Tag Archives: folklore

Cecil Sharp on Appalachian Americans

I may have referred here to Cecil Sharp, the English folklorist who visited Virginia just over a century ago. He, along with his American assistant,  wanted to collect any folk songs of English origin that may still have been extant in that part of the country, and he found a great many old English ballads that were still preserved amongst the people of the Appalachians. Keep in mind that this is the part of the South that is said to have been settled mostly by Celtic  ‘Scots-Irish’ or Irish people, so this would seem an odd place to go looking for English folk songs and lore. Still, Sharp and his assistant were not disappointed in their quest, and Sharp wrote of the similarities between the rural Appalachian folk and their counterparts back in England.



This blog points out that Sharp’s descriptions stand in stark contrast to the stereotypes of people from that region that are popularly believed today. Here’s another site which is a good source of information about the subject.

As I love traditional music and all sorts of folklore I am fascinated by the story of Cecil Sharp and his mission to collect and help preserve the musical traditions of Appalachia. His work led to a cooperative effort between traditional music scholars and musicians on both sides of the Atlantic, in order to keep these traditions alive.

The demographic changes that are being imposed on even the more remote areas of the Southern U.S. will no doubt contribute to a weakening and possible loss of the culture and heritage overall. It is just not true that a culture can be preserved by just anybody; a culture is the product of a specific people, an extended kin-group who are genetically from the same source.  If a culture is a disembodied thing that can be transferred to any random ‘recipient’ then it is a museum piece, no longer a living tradition.

I hate to make this political, but there’s just no way around it. A people must be preserved in order for their culture to survive and continue.



Christmas customs


The kindling of the ‘Christmas brand’ was a custom in certain areas of England in centuries past. It’s described here as practiced in 18th century England.

Christmas Eve the bells greet “Old Father Christmas” with a merry peal, the children parade the streets with drums, trumpets, bells, or perhaps, in their absence, with the poker and shovel, taken from their humble cottage fire; the yule candle is lighted, and–

“High on the cheerful fire Is blazing seen th’ enormous Christmas brand.”

Supper is served, of which one dish, from the lordly mansion to the humblest shed, is invariably furmety; yule cake, one of which is always made for each individual in the family, and other more substantial viands are also added.”

In case you are wondering what ‘furmety’ is, (and I had to look it up myself):

Grains, usually hulled cracked wheat (as ‘Bulgar’ wheat), or occasionally barley, boiled in milk (for a sweet desert dish) or stock (for a savoury accompaniment to meat) with seasonings. Sometimes elaborately flavoured with saffron, spices etc. and sometimes thickened with egg.

[…]‘Furmity’ served with fruit and a slug of rum, plays a major role in Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge‘.

“A dish once prominent at Christmas was ‘frumenty’ or ‘furmety’ (variously spelt, and derived from the Latin frumentum, corn). It was made of hulled wheat boiled in milk and seasoned with cinnamon, sugar, &c. … In Yorkshire it was the first thing eaten on Christmas morning, just as ale posset was the last thing drunk on Christmas Eve.” – ‘Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan‘ by Clement A. Miles, 1912

Honey sweet,
Curds to eat,
Cream and frumenty,
Shells and beads,
Poppy seeds,
You shall have plenty

– ‘Sleepyhead’ by Walter de la Mare, c1902

A biographer of Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson says that the US general; “fancied that he had some mysterious internal malady, and would eat nothing but frumenty, a preparation of wheat.”

It’s interesting that ‘Stonewall’ Jackson ate this; apparently the dish was brought to the Southern colonies by our English ancestors, though I don’t know of it being eaten in recent generations in the South.

Some of the English Christmas customs and foods did cross the Atlantic with our forefathers, though, a reminder that our American culture has considerable roots in Britain, especially England.

“No such thing”

There have been a number of recent blog posts and discussions around the Internet on the subject of American identity, the national question. What is an American? Who is a ‘real American’? Into any such discussion, somebody will inevitably make the statement that no one born in the United States is fully of any one ethnicity. There is “no such thing” as an English-American especially, because the original colonial stock is by now hopelessly blended with every other possible ethnicity, especially given the lack of ethnocentrism exhibited by many ‘WASPs’.

Is this true? Are there no Americans who are predominantly or mostly of English descent now? I don’t know that there is any definitive data on that. Barring universal DNA testing (which I would not favor), without scrupulous genealogical data being maintained by all Americans, we have mostly subjective claims behind most Americans’ ethnic identification. Many people have only bits and pieces of genealogical data, or even less reliable sources of information like family lore based on oral history.

My family tree, on both sides, goes back to colonial times in all our lines, and incredible though some people may find it, they were predominantly of English origin — except for some Huguenots, and then there were some Germans who were part of the Germanna Colony which was established in the South in the 1700s.

This, I think, is typical of many original stock, colonial origin Southrons. And it was more likely in the South to stay within one’s own ethnic kin, considering that the South received very few immigrants for much of its history. It’s true that certain locales took in immigrants, as New Orleans had many Sicilians. Overall, though, the percentages of foreign-born in the Southern states remained in the single digits throughout the 20th century. According to Henry Pratt Fairchild in his book Immigration, a World Movement and its American Significance, the Southern states had an average percentage of foreign-born of about 5 percent, the lowest in the entire nation in the early 20 century.

Those who have always lived in certain of the states outside the South may find it hard to imagine an area of America which did not experience great waves of immigration in the past, or an area in which there are not a congeries of different ethnicities, as in parts of the Midwest and the Northeast. I suspect that many of those who say there is ”no such thing” as an American of majority English ancestry are people from the more ‘diverse’ regions.

In recent years there is the phenomenon, in the South, of people identifying exclusively as ‘Scots-Irish’ or the generic ‘Celtic’, to the exclusion of any possible English ancestry they may have. This confuses things more, as many of these partisans have spread the meme that ‘the South is Celtic.’ The ‘Celtic South’ meme is everywhere.The blogger “n/a” from the race/history/evolution blog says:

“I don’t see a problem with someone identifying with his patrilineal national origin for census purposes while remaining aware of his overall ancestry. What I find irritating is the eagerness of some with American ancestry to identify as “Scotch-Irish” after reading a review of Albion’s Seed, or “Celtic” in the name of Celtic Southronism, or “German” because they had a German great-grandfather, and then declare themselves at war with or at least safely distinct from evil/culpable “WASPs” / “Anglo-Saxons” (which appellations in reality describe the core of the breeding population from which the newly self-identified Borderer/Celt/German sprung)”

I second what “n/a” says.

The aforementioned blog is a great source of information and data about American ethnic origins, and the blog is a rarity in that it takes a somewhat more Anglo-friendly stance than most blogs out there.

No doubt there are people with some Ulster lineage (known as ‘Scots-Irish’ though their progenitors may have been ‘border’ folk in the Northern English counties, Anglo-Saxon by blood) but we might just as easily say that ‘there is no such thing as a 100 percent Celtic Southron.’ Most people don’t know their genealogical data with certainty. But the Celtic identity is in vogue now.

And it is our English forebears who are being slighted here, with many of their present-day descendants preferring not to identify as English-descended Americans.

This results in a strange discourse in our post-American America, wherein ”WASPs” are spoken of as if they are extinct, and no longer present to speak for themselves, yet paradoxically there are those who believe in a cabal of ‘WASP elites’ who run everything and cause every ill. So the WASP lives on in legend but the flesh-and-blood WASP Americans, in every walk of life, apparently don’t exist. There’s no such thing…

America: a poem

O, who has not heard of the Northmen of yore,
How flew, like the sea-bird, their sails from the shore;
How westward, they stayed not till, breasting the brine,
They hailed Narragansett, the land of the vine!

Then the war-songs of Rollo, his pennon and glaive,
Were heard as the danced by the moon-lighted wave,
And their golden-haired wives bore them sons of the soil,
While raced with redskins their feud and turmoil.

And who has not seen, ‘mid the summer’s gay crowd,
That old pillared tower of their fortalice proud,
How stands solid proof of the sea chieftains’ reign
Ere came with Columbus those galleys of Spain!

Twas a claim for their kindred: an earnest of sway,
By the stout-hearted Cabot made good in its day;
Of the Cross of St. George, on the Chesapeake’s tide,
Where lovely Virginia arose like a bride.

Came the Pilgrims with Winthrop; and, saint of the West,
Came Robert of Jamestown, the brave and the blest;
Came Smith, the bold rover, and Rolfe – with his ring,
To wed sweet Matoaka, child of a king.

Undaunted they came, every peril to dare,
Of tribes fiercer far than the wold in his lair;
Of the wild irksome woods, where in ambush they lay;
Of their terror by night and their arrow by day.

And so where our capes cleave the ice of the poles,
Where grooves of the orange scent sea-coast and shoals,
Where the forward Atlantic uplifts its last crest,
Where the sun, when he sets, seeks the East from the West;

The clime that from ocean to ocean expands,
The fields to the snowdrifts that stretch from the sands,
The wilds they have conquered of maintain and plain;
Those Pilgrims have made them fair Freedom’s domain.

And the bread of dependence if proudly they spurned,
Twas the soul of the fathers that kindled and burned,
Twas the blood of old Saxon within them that ran;
They held – to be free is the birthright of man.

So oft the old lion, majestic of mane,
Sees cubs of his cave breaking loose from his reign;
Unmeet to be his if they braved not his eye,
He gave them the spirit his own defy.

Arthur Cleveland Coxe

The Telegraph asks: When is St. George’s Day?

No, today isn’t St. George’s Day in England, but the UK Telegraph has a piece here explaining about St. George and the history (and myth) which centers on him.

I remember being taught in school about St. George and the dragon, though it’s very unlikely that schoolchildren today are taught anything of that. They are more likely to hear about Cinco de Mayo or Diwali or Eidh or any number of other things which are not part of the heritage of most of the people of the United States.


St. George and Plantagenet Earl of Lancaster_socialengland02trai_0010.jpg

St. George and the Plantagenet Earl of Lancaster

But the Telegraph Article seems to be written either for children or possibly for immigrants with a basic command of the English language. Maybe it’s aimed at encouraging immigrants to ‘assimilate’ to English or British culture. It does address the controversy over the alleged ‘racism’ of the Cross of St. George, unfortunately with a hint of the standard liberal insinuation — ”some say” the flag is ‘racist.’ Even phrasing things in the ‘some say’ tone is introducing the idea that the flag may be ‘racist’ and thus keeps the controversy in the public consciousness.

Still, I give the writer of the article credit — and surprisingly , the writer has an English-sounding name, a rare thing to be found on a newspaper byline today — for taking a less shrill tone than most of the articles on ‘touchy’ subjects like English traditions.