Bagpipes are the main squeeze at Shepherdstown concert
SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — “Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling.”
Listeners can hear them in Squeeze the Bag!, a concert associated with Shepherdstown’s Upper Potomac Piper’s Weekend, from 8 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19 at Shepherd University’s Reynolds Hall.
Robert “Bob” Mitchell, one of the piper’s who will be playing in the concert, learned the bagpipes at a young age.
“My dad started, I never heard of bagpipes until that,” said Mitchell, 67, during a phone interview while taking a break from his job as a guide at the Shepherdstown Visitors Center. “I was 9 and I took a fascination to them at a young age. As soon as he started playing, I wanted to do it, too, and we took lessons together. The funny thing is he got excited about the bagpipes when he was introduced to the bagpipes when he was Italy in the navy. He was about 35.”
The Scottish Highland bagpipes are what people most commonly think of when they picture bagpipes, but there are actually many different types.
“There’s multiple types of bagpipes, and that’s fascinating,” Mitchell said. “All of my life I was playing Scottish bagpipes, until about 20 years ago, when I started playing the Scottish small pipes. That’s what this weekend is all about, the different types of bagpipes. It was a brand new discovery. People who are acquainted with folk music are aware of the different types of bagpipes; people who go to folk festivals. However, the people who play the Highland bagpipes don’t have time for that. This weekend is very educational, it brings the different types of bagpipes and folk music to the general population, and hopefully people that play bagpipes who don’t know that there’s more than one type.”
Mitchell is leaving the more rigidly structured Highland pipes for the more expressive small pipes.
“I started playing small pipes, and that opened up a whole new field to me,” Mitchell said. “I’m transitioning from playing Highland pipes to small pipes. Small piping is really an art in itself. There’s a lot of different approaches, it’s not as classical and military in style as the Highland pipes. Highland pipes are very expressive as a soloist, but there’s a lot of parameters that you have to follow. Small pipes were around in the 1700s, and completely wiped off the earth for a couple of centuries, because of a war between England and Scotland, but they couldn’t eliminate the Highland pipes. It became the national instrument for Scotland. The Pakistans and Indians had indigenous pipes, like they have in Bulgaria and Poland, too. All these countries have native folk instruments that were wiped out of their country. They don’t even play the German pipes at Octoberfest at the Bavarian Inn, like they did in the Renaissance. All over the world it’s basically a shepherd’s instrument. Sheep love bagpipes.”
The Upper Potomac Piper’s Weekend has been going strong for more than a decade.
“It started 12 years ago, I was a part of it from the beginning,” Mitchell said. “I’m the host piper for the weekend. The concert is the main thing, there’s five different types of bagpipes playing individually in duets and trios, and we all play together at the end. We have a get together on Friday night where the students get to meet the instructors, the get to hear bagpipes they’ve never heard before. It’s a class in itself, we have classes all day Saturday and Sunday, and all day on Monday.”
Mitchell added that some of our country’s top leaders are talented pipers.
“President Trump is about to appoint an attorney general, who is a very good bagpiper, Bill Barr,” he said. “We’re friends, we’ve played together. They won’t talk about him playing bagpipes on the news.”
Top photo: Robert Mitchell will perform the bagpipes, seen here with the Scottish Highlands bagpipes, during the Squeeze the Bag! concert. (Submitted photo)