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?
You could always combine your love of bagpipes with your expertise on the unicycle like the Unipiper: https://youtu.be/xIW3-zjDmK8
….but when there’s competition: https://youtu.be/BO_h7F6BBsE , notice who got the tips!
The unipiper is one of my heroes — combining two of the things I want to do into a single combines activity — and adding the flames coming out of the bagpipes… Genius!
If you are into drums and percussion- have you ever heard of the Kodo Drummers. Here is one example-
And there is the show “Stomp”
and the BlueMan Group
I’ve never been fortunate enough to see the Kodo Drummers in the flesh — but I saw something very similar in South Korea, and it was amazing to be in the think of it. I’ve also seen the Blue Man Group, but not this particular performance — I have to say that this is amazing!!!
I also came up with this YouTube show on the “The most unusual musical instruments of the world!‘. Also has a version of the balloon bagpipes.
This “Bizarre Instruments” video has a couple of good ones — I particularly like the one at the beginning, but my favorite is the one that starts around the 6:35 mark: https://youtu.be/97f_Fpu_kR0
There is a blog “The Wacky World of Weird and Wonderful Musical Instruments”- the author’s name sounds familiar…https://www.eeweb.com/the-wacky-world-of-weird-and-wonderful-musical-instruments/
I remember that column — I didn’t know how many instruments I’d never heard of that I wanted until I read this column — the one instrument i would REALLY love to own is a Glass Armonica, which was originally invented by Benjamin Franklin.
I just got off the phone with my mom, who reminded me that my dad was in the Reconnaissance Unit of the 15th Scottish Infantry Division, also known as the 15th Scottish Highlanders (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/15th_(Scottish)_Infantry_Division).
Dad used to be a dancer on the variety hall stage before the war (see https://www.clivemaxfield.com/the-times-they-are-a-changin-part-3/). Mom says that when he was with the division, they used to like for him to perform Scottish sword dances on the table while they were playing the bagpipes and that he got a lot of free beers that way (that’s my dad!).
She also says that dad told her that, “Every time we went into battle, the pipes were played continuously for the 24 hours preceding the battle — after that you’d fight anybody!”
If that’s the effect it had on my dad, I wonder what effect it had on the other side?
As a piper myself I can pass along the easiest way to make money as a piper: busk on a street corner with a sign “Will stop playing for money.”
It is interesting the range of music and emotions that can come from an instrument that has one volume (extra loud) and no ability to add pauses or rests. It is full on or off. It is the mark of a great piper to be able to create nuances with an instrument that has no innate nuance capability.
As for those poser English pipes, I guess they are ok if you can’t learn the real instrument. Think of them as training wheels. As in battle, it would take a great many English pipes to overpower just one Scottish pipe. ?
Tom, Tom, Tom — it’s not the size of your bagpipes that’s important — it’s what you do with them that counts LOL
I’ve certainly heard that expression, applied to others, of course (ahem). The GHB is like one of those lesser instruments on ‘roids. Size matters! It fits right in with our supersize American culture. On a loudness scale it fits between “rock music concert” and “jet engine at takeoff 100 feet away.” It is however, more quiet than the cannons used in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture. I’m OK with that.
Now you mention it, I’m wondering why Tchaikovsky didn’t think to add a few bagpipes to beef up the exciting bits” LOL
Sadly (for them) many “real” musicians and composers are unwilling to acknowledge that the GHB is actually a musical instrument. I suspect it is simple jealousy since none of their puny instruments can be heard when the GHB is fired up.
Maybe that’s why Tchaikovsky added all the cannons in the 1812 — he was planning on having some bagpipes and he needed something to accompany them … but then something else came up and he forgot to put the call out for some bagpipe players — either that, or the bagpipe players were the first against the wall when the revolution came so he couldn’t find any, but then he forgot to take the cannons out.
More likely the cannons were there to keep the pipers at a fair distance. I suspect the multiple cannon shots in the symphony were due to the fact that pipers tend to march about when playing, i.e. not stationary targets.
The fact pipers walk around so as to not present a stationary target may well be a case of evolution in action — the ones in the past who stood still are no longer with us.
I’ve long thought that bagpipers were more highly evolved. Along with bald people who are farther removed from our fully hirsute ancestors. Balding pipers are perhaps the most fully evolved among us.
Its funny — a lot of people have long thought that bagpipers were psychotic — I wounder if this would have any bearing on your own theories.
I’m perfectly nn…Nnn…Normal!
My mother always used to tell me I was “special” — and I foolishly took that to be a complement — my dad used to tell me that I was beautiful when I was asleep — and I thought that was a complement also — it was only when I was much older that I thought “hang on, wait a minute…”