Yes indeed. The emotive drone of Great Highland bagpipes wafted through the clear morning air in Park Village on a recent Sunday morning.
With kilts flapping in the breeze, the El Dorado Hills Firefighters Pipe and Drum Band made its public debut at Bertelsen Park as part of the annual reposting of the colors, aka flag, commemorating Lt. Peter Bertelsen, who died in the line of duty 47 years earlier, on Sept. 16, 1965, the first line-of-duty death in El Dorado Hills.
The park was subsequently named for Bertelsen and a memorial, including flagpole, was dedicated in 2006.
Since then, the flag is replaced each year in a Color Guard ceremony, none more moving or harmonious than the 2012 edition, which was accompanied by fire department engineer Mike LeBlanc and firefighter/paramedics Brian Wilkey and Jason Smith on bagpipes as well as firefighter/paramedic Dale Hemlock on the snare drum.
The performance represented two years of hard work and consisted of a single song, “Amazing Grace.” How sweet it was.
Manage vs. mastery
The kilts weren’t ready until Saturday night, which contributed to the band’s pre-gig jitters. Chief Dave Roberts led off the ceremony with a poignant message, including part of Bertelsen’s original 1965 eulogy. The couple dozen uniformed firefighters and friends of the department gathered for the occasion were then treated to one of the most stirring sounds on the planet, bagpipes in the distance.
With the Honor Guard at crisp, muscled-locked attention near the memorial the pipes hit the first “grace notes” of the famous funeral anthem while positioned behind a low knoll. The pipes’ reedy, nasal whine was instantly recognizable as they sputtered to life, anticipating the unrelenting drone to follow. The still morning air carried every note to friends positioned in the upper parking lot.
The amplitude increased as the quartet appeared on the walkway, approaching in synchronized Honor Guard lockstep without missing a note, proving that three determined firefighters with no prior music experience can manage the notoriously difficult bagpipes.
“We’ve practiced it a lot better than we played it,” said Wilkey, afterward. “But for our first outing we did fine; it’s great to get the first one under our belt.”
Their performance fell well short of mastery, but they performed Amazing Grace with the poise and dignity that are the hallmarks of every El Dorado Hills Honor Guard ceremony. It was truly amazingly, with grace to spare.
“When I get excited I tend to overblow,” said Wilkey. Overblowing is common in beginners, and actually dampens the instrument’s notoriously loud volume, he explained.
No one present Sunday morning will accuse these guys of overblowing. The sound was loud, clear and deeply moving.
Perhaps more than any other musical instrument, the bagpipe evokes human emotion, which is why its haunting, mournful sound is the perfect accompaniment for funeral ceremonies. In more uplifting contexts, the instrument lends an air of authority and formality to proceedings.
El Dorado Hills Fire District Engineer Mike LeBlanc witnessed the power of the pipes at the 2010 Firefighter’s Memorial in Colorado Springs, where he took in performances by pipe and drum teams from around the country, and was moved by the emotional impact of the pipes, and the commitment and camaraderie of the teams. He returned to El Dorado Hills blustering over the experience.
LeBlanc proposed the El Dorado Hills Honor Guard, led by Capt. Matt Beckett, add a pipe and drum contingent. “We wanted to start a tradition,” he said.
The tradition of bagpipes at fire department and police funerals in the United States goes back more than 150 years to the Irish and Celts who fled famine and disease in their homeland and arrived in America hoping for a new life and bringing along century-old traditions, including the pipes.
The Irish faced harsh discrimination when they arrived. They took the dirty, dangerous jobs no one else wanted. The Irish “beat cop” and fireman stereotype was born.
Firefighting was particularly dangerous in the 1800s. Fatalities were common. Irish firefighter funerals were maudlin, drunken affairs, the bagpipes and the whisky providing solace in the harsh life they found when they arrived.
Hardened firefighters could shed a tear to the sound of the pipes, even if his pride denied him the same release over the loss of a fallen comrade.
The instrument is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, finding its way into movies, TV shows and, perhaps most powerfully, the title song of Steve Earle’s landmark Outlaw Country album “Copperhead Road.”
The instrument’s unique musicality is a result of the constant, legato sound it emanates. The notes are strung together with no rests, due to the open-ended “chanter,” which controls the pitch and can’t be turned off.
The inability to stop playing necessitates “grace notes” — short, transitional notes that break up the longer tones. Grace notes take years to master, said LeBlanc, and are the measure of a good piper.
“Amazing Grace” opens on a grace note, and employs them in several other places.
The nonprofit El Dorado Hills Firefighter’s Association is funding the instruments and attire. For now the group has four Great Highland bagpipes, a snare drum and enough tartan for 10 kilts.
They’re working on other songs, and also have several junior members.
Three of the four performers are long-standing Honor Guard members. The band was formed, in part, to assist the honor guard in ceremonial performances. A couple different Sacramento pipe and drum bands have regularly worked with the honor guard. The El Dorado Hills pipers plan to return the favor.
They also hope to become a fixture at community events, starting with the upcoming, first-ever El Dorado Hills Community Parade.
Pipe and drum bands wear kilts. Period. Tunics are optional, as are other embellishments. But “If you are playing a Scottish Highland bagpipe in public, you must be wearing a kilt,” said LeBlanc.
Each band has a register plaid pattern called a tartan. Wilkey found a website dedicated to tartan design and generated several samples for the band to review. They picked one that reflects the colors in the district’s patch, sent it to the Scottish Registry of Tartans and ordered a bolt of fabric from a Scottish mill.
For now, they wear dark blue, long sleeve “class B” work shirts on top.
The Scottish piper’s tradition steeped in symbolism appealed to the band members. Each color in the tartan has meaning. Black stands for the fallen. Red represents fire and a warrior spirit.
When they first got the bagpipes, LeBlanc and Wilkey both tried teaching themselves the instrument, and quickly realized they needed help. Instructor Liz Tubbs came highly recommended. A music teacher at Sheldon High School and the pipe sergeant and music director of the City of Sacramento Pipe Band, Tubbs is “a great educator and an awesome piper,” said Wilkey.
Wilkey wants the public to know that no taxpayer money is spent on the band, and that all practicing is done off-hours.
They hope to get good enough to provide a ceremonial oomph to charity events, ribbon cuttings, christenings and any Bar Mitzvahs in the community. “But right now we’re a work in progress,” he said.