Published: October 31, 2000

Piping in America – A Brief History

Preface: In 1982, the Journal of American Ethnic History published “Under the Kilt: Variations on the Scottish-American Ground” by the late Rowland Berthoff, professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. The 15,000 word study examined the history of Highland games in the United States, and the ethnic identity of Scottish-Americans.

The pipes|drums is pleased to provide excerpts from the study that pertain specifically to piping. At a time when American pipers, drummers and pipe bands are contending on the world’s most important competition platforms, the study serves to highlight just how far things have come in the United States.

Part 2

At the sixty American Highland games in 1979 the cultural showpieces now were the pipe bands, more than 180 of which called themselves Scots, Caledonians, Highlanders, “kilties,” and the like. (Another 120 high school, college, Shrine, and Irish bands had also adopted the Great Highland Bagpipe but without any pretension to Scottish ethnicity.) About a dozen of the pre-1940 bands still existed – the oldest now at Buffalo – but nearly half the rest were creations of the 1970s. By that time it was a recognized peculiarity of North American pipers that almost all of them, even the few who were also “open” or “professional” solo competitors, belonged to bands. Although more than half the bands were still in the Northeast and Midwest, more than a quarter now were in the Far West and almost a fifth in the South. Since the Great American Piping Desert between Kansas City and Denver defeated attempts to form a national pipe band federation, an east-west division of the country was effected by the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association and the Pacific Coast Pipe Band Association, both founded in 1963. At the end of the 1970s the EUSPBA included 47 Scottish and 19 other bands, the PCPBA 27 and 2, respectively, and the two associations supervised competition at most of the games. In the Pacific Northwest 5 bands belonged to the Western Pipe Band Association, a British Columbia federation, whose rules governed the Seattle and Portland games.

The pipe band associations and certain of the larger games introduced a form of the Scottish and Canadian graded competition – four grades in the East, three in the West. In 1979 all seven bands in eastern Grades I and II or western Grade I – Worcester Kiltie; Manchester, Connecticut; Denny & Dunipace (Maryland namesake of a band in Scotland); Western Reserve of Cleveland; Culloden Moor and Prince Charles, both of San Francisco; and Los Angeles Police – were in the North or West and able to make use of Canadian as well as Scottish-born pipers. Worcester, the only consistently first-grade eastern band, competing on equal terms with the best in Canada, was three-fourths Scots, including pipers and drummers expressly recruited from the most renowned bands in Scotland. In the West first-class instruction was likely to come from Canada. It has been estimated that during the rapid proliferation of bands in the 1950s and 1960s more than forty pipe-majors from Canada were active in Washington, Oregon, and California. Occasionally, of course, immigrant expertise fell flat. “Some of our most dismal failures,” an experienced band-organizer recalls, “have been some of the champion piper and drummer drunks from Scotland” – one of the “cold hard facts not usually mentioned about bonnie Scotland.”

Southern bands might have been happy to put up with the inconvenience. As recently as the 1930s there was not a piper to be found in cities like Richmond or Atlanta, nor thirty years later in Wilmington, New Orleans, or Oklahoma City. Even in 1969 a fledgling pipe-major in North Carolina lamented, “A lot of bands are being formed, and the tragedy of it is that they do not have any help,” no one with any “old country pipe band experience to speak of.” By 1979, although almost all southern bands regularly competed at games in the region – unlike the one band in four elsewhere that was simply a “parade band” – none had achieved much distinction beyond the South. The most rigorously competitive games were all elsewhere: Alma, Michigan, a two-day affair attracting the best Ontario pipers; Delco (Philadelphia) and Ligonier (Pittsburgh); Santa Rosa (San Francisco) and Coeur d’Alene (or Spokane). Southern games tended to use pipe bands as accompaniment to the other activities; even Grandfather Mountain, the largest gathering of all and the oldest (1956) in the South, offered only solo piping competition. Ethnic fervor came more readily to “Scotland the South” than did the ethnic music.

For all the Gaelic resonance of the piob mhor, piping was steadily moving away from the ethnic group. The twenty-three hundred pipers and twelve-hundred drummers who belonged to the 180 bands of 1979 (which were also training some twelve-hundred pupils) were far less uniformly Scottish than their tartans suggested. Although 7 percent of the bandsmen still were Scottish-born and another 16 percent had Scottish parents, while 46 percent could at least claim distant Scottish roots, nearly one-third had no family ties whatever to Scotland. The First World War had inspired immigrant Scots to organize pipe bands; during the Second, hundreds of thousands of Americans, stationed in Britain for a year or two, heard good piping for the first time. Within a few years the non-Scottish bagpiper, “a thing unheard of in the ‘old’ band,” as it was noted in 1963 at Yonkers – where German, Slavic, Armenian, and Jewish names now appeared among the Kilties – had become a regular element (36 percent) of pipe bands in the North and West. In the South, although the bands were newer, only 23 percent of their members had no Scottish ancestry; a mere 10 percent, if Florida and Texas are omitted. In short, southern pipers had the most “Scottish blood,” but others, who might not be Scottish at all, generally had the best-trained birl fingers.

The pipers’ growing detachment from the ethnic group proper was reflected, in a sense, in the 15 percent of band members in 1979 who were women, something unprecedented in pipe band tradition. In Scotland enough prejudice remained against women’s playing a “man’s instrument” and wearing a man’s kilt to confine most female players to “ladies’ bands” and, until passage of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975, to bar even the best of them from certain major solo competitions. Fewer than a fifth of the Scottish-American bands, however, were all-male, and the only girls’ pipe bands were at a few high schools and non-ethnic.

The non-Scots who have taken up Scottish arts have nevertheless had to cultivate much closer ties to contemporary Scotland than many Scottish immigrants maintain. The pipers of the 1970s were working to strictly old-country standards, and to good effect. As recently as the 1950s, a distinguished immigrant piper has recalled, “the very idea of comparing the North American piper with the Scottish pipers would have been laughed at.”

The remedy was prescribed by certain Americans, though administered by Scots, beginning in 1962, in a dozen two-week summer schools of piping, and also drumming, Highland dancing, and, most recently, Scottish fiddle-playing. Like the two decades older Gaelic College in Nova Scotia, these summer camps have been staffed by a handful of leading Scottish and Canadian professionals, some of whom spend the season proceeding around the country from school to school, where they attract pupils of all ages and every grade from novice to seasoned competitor. The first overseas contingent, at the Invermark school in 1962, was John MacFadyen, John MacLellan and Seumas MacNeill. By 1979 the important distinction, as a southern pipe-major observed, was not where a piper was trained but by whom.

At most American Highland games in the l970s the judges of piping and drumming – who, after annotating each competitor’s tempos, “breaks,” tuning, tone, steadiness, execution, and expression and assigning him a mark, customarily gave a friendly private critique as well – were drawn from a panel of two or three dozen resident Scots of much the same origins as the school instructors. As winners of somewhat lesser honors in Scotland, however, most of them seem to have emigrated for reasons apart from this avocation of their summer weekends. But like the school instructors they have been indispensable. Although there are competent teachers and at least potential judges among American-born pipers, greater confidence still resides with someone known to have won the Gold Medal or simply to have placed at the Argyllshire Gathering at Oban or the Northern Meeting at Inverness.

By the 1970s there were many American pipers whom their Scottish instructors found it “a pleasure to listen to” and perhaps two dozen capable of “open” competition in Scotland. Distance, however, made a “world-class” reputation elusive. Even within the United States, where Highland games are hundreds or thousands of miles apart, no band or piper will have competed against enough of the others to become undisputed champion. As for crossing the Atlantic, although several American pipers have devoted a summer or two to study in Scotland and several since 1969 have placed in the highest level of competition there, none by 1979 (and only one, Michael Cusack, by 1999) had taken the supreme honors at Oban and Inverness.

Since many of the American pipers are not of Scottish descent, they are not simply persisting in tradition. Indeed, they strive to keep their art abreast of every new tune, new settings, every new prescription from Edinburgh or Glasgow, and from Guelph or St. Catharines in Ontario as well. No doubt they would keep at it even if there were no immigrants’ societies or clan associations to provide annual Highland games for competition. They belong to a lively transatlantic community centred upon present-day Scotland although nearly as esoteric there – “the ‘closed shop’ of all closed shops” – as in America.

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