Today is World Poetry Day. It is a day first declared by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 1999 and its purpose is to promote the reading, writing, publishing and teaching of poetry throughout the world. It was formerly marked in October but was moved to today because it is the birthday of Virgil, the Roman epic poet and poet laureate under Augustus, the first Roman emperor. [Bet you didn’t expect to be reading all this when you checked in here for your daily diet of all things piping! – Editor].
As pipers, we are well aware of the poetic nature of many of our tunes (and of the downright explicit nature of some of the classic pibrochs of the pre-18th century heyday).
Today, though, we wish to mark World Poetry Day with an abridged version of a poem with an international flavour, Robert Service’s The Ballad of How MacPherson Held The Floor. It’s taken from the July 2008 Piping Times. The poem rambles on a bit but there are some priceless lines and anyone who can come up with anything remotely as good as “… a wild and wastrel loon, Who spends his nights in glory, playing pibrochs to the moon” deserves our praise.
Robert Service (1874-1958) was a British-Canadian poet and writer. Born in Lancashire of Scottish descent (his father was from Kilwinning in Ayrshire), he was educated as a boy at Hillhead High School, just around the corner from the National Piping Centre Otago Street (the former College of Piping). In adulthood he became a bank clerk, but spent long periods travelling in western America and Canada, often in some poverty, writing poetry. He is often dubbed “the Bard of the Yukon” and when his collections became successful he based himself in Paris, Brittany and the French Riviera as well as, for a period, in California. And why not?
At least three Canadian schools have been named in his honour: one in Anchorage, Alaska, one in Toronto, Ontario and one in Dawson City, Yukon.
Service preferred to class his works as verse rather than poetry. Here, then, is The Ballad of How MacPherson Held The Floor:
The Ballad of How MacPherson Held The Floor
Said President MacConnachie to Treasurer MacCall:
“We ought to have a piper for our next Saint Andrew’s Ball.
Yon squakin’ saxophone gives me the syncopated gripes.
I’m sick of jazz, I want to hear the skirling of the pipes.”
“Alas! it’s true,” said Tam MacCall. “The young folk of today
Are foxtrot mad and dinna ken a reel from Strathspey.
Now, what we want’ a kiltie lad, primed up wi’ mountain dew,
To strut the floor at supper time, and play a lilt or two.
In all the North there’s only one; of him I’ve heard them speak:
His name is Jock MacPherson, and he lives on Boulder Creek;
An old-time hard-rock miner, and a wild and wastrel loon,
Who spends his nights in glory, playing pibrochs to the moon.
I’ll seek him out; beyond a doubt on next Saint Andrew’s night
We’ll proudly hear the pipes to cheer and charm our appetite.
Oh lads were neat and lassies sweet who graced Saint Andrew’s Ball;
But there was none so full of fun as Treasurer MacCall.
Then gleefully he seemed to steal, and sought the Nugget Bar,
Wherein there sat a tartaned chiel, as lonely as a star;
A huge and hairy Highlandman as hearty as a breeze,
A glass of whisky in his hand, his bagpipes on his knees.
“Drink down your deoch an doaris, Jock,” cried Treasurer MacCall;
“The time is ripe to up and pipe; they wait you in the hall.
Play on and on for all you’re worth; you’ll shame us if you stop.
Remember you’re of Scottish birth — keep piping till you drop.
Aye, though a bunch of Willie boys should bluster and implore,
For the glory of the Highlands, lad, you’ve got to hold the floor.”
The dancers were at supper, and the tables groaned with cheer,
When President MacConnachie exclaimed: “What do I hear?
Methinks it’ like a chanter, and its coming from the hall.”
“It’s Jock MacPherson tuning up,” cried Treasurer MacCall.
Full six foot four he strode the floor, a grizzled son of Skye,
With glory in his whiskers and with whisky in his eye.
But the dancers seemed uncertain, and they signified their doubt,
By dashing back to eat as fast as they had darted out.
And someone raised the question ‘twixt the coffee and the cakes:
“Does the Piper walk to get away from all the noise he makes?”
Then reinforced with fancy food they slowly trickled forth,
And watching in patronizing mood the Piper of the North.
Maloney’s Irish melodists were sitting in their place,
And as Maloney waited, there was wonder in his face.
“Twas sure the gorgeous music — Golly! wouldn’t it be grand
If he could get MacPherson as a member of his band?
But the dancers moped and mumbled, as around the room they sat:
“We paid to dance,” they grumbled; “But we cannot dance to that.
Of course we’re not denying that it’s really splendid stuff;
But it’s mighty satisfying — don’t you think we’ve had enough?”
And so MacPherson stalked the floor, and fast the moments flew,
Till half an hour went past, as irritation grew and grew.
Then the dancers held a council, and with faces fiercely set,
They hailed Maloney, heading his Hibernian Quartette:
“It’s long enough, we’ve waited. Come on, Mike, play up the Blues.”
And Maloney hesitated, but he didn’t dare refuse.
So banjo and piano, and guitar and saxophone
Contended with the shrilling of the chanter and the drone;
And the women’s ears were muffled, so infernal was the din,
But MacPherson was unruffled, for he knew that he would win.
Then two bright boys jazzed round him, and they sought to play the clown,
But MacPherson jolted sideways, and the Sassenachs went down.
And as if it was a signal, with a wild and angry roar,
The gates of wrath were riven — yet MacPherson held the floor.
Aye, amid the rising tumult, still he strode with head on high,
With ribbands gaily streaming, yet with battle in his eye.
Amid the storm that gathered, still he stalked with Highland pride,
While President and Treasurer sprang bravely to his side.
And with ire and indignation that was glorious to see,
Around him in a body ringed the Scottish Commy-tee.
Their teeth were clenched with fury; their eyes with anger blazed:
“Ye manna touch the Piper,” was the slogan that they raised.
Then blows were struck, and men went down; yet ‘mid the rising fray
MacPherson towered in triumph — and he never ceased to play.
Alas! his faithful followers were but a gallant few,
And faced defeat, although they fought with all the skill they knew.
Maloney watched the battle, and his brows were bleakly set,
While with him paused and panted his Hibernian Quartette.
For sure it is an evil spite, and breaking to the heart,
For Irishman to watch a fight and not be taking part.
Then suddenly on high he soared, and tightened up his belt:
“And shall we see them crush,” he roared, “a brother and a Celt?
A fellow artiste needs our aid. Come on, boys, take a hand.”
Then down into the mélée dashed Maloney and his band.
You should have seen the carnage in the drooling light of dawn,
Yet ’mid the scene of slaughter Jock MacPherson playing on.
Though all lay low about him, yet he held his head on high,
And piped as if he stood upon the caller crags of Skye.
His face was grim as granite, and no favour did he ask,
Though weary were his mighty lungs and empty was his flask.
And when a fallen foe wailed out: “Say! when will you have done?”
MacPherson grinned and answered: “Hoots! She’s only ha’f begun.”
And still in Yukon valleys where the silent peaks look down,
They tell of how the Piper was invited up to town,
And he went in kilted glory, and he piped before them all,
But wouldn’t stop his piping till he busted up the Ball.
Of that Homeric scrap they speak, and how the fight went on,
With sally and with rally till the breaking of the dawn.
And how the Piper towered like a rock amid the fray,
And the battle surged about him, but he never ceased to play.
Aye, by the lonely camp-fires, still they tell the story o’er,
– How the Sassenach was vanquished and … MacPherson held the floor.