Although the Scotch-Irish were merging quickly now into the American nation, the Ulster speech itself was to stay alive in the hill-country of Appalachia and beyond, where Scotch-Irish traditional music may still be heard. Among the earliest songs were ballads of King William of Orange, so those who sung them became known as Billy-boys of the hill country or ‘hillbillies’. No attestation of the Scots or Northern English term “billie” meaning “friend” or “comrade” has been found in America apart from Bruce in 1801, so deriving “hillbilly” from this term is almost certainly incorrect. But William of Orange had a strong connection to the Appalachians through William and Mary College in Virginia, the intellectual epicentre of the Old Confederacy. “Hillbilly” like “Redneck” is used by outsiders in a derogatory manner and therefore generally avoided by the mountain people, except in a jocular or self-deprecating way. The first written attestation of the term by outsiders in America was as late as 1898.
Rooted deep in the traditions of the British Isles peasantry, the fiddle had become an instrument of major importance in the development of Irish, Scottish and Welsh jigs, reels and hornpipes. As with folk custom in general, traditional music themes reinforced the ancient cultural divide between North and West Britain and Ireland, and South and East Britain. Transposed to America, the hoe-down fiddle reached the peak of its development in the Southern States. Musicologist W.H. Williams has written: “Ireland’s initial impact upon American music came predominantly from Ulster… Whatever their influence in terms of cabin and barn styles, field layout, town planning, and so on, it seems likely that the greatest and most lasting contribution of the Scotch-Irish was music. And however one may define their particular religious and ethnic identity, musically they should be considered Ulstermen, for they brought with them the mixture of Scottish and Irish tunes which is still characteristic of large parts of Northern Ireland. When the great English folklorist Cecil Sharp went into the Appalachians to rediscover ‘English’ folk song, he was in fact often dealing with people of Ulster descent. Wherever they settled in large numbers and remained in relative isolation, balladry has been found ‘live and in a healthy condition’.”
The epitome of the various influences of Scotch-Irish music is Van Morrison, our greatest living musician . And that music is the oldest, deepest music in America that exists, carried from the western highland fringe of Europe by that most ancient of peoples, the Pretani, to the Appalachian mountains. It is a Serpentine trail, one made by the mountains themselves, as that vein of green mineral can be found from Georgia to Nova Scotia and on through Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall to the very Orkneys themselves. So are we made by the mountains and our music also, from the Gaelic singing of Stornoway to the Caledonian soul, from the choral psalmody of Bangor and St Gallen to the Hill songs of Tennessee. For Van searched it and rehearsed it, and he called it the birth of the Blues.
To be continued