January 31, 2005

Brotherly love

Bagpipe Brothers
By Kerry Sheridan
Rutgers University Press, 320 pages

Reviewed by Iain MacDonald

Bagpipe Brothers tells the story of the New York Fire Department (NYFD) Pipe Band’s role following the devastating attack on New York and other areas on September 11, 2001. Author Sheridan uses the stories of several band members to describe the effects of this attack and its aftermath on the band members, their friends and families.

The tradition of the NYFD and its pipe band was to call on the band to play for the funeral/memorial of a fallen brother firefighter. This tradition saw the pipe band members play for 445 funerals and memorials for the 343 firefighters who were killed on September 11.

Bagpipe Brothers provides an interesting personal view of the Sept. 11 events and their aftermath, and it underscores the roles and personal losses of the NYFD pipers and drummers.

Members of the pipe band are firefighters first, and musicians second. Some band members lost their lives on Sept. 11, and many spent months sifting through rubble at the World Trade Center site in the search for firefighters’ bodies. Mostly, bodies came in fragments, and firefighters found thousands of unidentifiable body parts. At the same time, band members were often playing several funerals a day as families buried and remembered their dead. Bagpipe Brothers explains how these demands affected the band members, the band, and their families.

I found the personal stories moving. Sheridan does a fine job laying out the issues faced by the members of the band, and she handles their stories with tact and honesty, even when they don’t reflect positively on the members or the band.

One element of the book that disturbed me was the manner in which piping and pipe bands are portrayed. The author’s technical descriptions of bagpipes and piping are weak, and sometimes inaccurate. In many years of piping, I have yet to see a piper with a “six-inch-long bass drone.” We assume she refers to just the top section, but that’s still very inaccurate. Other descriptions, such as: “bagpipes utilize four holes to produce venues for sound to emerge” lack clarity and precision, and are a sign of weak editing.

The author also uses many negative terms to describe the sound of the pipes: wail, buzz, moan, shriek, skirl. I doubt that bands at any grade would find those terms a good way to describe their sound.

I was also uncomfortable with the author’s glorification of the “we-don’t-wear-underwear” and “we-drink-hard” elements of the pipe band. While many pipe bands suffer from these kinds of attitudes, the hope is that eventually most of us will see pipe bands as a musical outlet, rather than only a chance to drink too much and behave badly.

Despite Bagpipe Brothers‘ shortcomings in terms of technical descriptions, piping history and attitudes, it is an engaging read when it comes to the personalities and roles of the New York Fire Department pipers and drummers. Reading this book may make your own band struggles seem petty and insignificant. Regardless of where you live, this story will renew your respect for the people who fight fires in your community.

An accomplished solo piper, Iain MacDonald is also Pipe-Major of the Grade 2 City of Regina Pipe Band. A writer and marketing professional, he lives in Avonlea, Saskatchewan, with his wife and three children.


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