I am part Irish by heritage, and I recently wrote a book called The Irish Slaves, in which I document the slavery of the Irish from the time of King James, followed by the usually less permanent slavery of indentured servitude and contract labor.
Here in Atlanta and in the South, many people have Celtic blood in their veins. Thinking about the column this week, I reflected on the connection between the Irish and blues music. When researching the book, I found an excellent article, Irish Blue, by Miachaelin Daugherty. I have used that article as source material here.
In my book, I tell in detail of the enslavement of Irish political prisoners, as well as other men, women, and children, on the sugar plantations in the West Indies and Barbados in the 1600’s and 1700’s. Some Irish slaves were shipped to the Colonies as well, but most of the Irish in North America came in the 1700’s and 1800’s as indentured servants, agreeing to be sold to any employer who chose to buy them for a period of time (often 7 years, but sometimes more) in return for passage to America. These indentured servants were often treated exactly as slaves were. After the abolishment of slavery, Irish immigrants often worked at the most dangerous and least desirable jobs along with African Americans and Asian immigrants.
Ms. Daugherty points out that while many people claim that the blues originated in the Mississippi Delta in the early 1900’s, others acknowledge that the music actually had its roots in the blend of African and Celtic music produced by Irish and African slaves in the West Indies.
Certainly, Irish folk music and African folk music have common traits, using music to express deep emotion and often using minor keys to evoke a sense of melancholy. As Ms. Daugherty points out, both African and Celtic folklore was oral and not written, told with strong inflections and sometimes accompanied by music. One can see this reflected most directly in the “talking blues.” The “field holler” of the slaves and servants working in the sugar cane fields of the West Indies and the cotton fields of the South evolved into the work songs of the 1900’s labor camps, on the levees, as Ms. Daugherty says, and on the railroads and in the fields, and this led directly to the early Delta blues. Some of the early bluesmen were Irishmen, such as Black Hat McCoy and others like him who used their music to express the feelings they otherwise had to repress.
In more recent times, blues has strongly influenced Irish musicians such as Van Morrison, Dexie’s Midnight Runners, Flogging Molly’s Dave King, and Rory Gallagher. Irish punk music, in particular, owes a debt to the blues, in my opinion.
So the blues is a music not only of black or white, but of the soul of all men and women who have known deep emotion, both sorrow and joy, life and death. It is the gift of those slaves and virtual slaves, Irish and African, who worked the plantations of the West Indies and the South, and of the later virtual slaves who built the infrastructure of America, its roads and railroads, bridges and levees, and expressed their emotions through their music.