NANCY STONE/CHICAGO TRIBUNE Here comes the god-awful sound of a bagpipe band marching down South Western Avenue on Sunday at the South Side Irish Parade.
It happens every St. Patrick’s Day. The bagpipers come crawling out from their whiskey-laden lairs. Dressed in tartan with tilted glengarries and jaunty sporrans, they nestle themselves into the back rooms of bars and terrorize street corners. Then, without fail, they let free the sound of a dying sheep being squeezed by a very angry elbow. Or, as they would have you believe, the sweet sound of the bagpipes.
I used to dread March. Both my parents played in bagpipe bands — in fact, my dad still does. As a kid, I was dragged to every St. Patrick’s Day parade in the Chicago area. St. Charles? Check. Elmhurst? Been there. South Side Irish Parade? Don’t even get me started. Almost every parade started and ended with a bar. I developed the uncanny ability to tell down to the minute when we’d be leaving a bar based on how much beer was left in the pint glass. I’m not sure what I hated more: the long underwear my mother insisted I wear because of the chilly weather, the long hours of the holiday or the grating sound of a bagpipe band in its prime.
But here’s the dirty secret: Bagpipes aren’t even Irish, at least not the kind used in parades. Those are Scottish. So I’m asking politely: Please. Ban bagpipes on St. Patrick’s Day. The world would be a better place without them. Imagine, no more requests for the umpteenth rendition of “Amazing Grace.” No one asking what bagpipers wear under their kilts. No bizarre news stories about a man losing his pipes after a late night at the pub. You want something Irish? Try the fiddle. Or the bodhran. Or the harp. There’s no short supply of Irish instruments.
I’d even settle for the uilleann pipes. They’re the smaller, quieter Irish cousin of the Scottish Great Highland pipes. Most important, though, they can’t be used while marching; the piper uses his elbow to work the bellows and sits while playing, rather than standing. Did I mention they’re quieter? Americans have a tendency to mix-and-match cultures. We don’t mind when pork fried rice ends up on the same menu as shrimp tacos. Tex-Mex is in the dictionary. In most instances, America’s a la carte attitude toward culture comes as a boon.
But what is the benefit from bagpipes? They’re rarely in tune — but the casual listener can’t tell anyway because their sound is so god-awful. I’ve often heard the word “bleating” used to describe the sound of the bagpipes. Plus, they’re loud. Really loud. They’re louder than a jet taking off if you’re standing close enough. True. Even the members of the band wear earplugs when they’re playing, and many of them end up with some amount of permanent hearing loss. Bagpipes also can play only nine notes, which means every song sounds pretty much the same. And, no, pipers can’t take requests for “Free Bird.” On a day where “everyone is Irish,” the Scots should keep their instrument to themselves. Leave the Scottish bagpipes where they belong — on the battlefield or the burial ground. Or better yet, never take them out of their case. Elizabeth Greiwe is the Chicago Tribune’s Editorial Board coordinator.
I sent a note to Ms. Greiwe this morning, telling her I had enjoyed this piece, thanking her, including the lines below. She answered thanking me for the note, saying that others had not been so kind.
Now come the sturdy kilted pipers, striding up in strict formation,
pumping tartan bags with elbows–music of the arm-pit calls,
bleating come-do-battle, leading farm boys into slaughter,
dry, derisive hoots, striking drums that pound my bowels to paper;
I am bone-racked as they pass. We had crepe and toilet paper floats
to promise life and peace and progress–
Come now the skirring stone-eyed pipers, silver daggers in their boots.
From “Fourth of July”, rjn