Everyone from George Clooney, Elvis Presley and Seasick Steve was influenced by the old-time sounds of bluegrass music. But did you know bluegrass’ roots lead to Ireland?
The king and Clooney
Fans among us know well how Elvis Presley’s earliest influences stemmed from bluegrass music. His famous tune Blue Moon of Kentucky typifies that vibrant bluegrass beat. Many of us, too, enjoyed George Clooney getting into all sorts of scrapes in the Coen brother’s bluegrass inspired hit, Oh Brother wherefore art thou?. Bluegrass has spread to popular music, too. Seasick Steve-the one time hobo-plays bluegrass in his repertoire.
What most people don’t know is that bluegrass’ roots stem from Ireland. During the 18th century thousands of Irish, Ulster-Scot and English immigrants settled in the Appalachian region of America. When they did so, they brought the music of their homeland with them.
Their vast influence on bluegrass hasn’t been forgotten and Ireland has the festivals, the concerts and the musicians to prove it.
It was there, on the North American continent, that traditional Irish music and Ulster-Scot influences were fused with the blues stylings of the African American locals. The musical traditions of two disparate cultures came together to create an entirely new musical genre: bluegrass.
If you listen closely, you’ll hear the forms of Irish jigs and reels in bluegrass songs. Traditional Irish music played a crucial role in the formation of bluegrass, something that is celebrated in fine fashion in Ireland today. How? With fantastic festivals bursting with music and mighty craic (fun).
Once a year in August, music lovers and musicians from all over the world make the pilgrimage to Dunmore East, County Waterford. It’s here, in Ireland’s sunny southeast where a quaint fishing village morphs into the centre of the bluegrass world for the Guinness International Dunmore East Bluegrass Festival. Over four late summer days six venues around the village hold gigs indoors and out. A more beautiful setting for a boutique music festival is hard to imagine.
They love bluegrass in County Limerick, too. The Bruff Bluegrass Festival takes place in the town of Bruff and all events/music shows are completely free. It’s a family orientated festival that celebrates bluegrass music but also features many other fun events. Such as donkey races, the National Horseshoe Pitching Contest and street barbecues.
The big one
But when it comes to bluegrass festivals in Ireland, the Ulster American Folk Park in County Tyrone stands apart. Here you get the full emigration story of the region’s sons and daughters to America. Brought to life with actors in full costume and exhibitions this is how we all wish history could be taught. A visit here begins in a thatched cottage in Ulster, board a full-scale emigration ship and ends in the log cabins of the American Frontier: the very place where bluegrass blossomed.
The Annual Bluegrass Festival in the Ulster Folk Park is a little different from your average festival. The thatched cottages, old-timey general stores and other replica buildings from the frontier age are transformed into stages. Bluegrass music is brought back to its roots, literally. The biggest names from the world of bluegrass travel to play here once a year. It’s hard not to get caught up in the atmosphere when the sights and sounds of a bygone era surround you.
A tale of two worlds
So the next time you hear the sultry strum of bluegrass remember the brave Irish and Ulster-Scot immigrants who inspired it.
They’d sure appreciate a song.