Not to be confused with the piratical "arr!"
In 1972, a full 37 years ago, the band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards recorded the hymn "Amazing Grace,"
whose English (god save the mark) roots had been forgotten for a century. To most people, it was an American hymn.
To their astonishment, the Guards band had a full-fledged hit on their hands. To the grief of many people, we have had a cliche on our hands ever since. No American funeral, especially of the tear-jerking public variety, is complete without bagpipers choking back their bile and playing "Amazing Grace."
Good god, I am so fucking sick of it.
Why, might one ask, has a hymn whose tangled ancestry never included Scottish bagpipes until these recent times become a tedious staple of funerary events? Simple: because it was
a hit. Because few Americans--even those of remoter Scottish ancestry-- had ever heard bagpipes before this hit. As Tolkien said of his American "cultus," they had never encountered art before and became quite drunk on it.
A requirement of my Welsh ancestry is supposed to be scorn for bagpipes. In my culture, real music is that of the voice or the harp. I think that's a bit of denial. The bagpipes came to Britain from the Middle East courtesy of the Romans. When they left, the bagpipes stayed, perhaps because the supernatural harmony that just one instrument can produce resonates with the Celtic mind.
No matter where I am, the sound of bagpipes automatically snaps my head around to the music. To me, the disgusting thing about this American obsession with "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes is its sheer narrowness. The bagpipe repertory includes a grand array of moving compositions; some dating to the 18th century or before, some much more recent. If you want laments, there is a full subcategory for this. There is the entire library of pibroch, piobareachd
, variations of primary themes, capable of almost infinite variety. There is even Scottish rock music built from bagpipe themes and even—I am not making this up—experiments with electric bagpipes.
And all the pitiful Americans can come up with is "Amazing Grace." What drivel.
A bagpiper lived not too far from me a few years ago. Some warm evenings, one would hear a free-form lamentation pibroch played out from a quarter mile off: if such music doesn't make your hair stand on end, you're not alive. Once you've heard that, the funerary "Amazing Grace" falls into place as an absurd burlesque of a profound native art form.
On this, Scots all, my hat's off to you. Oh yes, and the whisky. The haggis, not so much.
Labels: Amazing Grace, bagpipes, popular culture