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Read the full Piping Today page here
You’re the reason our kids are ugly
T
he Highland bagpipe can create
some of the most rhythmically
amazing music imaginable. A wellpractised set of mitts can rattle off near
endless streams of reels, jigs, strathspeys
and hornpipes.
Highland dancers would be lost if not struck
dead still without a piper’s tunes. The undulating groove inherent in any good-going reel has
the power to move even the most rigid and
uncompromising of feet. Dancing can reveal all
the mystery that music conceals, wrote French
poet, Charles Baudelaire. And on that, like drum
and stick, wind and waves, bed and breakfast,
music and dance are inextricably linked.
And yet, when we think of the piper, the
creator of these mellifluous dance-inciting
rhythmic explosions, we seldom think of dance,
or movement of any kind, for that matter. The
rare example of World Champion Highland
dancer-cum-nifty-fingered piper, David Wilton
aside, pipers are a pretty “physically serene” lot.
In fact, things don’t always go all that well
for the competitive piper who opts to play
and “move”, you know, groove to one’s own
stylings. To show a physical acknowledgement
of those self-made rhythmic explosions: not
good. Should a piper regularly bob a little to
his strathspey, a nickname like, say, “Bobby”
will invariably follow. A habit of nodding at
phrase endings? Yep. You’re Noddy. Performing
pipers may quietly tap their foot – but that’s it.
I recall John Wilson (Toronto/Edinburgh)
talking of Angus MacPherson’s son, the great
player, Malcolm R MacPherson. “When he
marched he looked like a monkey and so he
was known as the monkey piper.” Nice crowd.
I don’t know if there was more to it than just his
marching technique but it’s still true today that
a steady bearing and cool physical demeanour
are markers of most accomplished pipers.
And this truth got me to thinking about
tune titles. Pipers have an interesting tradition
of titling the music we create. Generally speaking, names of tunes are all nouny all the time:
persons, places and things make up a massive
swathe of our named repertoire. In line with
our predisposition when performing to keep
Jaggery struts and Jacksonesque moonwalks –
and displays of emotion – on the down low, we
don’t seem to show much effusiveness in our
PAGE 46
naming convention. Jim Mackay’s Welcome to
His Mother’s Farewell to His Chanter might sit
as an example of a tune title (at the moment
without tune) that covers off a few elements of
pipe tune naming convention. In this example
the highly commemorative and proper noun
naming element is covered off. People and
events – especially comings and goings – are
historically the go-to subjects when anointing
a pipe tune. No news there.
When possible and when we’re able, pipers,
too, seem to like to throw in a twist of mystery
or word play when tune christening. In the “Jim
Mackay” line there’s a slightly confusing mix of
nouns and pronouns and an object thrown in
for good measure. It’s a story. What did Jim’s
mother do to his chanter? What’s that about? I
think it’s all part of the puckish persona imbued
throughout the piping world. MacLeod’s Flett
from Flotta and Whatever Moreover, Morrison’s
Donald, Willie and His Dog and the tantalisingly
named traditional tune, The Night we had the
Goats (one can only hope no laws were broken)
might stand as examples of word play and a
playful approach to marking a tune in language.
There are hundreds of others. The cleverness
inherent in the pibroch title His Father’s Lament
for Donald Mackenzie is almost on a par with
Ernest Hemingway’s famous “world’s shortest
novel”, his six words: For sale. Baby Shoes. Never
worn. The repertoire of pipe music has many
such examples of considered wit. Maybe these
efforts at clever titling somehow compensate
for the piper’s lack of performance movement:
“maybe I can’t perform and dance like James
Brown but I can make good tune titles”. Yes, a
bit of stretch. Agreed.
Dr Robert Pekaar is an American who spent a
lot of time creating an encyclopaedia of bagpipe
tunes. I can’t imagine the amount of mindnumbing effort the project took but I’m glad
he did. His work is available free online and
it is there where a few equally mind-numbing
data points surfaced. There are no fewer than
666 tunes with the word “welcome” in the title
and 1107 with “farewell” (the piper is possibly
happiest when company leaves). With 680
“salutes” and 1155 “laments”, tune names
contrast with a comparatively small count for
the more gushier abstract nouns: “love” comes
in at a 288 count and “fancy”, 137.
PIPING TODAY ISSUE 80 • 2016
It’s interesting to compare pop music naming
convention. It changes all the time, of course,
but safe to say the ratio of loves to laments
rises mightily. Prooffreader.com recently analysed “the most decade-specific words in pop
song titles, 1894-2010”. Why I cannot say
but known now is that “we” and “you” often
turned up in every decade’s list. 2010s words
included “hell”, “f**k” and “die” (and knowing
this makes me feel better as a frequent pipetune-titler). “Love”, “dancin”, “breathe” and
“baby” surfaced a lot over the last 50 years and
through the 1890s and first decade of the 20th
century “Uncle” featured at the very top of pop
song titles. Imagine. Pipers who make tunes
don’t show their Uncles much love. There only
four examples in Pekaar’s encyclopaedia where
“Uncle” is featured, including one for poor
Uncle Dubber. I hope Dubber wasn’t a typo.
So while pipers don’t generally wear our
hearts on our sleeves – or in our tune titles –
and that’s not to say we can’t or don’t. There’s
no doubt we do put our heart into the playing,
and the naming of the tunes we make. To have
a tune made and named in your honour is a
pretty sweet thing.
The titling of pipe music is not representative
of some kind of endemic emotional stuntedness characteristic of Highland pipers. There’s
no doubt religion and circumstance and God
knows what else played parts in the development of the parameters we most often abide by
when naming the music of the Great Highland
Bagpipe. We may not be cut from the cloth
of those that make music with titles like Justin
Bieber’s Love Yourself or Loretta Lynn’s You’re
The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly, but our music
and the conventions associated with it, including those of the naming kind, hold intense and
deep emotion.
Consider Donald MacLean of Lewis, Mrs
John MacColl”, Dream Valley of Glendaruel
and Inveran; the people and places that were
attached to these great musical scores were
clearly loved beyond words by the composer.
The rhythms and melody of each composition
state that much clearer than any 10-a-penny
mainstream music title.
None of this solves my dancing thing but
Hello, it’s All about that Bass and I have pipes
to keep me occupied. l
Photo: John [email protected]
GREY’S NOTES
rey’s
Notes
G by Michael Grey

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