John Dally reviews a major new publication from Barry Shears

Barry Shears’ monumental two volume collection, Play It Like You Sing It, is the culmination of decades of deep research into Cape Breton piping and Gaelic society. Shears, who has had considerable success in competitions at the highest levels and taught piping around the world, places these rare and beautiful tunes, many which have never been in print before, in the context of their history, community and practice with the life stories and photos of the pipers who played them. These pipers were an essential part of their society. The repertoire, rhythms and technique were unique to them personally and to the communities settled by immigrant Gaels from Scotland. These Gaels often homesteaded with people from the same villages they had left in Scotland, keeping their local Gaelic language, song, dance and instrumental music intact.
Shears’ first book, THE GATHERING OF THE CLANS COLLECTION Vol. 1, 1991, appeared amid global changes in Scottish piping. Copies were eagerly sought out and purchased by pipers who were frustrated by the arbitrary strictures of the competition culture and the Scottish establishment. We had grown up listening to the Bothy Band, The Chieftains and their Scottish equivalents, The Battlefield Band and The Tannahill Weavers. Seumas MacNeil, principle of the College of Piping, who died in 1996, not only aggressively defended his authority, but had built his career on travelling the world to teach piping, often criticizing local pipers in unnecessarily harsh terms. He silenced old ear-learning pipers in Cape Breton with vicious criticism on his visit there in the 1950s.
Scottish Highland piping has gone through many changes in the years since. Gordon Duncan, having lived in Ireland briefly, made many popular compositions showing clear Irish influence and transformed the playing of reels and jigs in Scotland from halting and square to flowing and round. The MacDonald brothers of Glenuig were another strong influence, injecting Gaelic born energy, as well as inspiration from popular Irish groups like the Bothy Band, into the hackneyed clichés embodied by the Scots Guards tune book and the College of Piping. They were met with punitive and sometimes underhanded resistance from the establishment.
Shears’ books became the most important sources for traditional Cape Breton repertoire, forming a bridge from the stale, authoritarian style of piping to a more exciting, personal, lively style of playing Scottish tunes. Scottish piping had lost its connection to informal dance, while Cape Breton piping was inseparable from traditional step dance. Scottish pipers were eager to drink up the fresh and clean waters from the deep well of Cape Breton piping at a time when the last of the old pipers had either died or were about to. But Shears, a Cape Breton native, had for years spent his family vacations visiting the old pipers, recording them, writing down their tunes and stories, seeking out old home made recordings and sharing them with anyone who took an interest.
Unfortunately, a couple of people took advantage of Shears’ generosity, claiming in print and on the BBC that they had participated in the research, sharing his discoveries without crediting him. In practice, the style they disseminated was influenced by traditional Irish music at least as much as Cape Breton piping, while at the same time they expressed distaste for most things Irish. It was difficult for them to credit the influence of traditional Irish music on the changes happening to Scottish folk music, which I took as an unfortunate expression of Scottish Nationalism.
Among the many positive things they accomplished was a new interest in ear-learning and playing for step dancing. They promoted piping styles and tunes from traditional Scottish Gaelic communities like Glenuig, Barra and South Uist. And they encouraged a new generation of pipers who rejected the rigid bounds of competition and parade ground piping. But eventually any piper who bucked the competition system and rejected the hackneyed world of tartan, short bread and pipe bands, might use “Cape Breton Piping” or “Gaelic piping” to describe their music, so that in many cases the terms lost their meaning in much the same way as the word “Celtic” has been attached to everything from jazz to symphonic appropriations. I met people who called themselves “Cape Breton pipers” even though they had not grown up in Cape Breton or, in some cases, had never been there.
That is the context of the appearance of Shears’ seminal, new, two volume collection. The historical importance of this collection is immense in the vaunted and sometimes misunderstood world of traditional piping. The first of the two volumes contains the cultural and personal histories of the pipers and the communities in which they lived, with discussion of personal and regional styles, and the environment of song and dance. The many photographs in both volumes are worth the cover price alone. The second is filled with 249 tunes, which are accompanied by more photographs, context and history.
Many of the tunes will be new to the vast majority of pipers in the Scottish tradition. Shears also includes variants and unique settings of well-known tunes, like “The Devil in the Kitchen,” “Cha Till MacCruimein,” “The Reel of Tulloch” and “Caber Feidh.” Comparisons reveal rhythms that don’t exist in or have been cleansed from 20th century Scottish tune books. Many of the tunes are also accompanied by their puirt a beul (mouth music) equivalents giving insight into the interior rhythms of the tunes. The references, appendix and indexes of source material are much more extensive than anything I have seen in books of pipe tunes. The introduction to the second volume, “Revitalizing a Tradition,” covers the history of the MacNeil manuscript, puirt a beul, an explanation of transcription and traditional technique, and types of pipe music and dance in their cultural context.
Shears encourages pipers to see the sparse ornaments in the settings as guidelines, not as limits. We have often discussed the benefits of unornamented settings over ornamented ones, and vice versa, and in the end Shears decided that because most pipers are used to seeing ornaments, so he wanted to give them an indication of what could be used to enrich the tunes. Ornaments are important to the internal rhythms, so care should be taken to absorb traditional rhythms and make them your own. I would follow Shears’ recommendations until you can play the tune in your sleep, and then let your natural inclination have its own way, allowing yourself to adorn the tune differently any time you play it. A tremendous aid is Shears’ own recording, “Cape Breton Piper,” and the CD in the back of his essential study DANCE TO THE PIPER (Cape Breton University Press, 2008).
Every new publication by Shears is greatly appreciated in a world where graduates in traditional music from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland might play “Cha Till MacCruimein” more in the style of Kenny G than Rory MacKinnon. Venturing outside tradition, playing film themes while riding a unicycle in costume, for example, may be clever but it is ultimately unsatisfying for piper and audience. These two volumes of massive research are a refreshing return to the well of tradition.
John Dally

PLAY IT LIKE YOU SING IT (Bradan Press, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2018, vol. 1 ISBN 9781988747040, vol. 2 ISBN 98781988747033)