October 23, 2008

Sing it, Alex

I have stacks of old cassette tapes from piping schools and competitions and private lessons from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. When Bert Barr died suddenly on September 24th I was sad for his family and friends, and that the piping and drumming lost this quiet and unassuming giant of the game.

I didn’t know him well, but I was well aware of his importance in the art. About five years ago I tried to convince him to do an interview. Most interviewees don’t take much, if any, persuading, but there have been two people over the years who have just flat-out refused. Bob Hardie was one and Bert Barr was the other. Despite my attempts to change his mind, Bert Barr insisted that people aren’t interested in what he had to say. Even though I and many, many others feel that the interviews are important educational and historical documents, Barr simply didn’t want to be seen as being self-promotional.

But I remembered that, somewhere in my collection of old cassettes, there was one that included something of Bert Barr. I used to like to get little recordings of unusual things. (In high school, my near-delinquent friends and I would carry around this boom-box and scout out recording artists at their sound-checks. We’d try to get members of the band to say things on tape, and I actually have a recording somewhere of an 18-year-old Paul Hewson, better known as Bono, saying how his “best friends in St. Louis are Andy, Keith and Rick.” True story.)

Anyway, in 1979 the unusual 3/4 march, “J.K. Cairns,” by Archie Cairns was hitting the big-time. Seriously. Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia featured the tune in one of their medleys. So when I found myself at a piping school with Alex Duthart and Bert Barr, the two of them were quite keen on the tune. They both liked to sing it; I just had to get them on tape.

So, here is the little recording that I made and saved. Alex Duthart does the singing (and the hilarious yodeling at the end), while Bert Barr provides the bom-bom tenor embellishments. In there somewhere, too, is Harry McNulty providing further ensemble depth.

My favourite part of the snippet is Barr saying, “Sing it, Alex” between two of the phrases. There’s something about this little recording that I think shows the fun that Barr and Duthart had shared.

Since the World Solo Drumming is this Saturday, I thought it might be timely to share it.


  1. Good, clear recording … puts the listener in the room. He could put ‘the song’ into any tune. Similar recordings of “Donald Cameron” and “Flora Duncan” from Tommy Kee’s tapes made at the ’79 Balmoral School equally impress. But it’s a rendering of “Dolina McKay”, while he plays along on a Cameron pad, that stands out as one of the truly amazing examples of jazz married to rudimental drumming that he was known for. “It’s a good wee tune if everybody gets it.”

    Thanks for this.

  2. Thanks for the memories…Alex & Bert were instructors at my school and I (like a few others) have “snippets” of conversations, songs and stories. Oh, the stories…
    I am not a drummer but in my opinion no matter how great Alex is perceived for his playing and compositions, his finest asset was he was truly one of the finest individuals I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.
    This leads to a “reality check.” What is happening to all those cassette (even reel to reel) tapes? I am NOT referring to tunes being played. It’s the conversations and stories and their preservation I am concerned about.
    Any suggestions on a reputable person experienced at transferring old tape recordings into a more permanent format? I would have no problem lending tapes provided I could get a permanent format copy in return and there would be someplace where they could be freely listened to by people who might be interested in that sort of thing.

  3. Hi Al,

    It’s actually not too difficult to do. You can download freeware such as Audacity which will you allow you to record directly to your sound card and you can then output it in various formats, including mp3.

    All the hardware you need is a stereo jack to connect the headphone socket of your stereo to the line in socket on your sound card on your PC/laptop.

    A search of the web should give you tutorials on using Audacity if need be but I’ve used it and it’s pretty straight forward.




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