Living History & Reenactment Music

Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson

The Blackbird

For years I've been fond of an old Irish air called "The Blackbird", which is still played by many Irish pipers and fiddlers. (This is not to be confused with a song "If I Was a Blackbird", which Andy M. Stewart, of the group Silly Wizard, has popularized.) I was intrigued to find "The Blackbird" had connections with an odd bit of early American history, in Western Pennsylvania. Samuel Preston Bayard collected variations of this tune from old fiddlers near Dunbar, Pennsylvania, which he included in his 1944 book Hill Country Tunes, along with the story. It was played in Pennsylvania as a "listening" piece. However, in Ireland the tune also had lyrics, written by loyalists to the house of Stuart. A 1651 ballad lamenting the exile of Charles II had referred to Charles as the "Black-bird most Royall", and the later Jacobite song retained the blackbird symbol, cutting out specific references to Charles II, and reworking the lyrics so the "Blackbird" referred to Bonnie Prince Charles. Although the song was not sung in Pennsylvania, the tunes apparently still had connotations of anti-English sentiment.

The tradition in Washington County in southwestern Pennsylvania is that in 1822, a man murdered his son for singing this tune. The murder was a real occurrence - though we can't be positive that this is the tune. A William Crawford, of Horseshoe Bottom in Fallowfield Township, Washington County, had been in the British Army during the War of 1812. He was so ardently pro-British that he called himself "Old Britannia." He did not get along well with his son Henry, who frequently taunted him by singing "The Blackbird", which threw William in a rage, and he often threatened to kill his son for singing it.

In July of 1822, Crawford was having a "manure-hauling frolic" at his farm, when his son Henry appeared and began singing "The Blackbird". When his son disregarded his warnings, William fetched out his gun and shot and killed him instantly. At his trial, he acted with "what was taken for blasphemous levity and defiance." He was hanged for the murder in February of 1823.

You can find the music in O'Neill's Music of Ireland, Bunting's The Ancient Music of Ireland, or in The American Veteran Fifer, No. 91.

Now, will someone tell me what is a "manure-hauling frolic"?

"The Blackbird" is downloadable as GIF sheet music or as MIDI from the Sheet Music Page.