Fiddling came to the US Appalachian region from Irish immigrants, who brought their music and fiddles with them. The most significant wave of Irish immigrants came during the 19th-century potato famine. If you are taking fiddle lessons, you’ll have a large repertoire of folk and traditional music to choose from.
Irish fiddling has been around for about 200 years, so Irish fiddlers already had a strong tradition when they arrived on US soil. One of the most famous styles of fiddling came from Donegal County in Ireland, where fast-paced, lively fiddling was – and still is – the norm. The somewhat isolated county produced many great fiddlers, including the most famous Irish fiddler of all time, John Doherty. Nearby Sligo County also has its own style and many famous fiddlers. Both counties are rural and located in northwest Ireland, one of the hardest-hit areas of the potato famine, so immigrants from this area were a strong demographic in the exodus to the US.
When fiddles first appeared in Appalachia, the musicians maintained the Irish style. However, like any other piece of culture, the tradition began to change in its new environment. As young people learned to fiddle and it was taught to each new generation, new styles developed. As Irish music blended with Scottish, English, and African music, old-time music emerged. This music was primarily played at dances, where hard-working rural folk could relax and have a good time after a season of work in the fields or mines. The fiddle was the primary melodic instrument, if not the only instrument, at many of these dances. It was accompanied by the new American instrument, the banjo, as well as sometimes an accordion, mandolin, or washtub bass.
In the first half of the twentieth century, music recordings made Appalachia’s music available to people all over the country, and then all over the world. Different styles became evident, then continued to develop, flourish, and feed off one another. Of worthy note were bluegrass, country, and folk music, all of which are still enjoyed today. Two famous American fiddlers still playing today are Brad Leftwich and Rayna Gellert.
Even now, some of Ireland’s most famous fiddlers still hail from Donegal County, including Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, a highly lauded female fiddler who has appeared with the band Altan as well as Riverdance. Today, Irish fiddling thrives in large part due to local pride; fiddling is a mainstay in family gatherings, pubs, and festivals, and it’s what keeps American fiddling alive as well. Starting fiddle lessons gives you a ticket into this tradition and the joy and lively music scene you can be a part of as a fiddler.