It’s been too long since I’ve indulged in a conversation about bagpipes. Actually, I’ve never had such an indulgence in this space.
Just so there’s no misunderstanding, I detest bagpipes in the same way I detest haggis—a Scottish culinary creation that is made by shoveling whatever is left over from butchering a lamb and stuffing it into the lamb’s stomach and cooking it until the evil spirits are driven out of the house. Then it is transported, somewhat ceremoniously, by wheelbarrow and thrown away in the vicar’s garbage can as a tithe offering.
The Scots, besides their history of aggressive lawn care, have contributed many things to the world. Golf, for instance, a game played on grassy fields made to ruin a perfectly pleasant afternoon. And Scotch, a delicious beverage to help salvage an afternoon ruined by golf.
Bagpipes are believed to have been invented by the Scots when there was a leftover sheep’s stomach from the annual haggis bee. Somebody there had two tubes which he stuck into the stomach. Hoping to scare all the wee lads and lasses, he blew into one tube, forcing air—and noise—out of the other while squeezing it between his elbow and his rib cage.
This history is somewhat suspicious because there’s an entire sura in the Quran devoted to warning Muslims that using a bagpipe is a mortal sin.
I have a friend who likes the bagpipes so much that he has traveled more than once to Scotland to visit the pipes’ ancestral home. He might have other faults that I don’t know about. And the fact that he’s a Scotch drinker tells me that “the pipes” aren’t the only attraction to a country where English is spoken only while gargling marbles.
I am curious to know if bagpipes—created as a war instrument to keep the British away—sound different there, echoing about the brae-filled countryside. Since pipers seem to only know one song, I somehow doubt it.
Every year, except this past year due to Covid-19, our little town hosts a Fourth of July parade on July 2nd (don’t ask). There are farm implements, antique cars, Shriners, and no fewer than sixteen bagpipe bands—separated by mule trains—all playing the only song they know, the pipers…mules know no songs. After the parade, the bands invade all of the bars in town, demanding free drinks in exchange for not playing that one song over and over. By the end of the evening, our little town is littered with drunk folks in kilts.
I was the best man at a friend’s outdoor wedding and had to arrange for a bagpiper to perform for the bride’s stroll down the aisle, which I estimated would take three minutes, tops. I found a piper who wanted to play not only the three minutes, but between the sets a band would be playing as well. I told him that three minutes would be more than enough and that we were willing to play him for four hours’ work.
He seemed upset, but not nearly as upset as he was when he asked me how I would recognize him on the day of the wedding.
“I assume you’ll be only man there wearing a plaid dress.”
SPEAKING OF WOODWINDS, consider the oboe. Unlike its cousin, the bassoon, there is nothing remotely humorous about the oboe.
Oboists are special in myriad ways. Usually, their eyes are narrow set and they know and accept, for instance, that the most common cause of death among them is when their heads explode while trying to force a stream of air through a mouthpiece whose diameter is roughly the same as a human hair—and that’s just when tuning the orchestra. When this happens in an actual concert it pretty much puts a damper on the day for everyone.
Oboists can only talk about their reeds. They are not conversant in any other subject. As every crossword puzzle enthusiast knows, the oboe is a double-reed instrument. The reeds are sensitive to every climatic element known and oboists spend a lot of time wringing their hands worrying about climate change. I was at a party once where two oboists were telling stories to each other as they sipped their white wine spritzers through their reeds. They were red-faced and crying.
I’ve always wondered what the attraction to playing the oboe is. Of course, I’ve always wondered who is attracted to sadomasochism as well. My simple theory is that in fifth grade, the children line up outside the music room at school and are given clarinets until they run out of them. A few trumpets are handed out next, then a trombone or two. The last kid in line gets an oboe and a jelly jar with distilled water to keep the reeds wet, which they must carry dutifully like the cup of mare’s sweat in A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum.
The handful of kids who refuse to stand quietly in line get snare drums.
I grew up in Chicago where there was no shortage of accordions, probably because there was no shortage of Germans, Poles, and other Eastern Europeans who seemed to share an affinity for both the instrument and it best-known use: the polka. Many showed an affinity for kielbasa as well.
Vital to modern klezmer music, an instrumental tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, the accordion was the core of the Lawrence Welk Show that vaulted Myron Floren, aka “the happy Norwegian,” to international fame.
In my childhood neighborhood, if there was an accordion in your house it meant that your parents couldn’t afford a piano, which is like a large accordion without all those little buttons on the left side. Of course, you don’t squeeze a piano; nor is it as easy to move from one place to another.
Accordions are rarely featured on movie soundtracks, unlike the banjo. Deliverance, Smokey and the Bandit (Parts 1-103), and Petticoat Junction tell you all you really need to know about the banjo.
Photo montage by Courtney A. Liska
For a quick indulgence in authentic Scottish fare, try this delicious soup before venturing into haggis territory. I can’t for the life of me figure out why one would put prunes into what is basically chicken soup.
3 chicken legs, or 6 drumsticks
4 cups water
1 onion, chopped
2 leeks, sliced
2 carrots, chopped
12 prunes, chopped
2 sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf
Heat the oven to 400˚
Roast the chicken pieces for about 30 minutes, then place in a heavy bottomed stockpot along with any juices. Pour water over the chicken until it is covered. Bring to the boil and then simmer for 1 hour to make a stock.
Add in the vegetables, prunes, herbs, a good grinding of pepper and half a teaspoon of salt. Cook until the vegetables are tender, around 20 minutes. Remove the chicken, take the meat from the bones, and stir back into soup.
Discard the bones and the herbs, check for seasoning and serve.