Canada @150: A baker’s dozen of tunes

June 28, 2017 on 6:09 pm by Michael Grey | In News, Pipe Bands, Solo Piping | No Comments

This year, as some might know, is Canada’s 150th anniversary of “confederation”, as we Canadian-types say. It was in 1864 that politicians of the day met in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island and started to agree to something called Canada. By July 1, 1867, we had Canada – and – our first Prime Minister, John A MacDonald, Glasgow born – in the Merchant City area, quite possibly – set the stage for a Canada where the pipes are never too far away from earshot. In fact, one Colin Roy MacLellan made a prize-winning pibroch in honour of the great man, “Salute to Sir John A MacDonald”, published (2016) in his father’s, Captain John A’s, “Complete Compositions of Ceol Mor”. An excellent tune.

And so a compositional seque to now: in honour of Canada’s 150 (and seizing an excuse as good as any), a “top” 13 tunes list made up of Canadians. I list them here, with the composer’s surname in alphabetical order.

Nothing too serious here, all in the name of Canada’s anniversary now – I reflected on tunes that were (a) composed by Canadians, or (suspected) naturalized Canucks and (b) tunes that I had a sense are – or at one time were – quite popular. I know there’re loads of good and great tunes of real merit around. This is just a list. One list in a moment in time. And yes, most of these people built many more than one excellent tune.

I didn’t include John Wilson. I don’t know if he ever officially became a Canadian but believe his best tunes were not made in the Land of the Trees.

Barrie, James A – “John MacKenzie’s Fancy” (Hornpipe). Such a seriously original and evergreen tune. One of the first to successful roll in pibroch technique to a light music tune. This tune is a technical monster if you choose to take up the challenge of the composer’s original score.

Beaton, Farquhar – “Colonel D M Robertson” (6/8 March). Beaton, P/M of my alma mater, the 48th Highlanders of Canada, from 1900 – 1913, arrived to Canada in 1894, aged 33, from Glasgow via Edinburgh. He composed “Col. Robertson” after a 48th man and, by the way, the “Midlothian Amateur Pipe Band”, a tune many might think “trad”. Beaton rests in Toronto’s well populated Mount Pleasant cemetery. It’s Beaton’s Robertson tune that forms the melody to the 1960s-era song, “Ballad of Glencoe”.

Cairns, Archie – “Pipe Major J K Cairns” (3/4 March). A tune written for his father, I believe, and also the name of his double gold medal-winning son, Pipe Major of Peel Regional Police Pipe Band, of course. Not strictly my cup of tea, but most pipers surely love – or have loved – this tune.

Dickie, Neil – “The Clumsy Lover” (Hornpipe). I hope Neil managed to become a Canuck – he’s been here long enough. This tune surely one of the most-played of all “fast tunes” in the idiom bar, possibly, the 300 year old tunes, “Sleepy Maggie” and “Mrs MacLeod of Raasay”. I remember as a kid – yes a kid – siting at a Toronto airport bar seeing Neil off to Alberta and he singing this then unpublished tune to me. He wrote the tune out on a bar napkin and I took it to the band – the 78th Fraser Highlander pipe band. I’ll auction the napkin off on eBay one day.

Gandy, Bruce – “Mrs Sharon Duthart” (9/8 Jig). We all know Bruce has made a boatload (I can hear him using that word now!) of fine tunes. This is just one of many that I have always liked. Very melodic and not too technically tricky – but tricky enough. For my money, a good solo competition tune for those with experience – and good taste.

Livingstone, William – “Lillian Livingstone” (Hornpipe). I remember as a young amateur piper sidling up to the rare professional hornpipe/jig competitions [most, as now, were jig-only events], in part with the hope Bill would get this gem picked. I just loved it. – and love it. I remember he played this tune in the basement of Moss Park Armouries in the 48th band room as part of the Toronto Indoor Games. Just great. For the time – and even now – part four resides in Flashytown.

MacCrimmon, Iain – “Morrison Avenue” (4/4 March). For a time this tune was on the tune-up or performing playlist of an awful lot of bands and pipers around the world. A lovely tuneful and original piece. And should we expect anything less from the 10th hereditary piper to the clan MacLeod? Iain has made and published many excellent tunes. This is just one.

MacHattie, James – “At Long Last” (4/4 March). James is a Saskatchewan (say that without starting to stutter) man but now principal of the College of Piping on Prince Edward Island, a mere 4100 kilometre jaunt east of Saskatoon. I believe this tune was made to commemorate a long sought-after victory. I have a sense that this tune is imbued with – among other things – James’ many visits to Brittany. It has a fine Breton flavour, to my mind.

MacNeil, Robert – “Jack’s Welcome Home” (4/4 March). Vancouver’s Robert M has a real knack for making excellent tunes. Of that there is zero doubt. Born in Toronto (the Ontario in me has to say that) he has become a seriously important backbone of the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band organization. This tune was made to commemorate champion piper, Jack Lee’s homecoming after having won one of his gold medals in Scotland.

Mackay, Reay – “Colin Mackay” (Hornpipe). This tune still stands today as one of my favourites, if not my favourite, hornpipe. Reay composed this tune when he was 13 years old and named it for his father, also a piper, the Orkney-born, Colin. An original piece it has melody, rhythm and fun all rolled together. It’s also an example of a hornpipe played by Highland pipers where there is a natural pointing in the phrasing – and rhythm – reminiscent of the hornpipe dance.

Magee, Colin – “Jamie Troy’s Wedding” (6/8 Jig). I love that this tune follows the piper’s primer for naming tunes (weddings, farewells, welcomes, favourites and fancies) but is absolutely the bomb when it comes to originality. This tune, by Victoria, BC-based Colin, is full of melody but layered on a grid of fierce syncopation. So good. So fresh – to this day. A random comment: judging an amateur jig contest in Vancouver last weekend; someone submitted this tune, I picked it, he played it. As he fired off his off-beat high A’s I glanced over my shoulder and there was Jamie Troy, Junior – an offshoot, I’d say, of the grand occasion commemorated. Slightly spooky.

McGillivray, Jim – “Michael MacDonald’s Jig” (6/8 Jig). Jim named this tune for Toronto-based, Montreal-born piper, Michael MacDonald. The tune is full of seriously original twists and turns and – best of all – an inherent energy that keeps interest. Another tune made for a competing solo piper – or anyone looking to play a tune that makes people smile and tap their feets.

Worrall, Bob“Drew James MacIntosh” (6/8 Jig). Named for one of Bob’s pupils. Drew, among many other things, a piper in the Peel Regional Police Pipe Band, at my time in the band. This is a great tune for band or solo – just challenging enough and full of melody and interest. I think I can pass along a silly (true) Drew story now: picture Barrie, Ontario games, about 1996. Drew is playing “Lament for the Viscount of Dundee” in the senior amateur pibroch event. Colin MacLellan judging. I’m there listening. So is fellow band piper (and former highland dancer), Derek Roberts. I dare Derek to dance a fling behind Colin Roy (and me P/M of the band!) as Drew hits the crunluath doubling. Derek’s game and does just that … Drew never flinched (we in the gallery were fairly gleeful). And, Drew won the contest.

And so a bagpipe tune-builder’s list for Canada’s 150!

Some grand evergreen tunes, I must say!

M.

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