Beyond the Borders

by Craig Hohm

Editor’s note: This article was also published in the June 2013 issue of Common Stock, the journal of the Lowland and Border Pipers Society. Thanks to Pete Stewart for the transcription of the tune.

Per David Taylor’s article in December 2012 issue of the journal Common Stock, I am one of the 1% of Lowland and Border Pipers Society members who did not come from a GHB background. I am certainly interested in the history and historic repertoire of the Border Pipes (BP), but I came to this table with a different agenda; I wanted a bagpipe sound to add to my music, and the BP seemed just right for the purpose. It is quiet enough for an ensemble and loud enough for outdoor solo work. The BP makes available all the highland bagpipe music I have been playing on the fiddle, plus much of the Northumbrian repertoire I had learned years ago on concertina. And it gives me access to the music of other cultures with bagpipe traditions. Bellows blown pipes allow vocals as well, and the numerous accidental notes give flexibility for minor tunes and other modes. And there is the high B.

 I came to piping while studying fiddle at a school in Cape Breton. They had Scottish Small Pipe geese for rent cheap. I was not allowed to participate in the classes due to a lack of GHB experience but was able to rent and play with them. (Meanwhile, I had the satisfaction of hearing the class play only one tune over and over again for the entire week.) By the end of this experiment I was placing an order. Colin Ross agreed to finish a set that was made by Fred Ord and a few months later I had my Scottish Small Pipes (SSP). LBPS members may remember articles in Common Stock I wrote on Irish ornamentation for the SSP.

I liked the SSP but ultimately wanted something louder and with more musical potential. So within a few years I was picking the brain of Jock Agnew and others looking for the right match. I ended up again with a set of Ross pipes in yew with horn and bone fittings. In the last year I have been making my own reeds as well.

What is it about the bagpipes? Some instruments bring metaphorical associations with them. The Celtic harp is one of these; sit down with it and the audience is in an immediate frame of mind. The bagpipes do a similar thing for me, lending an atavistic ambiance to the music. Tribes have evolved biologically in concert with culture, and surely the bagpipes are in my genome somewhere.

Which brings me to my topic. I was raised and live in North America and had no cultural tradition other than that carried on the three channels God intended before cable TV. I began playing folk music (bluegrass, blues) in high school, added English vocal traditions in college, and started fiddle with Celtic tunes (Irish and Scottish ) afterward. All these traditions have become blended in my adult life, and any of them might seize the lead at a particular moment; welcome to world music. The BP are a great match for me, playing the isles music as well as continental tunes, new compositions, and a surprising amount of music not thought of as in the bagpipe repertoire

I hope this article is the beginning of a forum where we stretch the BP beyond the borders.

To me the most stirring use for the BP has been in the new recordings of the “old scotty stuff” from Cape Breton, eg Fred Morrison’s romp on Sandy Cameron’s, or the numerous recordings of young bands like Daimh; mostly this is nine note material, but you can’t play something like Brenda Stubbert’s without that C natural.

A incomplete listing of possible idioms in addition to Border and GHB tunes:

1. Innumerable English tunes ( my favorite: Abbots Bromley Horn Dance in A minor),
2. Tunes usual to the Irish tradition like Langstrom’s Pony and the Congress Reel (both of which use the C natural),
3. Galician gaita music (eg Gary West on Ceol Beg recordings or the elegiac Marcha procesional dos Mato on Susanna Seivane’s first album). The Galician tunes use the G#, played on my set with L index and middle down (thumb off), and the low G can be fingered sharp with a half hole.
4. Many American folk tunes (Hard Times - needs a D#), Wayfaring Stranger in A minor)
5. Hymns: Precious Lord and the wonderful spring hymn Tempus Adest Floridum
(“It is time for flowering”) from Finland circa 1300 ( see “a holiday pipe tune” in the LBPS forum). Amazing Grace goes without saying.
6. A Scandanavian tune book for BP was recently published by LBPS
7. Vocals with piping? Farewell to Tarwathie ( high B)

I have been wondering about the best tune to kick this discussion off; today I heard a tune from my dusty CD collection: The Dancing Bear. It was recorded by Dervish on their first album “The Boys of Sligo.” It is believed to be a Flemish tune, and smells of Gypsy campfires to me. It is not a tune I have heard played on the bagpipes before.

The Dancing Bear

The Dancing Bear

The tune shares melodic characteristics with border music, especially ascending and descending scale runs; it is certainly bimodal (A and G). It is in A minor with an F nat, C nat, and one startling G sharp in the second part.

These notes finger and sound well on my chanter; my C nat is a right hand thumb hole. As played by Dervish, the tune has a “swinging rhythm” in reel tempo of 100; the pace is smooth and free, and does not require much in the way of grace notes. It would also work as an air or a heavily accented hornpipe. Juergen Gier has transcribed a slightly different (older?) version of the same tune that he calls Berendans (see FolkTuneFinder). Play this at an outdoor festival and watch those genomes come to life.

So here’s the challenge: let’s push the BP beyond the borders.

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