BLUEGRASS MUSIC – THE BAGPIPE CONNECTION (June 17/05)

When bluegrass started to catch on around here some 50 or 60 years ago, people first called it “hillbilly music,” an affectionate term I assumed was passé and now no longer used.

But I guess it isn’t so passé after all, as I learned to my amazement. Recently I turned on a Spinney Brothers recording of Up And Down The Mountain when my granddaughter was in the car; when Melissa heard Rick Spinney picking on the banjo she clapped her hands and shouted, “Oh good, hillbilly music!”

I haven’t heard bluegrass called anything but bluegrass for ages so I was surprised to hear it referred to as hillbilly music; especially coming from a 10-year-old. I have no idea where Melissa heard the expression, or how she knew enough about music to make the bluegrass-hillbilly connection, but there it was. Obviously, if a child with a relatively limited musical experience connects bluegrass with hillbilly, there must still be adults thinking the same way.

Anyway, what isn’t surprising is that bluegrass and the Spinney Brothers have a new fan in my granddaughter. She starts grinning and singing whenever I play a Spinney instrumental that’s heavy on banjo and mandolin.

I say this isn’t surprising because I’ve been giving Melissa bagpipe lessons for nearly a year and she likes anything musical that has a Celtic flavour. And, in case you didn’t know, there’s a definite bagpipe, bluegrass connection. To perhaps be exact, there’s a Celtic influence in pure bluegrass and the music can be traced back to areas in the United States that were heavily settled by Irish and Scottish people.

And while bluegrass music owes its origins to more than the bagpipes, the contribution of this instrument had duly been noted by no less than the Country Music Hall of Fame. In the Hall’s souvenir songbook, in the write-up on Bill Monroe, pure bluegrass is called that “hybrid of Scottish bagpipes, Negro blues and Fundamentalists hymns.”

It’s likely no coincidence, by the way, that Bill Monroe, who is hailed as the person who created the bluegrass style of music, has Celtic roots.

Having played and studied the pipes for over 50 years I can attest to the fact that the playing techniques used in bluegrass music are similar to the bagpipe. Musical expressions or fingering common to the bagpipe, what pipers call “tachems” for example, are generally used in bluegrass. One of the top bluegrass bands in North America, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, acknowledge the music’s Gaelic roots in a lot of their playing. Some of the latest releases by Skaggs actually cross over into what is pure Gaelic music played with traditional bluegrass instruments.

Further, I have a collection of some 2,000 old Irish music, instrumental pieces for keyboard, fiddle and Uilleann pipes. Some of the tunes in this collection – and I’ve played most of them – are similar in melody to some of the earlier bluegrass, folk music and gospel melodies.

I don’t know if its convincing proof that bluegrass and the pipes are connected, but a mini-survey I’ve been conducting for the past year is interesting. Whenever I play in public usually someone tells me they’re “crazy over the bagpipes.” When I ask if they also like bluegrass there’s always a big smile and an enthusiastic “yes.”

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