INTERVIEW: Stratford-upon-Avon bagpiper Joe Moore
BAGPIPES are not just played by Celtic folk: Herald arts editor Gill Sutherland meets Stratford’s Joe Moore, who’s been playing the pipes for nearly 50 years.
How did you get started playing the bagpipes?
I was at school in Harrow – not the posh one. We had the army cadets with the pipe band there so I started playing when I was 14 – I’m 69 now so it’s been a few years. My mother said the real reason I got started was the king’s funeral came past our house with the Scots Guards playing the Garb of Old Gaul [an 18th century marching song] and I was only about a year old.
Did you have any mentors?
I was taught by Evan Macrae [1922-1991], the pipe major from the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.
An Englishman playing the pipes – do you ever get any flak for that?
People are more amused by it, certainly when I was in Scotland. I lived in West Lothian and played in the Livingston and Pumpherston band. We had a really successful year and won all the competitions we had gone in for, including the world championships. At the end of that I said, ‘You needed an Englishman in the band to win everything.’ I got a lot of abuse for that.
What have you done as a day job?
We moved to this area so I could take the job as a bar manager for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust at Mary Arden’s Farm. So I did that for 16 years before I retired. The cows liked the sound of the pipes – it would settle them down and increase their milk yield.
Playing the pipes has taken you all over the world, hasn’t it?
Well, I’ve gone all over the world and the pipes have gone with me. They’ve been round the world once. I played them in the States and in New Zealand and Australia. I used them to busk so I could get enough money to pay for accommodation and stuff like that. In New Zealand they were hugely popular. In Australia they were popular but sometimes for mixed reasons – people use to pay me $10 to go and play in front of a particular shop if they knew it would torment the person inside.
It’s not to everyone’s taste, is it? Tell me about the sound and what you think it brings.
Music literally moves people. I once met someone who said he hated music and I find that very strange for a human being to say that.
But with pipes, the vibrations get inside you, you are physically moved by it because you have three drones humming away, with the melody coming off the chant. I think people have to accept it and be moved by it. You don’t really have a choice – although some people actually do feel violated by the sound.
The highland pipes originated in Ireland and they came over in the 1300 or 1400 and took over from the harp as the clan instrument. So they aren’t uniquely Scottish there’s pipes all over the world. The great pipe have become synonymous with Scotland.
They’re known as a tricky instrument to learn – what is the key to its mastery?
Anybody can go up to a piano and bang out some notes on it, although it doesn’t make them a pianist. The reason why the pipes can be a challenge is that you have to do more things than just use one or two hands. You get to the point where you are blowing steadily and squeezing to get the three drones going, and you have to have the knowledge and skill to tune the drones with chanter. You can’t stop and start like you can with another instrument. Any expression has to come from any embellishments you play.
If you worked hard you could get on to play full pipes in six months. With children they often keep them on the practice chanter - like a small recorder - for maybe a year or two.
Where do you play now?
I play in the Standard Triumph Pipe Band in Coventry. We’ve only done Zoom practices since Covid. When we’re there we play at the Standard Triumph Social Club which is part of the old motor works. So the social club is still there in the middle with the bowling club and all the motor works have been turned into a housing estate. We’re allowed to play in the Welcombe Health and Social club for an hour on a Monday evening and that’s just picked up again.
Did you play gigs by yourself?
Unfortunately there’s more of a demand for funerals but yes I do weddings, parties, and really anything people want. Obviously around Burns night I’ve already got bookings for 2022. This year was a write off.
What’s in your repertoire? What would be your signature tune?
There’s the ones that people recognise: Amazing Grace, Scotland the Brave and Mull of Kintyre. People like music that they recognise but there is a whole selection of music which is the big music ‘ceol mor’ music – that’s the classical music of the bagpipes.
When I was at school we just played the military marches because we were leading the cadets round so we didn’t learn any of this stuff which is more elaborate. The way to learn it is to have somebody sing it to you as it’s an oral tradition that goes way back.
Are bagpipes difficult to get a hold of?
You can get them made. The pipes I play mostly at the moment were made around 1900 in Aberfeldy by Gavin McDougall. I can trace them back to their original owners because when I bought them there was an address label in the box and the chap that owned them was called Andrew Gordon Glenbucket McGregor Meldrum.
Does the sound resonate with age of the instrument?
You should get better harmonics although some people say that that it’s in the wood. You need a good hard wood and a good pipe maker. Nowadays you can get pipes that are made from a sort of plastic and some of the bands are playing those. The thing is that in different climates they don’t suffer the heat so people are drawn to them. I think the resonance of the wood does show. It’s gone from an instrument made of wood with a bag made from cow skin or sheep skin and reeds made of cane. Now there are people playing with goretex bags and with plastic reeds and still getting a good sound.
There was a phase of everyone using synthetic materials but now the world championship bands have gone back to sheepskin bags and cane drone reeds. Historically the reeds were made of cow horn that had been shaved down. What’s interesting at the moment is that I’m getting lessons online and one of the champs who is teaching me the classical music lives in Canada and he’s been over and won the gold medals in Inverness and the Glenfiddich championships at Blair Castle. He sings to us on Zoom to a group of people and we record us playing and send it to him and he critics it. So it’s gone from something you’d go to a neighbour’s house to learn to all around the world now.
Are you still learning?
Absolutely and with the classical tunes there are hundreds to master. What’s interesting is that you can hear other tunes in them. They reckon that Ode to Joy was a bagpipe tune and that was picked up from pipe music and made into a classical piece. It’s interesting how music moves around.
I was in a competition the other day run by the Piobaireachd Society where I was doing a live recording. I should have gone up to Edinburgh are played on Rose Street but because of Covid we couldn’t do that. So I had to log in online and play a tune from a selection I had prepared – I was asked to play The Desperate Battle of the Birds in front of a Zoom audience. You do miss the adrenaline of playing live.