Harrell Sutherland sees the potential hypocrisy of his position. For 30 years, the diminutive, bearded Sutherland worked as an audiologist at Brooks Air Force Base, warning people about the dangers of excessive volume. These days, however, he blows a mighty ruckus as Pipe Major for the San Antonio Pipes & Drums.
If anyone doubts the capacity of a revved-up pipes ensemble to tweak noise ordinances, they should hang out at MacArthur Park, where the SA Pipes & Drums gather every Wednesday night for rehearsals. As toddlers swing from jungle gyms and maneuver their way through tunnels, Harrell’s band forms a circle next to Pavilion 1 and kicks into a set of piercing, Scottish drones which provide a surreal, time-travel backdrop to the sound of squealing children.
Sutherland’s pipe band may not be the most virtuosic of the handful of local groups devoted to bagpipe music — he says they’d earn a Grade 4 ranking if they entered competitions, with Grade 1 reserved for an elite handful of Scottish masters — but they might be the most accessible. The group not only practices at MacArthur Park, they’re a mainstay at the Texas Folklife Festival, Renaissance festivals, churches, and funerals, and even serenaded England’s Queen Elizabeth II when she visited the Alamo City.
Sutherland’s pipes preoccupation is a family affair. His wife Nell, who helped him form the band in 1986, plays snare drum in the group, while his daughter Margie plays bagpipes. And although the group’s membership changes constantly, the players share the kind of easy rapport that comes from knowing you’re amongst people who speak your arcane language.
Sutherland, 73, says he started blowing the pipes in 1967 when he became conscious of his Scottish ancestry and decided to connect with the Scottish Society of San Antonio, learning the basics of the instrument from a Kelly airman. Up to that point, his musical experience consisted of playing trombone for the Uvalde High School marching band. Given the overwhelming demands of the bagpipes, which require a nearly religious devotion, Sutherland knew he was unlikely to ever reach master status. “I was in my 30s when I started playing. The optimum age is about 8,” he says with a laugh.
“I’d get very discouraged when I first started,” he recalls. “I was having a terrible time trying to play. But during that time, they had some little girls on the Ed Sullivan Show playing bagpipes and they were good. I said, ‘If those little girls can do it, so can I.’”
Sutherland says only about one out every 10 apprentice bagpipers who attempt to join his band ends up staying, with most players giving up in frustration. “But our survival depends on bringing in newcomers,” says Sutherland, who also plays with a spinoff group called Black Bexar.
Most musicians have fairly mundane stories to tell about how they began playing their instruments. It’s usually something along the lines of “My parents made me take piano lessons when I was 8,” or “My best friend and I wanted to start a band, so I got a guitar for Christmas.” By comparison, bagpipers’ stories tend to be dramatic, as befits a pre-Christian instrument historically employed to accompany troops into battle, and most often played by men decked out in tartan kilts.
Consider the case of Bob McEwen, 56, a Pipes & Drums member who moved to San Antonio from Ontario, Canada. In 1968, McEwen was hospitalized after sustaining injuries in a motorcycle accident. His hospital roommate happened to be a British military veteran who had served as a piper in Palestine during World War I. The British veteran taught McEwen the basics of the instrument, but after nearly four decades, he continues to find the bagpipes endlessly challenging.
“The hardest part is that nothing is written down, there are no charts for people to follow,” he says of working with a pipe band.
Pipers face greater challenges whenever they collaborate with people who play other instruments. Sutherland points out that all bagpips tunes are in the same key, which falls in the cracks between A and B-flat. “Many years ago, pipes were tuned to A, but over the years, the preference of bagpipers was a little bit sharper, so the pitch eventually got a little higher,” Sutherland says. “But this is controversial, because some bands still play in A. It’s a peculiar instrument.”
Sutherland adds that when SA Pipes & Drums collaborate with the local bluegrass group Tennessee Valley Authority, the members of TVA retune their instruments to match the oddity of bagpipe tuning.
At a recent MacArthur Park rehearsal, a contingent of eight pipes and four drummers met shortly after 7 p.m. A piper-playing friend of Sutherland’s visiting from Wisconsin dropped by to watch the band play. The rolling snares and the perpetual drones of the pipes, not to mention the lack of variation in keys, can make a bagpipes neophyte dismiss the genre as monotonous and dreary. But hearing this group bring the same reverent, hymnal approach to “Danny Boy,” “Cotton Eyed Joe,” and “Amazing Grace,” you’re reminded that with bagpipes it’s the sound, not the song, that counts. That sound, for all its harmonic limitations, has a direct line to the tear ducts of anyone culturally connected to the instrument’s roots.
It’s also notable that bagpipes, so often pigeonholed as melancholy, are equally adept at the most festive (weddings) and mournful (funerals) gatherings.
“The beauty of bagpipes is that they can be both ways,” Sutherland says. “It’s interesting that an instrument with just those nine notes can be haunting and affect people so much.”