Interview with Willie McCallum (Part 2)

Part one of this interview can be found here.


JDH – Jack Taylor points out that pibroch isn’t classical music at all. It’s a misnomer, a misunderstanding. Classical music was written first to be played. Pibroch was oral, was folk music, it came out of people, out of families.

I don’t know what that does, but I have a sense that if we think of pibroch as folk music, it might bring us to a different approach, a different way of thinking of it and playing it.

This isn’t classical stuff. This is out of the voice of the people.

WMcC – Absolutely. I think people use the terminology “classical music of the bagpipe,” to indicate it was the original music of the bagpipe.

JDH – I see. To indicate age. And the ambivalence of the term allowed it to be associated with western “classical music”! “Classic” vs. “Classical”.

WMcC – Aye. I think that’s why they use that term. But it can be misinterpreted. But I see it as folk music. You just have to look at the subjects of the tunes and the reasons some of them were written and the occasions on which they were written, and they are everyday experiences of people.

And that is as true now as it was when they were written 250 years ago. People are born, people go to war, people gather, people celebrate: all of these things are experienced by people.

That’s why I think, if you can get the story of a tune and play it, people can relate to that. It’s understood what the message is.

JDH – Now the stories: that’s an interesting thing. We’ve been touching upon this concept of intention and story-telling. A lot of these stories may be apocryphal. And some tunes have no titles or stories at all.

Take a look at Birth of Rory Mor (PS 131) – There are three different titles to that: Rory Mor, Are you merrymaking (or, more literally, “mad, insane”)?, and MacLeod’s Dog’s Short Tail. That’s a wild disparity of titles.

Now, I think the disparity of titles are reflective of apocryphal story connections, but they may also be just as reflective of that folk dimension where the music enters into other areas, and is remembered differently, the title gets attached whimsically, and maybe that’s indicative of another interpretation that takes off. But all that is reflective of every day life!

WMcC – Yup. There are tons of tunes with two or three titles. Dozens of them. But you get that in old traditional marches, strathspeys and reels; you get the same thing. You get the different titles for the same tune.

JDH – I like the messiness of it, the humanness that it reflects.

WMcC – BTW: I suppose there was hardly any communication between communities. So people who travelled between communities would take music (of course it wasn’t written down), so they would be playing something and someone would say, “Aye, I really like that. Would you teach me that?” And they would teach them that and they would go away somewhere else. And maybe the student would remember the tune but forget the title. We’ve all done that. That must have been going on. Nobody had a book to go to and go, “Ah, that’s what it was called.”

I remember my uncle Hugh did a talk on the development of the 2/4 march and he talked about a tune we now know as an 8-part march called Donald Cameron. Everyone knows it as Donald Cameron, but originally it was four 2-part tunes, and the original title was collated by Donald Cameron and known as Donald Cameron’s Hodge Podge. But nobody knows it by that title any more.

It used to be four 2-part marches that were developed into one big march, and everybody thinks the tune was named after Donald Cameron.

JDH – That’s really interesting. Because occasionally I run into a pibroch whose variations I have a hard time aligning with the Urlar. Lament for the Viscount of Dundee (PS 114), maybe.  It’s not so misaligned it doesn’t make any sense, but occasionally I wonder if two things came together, maybe the one sounded like the other and the variations came together but one of the urlars was lost?

WMcC – The best example of that would be the Lament for the Union (PS 234), when you play the variations bearing absolutely no relation to the ground. And you wonder, was that a deliberate thing? Was there a message there, two halves of the tune not coming together? Who wrote it? The problem is we don’t know who wrote the tune, the purpose of that. Was it originally just a melody and other variations from another tune were connected to it?

JDH – That would be very clever. A musical metaphor for the disunion of the North and South.

WMcC – Well, that’s what they say: England and Scotland were so far apart socially and culturally, it was to show that the two couldn’t match. That’s what people say. But who knows whether that was the case at all.

JDH – When you tell the stories of pibroch, do they help you perform the pibroch better, give it a sense of intention?

When you look at a piece, how do you bring it to life?

WMcC – There are some obvious ones. If you take for example something like Rory MacLeod’s Lament (PS 064): it’s one of the saddest tunes you could play. You just hear the melody once, there’s so much sadness. That’s what I hear when I hear that, and that’s what I try to put across. I get what whoever wrote it was trying to get across. It’s so emotional.

You kinda know what that tune was, because it doesn’t have any other title.

You’ve also got ones like My King Has Landed in Moidart (PS 115): Now, there’s quite a lot know about that. There’s slightly different settings, but that tune was written in 1715 and that gives me a whole feel, and I would go through that tune and that’s how I would play it. For me, that’s a tune of celebration. And so, you try to put forward that energy. It’s almost like a hope. The guy who wrote that, John MacIntyre. was seeing this event as the future. The people there were so hopeful when that event happened. So, there’s a kind of celebration to that, and energy that was probably within the people who were going to fight for whom they thought was the rightful king. And, that gives me something I can hang on to.

But there are other tunes, you maybe think there are a couple of titles….

JDH – Or some with no titles.

WMcC – Yeah, exactly! And you look at a tune Isabel MacKay (PS 032): That’s tune with a really really good melody, and it’s got a woman’s name. But you look at some of the manuscripts and I think it’s called the Battle of Maolroy…I mean, it doesn’t seem like a battle tune to me. Where did that title come from. And you think, well, maybe…But it doesn’t seem that aggressive to me. It doesn’t seem like a battle tune.

So, you’re trying to look at it and you say, well, it’s quite a reasonably melodic tune, so why would you be overly aggressive with it? It wouldn’t work.

JDH – So there’s something within the music itself that, maybe if you study it hard and play with it a bit… I have to do this all the time. I have to ask myself when I’m picking up an old manuscript that may have an unexpected tempo indicator, or it may not have a stable title tradition, or it may not have a title at all: is there something in the music itself that can guide me?

WMcC – I think you can say that with tunes other than pibroch. There seems to be a “natural” tempo and feel to a lot of tunes. I suppose from pibroch you either get a feel for that from your tuition or from you experience. And you might see in a tune something you see in common with another tune that you know pretty well, and you think, “Well, that’s very very similar to that, so I’ll try that same feel with it and see if it works out. Does it feel right? Does it seem musical? Are you getting the most out of the phrases doing it that way?”

JDH – You mentioned the other night how you had been competing a long time, and winning prizes, and heard a performer and a light went on. Tell that story again.

WMcM – Well that was a recording I had on a cassette in the house. I’m not exactly sure of the date, but I think it was around 1980 and it was a recording from the Glenfiddich Piobaireachd competition and it was Hugh McCallum playing The Unjust Incarceration (PS 003) I put it on one day, and it just blew me away. I had never heard pibroch like that. Just the musicality of the tune, and just the way it was played: There were just tiny wee touches of phrasing that was just…it was…it all made complete sense, it didn’t seem as if there would be ever any other way to play it. That’s what it sounded like to me. And I’ve heard other ways of playing, but that was like: it was just one of those moments you say, “If I could ever play a tune like that, that would be it.”

It kinda turned me on to a different way of pibroch. You know I’d been learning tunes for years, but it had a lot of things in it: that interpretation, the musicality, the ground, the technique and the progression through the variations and the different rhythms and tempos and timings…the whole thing. There was so much in there that I could apply to other tunes I was already playing.

I mean, I heard a lot of really good playing, you know. But that was a moment when I was converted as a student of pibroch.

JDH – There are a couple levels there that I wanted to explore. The obvious level is: you mentioned the pacing and the phrasing – the level of musicality. I want to acknowledge that’s a lot of what we talk about, esp. in learning environments.

But there’s another level that I want to explore, and that’s: music affects limbic systems of your brain. It enters into parts of your brain that is non-cognitional, where it overrides the prefrontal cortex. It’s the reptilian part of your brain. It’s why music above any other form of communication makes you cry, makes you want to dance, to shout, to jump and you don’t know why. When you hear a song, suddenly it clicks and your body just reacts to it.

It seems to me that when you are playing music, you have this huge responsibility due to the impact you have. It’s a super deep form of communication.

Not all of it can actually be analytic at all. In fact, I think the deepest power is when you can’t put words to it: when that sublimity hits, when that sense of the awesome hits, when silence is the only form of response.

Music can do that. So, you as a musician strive to achieve that. You need to: you do something bad, you affect them badly. You do something good, you are in the heart of the listener.

So, to go back: what did that song say to you? How did it affect you, touch you, transform you?

WMcC – The ground in particular had an energy I’m not even sure I could put into any words. It just had this quality that you couldn’t help but listen to the strength of the music.

JDH – Was it sadness? Was it anger?

WMcC – It was probably more an anger kind of thing. But it wasn’t an angry tune. You wouldn’t say it was fast and aggressive in that way. But it just took the tune in the way it should be.

It’s one of the great tunes. It’s a massive piece of music. It just…it just…

I think, I mean sometimes you just get something and it hits the spot for you. Sometimes you can’t really say just why.

You don’t hear that very often. Because there’s always a wee thing.
And you do that with yourself, you know. Even when you’re in reasonably good form and you’re playing well, there’s always some wee thing that you say, “Well, that could have been better.”

And so there’s not that many performances in your career you can say were really like that. But that, for me, was the perfect performance in every way.

The cassette was almost worn through to the other side.

More to follow…


7 Replies to “Interview with Willie McCallum (Part 2)”

  1. I’d like to comment on the observation about ‘Isobel MacKay’/’The Battle of Maolroy’ not seeming like a ‘battle tune’ – it may escape the notice of those who look only at titles, and not the historical record, that ‘The Battle of Maolroy’ is not a ‘battle tune’ at all (in the sense that it ‘depicts’ a battle; it is a celebration of victory over a landlord’s attempt to forcibly evict people from ‘his’ land. As such, it expresses triumph, and vainglory (we trounced them!) – to me, unmistakable feelings aroused by the music. The alternative title ( You of the short kail, down the brae with you) may be puzzling, but it reflects the actual events of Maolroy, in which the occupants of the glen between Laggan and Spean Bridge, the Macdonalds of Keppoch, gathered on a hilltop to repel the forces brought against them by MacIntosh of Moy in 1688. He had a charter to the land, but they paid him no rent, so he tried to throw them out, with the help of some government troops.
    They remained in residence, for the time being, at least.

  2. A further comment on the use of the terms ‘folk music’ and ‘classical music’ to describe pibroch:
    as far as I’m aware, ‘classical music of the bagpipe’ was a concept introduced by Seumas MacNeill, and appears in his book on pibroch. He definitely intended a parallel with the musical generally known by that epithet, and spoke of it as such.
    There was, in the fifties, a notion that the name ‘MacCrimmon’ was derived from ‘Cremona’ and thus linked to the classical music tradition in Italy.
    Joseph MacDonald may have had a similar parallel in mind, when he warned against adapting music from that genre to the bagpipe.

    Regarding ‘Folk Music’ – an ambigious term with various overlapping meanings – I noticed, as far back as 1960, that the ‘Folk Music Revival’ then under way did not include piping, except on some rare occasions when Hamish Henderson (one of the moving spirits of this revival) included a piper from one of the ‘travelling families’. Several individual pipers began to intrude themselves into Folk Festivals, including such notables as Rab Wallace and Allan MacDonald, with a knock-on effect as they and others played at ceilidhs and in groups of other musicians.
    Generally speaking, the folk music scene was predominantly ‘left-wing’, whereas the piping world seemed ‘conservative’ by contrast. Hamish Henderson, for example, was a well-known Communist.

    It was noticeable that one almost never heard a pibroch at any of these musical gatherings; a few were played here and there, but did not catch on, as did the ‘light music’.

    It is also curious that pibroch appears not to have crossed the Atlantic with the Gaelic-speaking emigrants from the Western Isles who settled in Cape Breton Island and preserved piping, singing, and dancing traditions with remarkable fidelity to what remained in Scotland; in the case of step-dancing, of a form that became virtually extinct here.

    A reason for this may lie in the historical evidence which shows pipers to have been employed and enjoyed by the elite, the chiefs and tacksmen, and the reference of many tunes to people of this class. Such people were not among the emigrants to Cape Breton.

    Although a number of ‘pibroch songs’ such as ‘Cholla Mo Run’ and ‘Fear Chinn Duibh’ have been collected from the general population of Gaeldom, it would appear that pibroch itself was to be found in the vicinity of the landed gentry from an early stage, and was promoted as music appropriate to them by pipers, who landed jobs as a result. In its early days, The Piobaireachd Society preserved this bias; one of its influential members, John Grant, composed a number of tunes, nearly all dedicated to titled and landed gentry.

    It is, I believe, wishful thinking to describe pibroch as ‘folk music’, at least in the sense of the word described above. There appears, whether one likes it nor not, some deep-seated incompatibility between them – perhaps this will disappear with time?

    1. John Grant certainly composed and published a number of tunes to many landed gentry and also sent them his hand done personal copies. His calligraphy was very good although the tunes less so. That though does not make him an influential member of the PS. In fact his treatment over the short lived period following John MacDonald as tutor with the army school suggests anything but. Even the interest in his papers was so low key here that they were bought up by a US Institution.

      Having helped Dr Alan Armstrong, who now runs the website devoted to Grant, locate some of the presentation copy tunes as well relevant correspondence relating to the period I would confidentially say that Grants influence as such whether deserved or not, was minimal.

      1. The website Dr Armstrong presents is very nicely done. Reading the Oban Times letters etc written by John Grant it seems he was a victim of his own rigidity. However, I have a soft spot for the musically accessible Victorian and Edwardian Ceol Mor and quite like some of the Grant compositions. Heresy, I know, but at least we know the names of his tunes are accurate! :)

        I don’t really think Armstrong’s transcriptions are necessary for anyone familiar with this website as the original notation is clean and orderly, although embellishments are presented in the style of the time.

  3. Well Isobel MacKay takes us into that wonderful world of variants and the which came first arguments. The lady involved was the subject of a poem by Rob Donn which was set to the tune of a piobaireachd called ‘Welcome to the Prince’. Ian Grimble the standard work on Rob Donn dates that version to between the winter of 1745 and 1747 when Isabel married.

    So as far as variants go one basic tune used as a victory flourish, a welcome and a marriage celebration. Take your pick which way you want to lean your interpretation when playing it.

    1. Thank you, Keith. I have added this detail to the two relevant tune pages, and

  4. I do not think that Iseabail NicAoidh was written to the melody of ‘Prince’s Salute’ but to Blàr na Maoile Ruaidh. When you strip the tune to its basics, the Melody of Ishbel NicAoidh has a little similarity to the Prince’s Salute. However, it is no more closer to Prince’s Salute than to the melody it has as Iseabail NicAoidh, that, because of Rob Donn’s poem was renamed just as happened to Moladh Moraig.

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