The Rebel Yell *

Michael McClain

Posted Mar 7, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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The Rebel Yell

by Michael McClain

One Southern cultural trait which quite literally “calls attention to itself” is the famous “Rebel Yell”. Though mostly associated with the Southern War of Independence, in fact there is plenty of evidence that it long antedates said conflict, and it survives to this day. Its origins are little studied.

It is often assumed that the Rebel Yell derives from and Amerindian war whoop. There is likely some truth to this; the Rebel Yell often begins with a rapid “yip-yip-yip” which does indeed recall an Amerindian war whoop. The yell is not a whoop at all, but rather has an eerie, keening quality which could not by any stretch of the imagination be defined as a “whoop”. So, the Amerindian element, if any, in the Rebel Yell is minor and does not affect its essential quality. One must look elsewhere for its origins.

The Roman legionnaires often referred to the eerie, blood-chilling quality of the Celtic war cry, the last sound heard by so many thousands of them. Much later the English heard the same war cry at Stirling Bridge, Bannockburn, Iverlochy, Prestonpans and a host of other battlefields, reacting much as had the Roman legionnaires. During the French Revolution the Royalists of Brittany and La Vendee were called “Chouans” (night birds) because of their eerie Celtic war cries as they attacked the godless, savage revolutionaries.

The Northwest comer of Spain, comprising the regions of Galicia, Asturias and Santander, was relatively little affected by Romanization, and virtually untouched by the Muslim occupation. The persistent Celtism of this vast area is obvious to even the most superficial observer. Like the Roman Legionnaires many centuries before, the splendid soldiers of Napoleons’s Grande Arrnee felt their blood run cold when they heard the eerie Celtic war cry of this part of Spain, a part of Spain which they were never able to subdue.  Here indeed in this lovely green corner of Spain the Celtic war cry survives to this day. One may yet hear this Celtic war cry, particularly on St.John’s Eve, a holiday of Druid origin, though long given a Christian name. This cry, called by the very Iranian-sounding name “Aturuxo” (pronounced “Aturusho”), which seems to refer to sacred fires, is indeed eerie and blood-chilling. It begins in a low pitch, rises to a high keening, and rapidly drops off. It is usually transcribed “eeee-hoo-hooohoooo”. A Southerner present on St. John’s Eve in Galicia or Asturias almost thinks he is hearing a Rebel Yell. Almost,  but not quite. Something is missing.

Those who have seen the great movie “Lawrence of Arabia” or newsreels of the liberation of Kuwait in the Gulf War have heard the Arab “ululation”, which also bears more than a slight resemblance to the Rebel Yell, though its pitch barely rises or falls, and it lacks the eerie quality of the Celtic war cry and the Rebel Yell. Now we are getting somewhere. The Celtic war cry is virtually unarticulated, i.e., the tongue, teeth and lips play almost no part. Even the transcribed “H” represents a pure, unarticulated aspiration. The Rebel Yell rises and falls in pitch exactly like the Celtic war cry, but is articulated, i.e., the tongue, teeth and lips do playa role though less so than is true in the case of the Arab undulation. Here, finally, we have the Rebel Yell, basically a Celtic war cry, with a potent admixture of Arab ululation, and perhaps, a bit of Amerindian “yip-yip-yip” at the very beginning.

The Celtic element in the Rebel Yell is easily explained; among the early white settlers of the Old South were many from Ireland, the Scottish Highlands, Wales, Brittany and Northwestern Spain. The Arab element requires a bit more explanation. In the May - June 1993 issue of the Islamic Journal IQRA appeared an essay of mine titled:  “Maruca Pioneers if The Old South”.  First we must define a few terms.

“Hispano-Muslim culture was a combination of Celtic, Roman and Visigothic elements indigenous to Spain with Arab - more precisely Syrian - and Persian elements which entered with Islam. “Mudejares” were Hispano-Muslims who were subjects of the Christian kings of Castile and Aragon. After 1500, the Mudejares where obligated to become at least nominal Christians, and became known as “Moriscos”. Though some were sincere Catholics, the large majority of Moriscos were clandestine Muslims. Moriscos lived in all Spain except the Northwest. In most areas the Moriscos were a minority, but in the lower valley of the Ebro, in Valencia and in what before 1492 had been the Muslim Kingdom of Granada they were densely concentrated, a majority in many places. Murica, between Granada and Valencia, also had a large Morisco population.

Though Arabic was still spoken in what had been the Kingdom of Granada, Moriscos of the Lower Ebro and Valencia spoke Catalan or its variant, Valenciano, while the Moriscos of the rest of Spain spoke Castilian or “Spanish”. Castellan is a Romance language, but quite different from Spanish, being more like Provencal or “Langue d’Oc”. Most, though by no means all, of the unassimilated Moriscos were expelled from Spain in 1610. Thus, the Moriscos were active participants in the first stages of the Spanish colonization of the New World.

The early Spanish colonization of what is now the Southeastern USA was nearly forgotten for a long time, but recently is once more being studied. Here indeed is the explanation for the notorious affinity between Spain and the Old South. If one is looking for elements which made the South radically different from the North in the very beginning, here is one of them.

It appears that most of the Spanish colonists in what is now the Southeastern USA were from Catalunya, Valencia and the Balearic Islands. Catalan and Valenciano surnames (the Balearic Islands are also Catalan speaking) are very abundant in much of the Deep South. It is well to remember that most Catalan and Valenciano surnames do not appear to be Spanish, but rather French, Italian or even German or Anglo-Saxon; only someone thoroughly familiar with Spain would recognize them as being Spanish at all. Catalan, Valenciano and Murcian elements are visible in the cuisine and handicrafts of much of the Deep South.

Specifically Morisco elements are also quite visible in the Deep South. Rice cultivation appears at a very early date in the history of the Deep South. Rice cultivation was introduced in Spain in Muslim times, and became important in Valencia, where it became the basis of the cuisine, as it still is. However, rice cultivation did not spread to the rest of Spain, and it is only very recently that the eating of rice has become common in most of Spain. In the 16th, 17th and even 18th centuries the Moriscos of Valencia were the only Europeans indeed, the only non-Asians - who were experts in the cultivation of rice. In 1610, many Moriscos of Valencia were allowed to remain because they were the only experts in rice cultivation. Today in Valencia their known descendants are still called “Mudejares”.

Particularly in the coastal areas of the Deep South the architecture often has not only a Spanish look, but even a distinct Morisco flavor. This is most evident in the older parts of Charleston, Savannah and a few other places. This Morisco flavor goes beyond mere outward appearances. the type of construction called “tabby” in the Deep South was quite common in Muslim Spain, though due to differences in soil and climate, in the Deep South tabby construction uses less earth and more oyster shell than is the case in Spain. The word “tabby” is definitely an Arabism; the Arabic root “TAB” appears in many words relating to building and construction. Building was a typical trade of the Mudejares and Moriscos.

The women of Valencia are known for their perfect features, large, luminous eyes (whether blue, green or brown) and rosy cheeks. Many consider them to be the most beautiful women in Spain, which is saying a very great deal indeed. As a Spanish song says:

Valencia! Your women all have the color of the rose.
Valencia! In the land of Valencia you will find your love.

How much of their renowned beauty do southern Belles owe to Valenciano ancestors?

Some say that the tunes of certain Southern songs, such as “Salangadou”, are Hispano-Muslim, though their words are now Creole French or English. This is a somewhat nebulous area.

Arab cultural elements of the Hispano-Muslim ancestors of the Moriscos may well have included ululation, though as one might expect written sources have little or nothing to say about this. So, we are left with two possibilities, keeping in mind that one does not preclude the other, that there may be some truth to both:

1.) In Southern and/or Central Spain during the Middle Ages the Celtic war cry indigenous to Spain combined with the ululation brought by Arab immigrants from the Middle East, producing the “Rebel Yell” used by both Muslims and Christians. Later this “Rebel yell” died out in Spain itself, but first was carried to the Deep South where it was preserved. Or:

2.) Due to the mixture of colonists from many countries, in the Old South the Celtic war cry encountered and combined with the Arab ululation.

Thus, the Rebel Yell is another example of how non-WASP is the South, how radically different from the North. Lets all give a heart-felt Rebel Yell.

Originally published in the Fall-Winter 1994 print edition of The American Muslim.