It’s said that one definition of a gentleman is someone who knows how to play the bagpipes… but doesn’t. I feel this is a tad unfair because I enjoy the skirl (a.k.a. the shrill mournful wail) of the pipes myself, although it has to be acknowledged that the uninitiated oftentimes feel the sound improves with distance.
You might ask, “Why do so many people cry when they hear the bagpipes?” Well, a lot depends on who is playing them. I’m reasonably confident that if I picked up a set for the first time, I could bring most people to tears and/or to their knees. More generally speaking, however, the ability of the pipes to turn on the waterworks is due to their long, drawn-out notes, the plaintive sound of the drone, and the fact that we typically associate their playing with some sad or nostalgic occasion, such as (a) a funeral or (b) someone playing the bagpipes.
Of course, there are many different types of pipes. Most people’s knee jerk reaction is to think of the Great Highland (Scottish) bagpipes, but there are also the Uilleann (Irish) bagpipes and the Northumbrian (English) bagpipes. In fact, bagpipes are mentioned in English literature as early as The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, which was written between the 1380s and 1390s, where the lines in question read as follows:
A baggepype wel coude he blowe and sowne,
And ther-with-al he broghte us out of towne.
I don’t believe that any of us could find it in our hearts to disagree with these sentiments. In fact, it seems that bagpipes — which were traditionally made from the skin of a whole animal (often an unfortunate sheep) turned inside out with the pipes placed where the neck and the legs once were — spontaneously combusted sprang into existence all over the world, as is reflected by this list of different bagpipes.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers. The joyful pounding of the drums combined with the raucous rendering of the pipes makes me want to leap to my feet and… eat a bacon sandwich.
Speaking of drums, I just saw a really good video of a rousing drum corps and an interesting video of a young man playing a banjo (the latter has nothing to do with the drums, but it deserves to be seen nonetheless). I was also drawn to an unexpected video of a percussion ensemble, and I always have a soft spot for the Animusic drum machine.
But I fear we have wandered off into the weeds. I must admit that I’ve oftentimes toyed with the idea of learning to play the English bagpipes, which are self-evidently superior to any other kind (even the ones that stick the word “Great” in front of their name). I haven’t informed my wife (Gina the Gorgeous) as to my ambition — I thought I’d hold it back as a happy surprise to brighten her day if she’s ever feeling sad and needs something to cheer her up.
The reason for my wafflings here is that my chum, Rick Curl, just sent me an email with the subject line “Can’t Afford Bagpipes? All Is Not Lost!” The body of the email consisted of a link to a video of a pioneering young musician playing a set of homemade bagpipes comprising plastic tube, PVC pipe, and a yellow rubber glove.
To be honest, this isn’t half bad. I’ve certainly heard much worse and — should I ever get to play any form of bagpipes for you — you will be able to say the same thing (that is, you will be able to say that you’ve heard much worse than anything else you’ve heard on the bagpipe front).
Once again, this has stirred my bagpipe playing juices and set them to sloshing around. Once again, I’m sorely tempted to invest in an Electronic Bagpipe Chanter, such as one of the little beauties from the folks at DegerPipes. And, once again, the only thing that’s holding me back is lack of funds (sad face).
But turn that frown upside down into a smile, because I just saw Abba the Last Video, which brought a little smile to my face (watch for Cher in the audience).
I’ll leave you with one final thought. I just discovered that it’s possible to purchase such a thing as an Electronic Bagpipe Tuner. What an awesome idea. Can you imagine the horror of a world that didn’t have such a technology? So, why, oh why don’t the people who play bagpipes use these devices? Alternatively, if they do, then what on earth does an untuned set of bagpipes sound like?