Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The End of a Childhood Mystery

I was recently listening to a CD of an old Scots Guards album from the 1950's that I grew up listening to, and would still on vinyl (or bakelite?) if my turntable had not gone west. It was recorded in mono and had that quality of listening to the bands rehearsing in a big hall through an earhole in the door.  Nevertheless, it was deeply stirring.  The pipes had that full, deep, slightly flat sound to the chanters that predominated before about 25 years ago when the tone began to sharpen.  The rope tension drums thundered rather than buzzed as they do now.  The brass band played with decision and precision songs like "Scotland the Brave" and a patrol version of "Cock o' the North" that I still need to hear every two weeks or so.

The tempos were a bit high and spoke of marching files of troops in large regulation Army khaki tams on their heads and Lee Enfield .303 rifles sloped over their shoulders.  No kilts as they were just in from the front, passing in review in front of the GOC of the division.  Something similar to this:

I was raised on the romance of the pipes bringing Highland men to the battle, into the battle, and back from the battle living or dead.  I came from Anglophile family and my father, son of an Anglo-Irish protestant, grew up in the years after WW1 when the sun did finally begin to set on the Raj and the rest of the British Empire.  He had a career in the Marines, perhaps the branch of our services most influenced by British traditions, that started in the 1930s when the Royal Navy still ruled the waves and sent flotillas on world tours to fly the White Ensign in far off ports of call.  I was steeped in the romance and legends of the British military going out into the world.

The first record I remember hearing was a 78 rpm of the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders from about 1931.  Perhaps because of that record, I've always been fascinated by the image of Scots regiments from that period.  The sound brings to my mind's nose the smells of brasso and boot black and wool and gun oil; and the images of sergeants who all look like Victor McLaglen did in "Wee Willie Winkie."

It was these kinds of images that played in my head as I watched the pipes and drums of the Black Watch at the Oakland Coliseum in December of 1971 and I decided I should learn the pipes.  I was inspired partly because I always loved the sound, partly because no one I knew played them, mostly by images of pipers leading troops into the attack at El Alamein, or inspiring the men at desperate moments, as did Piper Daniel Laidlaw at the Battle of Loos in 1915 and Piper George Findlater of the Gordon Highlanders at the Heights of Dargai in 1897.

I was lucky to find an excellent teacher who taught me many things along with the music.  I'm a much better piper and performer than I would've been had he not been my teacher.  Perhaps a little sadly, I also saw a world I first was introduced to as a young teenager change from a great exercise in cultural togetherness and friendly competition into a world of small-mindedness, secrecy and grasping egotism. The wold of pipe bands in the SF Bay Area used to feature highland games where bands would congregate, old friends would visit, fun was emphasized over all things in the end.  In the last 25 years the number of games has reduced, bands don't get together and kid each other or share information.  Now, bands don't fraternize between competitions, bizarre displays of ego occur when someone doesn't like a rule or an arrangement of some kind, drunkeness is more common, and the music has become a machine like because crowds seem to like it that way.  Play it faster, get more complicated and forget about swing, or spirit or soul.  Just get the applause.  The rest doesn't matter.

Needless to say, the feeling of being part of history is long gone.  I don't go to highland games anymore because there's no magic left.  There's nothing that stirs me at all at those things.  More than anything I would like to see a band with a pipe major the size of Victor McLaglen.  They do exist.  I knew one once named Ronnie Lawrie.  He was just a little smaller the the Bank of America bldg in downtown SF so a little bigger than McLaglen.  Here he is, and I can say that it's a good thing he was one of the nicest people I've met in this world and a deeply talented piper as well.

The band would strut rather than march, swing it a little slower on the march, with slightly flatter chanters, and play for the feeling and not care a damn what the audience thought.  I can tell you from personal experience that the audience never forgets that.  Good music will always touch a crowd on a deeper level than musical stunts.

Now I have lost the thread here.  The point is that the deepest feelings this instrument created have become fewer and farther between.  Modern life will do that I guess.  I need to get back to what pulled me in when I was 13.  I need to feel that I'm not practicing in my bedroom, I am really on the grinder at Singapore playing reveille, or somewhere along a road north and west of Aberdeen, bringing in recruits.  I need to play the corny old tunes that I was raised on.  I wish my damned turntable hadn't given up the ghost because I need the ghosts I used to hear from it as it turned at 78 rpm.  Och aye.  Sniff!  Wheare's ma Dewar's?


Blogger Don said...

Och, I just gave a turntable away. But I'll be gettin' anither, when time comes to select the six linear feet of phonograph albums I've inherited from my ancestry. Hang on to the old records, we'll make digital copies.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Harry said...

I haven't given the thing away, but the belt (rubber band) that drives it is a goner. Sigh.

11:57 AM  
Blogger Don said...

Oh, phonograph belts are easily replaced.

10:59 AM  
Blogger Jon Crestwood said...

What a tree-mendous poast! Who wudda thought I'd be googling marching bands?

What happens when enthusiasm expressed so well hits the target.

7:00 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

Thank'ee, Jon!

9:36 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home