Today I went to play for a funeral. This is kind of the opposite of some of the bagpipe jokes you may have heard, where the piper arrives late. It turned out I was exactly one day early to this service and it took me a while to figure that out.
Usually when I’m hired to play for a gravesite service I get there and start playing early. That way people hear the pipes as they are driving up, getting out of their cars, and walking to the gravesite. I usually change tunes when I see the hearse doors open and play “Going Home” while the deceased is borne to the grave, then stop when everyone seems to be in their places.
Before everyone gets there I find Ceol Mor, the old music, seems to feel right. The tunes are each about ten minutes long and have slow phrases.
Today, since no one showed up and I was all alone, I started to play my tune “Beloved Scotland” and stopped at the end of the first movement. I called the funeral home hoping I was in the right place. Funeral was tommorrow. Okay then. Oops. I had noticed that some of the markers were very old so I thought I would just strike up again and finish the tune among the graves. While I played this old tune I marveled at some of the dates on the stones, and the fact that many people of the same last names were buried there. When the tune was finished I looked for a long time at some of these headstones and got just the merest picture of the lives that have been lived near here.
I noticed that some of the markers were not carved. They seemed to be stones from the field with no names or dates on them. Maybe they had been carved at one time and the rain slowly wore away the marks. I saw one field stone that looked as though it had been written on at one time but the marks were too worn to read. Today I thought about what life might have been like for the people who settled here from Scotland or Ireland or England. I wondered how the experience of realizing they needed to come here must have shaped them and their children.
There were many graves of children and many couples from so many different times.
Tomorrow I’ll go there again and I’ll be engaged with the service but I was glad to be able to be there today and look closely.
Update: Today (the next day) I played for the actual funeral and processed from the church up the hill to the grave, leading the family carrying the deceased, to the tune “Closer Walk With Thee”. It was a tune they requested and has been sung by Patsy Cline and many others. I stood playing as everyone made their way up the steep hill and the minister led them into the pavilion that had been placed over the grave. As he delivered the service and recited the 23rd Psalm I noticed that all the headstones in this part of the graveyard had the same last name. There were stones marked with names born in the 1850’s and generations after that. I looked into the pavilion and there were at least three generations of living relatives in attendance including some teenagers. It was a very moving service and I was so grateful to be there. It is amazing to think of the people who have one by one buried their relatives in that church yard for so many years.
I’ve been making smallpipes for ten years now and I remember in January 2004 trying to make a self-imposed deadline for my first customer. Making pipes, bellows, and reeds at that time before so much instruction was on the internet was a hard thing to repeat, and trying and failing to make a deadline was stressful.
Now ten years later, what’s different? I finished 5 sets this month (one of which is for me), having started them all back in July. I’m also a lot better at it than I was ten years ago. I’m faster and do things more elegantly. I have better tools. I have a helper to do some of the work with me.
I went off to Houston for New Year’s and spent some time with friends before going to the Western Texas Hill Country for a music retreat with Clandestine where we were led through some new arrangements by Scottish songwriting legend Brian McNeil. If I had been home I would have been working steadily toward making the deadlines for my customers waiting at the Sheperdstown workshop the next week. Clandestine played a Friday show, sold out the Mucky Duck a couple of days later. The next day I set out to make the familiar 16 hour drive back to Asheville where I had six days to complete these five sets. Luckily they were all well underway and I had help this time from my partner in crime Rosalind Buda. I cancelled all other plans on the schedule and spent the week working on these sets every minute I wasn’t eating or sleeping. Six days working every minute. No practicing. No returning phone calls. I had hoped to make it up to Sheperdstown on Friday for the first jam of the weekend but at 2 pm I was still nailing bellows together. At 10:30pm, after six days holed up in the house working a quickly, smartly, and very efficiently, I finally put the last instrument in its box. The pipes were done and all I had to do was shower, pack up, and drive 7.5 hours to my first class at 10 AM the next day. I stepped out of the house at 12:30 in the middle of the night and into an inch of new snow, with a white frozen road in front of my driveway. Now I’ve got about 9.5 hours to make an 7.5 hour drive. In the snow. With 80 miles of frozen mountain highway in front of me. I ended up going 20mph behind a big truck in the driving snow on a completely frozen unsalted interstate for an hour, tires sliding trying to get up an overpass. I pulled into Sheperdstown the next day right at 10:00am having slept a few minutes pulled over on the road. I asked myself when could I get a little sleep with classes, a concert, a jam session that night? Never, and stop asking was the reply I felt come from inside.
Ten years experience I have now trying to balance pipemaking and performing. I’m a lot better at it now than I have ever been. I quit taking deposits some time ago to try and alleviate the stress of deposit-driven deadlines. There are still deadlines though and customers attending workshops need instruments by a certain date. Now that I’m looking back on a decade of instrument making I realize how much this job, and the job of touring musician have taken away from the other job of actually creating music and building a repertoire that pushes forward.
2013 was a year full of great concerts and adventures. I’ll revisit some of the highlights in the coming weeks now that I have time to go through pictures and write about it. I wish I had had time to do this months ago but the year was just so full and there was no time.
I’m on a bit of gig-hiatus now that 2013 is over, the new shop space is put together, and the last of the smallpipe deadlines are delivered on. I’ve been in a years-long cycle of not practicing while trying to get instruments made, then going out of town for a tour and not being able to practice while on the road, then getting back home to weeks of smallpipe deadlines, then going out of town again for more gigs, then coming back as fast as possible to get pipes done…. It’s time to interrupt that cycle of not making time to practice. I’ve got some great things planned for this year and it’s time to train for what’s to come.
It has been a little more than a year since we lost John Kidd, whom I was very lucky to know, though not nearly well enough, and first wrote about here. For those who didn’t know, John was a curious and brilliant lover of life. He contributed to the advancement of human knowledge as an PHD astrophysicist with a long career serving his country. He also started a company that made beautiful harpsichords since the 1970’s and later contributed to the tuning of the other instrument he loved, the Highland bagpipe. Meeting John Kidd in the early 2000’s was very inspiring for me as a novice smallpipe maker and he along with Chris Abel influenced me to become a maker who looked for the elegant way to cut wood and metal, and paid attention to small details in the work. He is someone I have thought of whenever I took time to clean my machines and spent extra time making things right. A maker’s muse. Whenever I have tried to make something beautiful I have thought of him.
For months after we lost John it did not seem possible to go into the Kidd Instruments workshop and do anything but stand there. Many months passed. After eight months and a very humid spring and summer in Asheville it became clear that we would need to start looking after the machines and tools that he maintained so well. Since his widow, though a piper herself, was not a pipe-maker, she and I discussed the possibility of my acquiring his 1940 South Bend lathe and the 1969 Clausing Mill which he had rebuilt and painted British Racing Green to match his 1930’s MG convertible.
Since I moved to Asheville in 2006 my own workshop has looked more like a garage than a room in my house. An badly scuffed plywood floor and ugly benches greeted customers coming for a visit.
That wasn’t going to work anymore. Over the course of the last few months I reinforced the foundation of my workshop…
…and re-worked the entire space to accommodate this new machinery from Kidd Instruments.
I cleared all my own tools out, put in a very tough cherry-laminate floor which I tested by dragging heavy equipment across it with no sign of wear. I installed baseboards and new shelf brackets that were painted with a colour computer-matched from a part on John’s lathe. I ended up painting the whole room in the end, a lighter colour that went with the green.
In late November, after a month of space-preparation, the move happened over the course of a weekend. I did a lot of research about how to properly move the machines and learned from some informative online videos exactly how not to move machinery weighing hundreds of pounds. Taking a machine apart a great way to get to know it so that you can maintain it on an ongoing basis. I was delighted by the design of the lathe especially. 70 years old and designed to run forever with the user servicing it indefinitely. It is my understanding that this lathe was used by the National Research Laboratory and that was where John got it decades ago.
The Clausing mill was the hardest to move and also very enlightening as to how elegantly it went together with simple yet precisely made parts. I had to get a little help from another of John’s friends when moving the mill base which weighed at least 500 pounds.
Everything went carefully into the car and in about 20 trips over a few days these things were moved into the new space.
This process has brought up a wide range of feelings. I’m very glad to have John’s equipment for many reasons. I love and respect him and am grateful to have this connection with him. These tools will be kept in a clean, welcoming space and put to use making god knows how many bagpipes in the decades to come. I’m sad that he is not here and wish he could walk through the door right now. He is badly missed by his many friends.
Now the space where I work has been made better and I continue to be inspired, as always by John M. Kidd of Kidd Instruments. Visitors welcome.
In November I took a month driving across the country, Asheville NC to Bellingham WA.
The piper’s job is to play the music that fits everyday life, little tunes that make the workday go faster, blurring the boundary from working to merry-making in the evening. Playing for informal dancing, the outdoor kind or the after-snack kitchen dancing that happens when friends get together and home brewed ale helps allow a little fun to slip past the guards.
I played Trinity Episcopal in Asheville first, with the organist Sharon Carleton, Highland Cathedral and Amazing Grace. At the end of the service they let me cut loose for a few minutes playing a set of jigs into the vast stone santuary.
A few days later I had finished enough work to take my customers’ instruments on the road with me to be reeded on the tour. I took those white cases into every house on the trip for fear they might get stolen. Ask me sometime how much progress I made on those instruments! Funny story…
Ros and Paul Sheperd were generous in promoting a solo house concert at their place where we had a good crowd and I played every bagpipe I had as well as the flute and sang a few songs before ending the show by sacrificing a lovely blonde Highland dancer. Okay, she turned her ankle dancing on the last number but at least the harvest will be good next year!
The day after the house concert in Houston I drove to Austin and played a wonderful free-standing gift shop which has some of the best selection of kilts, CDs, jewelry, silver, and clothing for 1000 miles. The place is called Things Celtic and they have come up with a smart-looking tartan to represent the Lone Star State. I picked up one of their kilts as soon as I saw that it had been made by one of the premier Scottish mills. A real kilt made of good wool. I played an enjoyable 3-5PM set in their back garden wearing that kilt and stuck around to jam with my harpist friend Doc before getting on the road to Big Spring.
One of the anchor gigs of the tour was the long-standing St Andrews Service at St Mary’s Episcopal in Big Spring, Tx. It was a beautiful drive from Austin and I got to meet up with fellow St Thomas Alumni Pipe Band players Richard Kean and Doug Frobese. Doug was at one time the Pipe Major of the band that would become STAPB and it was under him that the band won the Grade III Worlds in 1998. The St Mary’s service is an evening service, a concert and feast with reflections of our Scots and American heritage and some of the anthems close to the Episcopal church. As a pipe-trio accompanited by snare player Stephen Cameron, we played the STA medly from our trip to the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow last year. Our hosts Cynthia and John Marshall and Linda Hill spent days getting everything ready so that over a hundred people could hear the sound of the pipes in the beautiful St Mary’s sanctuary and eat amazing food in the courtyard afterward while we played some more. It was at Cynthia and John’s daughter’s wedding that I composed the tune in my video for this tour “Big Spring Awakening”. They have made Big Spring a special place for me in all my travels.
After Big Spring I had a few days to get to San Leandro and the Bellows By the Bay workshop and concert the next Thursday. I took the four days to drive through El Paso with a visit to the Empyre Pipe Band led by Mahrla Manning with help from Jennifer Heffner and I got to spend an evening playing tunes with some of the pipers in the area, Julia Gomez and her friends Ruby and Solomon.
Driving through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, I realized as I was trying to get video of myself playing the smallpipes in front of different things: rocks, windmills, pump jacks, trees…. that I was passing quite a few trains, and on the spur of the moment, I pulled over with a litte time to spare and set up the camera as a freight train was coming up in the distance. I managed to get one really good train with some rocks in the background, and I spent the rest of the drive in the desert trying to get positioned at just the right time and place as a train would pass by. This helped teach me one of the recurring lessons of the tour. Lesson 1: grab on to the good things while you have the chance! Dear viewer, I regret to inform you that you have been deprived of even better train/bagpiper videos due to my hestitance.
Thought for future trips….
I skated into Tucson, missing the Desert Museum just outside of town but my friend Claire and I went to some overlooks and saw an amazing sunset, getting some piper/saguaro cactus video and getting some spontaneous (slightly dangerous) desert-dancing from a group of sunset watchers on the next hill over. I learned from Claire that you can put your car into neutral and coast for miles back into Tucson if you have the courage for some of the curves and dips in the road. About midway back to Tucson, coasting too fast, windows rolled down, I realized I was enjoying this but hadn’t actually purchased or logged in to anything. Actual fun. Thank you Claire! Lesson 2: Faster!
Wednesday’s destination was just a 2 hour drive out I-10 to Phoenix, well Tempe really, to catch up with Rosie Shipley who played most of the fiddle on the WIllow album. Rosie and I had met in Nova Scotia, a maritime state about as far away from Phoenix AZ as you can get. Rosie has been creating some amazing works of art as she completes a Masters from Arizona State University. She’s going to change the world with her art and I got to meet some of her comrade artists at her apartment party where we drank gin & tonics, played music, talked about art and solved the world’s problems. Rosie is one of the most inspirational people I have ever met. Her love and her unshakable faith in the people she loves is something I very much want to emulate. She’s also the most powerful fiddle player I’ve ever heard or played with and it just about knocked my soul from my body to hear her strike up those tunes.
I drove the whole 14 hours from Phoenix in one go, up I-5 through hours of farmland in California. It’s a beautiful drive and don’t let any Californians tell you otherwise. I met up with the host of the Bellows By the Bay smallpipe workshop Joyce McPherson-Newport, and her husband Jim, at their house in San Leandro where I would spend the next three days working on students’ instruments, teaching and leading pipers in becoming more effective on their instruments, playing a Saturday house concert, and generally trying to inspire the attendees to go out and contribute music to their families and community. Joyce worked tirelessly as did her husband and their friends, cooking, cleaning, organizing, so that the events ran smoothly and everyone got what they needed. I wish I could have given Joyce more time since she was one of the students but she was busy taking care of things nearly every minute. There was a lot of music and good food all around. I got to meet pipers from as far away as Oregon and got to teach some dances toward the end of the weekend as well as remind the attendees of their role as town-pipers with a job to do livening up the town square.
Pipers provide music so you don’t have to worry what to say. We are the little discovery you can hear from around the corner. Pipers keep boredom at bay.
forward, back, forward, back
together, apart, girl’s in front
together, apart, boy in front.
Bellows By the Bay was the second anchor of the tour and I’m profoundly grateful to Joyce and Jim Newport for hosting it and having me as their instructor/performer.
On Monday after Bellows by the Bay, Joyce and I went out trying to find background for more smallpipe video and we ventured out to Sausalito and up to the Golden Gate Bridge all before evening traffic. It was great to get some water to go with the desert of days before. I really tried to get some seagulls to stick around in the frame but it’s California and I guess the gulls weren’t impressed with my pitch for this picture.
From the SF Bay area I drove up to Seattle to meet the rest of my family at my brother’s house. We took a drive on Thanksgiving up to Bellingham and met my friend Merry at her house for apple pie made from fruit off her own tree. When I was up here in early October for the Celtic Arts Foundation workshop I made the aquaintance of some excellent pipers as well as guitar players and Merry plays both as well as manages a budding “food forest” of her own design in Bellingham.
After Thanksgiving I was lucky enough to be able go to a jam session at the house of another excellent guitar player, Sue Truman, who plays in a group with two pipers, Skye and Aaron, two excellent, innovative players in the region. It was great to have a real piper’s jam session where I could play just about anything in the bagpipe repertoire and be in the right place for it. Skye, who leads the Celtic Arts Foundation, has inspired the community to help build a free-standing center of Celtic Arts being developed in downtown Mount Vernon WA. It will be source of great music and a center of practical culture for decades to come.
I spent Saturday driving back to San Francisco so I could take part in the SF Dickens Fair on Sunday with a dance group called Siamsa (sham’sa). I put on the kilt and took up the Highland pipes to play for a couple of Highland dances and played my Abel whistle as part of their band for the Irish stuff. I got to see Irish Sean Nos dancing for the first time! It was beautiful and their main Sean Nos dancer it turns out, will be in Asheville this summer to teach at Swannanoa Gathering in July. Her name was Maldon Meehan and I was struck by how expressive she could be with the step dances and how beautiful the actual steps were. All the dancers with Siamsa blew me away and I loved how fluidly they all took to the stage.
The Dickens Fair has been put on by the same people who started the first-ever Renaissance Faire in 1964 and were copied all over the country. I was really impressed with the attention to detail and how serious they were about putting the audience in a different place.
That night I went home with a couple of the Bellows By the Bay workshop attendees, two smallpipe and Highland pipe players named Donna and John Willy. John brews his own ale so naturally some friends came over. The conversation, the ale, and the tunes were flowing and and Donna got everybody dancing in the living room.
Monday had me driving home, back to Texas and a gig on Friday with Clandestine, the third and final leg of the trip. I stopped in Arizona on the way as well as caught an old friend at her spiritual retreat in Texas at a wilderness area called the Hueco Tanks. Bibeth Fuller is a friend of Clandestine going back more than a decade when she used to meet us at the Highland Games’ all over and dance during some of our instrumentals. I thought these Hueco Tanks were some kind of petroleum storage outpost that had rock-climbing ropes attached to them but no, they are geologically unique giant rock formations that catch water in the vast desert and are home to some rare wildlife. I spent the night in the car after meeting Bibeth in the middle of nowhere and being led deeper into the desert in the light of the risen full moon. Some climbing guides, friends of Bibeth had a bonfire going and we stayed up late talking and passing around a bottle of nice single malt. In the middle of the night after going to bed, I woke up claustrophibic in the car and had to get out, a little panicked. I put on shoes and my coat and stepped out into the now blazing full moon light. It felt like a kind of day and the desert was so quiet now I thought I could almost hear the moon light storming down with a little chorus of bright stars I don’t usually see. The big dipper and the constellation Leo were bright in the sky, and now I began to have the opposite problem of feeling too exposed. I didn’t have anywhere else to sleep so I had to get used to the idea of going back to the car. I walked around and listened to the absolute silence for a while with the star and moon light fully illuminating the desert casting deep, clear black shadows of my profile on the soft fine dust of the ground.
The next day Bibeth got me cleared to go into the park. I had to register and watch a video about how delicate the place was. It turns out you’ve got to be careful where you step because there are water creatures’ buried eggs in some places on the ground. We went to one area and I took some video next to an Octatillo, a Prickly Pear, a Yucca, a Creosote bush and some hugely impressive rock formations. It was all just chance or serendiptiy that Bibeth had called and I just happened to be in the area passing through, 700 miles from where we normally run into each other.
Saturday I helped my friend Leisa set up her booth at a local art faire where she sold silver/fiber jewelry all day. Leisa does all the graphic design for me, and most of my groups including Brizeus and Clandestine as well as most of the Houston Celtic musicians I know. Leisa and I saw our ultimate rock show Jonathan Coulton that Saturday night and got ready to hit our very own Dickens fair in Galveston the next day.
Sunday at Dickens on the Strand,where I went busking for the first time 25 years ago, on a dare from my grandmother, showed the usual Texas winter weather of 80 degrees and sunny. I called my friend Dean Atkinson who plays snare in St Thomas Alumni and he grabbed the blue Tupan and we knocked some dust off our fingers all day piping and drumming with the sound echoing off the old buildings. I saw lots of old friends dressed in their Victorian and Steampunk best while we busked and tore up some tunes. I got to wear my new Lone Star Tartan kilt on a beautiful day in the Lone Star State and it was a wonderfully satisfying way to finish up an epic tour.
I’m still on tour playing in houses, festivals,bars, and churches, and I’ve been taking pictures and videos the whole way. I’m on the way to Arizona today with my final destination Houston Tx to play with Clandestine at the Mucky Duck on the 30th. Now that it’s Cyber Monday I thought I would open up my CD catalogue at the 2002 prices with no shipping. A Willow, Brizeus, or Teribus CD would make a great Christmas gift and I’ll be happy to autograph if you like. Piperjones T-shirts (Gildan Ultracotton L, XL, or XXL) are the same price, no shipping. Just specify on the order form which you’d like and to whom.
I’ve played three shows in Texas so far, Houston, Austin, and Big Spring. I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been with the timing to see old friends and make new ones. Having beautiful times out here.
The wind mills in West Texas make me think I’m in the future and I’ve been stopping every so often to play the pipes by the side of the road.
Thank you to everybody who has come out to see a Texas show by your own piper. I’ll hopefully see you on the last day of the tour when I return to play with my friends in Clandestine at the Mucky Duck November 30th.