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The Vacuum Issue 2 spacer Issue 2
Keep It Country
by Stephen Hackett
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I'm from the countryside; near Omagh, outside Ballygawley, within Eskra; Newtownsaville to be exact (which never actually made it to qualify as a town). I've lived in Belfast (the big smoke) for 11 years, but to paraphrase the band Dillinger 'Š I got country run'in around my brain'. Country and Irish that is, Country and Irish as the genre is now defined. I'd heard Big Tom, Foster & Allen, Philomena Begley, T.R Dallas and Margo from an early age. Of course I was also fed U2, Bruce Springsteen and the Undertones through the record collections of older siblings. Looking back the music itself is a bit hazily in my memory, but the thing I remember most of all was the strange LP covers of pasty faced Irish men and women standing in fields in mid-Ulster. They would dress as cowboys (occasionally Indians) and surround themselves with other country and western paraphernalia. I'll be honest and say that I've never been a fan of the music, it always felt to me like a watered down version of country music I liked : Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Tammy Wynette. So how did Country and Irish come about? And why is it so popular here? To some extent it had something to do with bringing it all back home. Hybrids of Country and Western are familiar in both Scotland and Ireland and this may have something to do with the Ulster-Scots; at least according to the Ulster Scots website. The site reckons that in the 19th Century over a quarter of a million people emigrated from Ulster to America, most of then to the Appalachian region and the southern states. This massive influx of new settlers brought with them many of their own traditions, stories and ballads. They where labelled "Orangemen" or Billyboys" and it is from this term that the name 'hillbillies ' came into being.
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Keep It Country
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'It is interesting to note that a traditional song of the Glasgow Rangers football club today begins with the line, "Hurrah! Hurrah! We are the Billy Boys!" and shares its tune with the famous American Civil War song, "Marching Through Georgia".'
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Another term that the Ulster-Scots site (proudly?) claims should be associated with the new settlers was "Red neck," The term was originally applied to the Presbyterian supporters of the National Covenant. People who signed the covenant did so in their own blood and wore pieces of red cloth around their necks as insignia. The term 'redneck' was thus applied to Scottish Irish settlers in America and subsequently to their descendants in the southern states.
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A few years ago, some American folk musicians were playing at a Protestant social club in Belfast. The crowd was very polite, but largely concentrated on chatting and drinking, until the flautist played an old Appalachian tune which got a response which astonished him. When he reached the chorus, the crowd in an joyful uproar bellowed: "Hello! Hello! We are the Billy Boys/ Up to our necks in Fenian blood, surrender or or you'll die/ For we are the Billy Billy Boys!" That example of the Ulster Presbyterian Diaspora meeting its roots is very rare and I would say very sad, it's a history and a culture being lost.
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When Hillbilly became country
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Prior to 1923, "country" music wasn't acknowledged as a distinct music genre. At the time marketing of popular music in America was focused primarily on high-density population areas. The growth of radio sales in rural areas meant 'country' music could be marketed more distinctly and efforts where made to record the white "hillbillies" . The recording of early "rustic" talent was at least partly a by-product of the search for African American talent to meet the demand for "race" records. From the late 1940s the music industry was in search of a label for this music something less degrading than "hillbilly." Everything from "old-time" to "oat tunes" was tried out, but "folk" gained currency. (Although I think "oat tunes" was a winner). Hank Williams identified himself as a folk singer as did most other 'country' artist's of the period. Senator Joe McCarthy could well be considered partly responsible for the tag 'Country' music coming into being. During The 1952 Senate hearings McCarthy investigated the "Communist leanings." of folk singer Pete Seeger. The music industry promptly dropped the term "folk" and "country and western" or simply "country" came into wider usage.
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Country and Irish
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In 'The Swingin' Sixties' Book, Paschal Mooney traces the roots of the Country 'n' Irish phenomenon, identifying the American country singer Jim Reeves as the catalyst for Country and Irish. Reeves died in a plane crash in 1963 but influenced a whole generation of Irish country singers, says Mooney, and prompted a builder named Larry Cunningham, from Co Longford to begin his recording career. Cunningham hit the big time with his UK Top Twenty hit, 'Tribute To Jim Reeves', he followed this with a string of hits such as: 'Lovely Leitrim', 'Among The Wicklow Hills', 'Pretty Little Girls From Omagh', and 'Cottage On The Border Line Between Galway And Mayo'. In Ireland country music was gradually reclaimed in the 1950's, with the popularity of showbands throughout the country. The late 60's and early 70's saw the golden age of the genre with the emergence of the 'Ballad Boom' as Brendan Shine, Big Tom, Foster & Allen, Margo, T.R Dallas and (Queen of Country) Philomena Begley began to monopolise the home market. Big Tom became the King of Country 'n' Irish and his band, The Mainliners, broke box office records wherever they played. Big Tom, concludes Paschal Mooney, was "probably the greatest phenomenon the world of Irish Country Music has ever produced or will ever produce again".
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Some of the music produced was a hybrid of Country 'n' Western and with elements of Irish traditional music, T.R. Dallas who had a hit with "Do You Want Your Old Lobby Washed Down?" and brother of Tony Allen (of Foster and Allen fame) suggests the appeal of country and Irish: "it's close to the bone. Country comes from the same stem as traditional, and it's played on banjos, mandolins and fiddles."
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Dallas gives an insight into the trials of being a Country & Irish artist : "I've been 37 years on the road, not only do I know every road in Ireland, I've slept on them all; too. But I enjoy what I do, and the more people who vomit every time they hear me, the more people there are who really have a good night out. How long more will I keep doing it? How long more do you think they can stand it?"
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Well the movement is still going strong with a new generation of C&I artists such as Dominic Kerwin, Daniel O'Donnell and Charlie Landsburgh, all with a high persentage of non vomiters in attendance.
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Keep It Country
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'Drop kick me Jesus'
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In Country music religious themes and worship have always been important components of the music. As Kinky Friedman of the Texas Jewboys sang 'They don't make Jews like Jesus any more'. One song I always remember is hearing on the radio as I grew up was 'Drop kick me Jesus through the goalposts of life' by Bobby Bare, a surreal sentiment which I found quite uplifting. It has been observed that"Even some of the worst hillbillies, drunks, profligates, and ex-cons piously sing gospel songs on their albums". Part of the link between Country and Religious music has to do with notions of sin and redemption exemplified in the work of ex San Quentin prisononer Merle Haggard and the fire and brimstone of Johnny Cash. Aspects of Country and Irish music also bleed into the Irish Gospel scene in the 1970s, the sentiments expressed where more religious,less to do with everday experiences and using few of the motifs of country music, but the instrumentation and the look had many similaries. Most of the Country and Irish artists from the 70s onwards show more of the influences of Catholic Ireland then the legacy of Ulster Scots influence. Today artists such as Charlie Lansburgh and Dan O'Donnell can genre bend through both Gospel and C&I taking in a bit of showbanding on the way.
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Country Dance
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The Settlers brought their own puritanical belief systems into America. The sinful pleasures of dancing where condoned and often banned. To circumnavigate this any physical contact and improvisation on the dance floor where restricted or strictly supervised. In traditional Irish dance protocol demanded that the dancer was not allowed to move the arms thus preventing any hip movement which was deemed too sexual. Thank God then for Michael Flatley who liberated us with his flayling arms in Riverdance as Elvis had done in the fifties to a generation of rock and rollers. In the 1920s Henry Ford, the car magnet, put more money into promoting country music than anyone else. Ford was disturbed by what he saw as the urban decadence of couple's jazz dancing. He organised fiddling contests and promoted square dances across the country to encourage what he saw as the older, more wholesome, mechanical and de-sexualised form of entertainment for the worker. In Country music set or pattern dances orchestrated by a caller prevented or restricted any sinful behaviour. New hybrids developed however through the mix of many different cultures .A new dance called the Polka was said to have "the intimacy of the Waltz and the vivacity of the Irish jig". German settlers in El Paso, Texas developed the Schottische and line dances which were precursors of modern western dances such as the Cotton-Eyed Joe. In the South, contests were frequently held on the plantation's to see "who owned the fastest dancer." Amazed and influenced by the Black slaves movements the whites later "corked up" in black face and toured the country. Freed Black Americans exerted a stylistic influence that can still be seen in today's country swing dance. It was the cowboy perhaps that seems to exert the most stylistic influences : "The swing of the leg when dismounting from a horse became a mighty Polka gallop. Women were handled as if the cowboy were throwing a beating calf to the ground to be branded. Heavy army issue boots contributed to crude footwork. The habit of wearing spurs even on the dance floor forced the cowboy to keep his feet apart and shuffle as he moved to the music. The "double arms over" move is reminiscent of the final "tying off" of a calf's legs prior to branding". The death of Disco in the late1970's saw the partial emergence of Country or 'Line dancing into a form of mainstream entertainment in the 1980s and 1990s. Line dancing is still all the rage in Ireland today.
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Keep It Country
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Indian Burial Ground
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There's a suggestion (perhaps even within the article) that 'Irish and Country' should be buried, perhaps its slightly embarrassing, maybe it's a just mediocre and hackneyed form of music, above all its easy prey, easy to make fun of and ridicule. But I started listening to Philomena, Big Tom and Margo again, it doesn't sound too bad, I enjoyed it to be honest, more than I thought was possible, but this was the heyday of the genre after all, and I grew up with it. But I think I'm getting old, I just can't get my head around the new wave. Daniel O'Donnell. Dominic Kerwin and the rest, it all seems too airbrushed and sterile. Like their American cousins (Garth Brooks, Shania Twain) the music and everything that came with it has all been decountrified.
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Sources:
www.ulster-scots.co.uk/docs/articles/cultural/rednecks.htm
Kevin Courtney in: www.iangallagher.com/country.htm
www.nimusic.com/f_history2.html
pages.zdnet.com/jojogunne/americanpages/id9.html
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