It is a sound that has struck terror in enemies during war and evoked tears at funerals. And even its devotees say it is an acquired taste.
“I took up playing the bagpipes to get even with my parents,” said Jim Lynch, the pipe major emeritus and co-founder of Durango’s Westwind Pipes & Drums. “I taught myself and found out I did it all wrong. I had to start over again with my teacher Calvin Biggar, who was probably the best piper on the West Coast.”
Lynch, former Durango resident Tom Shine and then Fort Lewis College student Bernie Bran started the band in 1978, calling it the Durango Gaelic Society and Marching Band. It wasn’t the first bagpipe band in Durango’s history – there was one in Durango’s early days, and newspaper stories from 1906 report that a bagpipe band played at the grand opening of the Durango Public Library that year.
Jerry Crawford, the current pipe major, or bandleader, wanted to learn the bagpipes since he was a teenager, but didn’t get started until he was 31 and moved to Durango to teach physics at Fort Lewis College. He lived down the hill from Shine and heard him playing his bagpipes then met Lynch and began lessons. Lynch taught Crawford and several other band members, and Crawford has joined him in carrying on the teaching tradition.
“The pipes are hard to play at any altitude,” Crawford, who plays several instruments, said. “But at this altitude, whew!”
The band’s most difficult gig was a wedding held at 12,000 feet, above Silverton, complicated by the fact that they had to hike in carrying their instruments.
Cold is also hard on both the bagpipes and drums.
“It never gets cold in Scotland except for the area up by the North Sea,” Crawford said. “Western Scotland even has palm trees.”
The cold can be a real problem in the mountains of Southwest Colorado.
“It was minus 4 degrees when we played at the New Year’s Eve event this year,” piper Laurie Robison said. “We had to keep going inside to warm up our fingers and our instruments.”
Westwind Pipes & Drums plays at a number of events and marches in several parades each year. Last Fourth of July weekend alone, the group marched in three parades: Saturday in Bayfield, Sunday morning in Telluride and Sunday evening in Durango. The band also puts on two workshops annually, bringing in world championship pipers and drummers to teach.
Piping’s layered history
While most people think of the bagpipe as being a Scottish/Irish instrument, it actually has a far more exotic pedigree.
“The bagpipe originated in the Middle East,” Crawford said. “It’s the second oldest instrument in the world after the drums.”
The Middle Eastern version of the bagpipe sounds like “snake-charmer” music, he said, because they tune their instruments differently in that region than in the Gaelic tradition.
The bagpipe was later adopted by the Roman infantry, which brought it to the British Isles about 2,000 years ago.
For the Scots, the instrument was used both as entertainment and as a means of communication.
“It was used to call the clans in and give orders on the battlefield,” Crawford said. “Certain songs meant to retreat or flank on the left.”
Jeannine Dobbins, who started playing eight years ago, added that Scottish pipers have played on the battlefield as recently as the last century, when the Scot’s Guards fought in world wars I and II as well as the Falkland Islands.
“They always tried to kill the piper,” she said with a grin.
There are several types of bagpipes – four or five versions played in Ireland, a couple in Brittany in northwest France and several in Scotland. The Westwind band members all play the Great Highland Bagpipe.
Dobbins is generally acknowledged to have the fanciest set of bagpipes in the band.
“They were a 25th wedding present from my husband,” she said. “He and my neighbors love the bagpipe. When we moved into town, a week later, we had band practice in our front yard, and everyone came out to listen.”
Not just men full of hot air
The Westwind band has several female members, including band president and manager Marilyn Leftwich. There is some debate among members as to whether women were allowed to do much piping until the 20th century, but they’ve been coming on strong since the 1940s or so.
“Jim Lynch is old school,” Crawford said. “He started playing when pipe bands didn’t have women. He worked really hard to encourage women players.”
Robison, whose day job is with the U.S. Forest Service, began her piping career in Flagstaff, Ariz., where she has attended Northern Arizona University’s U.S. School of Piping, a weeklong intensive course, since it was founded nine years ago. The school was founded by Robison’s original teacher, Jim Thomson.
“I had a job offer in Durango, but before I took it, I checked to see whether there was a pipe band here,” she said, to the laughter of her bandmates.
Most of the band members are of Scottish heritage, and those who aren’t still claim a little, including student Rusty “Mc”Chamberlain. That occasionally leads to a poke or two at the Irish piping tradition.
“Those Irish only play happy tunes,” Crawford quips, “even at a funeral.”
While most pipe bands have a number of drummers, the Westwind group has struggled to get drummers to practice on a regular basis. So Crawford encouraged his wife, Morgan, from a kindred Scottish clan, to take up the drum a few years ago when her Highland dancing teacher left town.
The band is now going strong with about 10 or 11 pipers and four or five drummers. They’ve also picked up a new gig.
“The new president of the college (Dene Kay Thomas) loves the bagpipes,” Crawford said. “We’ve been booked to pipe the faculty onto the stage at commencements from now on.”