Hank Williams’ ethnic origin was obviously a big factor in his development as an artist. His roots are Scottish, but may have had a more specific origin than that, the Scots of Ulster also known as Northern Ireland.
We usually think of the Irish in America as the Southern Irish Catholics who emigrated in the mid 1800’s to avoid the great Irish potato famine.These immigrants are best represented by the famous Irish of Boston exemplified by the Kennedy clan and figures such as the great House Speaker Tip O’Neil, and today’s Secretary of State John Kerry.
The Scots and especially the Ulster Scots from Northern Ireland were protestant and came to America much earlier. Sad to say many Scots of that era were participants in the slave trade at the time of Robbie Burns in the late 1700’s. These Scots became involved in the Tobacco trade in the Southern US, and ran the great plantations of the Caribbean such as the sugar industry Jamaica. Scots also had a powerful position in the early days of the Republic as architects of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
I’ve stolen a lot of this information from a fascinating article in the ‘Irish Echo’ online newspaper a publication for Americans based in New York. Author Karen McCarthy places Hank Williams in the Ulster Scot stream of immigrants to America who settled largely in the south. Indeed the North South split can be traced back to Protestant Ulster Irish Scots settling the South while English Puritan stock and late Irish and European Catholics settled the north.
McCarthy cites Hank Williams as very typical of the Ulster Scot mentality, isolated from the south In Northern Ireland, separated from their native Scotland and then isolated once again in the American South after the Civil War. Ulster Scots in the South were, she says, clannish and inward looking and families didn’t move far from their roots through the generations. She identifies these roots as they influenced an artist such as Hank Williams:
Through centuries of hard work, harsh conditions, poverty, and war, the Scots Irish maintained their love of music and storytelling. People in the South still talk about Hank Williams, a country music legend who embodied the Scots-Irish contradiction: a poet that could move people to tears with his sincerity, yet terrify them with his violent self-destructive streak.
I haven’t personally researched Hank’s family history, but I am sure many of you have. If there are corrections needed to the Irish Echo article or my post, please add to the discussion in the comments section below.
Update: Karen McCarthy’s book ‘The Other Irish: The Scots Irish Rascals who made America’ was published in 2011. It is available from Amazon. Here’s a brief description from the Amazon website:
What do Mark Twain, Neil Armstrong, and John McCain have in common? They’re all descendants of a merry group of Scots-Irish braggarts that crossed the Atlantic from Ireland in the early 1700s and settled in America’s South. Also known as the “Other Irish,” this wild bunch of patriotic, rebellious, fervently religious rascals gave us the NRA, at least fourteen presidents, decisive victories in the Revolutionary War, a third of today’s US Military, country music, Star Wars, the Munchkins, American-style Democracy, and even the religious right . . . not to mention NASCAR, whose roots go back to Prohibition-era moonshine runners. Yet few Americans are familiar with the Other Irish or their contributions to American culture. Now author and documentary filmmaker Karen McCarthy shines a probing light on this fascinating topic, illuminating the extent to which the Scots-Irish helped weave the fabric of our nation.