Tag Archives: bagpipes

Beginnings, Endings, Good Things

Bob McMichael on the bagpipes at a Boise wedding

Piping in the bride

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been fortunate to be a part of some special moments of strangers. I played for a small wedding at a lovely home in the Boise foothills. Surrounded by a small group of family and friends, the young bride and groom held hands and never severed their beatific eye contact during the ceremony. Their love for each other was palpable and moving to witness. After returning from her honeymoon, the bride emailed me the photo to the left with the following note:

Bob,

Thank YOU more like!! It was just so memorable…It was everything I wanted it to be. It truly was the best day of my life and it would not have felt the same without your amazing talent. 🙂

Thank you a million times over…

Idaho Veterans Cemetery, Boise

Idaho Veterans Cemetery, Boise

On Friday I played for a military funeral at the Veteran’s Cemetery in Boise. The deceased was an 83-year-old woman, a veteran, probably of WWII. While I feel privileged to play a small part in ceremonies, rarely is my curiosity about those involved satisfied. And I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to inquire. Sometimes the funeral director will offer information about the departed or their family. In this case, the attendees numbered only 12, the smallest funeral I’ve played for or attended. But the visible grief I saw – especially from the woman who received the flag; perhaps the daughter? – moved me to tears as I played “Amazing Grace” while watching them dab at their eyes and cheeks with white handkerchiefs. I usually just play and leave, but after having listened to what might have been the brother deliver a short eulogy in fits and starts of sobbing, and watching the family attend to each other, I wanted to express my condolences. They thanked me profusely. I won’t forget this one.

Bagpiper Municipal Park Boise

Bagpiping in Municipal Park, Boise

The day after the funeral I was hired to play at a one-year-old’s birthday. I’ve played for other birthday parties, but never for someone this young, and didn’t know what to expect. On a gorgeous summer evening, at the Municipal Park in Boise, right along the river, under a canopy of massive silver maples, a group of over 100 people gathered for what turned out to be a rather elaborate luau in honor of this child. It was the most diverse group of people I’ve seen since moving to Boise 11 years ago. The host (grandfather) was Samoan, and was doing a sound check on his PA system with his koa guitar and ukelele as I arrived. I asked him why a bagpiper at a luau, and he explained that they wanted to celebrate all the backgrounds of his grandson: the Polynesian music (he lamented that his relatives in Salt Lake were unable to make it; they were planning to do a Samoan knife dance), some other European influences, and the Scottish side. I played for half an hour as people arrived and the food began appearing (a mouth-watering spread!), and then finished by leading the whole group in “Happy Birthday” while the birthday boy beamed in his beautiful mother’s arms.

Afterward, while walking back to my truck, hearing the Samoan grandfather singing (an excellent musician), someone behind me called out, “Hey piper!” It was one of the child’s grandfathers, the Scottish side. He asked what my tartan clan was (it’s Stewart of Appin), and we chatted a bit. He thanked me for playing. I felt, for the third time in the past couple weeks, while wearing my kilt, very fortunate to witness and contribute to such positive events. You might think that a funeral shouldn’t be included as a good thing, but it is. You can’t live forever. It is good people want to see you off. It’s not having a funeral that is a bad thing.

Meanwhile, I’m working on a better set of music for the boy’s second birthday. If his first was any measure, the second will be huge.


Almost Heaven

“A Lewis person will be homesick in heaven.” From Around the Peat Fire.

On the stunningly bright, crisp morning of August 21, 2004 Leslie and I walked into a black house at the Na Garrannan village on the Isle of Lewis in the outer Hebrides of Scotland. Competing with the enveloping smells of a smoldering peat fire, brewing tea, and hay from the byre next door, and the sights of a cramped but efficiently organized living space with a surprising amount of natural light was the sound of Gaelic psalms undulating out of the little CD player on a tiny table in the corner like the swells of sea water rushing unobstructed from the cold North Atlantic just meters away. This sound, a Presbyterian church full of Scots responding to the precentor’s lining out of Gaelic scripture praising the glory of God, enveloped me more profoundly than the peat smoke did.

It also sounded strangely familiar to a recording I’d gotten during grad school of a black congregation at Clear Creek, Mississippi, a recording made by an Irish ethnomusicologist named Therese Smith whom I studied with at Brown. The feeling I got hearing the Gaelic psalms in that black house transported me to the ecstatic moment I first heard the Clear Creek recording. If you’ve heard the Delta blues of Robert Johnson or Bukka White you’ve heard the sonic progeny of this sacred singing. “Free Heterophony” is what the musicologists would call it. And the irony of that description would not be lost on the Clear Creek folks or the Presbyterian Scots, many of whom fled Scotland during the Highland Clearances and ended up in the deep American South.

According to the notes on the Scottish recording, the primary musical influence for this singing style is piobaireachd. I have tended to come to many precious things backward. This is another example. I started my musical journey in life with the Beatles, a British group heavily influenced by the blues but intent on camouflaging and re-purposing that influence (unlike many of their subsequently famous countrymen like Clapton and Jagger). I heard Coltrane before Robert Johnson, and Jaco Pastorius before Jimi Hendrix. But I did hear Beethoven’s Opus 111 (his last piano sonata), which features a section that Scott Joplin absolutely must have known intimately, before ragtime, so that was maybe the chronological exception in my musical trajectory that proves the rule.

What I’m getting at is the joy of finding the precedent links between my sonic milestones. For reasons I still don’t understand and have learned not to care much about anymore, I became obsessed with African American music and its creators’ social, historical, and cultural “situations” when I was a teenager. I carried that interest through college and graduate school, wrote a book about white people who loved jazz and what black musicians thought of them, and then quit that business and moved to the very silly, right-wing state of Idaho (which I love despite its tragic flaws), and took up the bagpipes.

This was not a planned self-discovery mission, just chance with a little intention and a bushel of irony thrown in. But in learning the bagpipes, I have come to find I’m most interested in piobaireachd because – for me – its sound completely eliminates any sense of physical being, just as the psalms I heard on the recording in the black house and from the Clear Creek recording, and from Robert Johnson, Coltrane, Hendrix, and untold other existing and future sound artifacts to which I’m genetically (or not; who cares?) predisposed to respond with what Barthes refers to as “jouissance,” the blissful yet momentary destruction of self in response to sensual stimuli. Maybe this is a way to practice for a body-less afterlife… If that’s what heaven is then this stuff is heaven on earth.

I wonder if the Lewis people who are homesick in heaven ever heard those psalms, or piobaireachd, or Beethoven or Robert Johnson?

 


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