MAD CHARLEY – AN OLD TRADITION (March 28/97)

Kentville on a Friday night in the early ’50s. Stores bustling with customers, streets jammed with people laughing and talking as they walked “the square”, pipes skirling, horns honking, a general air of festivity as…

Hold it. Were bagpipes actually “skirling” in downtown Kentville on its busiest night? Yes. It was a weekly ritual. Attired in his Black Watch kilt and khaki tunic, his face set in a defiant glare, Charley the “Mad Piper” hit Kentville on Friday nights and played while marching up and down Webster Street. Occasionally he walked the main square with pipes under his arm, playing whenever someone shouted, “Give us a tune.” And play he did, staying on the streets until the stores closed or the police asked him to leave. Whichever came first.

Charley was stationed at Aldershot Camp with the Black Watch and he was a marvelous piper. The pipe-sergeant of the Black Watch band said he was one of the most talented players he had ever heard and had the attributes of a champion. Fine fingers, a good ear, an exceptional memory – he could hear a tune once or twice and play it instantly. A piping fanatic, Charley lived for the pipes and piping and little else mattered.

A player with Charley’s skills would normally be welcome in the piping fraternity, but this wasn’t the case. Charley was a rebel, a non-conformist who played music his way and wouldn’t knuckle down to the rigid standards of professional band playing. Charley couldn’t – or wouldn’t – read music, a prerequisite for band players, which meant that he could only play solo, he was “mad” about piping, hence the name, but that madness and a penchant for rendering tunes in his own style and playing by ear made him an outcast.

Charley’s tale may seem to be a sad one. Here was an extremely talented piper who wouldn’t conform and had to be content with serenading unwilling Kentville shoppers and dodging the police on Friday night.

But don’t feel sorry for him. In another day, another time, Charley would have been a welcome and treasured addition to any Gaelic community, where piping and Gaelic music and dancing was a tradition. You see, Charley was a throwback. At one time there was no written pipe music. Pipers learned a tune by listening to other pipers play or by having a tune hummed or chanted to them. Figuratively speaking, traditional pipe music was passed on by word of mouth, as were folk songs and the folk tales our Gaelic ancestors cherished.

This “learning and listening” especially when it comes to piping, is a lost art. Barry Shears, one of Nova Scotia’s best pipers, notes that when all pipers played by ear it was a more lively, musical style than is heard today. Pipers around the province, and especially in Cape Breton, all played in this style at one time and it’s a method that is hundreds of years old. The ear-trained pipers of the likes of Charley, who played countless tunes from memory, where common in generations past; but, says Shears, there are few of them left today.

Barry Shears may one day write a history of piping in Nova Scotia. I wonder if Charley the Mad Piper, who once thrilled and dismayed Kentville shoppers, will somehow appear in its pages.

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