I started to go down a rabbit hole late Friday evening. It was an unlikely topic for me — bagpipes, of all things. Normally when I disappear into the vast digital landscape, I’m hot on the trail of an ancestor dangling back five generations on my family tree. Or I’m chasing some oddball, 19th century news story about eccentric southerners. Sometimes, those topics overlap.
But I was on a different kind of search Friday evening. I just wanted to know what it was about bagpipe music that felt so good.
So I typed, “Why do we love bagpipes?” and hit return.
The first hit was a big disappointment — a New York magazine article that said the bagpipe is a “deeply annoying instrument” and that the music it plays is just a real downer.
That’s where I stopped, kicked dirt into the rabbit hole and ended the search.
This all started Friday afternoon when a Hopkinsville couple, Grace and Brendan Abernethy, stood on the front steps of the most beautiful old building in Hopkinsville, the Pennyroyal Area Museum, and played their bagpipes as the wind kicked up and a gray sky threatened to turn loose a storm.
A few dozen people had followed the musicians out the front door of the museum. The last one out was Janet Bravard, the person that Grace and Brendan had come to serenade on the occasion of her retirement from the museum.
Let’s admit that some experiences should not be analyzed through an internet search. I don’t need someone else’s interpretation of my visceral appreciation for the music that comes from a bagpipe — because when I hear it in-person, I know I’m listening to something that can’t be done just any old day.
How many people do you think there are in Christian County who can play a bagpipe? I know of only three — and to be fair, one of them has moved away.
Now, how many people do we know who can play the piano or the guitar or a clarinet? They are on every street in Hopkinsville.
So when someone retires from the museum who has worked there for nearly 29 years, bagpipes are in order. And a crowd will gather. Friends will hold up hand-made signs that say, “Congratulations.” And even that storm that is brewing above will stand back and show respect to the music and the moment.
I asked Alissa Keller — the executive director of the museum and the person responsible for getting Grace and Brendan to don kilts and bring their musical instruments out — if she had any idea how many times bagpipes had been played in downtown Hopkinsville. It’s an impossible question. The city is old. Who knows. Maybe in some parades. Maybe at the Alhambra.
The bagpipe is an ancient instrument, and the music it produces is continuous. It makes me think of a church pipe organ, but one that is small enough to wrap around the body of a piper. I don’t know another instrument that looks and sounds so inexplicably linked to the musician’s body.
Nearly 20 years ago, I followed a bagpipe player into an auditorium for my graduate school commencement in Baltimore. There were about 25 nonfiction writers in our class, and being a person with the last name Brown put me near the front of the line and very close to the music. I didn’t know there would be anything so special for our entrance that day. It was a surprise — and, boy, did it set a mood. We felt grand.
I can imagine, then, what it was like for Janet Bravard to stand in front of the museum while the pipers played for her. From the look on her face, I’d say it was excellent. I hope so.