St. Andrews college bagpipers keep tradition alive

Sunday, October 15th 2006, 12:30 pm
By: News On 6

LAURINBURG, N.C. _ A soft sound filters through the early fall afternoon at St. Andrews Presbyterian College, unnoticed by most of the students who scurry to their next class.

But visitors notice, pausing to listen: the sound of bagpipes, unseen but unmistakable.

``It's nice, sort of fitting, to hear that sound,'' said Bill Caudill. As the director of the college's Scottish Heritage Center, he holds a soft spot for the pipes. He also holds a notable position in the resurgence of bagpipes in North Carolina.

Had it not been for Caudill's talent and insistence more than 20 years ago, St. Andrews might not have one of the three bagpipe study programs in the country.

And folks looking for an experienced piper to play at everything from christenings to funerals would have had to look long and hard to find one.

``People tend to forget how rare bagpipers were,'' said Caudill, a lifelong piper. ``They see the deep Scottish heritage in this part of the state and just assume the pipes have always been here. But there was a time when you couldn't find a talented piper closer than Charlotte.''

Now, Caudill leads a small army of octopus-wrestling young men as they prepare for a national competition. Last spring, the St. Andrews pipers were named the best in the South.

The pipers, most in their early 20s, hail from places most folks wouldn't have associated with the ancient instrument _ such as Texas and Oklahoma, Orlando and Tidewater.

Nearly all of them have some connection to Scotland, but most had an uphill struggle persuading their parents to let a bagpipe in the house.

``They were like, 'What are you thinking?''' said Seth Wells, a 21-year-old piper from Wilmington. ``And it took about a year until I could play without sounding like a dying cat.''

Others found support at home.

``My dad fell in love with the pipes overseas,'' said 20-year-old Chance Bell. ``He was overseas with NATO and could never find the time to learn. But when I said I'd like to learn, he gave me his practice chanter and his blessings. I started at 10 years old.''

That's a good time to learn, Caudill said.

``Learning the bagpipe is really a two-part operation,'' he said.

First, you learn how to play tunes on the chanter, the part of the instrument that the player places his fingers on to produce the tune.

``Once a student is proficient there, we move on to the bag,'' he said.

The bag holds air, which is squeezed by the player using arm pressure.

``It's like nothing else as far as coordination,'' said Zach Long, a student from Tidewater, Va. ``You're combining hand and eye, lung and arm. It's not surprising so many people give up on it.''

And those who stay with it find few options in college. Only three schools _ St. Andrews, Lyons College in Arkansas and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh _ offer study programs. Students at St. Andrews can pursue a minor in music with a concentration in bagpipes.

``There's an unfortunate sort of opinion of viewing in most academic circles,'' said William McConnell, chairman of the St. Andrews music department. ``They tend to look down on folk instruments. The bagpipe isn't a classical instrument, so therefore it must somehow be deemed less worthy.''

Bagpipes came to the Carolinas with the original Scottish settlers who found homes in the Sandhills. But, Caudill notes, the haunting sound faded soon after the Revolutionary War.

``Several things worked against bagpipes,'' he said. ``For openers, the wood in the region didn't produce the same rich tones. Oak and pine bagpipes just didn't cut it.

``More important was the fading importance of heritage,'' he said. ``In the New World, everyone tried to assimilate. Bagpipes didn't enjoy the widespread appeal of other instruments, and they disappeared about the same time the Gaelic language did.''

The pipes disappeared, except for an occasional funeral or church service, for about 200 years. Small clusters of pipers played in parades, but the pipe revival didn't begin until the country was riveted on the funeral for President Kennedy.

``The pipes on television,'' Caudill said. ``It was the first time many people in the United States had heard or seen them.''

Eight years later, a bagpipe rendition of the gospel classic ``Amazing Grace'' hit the radio. It became a mainstay at funerals, including Mr. Spock's in ``Star Trek II'' _ played by Scotty, of course.

Alternative folk music discovered the pipe in the late 1970s. Songs such as Steve Earle's ``Copperhead Road'' and AC/DC's ``Long Way to the Top'' featured bagpipes. Suddenly the instrument was hip, used by folks artists and punk rockers. Players such as Caudill found another generation eager to learn.

``The guys who come to St. Andrews to study leave with an obligation,'' he said. ``They were the ones to pass the bagpipes to the next generation. The bagpipe was all but unheard for 200 years. We don't want that to happen again.''