Michael Grey’s Notes: you’re the reason our kids are ugly


by Michael Grey.
Piping Today #80, 2016.

The Highland bagpipe can create some of the most rhythmically amazing music imaginable. A well-practised 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 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 mind-numbing 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.

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 pipe-tune-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 are 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.

Mike Grey plays, teaches, judges, writes and publishes bagpipe musicHis Grey’s Notes series ran in Piping Today magazine for ten years.