Blurred Time Continues
The War Pipes
A Trip with Ralph
In a Birmingham Diner
When they wanted the micks to die for Britain they'd crank up the pipes. It raises the blood. Men would walk through shellfire. Those that didn't fall would keep on, screaming, crying, bleeding, keeping on. Rommel was no match. Napoleon was no match. These were the war pipes. For a while, a hundred years, the Brits outlawed them in Ireland, Eire. No pipe playing. They respected the power. The micks just sat in their kitchens, by the smoldering peat, and invented the uilleann pipes. You couldn't march with them, they were too complicated--bellows, keys on all the pipes and not just the chanter, even a note you played with your knee. They were quieter too, or quiet enough anyway not to be heard by drunken patrols deafened by artillery, scared to stick their heads under a deadfall. The pipers would sit in the kitchens, the shutters drawn, the fires banked, and play the old tunes, the rolls, the aires. The Blackbird. Have You Been To The Rock? You could smoke a pipe and drink a shot of the whisk and play a tune all at the same time. And while the piper played, the boys could load a Prince Albert tin with nails and black powder in the back bedroom, and be out the side yard and down the street, and the piper might not even have had to stop for a piss before the distant concussion rattled the window glass and the boys were back gathered round the fire, guitars and fiddles at the ready for the next set: "So what'll it be, Parrigh, give us the Planxty Davis, would ya now. But none o' th' Boyne Water."
There's blood in the music. Flames flicker around the edges of the Irish tunes, it's well and true enough, famously. But there are other melodies that will bring the green sprout to the blackthorn.
We were doing this little festival in western North Carolina, way out there in that little narrow place where Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina all come together. A lot of people don't even realize part of the southern NC border is Georgia. South Carolina tails off, disappears.
The promoter was getting worried. People weren't piling in like he had expected. "How about doing a little promoting this afternoon, boys?" he came around the van, eyes jerking at us, blinking, rolling his straw hat. The implication was, maybe we'd get paid if we could help bring in the crowd. "You boys supposed to draw, Miss Leeann told me, well now?" Leeann was back in Raleigh, on the phone with somebody. "Go on over to Cherokee," he says to us. "That place is full of tourists. Pass out these bills. Play 'em some tunes."
Cherokee is about twenty-five miles away. It's fall, early fall. Some color, but not the big, peak weekend. That's later. Cherokee is the heart of an Indian reservation, the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Consider how anachronistic just those words are here in the latter 20th Century. If you know anything about why the Reservation is there you'd really be horrified.
The town is for the tourists. You can buy a wooden tomahawk, a coonskin cap, a pair of moccasins, a Cherokee coloring book, a beaded belt, a shot-glass with an Indian face in war-bonnet (something the Cherokee never went in for). Back when this happened, this little Saturday afternoon, there wasn't a casino. Cherokee's probably a little spiffier now.
We walked up and down the main street for a little while. Finally we found a spot under an awning. There might have been an old shoeshine set-up there. I have this recollection of some sort of shabby bleachers, up against a brick store- front. There were some tourists, ambling about, but it was really late in the season--the tourist season--and too early for the real colors, like I said. We pulled out our instruments. Rex propped open his guitar case and we threw in a few bucks and some change. We might as well make a little dough while we were promoting.
Pretty soon we had a crowd, such as was available. We'd do a couple of numbers and then hype the festival, who else was going to be there, when the show started, ta-da, ta-da. Then another song. There was an old wino street-sweeper who came sweeping up to where we'd set up. I don't really know where he came from. Out of some store, maybe, or maybe this was his gig, he'd just show up and sweep, and beg a little money. I noticed he'd quit sweeping and was just listening. On the fast numbers he'd clog a little. He had a certain cast to his eye, and was thin as a rail.
We did an old a capela hymn for one of our closers, a thing called "Daniel Prayed." It was good, with a complex call and response structure and a fast tempo. People loved it in the bars. Rex was good at working out harmony details and teaching the rest of us. It was one of our big strengths, tight vocals. So we ripped into old "Daniel." The story line was Daniel-in-the-lion's-den, but we never even thought much about that.
Before we finished, the sweeper threw his broom down, walked out between us and our little audience, and started "testifying." I mean, this was the real shit. He was talking hell and brimstone, the wicked fallen booze-wracked woman-haunted life, hard time, DTs, salvation. At one point he had his hat out there, asking for contributions, but mostly it was just this passionate wail. The tourists edged away, most of them. We started putting our instruments back in their cases. Eventually he ran out of steam, looked around at the emptying street, and at us, picked up his broom and went back to work. He seemed to lose a couple of inches, age ten years.
Riding back through the pass to the festival town, Murph says to me, "Roy, man, we sure tapped into something back there."
I nodded back at him. It was a kind of magic, like fooling with something ancient and dusty you might find in an old cellar somewhere, some weird machine that sends you into another dimension, or calls up a demon from under the damp rough-hewed stones. There he is, squatting on his haunches, grinning his grin, and the handle has come off in your hand.
Nobody much showed up at the festival. The promoter didn't have any money it turned out. He paid our gas out of his wallet, and made a big point of shaking our hands a lot. Then he went off somewhere and we never could find him again, and we finally just packed up and left. Hell, there was another time, the promoter ended up giving us a big jug full of pennies at the end of the night, and then got pissed because we took it.
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