Vacation 2009: Day 3: A little bit of "South"

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July 25, 2009: Hustontown, Pa.

Our arrival was timed so that we could attend the monthly get-together at the Hustontown Volunteer Fire Department, an open stage night where locals gather to play music, to listen to music, and to visit with one another. Refreshments (including homemade pies) are sold to raise money for the fire department.

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The house band is led by a longtime volunteer firefighter, and the group accompanies most of the other performers. Our two oldest kids each signed up to play (fiddle and piano, respectively).

I didn't know what kind of music to expect from amateur night in the middle of rural Pennsylvania. I would never have expected it to be the same sort of music you'd hear at such an amateur night in Kentucky or Arkansas or Oklahoma.

Earlier that day, as we drove through southwestern Pennsylvania, my wife and I were struck by the number of Ulster place names we saw. Two vacations (B.C. -- before children) took us to Counties Antrim and Tyrone and Donegal and the cities of Belfast and Derry, partly in search of traces of my Scotch-Irish ancestors. I knew from some of my genealogical reading that many Ulster Scots who came to America in the 1700s entered at Philadelphia and settled inland; first in Lancaster County, then further west into the Alleghenies, and then south into the Shenandoah Valley, the Cumberland Gap, the Holston Valley, and then, in the 1800s and 1900s, westward to places like Texas, Oklahoma, and California's Central Valley. It was easy to see how Scotch-Irish settlers from the glens of Antrim or the Blue Stack Mountains of Donegal would have felt right at home in western and central Pennsylvania.

A couple of weeks ago, Philadelphia-based blogger Skye made this observation on Twitter, as she drove west to Pittsburgh for the Right Online conference:

So, this is alabama in between

I'm not sure what she saw to lead her to that conclusion, but it makes sense. (I was surprised at the number of Confederate battle flags I saw flying around Fulton County. Not a huge number, but more than the number I expected -- zero.)

The culture of northern Alabama and the culture of south central Pennsylvania are bound together by this Ulster Scots heritage, a heritage that is so ubiquitous in America that it is as invisible as the air that we breathe.

I mentioned the music at the open stage night: There was western swing, there was classic country (e.g. Hank Williams), and there was traditional gospel (e.g., "I've Got a Mansion Just over the Hilltop"). The latter style had many in the crowd singing along. The house band included fiddles, a banjo, an accordion, a pedal steel guitar, and a bunch of electric basses and electric and acoustic guitars.

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What clinched the connection for me was the opening tune: A couple of choruses of Bennie Moten's "South", recorded in 1928. Moten was a Kansas City native, and his band included the Kid from Red Bank (as Johnny Martin called him) -- Count Basie. The song entered the western swing repertoire via Bob Wills, who used it each night to lead off his dances. Is it just a coincidence that the Hustontown Fire Department house band opened with the same tune over 70 years later?

Here's my oldest son performing a traditional Irish tune called "Tam Lin" and the classic western swing number, "Faded Love." I love the way the band comes in behind him on Tam Lin. There was a bit of a hiccup on a key change in Faded Love, but everyone got on the same page eventually. I'm proud of him being willing to go up in front of a hundred or so strangers and play with a dozen musicians he'd never played with before.

I was proud of my little girl, too. She played her two recital pieces from Barthelmes -- "Snake" and "Relay Race" -- and remembered to take a bow at the end:

The three-year-old was wiped out from the long drive. Here's one of his few moments of alertness and a more typical moment a short while later:

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But he was awake for ice cream. After the show, we headed to a local favorite spot -- the Twist and Shake -- which specializes in unusual flavors of soft serve ice cream. That night the special flavors were chocolate marshmallow and peanut butter. Another night they had grape nuts ice cream and teaberry ice cream. (Teaberry tastes just like Pepto-Bismol.)

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Back at the house, we caught fireflies for a while before turning in for the next day's big adventure: A ride on a real steam train.

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2 Comments

Jeff Shaw Author Profile Page said:

I love it! The kids did great. What talent.

Adrien Taylor`` said:

It is wonderful that your children felt confident enough to play in front of strangers. A testament to some good parenting techniques, I suspect.

I, too, have Scots-Irish ancestors into PA in the 1700 hundreds, mine were in Missouri by 1799, however. Same music though.

Thanks for posting.

Adrien, now in Boise, Idaho.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 27, 2009 7:07 AM.

Tulsa Boy Singers special fundraising and singer recruitment concert Friday was the previous entry in this blog.

Dewey Bartlett Jr contradicts news reports of 2006 Kathy Taylor endorsement is the next entry in this blog.

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