A Gaelic Bluegrass

Formed by Crockett Ward, the Ballard Branch Bogtrotters are, by their appearances alone, precisely the sort of people a record company of the mid 20th century would market as Bluegrass musicians. They are shown playing stringed instruments, including the emblematic banjo and fiddle, Crockett (front and center) is in a farmer’s coveralls, they are in an ensemble (including family–with Crockett’s brother, Wade, on banjo, and Fields Wade on guitar), and all are white.

[Members of the Bog Trotters Band, posed holding their instruments, Galax, Va. Back row: Uncle Alex Dunford, fiddle; Fields Ward, guitar; Wade Ward, banjo. Front row: Crockett Ward, fiddle; Doc Davis, autoharp]

Found in the Lomax Collection of the Library of Congress

Yet, when the group is viewed through the speech Rhiannon Giddens gave at the 2017 IBMA conference (linked here), Bluegrass is not comprised merely by these attributes. However, I would like to spend a moment to reflect on the Scots-Irish influences Giddens is–rightfully, mind–pushing back on. While these cultural roots certainly don’t tell the whole story, there may be insights hidden beneath the simplistic veneer of “Bluegrass-as-white” which so frustrates Giddens.1

The Gaelic roots which inform this group are apparent in two places. The surname of three of the members of the band, Ward, has origins in that culture (ancestry.com). Perhaps more interestingly, “bog-trotting” has distinct Irish connotations which add more detail to the study of Bluegrass. Contemporary bands have taken up the name, including the Galax Bogtrotters.

A depiction of peasant bogtrotters, including some falling into the bog

Found at the British Museum website

“Bogtrotter,” according to Merriam-Webster, is a usually disparaging term used to refer to a “native or resident of Ireland.” Somewhat defensively, the Irish Times reports that the term unfairly implies a lack of knowledge; to the contrary, they say, the very real act of bog-trotting is strenuous and filled with potential missteps.2


This presents a charming portrait of the self-debasement alongside showy technical skill typical of American country music, and clearly involves the Gaelic culture in Bluegrass. But which culture can claim possession of the band? As I pointed out in my last post, it may not be so simple. The Bogtrotters certainly fit in the mold crafted by record companies named “Bluegrass,” they come from the Appalachian region where “Old Time” sound is said to have originated, and they probably have Gaelic ethnicity. Reality is, here as always, more complicated than the categories we use to make sense of it. It seems to me that the Bogtrotters are just as much a Gaelic band playing non-Gaelic Bluegrass as they are proof that Gaelic culture plays some role in Bluegrass, yet another case study in the interdependence of musical expression.


1     Povelones, Robert. 2018. “Rhiannon Giddens Keynote Address – IBMA Business Conference 2017.” International Bluegrass Music Association. https://ibma.org/rhiannon-giddens-keynote-address-2017/

2     2000. “Bog Trotters.” The Irish Times. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/bog-trotters-1.283938

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