’, during that decade some 52,000, mostly women and children were sold to Barbados and Virginia, with another 30,000 Irish men and women transported to and sold to the highest bidder. In 1656, Oliver Cromwell ordered that 2,000 children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers there.

    Mr Martin said the Irish slave trade began with James II in 1625, leading to Ireland rapidly becoming the biggest source of human livestock for English merchants. “The Irish slave trade began when James II sold 30,000 Irish prisoners as slaves to the New World. His Proclamation of 1625 required Irish political prisoners be sent overseas and sold to English settlers in the West Indies. By the mid-1600s the Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat. At that time, 70% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves.”

    Mr Martin explains how the Irish population fell drastically due to the slave trade. This was done at the hands of the British who simply broke up families and sold them to settlers in the New World.

    “From 1641 to 1652, over 500,000 Irish were killed by the English and another 300,000 were sold as slaves. Ireland’s population fell from about 1,500,000 to 600,000 in one single decade. Families were ripped apart as the British did not allow Irish dads to take their wives and children with them across the Atlantic. This led to a helpless population of homeless women and children. Britain’s solution was to auction them off as well,” he said.

    “Many people today will avoid calling the Irish slaves what they truly were: slaves. They’ll come up with terms like ‘indentured servants’ to describe what occurred to the Irish. However, in most cases from the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish slaves were nothing more than human cattle… It is well recorded that African slaves, not tainted with the stain of the hated Catholic theology and more expensive to purchase, were often treated far better than their Irish counterparts,” wrote Mr Martin.

    He also claims that Irish women and young girls were forced to breed with African males to produce a ‘mulatto’ slave of a different complexion.

    • feminineocean
      April 15, 2013

      Wow, that is very interesting and makes me wonder if there is more study of this. Thanks for sharing.

    • Flora
      February 17, 2015

      Also to note: the Irish slaves in the islands were treated as expendable and often worked to death or abandoned to death through illness and injury. The slave holders refused them sufficient food, medical treatment, housing, and the rest. Thus, the attrition of the Irish population resulted in the rather small population of current-day Irish descendants in those Islands. In some places, communities of descendants of these Irish slaves are openly discriminated against by the greater populations of the islands. History has carried the branding of the Irish as “sub-human” Catholic heretics down to this very day.

  10. Kenneth Burton
    November 22, 2013

    :*) On page 72, In the book America’s Instrument: the banjo in the nineteenth century. by Gura and Bollman, is an albumin print of four African-American musicians on minstrel era instruments ca. 1860’s. Of note, they are not in blackface, and feature Tamborine, Fiddle, Boucher banjo and rhythm bones. I look at this picture and imagine what kind of music they play. I think it’s Funk.

    • Rafael Otto
      November 22, 2013

      Wow – thanks for this comment Kenneth! If only we could hear it!

    • Dan Gellert
      April 18, 2014

      Funk, yes indeed! You can hear it in the fiddle-and-banjo duets of Frazier and Patterson, and of Jarrell and Cockerham– and I imagine the quartet in that photo sounding a lot like that.

  11. Chris Smith
    February 17, 2014

    It’s a complex and very rich story, on which there is some musicological literature. I have done a lot of historical work on the “liminal zones” of rivers, harbors, and ships’ decks as sites in which exchange between African-American (especially Afro-Caribbean) and Anglo-Celtic working-class peoples could meet. See WT Lahmon’s Raising Cain, Eric Lott’s Love and Theft, Dale Cockrell’s Demons of Disorder, and my own The Creolization of American Culture: William Sidney Mount and the Rise of Blackface Minstrelsy. See also:

  12. Marta Burton is absolutely correct and Billybobcat is being ignorant and bigoted in his response of discounting what she has said about Irish slaves. It is completely true and it is also true that they had lower monetary value than African slaves, and often treated much worse, with a lower social position. Irish and African slaves were indeed forcibly interbred, and it doesn’t take a musical detective, therefore, to work out why the music that developed out of slave culture in the Americas has elements of both African and Irish in it. Claiming it as only black and saying things like “whites stole jazz” is not only historically and musicologically inaccurate, it is a bigoted remark.

  13. john burke
    November 13, 2014

    Interesting speculation. However, I think you misidentified the mid-19th century blackface minstrel who came from Ireland and started the “minstrel” tradition in America. In an article in Ireland of the Welcomes (the Irish tourism office magazine) Brendan McMahuna discussed a chance meeting between Dan Emmet (not Emmet Miller) and a young black dancer in (I think) Jamaica. The black fellow was dancing on the street and Emmet taught him the jig step done in Ireland for centuries.
    He picked it up right away and it spread. (Jamaica had many mixed race people also, products of interbreeding of Scottish women deported as slaves to the West Indies after the Battle of Culloden with slave brought in from Africa to work British plantations. Bob Marley’s great great great grandmother was one such Scottish slave). Dan Emmet was the most famous of the blackface minstrels, and I believe the originator of the comedy style of “Mr Bones, Mr. Endman and Mr. Interlocoter”

  14. Flora
    February 17, 2015

    What if, being as we all came out if Africa, the Irish simply did not lose this part of their African heritage?

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  16. tara
    October 9, 2015

    Thank you for Very thought provoking writing. I came across your blog by searching my red hair origin and the connection to Africa. Only 4% of the worlds population has red hair it happens from a gene responsible for the melanin MC1R non-tanning skin its also associated with freckles. largest group of red heads are found in Ireland Scotland and America.I now know that many people in Africa also have red hair and 1/20k babies can have albinism which again produces red heads or blond hair from African parents..
    when i look at African dances and Irish dances the fast foot steps, kicking even lining up. The jewelry found in ancient Ireland looks very similar to Egyptian necklaces, Original Irish Gallic language is very similar to Khoi-San (or Khoisan) clicking sound language of south Africa.
    Are the vikings the connection, i wonder? I once read about a viking named Erik the red who traveled with a black huntsman who would egg him on? Was the huntsman perhaps a mate and not a slave?
    Indentured servants were punished for dancing, singing and fornicating. There is a court case in Plymouth where they called the servants dancing disgusting and forbid the practice. they were not aloud to marry black men and were punished for having relations with black slaves in the Virginia colony’s while indentured to their masters.

    • marty
      November 28, 2016

      I was trying to to cement the rythym of whisky in the jar on guitar this morning (which I have always struggled with) and found that a blues shuffle fitted. This led me to wondering about irish , african musical links and also to this site. Given their proximity to each other in the americas and possibly long before that , it seems inevitable to me they would have taken what they liked or needed from each others music and blended it with theirs. They call this fusion these days but it must have been going on ever since we grew legs, ha ha.

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