Bagpiping in the Gulf Coast area
Bagpipers? What bagpipers?
Bagpipes are one of those instruments that most people (outside of Scotland for sure) rarely hear live. And that’s a shame, because this ancient, much maligned, 4-reeded, mouth-blown pipe organ makes beautiful music.
Music has been part of the culture here since well before statehood, with French, Spanish and Celtic visitors and settlers bringing their instruments and culture to the region before the War of Independence, and history shows the Highland Regiments were here at the Battle of New Orleans, in January 1815, in the form of the much storied but little known 93rd Highland regiment. (See Blog post 5 Sep 2023)
The pipes were an integral part of Scottish regimental presence, and after the war’s end, many landless Scots and Irish settled in the Gulf Coast area, spreading out over the 250 years since, bringing the music of the pipes and fiddle with them. While piping may have been a popular part of early life along the coast, for modern bagpipes and bagpipers, the region is now almost barren as new generations have forgotten their ancestry under the hard scrabble of life here. New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Mobile and Hattiesburg have pipe bands, but Biloxi, Gulfport, Ocean Springs, Pascagoula - do not.
The Mississippi portion of the Gulf Coast stretches along 26 miles of white sandy beaches from Louisiana to Alabama, curving along the rim of the Gulf of Mexico. It is home to several military bases and a large retired and former military population, supported by a major Veterans Administration installation and several casinos. A pipe band for this region would be welcomed and supported, and that is the best reason for us to play.
Why We Play the Bagpipes
For most early 1900’s Celtic immigrants fleeing famine, persecution, and British greed in Scotland and Ireland, good jobs on arriving in the New World were scarce, but joining the local police or fire department ensured good wages and a steady position in society. These jobs were considered very dangerous and most people wouldn’t consider taking them because of the risk of violent death. However, these jobs were a godsend to a hungry and desperate Scotsman or Irishman trying to feed a large family.
Fire and Police Bands initially formed out of the Irish gangs, welfare and social societies and clubs, over time evolving into the more well-known Emerald and Thistle Societies. The names come from where the majority of immigrant Celts came from - Ireland, the Emerald Isle, but the Scots immigrants, too, joined groups, bringing with them the pipes and dress now considered ‘traditional’ for pipe bands. The Societies encouraged more and more of their members to enroll and formed music clubs and Ceilidh bands to keep their ethnicity and culture present and fresh.
Death was ever-present for the Celtic immigrants. It was considered unmanly for a grown adult Irishman or Scotsman to weep even when death of his brothers brought ruin and pain. However, the mournful cry of the pipes at a funeral provided an excuse for everyone to weep for their brothers in uniform, and the laments played on the pipes helped ease the pain of a friend’s death. For Police and Fire departments, Emerald Society and Kiltie bands quickly became intricately woven into their memorial ceremonies, a powerful tradition that remains to this day.
As piping for ceremonies in the U.S. matured, it wasn’t long until the mournful sounds of a bagpipe were being played for non-Irish fallen firefighters and police officers - and soon after that, the U.S. military incorporated bagpipes into their ceremonies, as players took their instruments into service with them. As a historic instrument of war, many in the military believe the sound of the bagpipes adds a martial and dignified air to any military event.
Bagpipe bands in the North are common for police and firefighters. On average, in the northeast of the U.S. and into Canada, bands may have more than 60 uniformed members. However, no longer are the bagpipes just played for Irish police officers or firefighters - they have become a distinguishing feature of memorial services for fallen heroes of any stripe.
Laments on the bagpipes are truly beautiful pieces of music. Most often, however, it's “Amazing Grace” that is the bagpipe tune most hear played at memorial services. Pipe bands usually play it three times, because each of the three stanzas of “Amazing Grace” has a particular meaning. The first, usually played by a lone piper, pertains to being born, the second played in unison by the band, represents life with family, friends and department brothers and sisters, while the last is played in harmony, representing our death, leaving the family alone with the memory and hope for the future.
Other tunes, like Going Home; Dark Isle; Flowers of the Forest; Highland Cathedral; Hector the Hero; Bells of Dunblane and many more can make for a somber and majestic atmosphere, but it's the tried and true Amazing Grace which seems to be the most recognized and most requested tune we play.
But why did we choose Ocean Springs, MS? The group was formed after attempts by several local Fire Departments to create an Honor Guard Band were shelved due to the expense and difficulty of attracting experienced players. Coincidently, after Katrina, Bill Muzzy moved into the Ocean Springs area and began looking for other pipers to play with. He was patient, but not successful, as one or two pipers would meet for a while, play some events, and then leave. Meantime, Bill concentrated on Grandfather Mountain and Stone Mountain Highland Games, building up a vast network of teachers and experts, and a tremendous reputation as he did so.
A local Gulf Coast Pipe Band never fully cohesed into Bill's vision. There just were no pipers here, or at least none that were interested in forming a band. That may have changed when two new members from the defunct Gulfport Fire Dept. Honor Guard band began working consistently with Bill, and for the last ten years, the small group of bagpipers has been meeting, practicing and playing at the St John’s Episcopal Church in Ocean Springs, growing slowly but consistently.
Most of our band members are veterans of the police, fire and military services spanning Canada, New Zealand and the USA, but all of us love the instrument, and the core has continued to practice and play while actively encouraging new members to join. Sadly, new members are few and far between. Several enquiries have been received since the website went up, so hope springs eternal, and we have also been able to refer potential pipers to bands closer to their homes rather than have them drive some distance and time to work with us.
Our members have been featured at police funerals, fire and police academy graduations, weddings, festivals, parades and graveside performances in both individual and group ensembles. We provide free lessons for beginner and advanced pipers. Several special workshops throughout the year focus on bagpipe maintenance, reed management and techniques.
We also have a small group that works on Ceol Mor, better known as Piobaireachd (pronounced “Pea-brok”), the ancient classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe.
Why the Chicken on our Logo?
Back in April 2022, the little town of Ocean Springs was scandalized by the callous murder of Carl the Rooster, the Second of his Name, a familiar sight around central downtown, and a tourist attraction for the locals and visitors alike.
Carl 2.0 was a beloved community rooster who had thousands of fans in the visitors and residents who met him. Outrage was swift and loud after fans learned of Carl's abduction and gallucide. Security footage from a business on Government Street showed Carl 2.0 being captured by a group of people around 3 a.m. on April 22. Another video, taken roughly 15 minutes later in Biloxi, showed a former Juvenile Detention Officer dumping the rooster's body in a parking lot. Tragically, Carl 2.0's body was never recovered.
We were asked by the Second Line organizers to present an appropriate send off for the celebrity, and we chose several tunes appropriate to memorializing Carl the Rooster. Since our presentation was greeted with such enthusiasm by our community, it was unanimous - Carl was the obvious figure to be immortalized on our logo, and there he is, fierce and proud. And that’s the reason we have a chicken on our badge.
Local Highland Festival Adds To The Camraderie
Once a year, on the second weekend in November, the Highlands and Islands Association of Celtic Gatherings in Gulfport puts on the H&I Celtic Festival, currently based at the Harrison County Fairgrounds north of Gulfport, MS. We feature at this festival, both as performers and as organizers, with invitation pipers and bands on our grounds for a weekend filled with Scottish and Irish food, music and fun.
This year, the festival was November 11 and 12. We had a HUGE turnout, despite the somewhat Scottish weather! There were two kilt makers, a Scottish grocery and a bagpipe store, as well as Clan tents, artisans and the usual massed pipes and drums we feature at midday each day. There were sausages, pies, beer and fish and chips, Irish stew, candy and pretzels - both days saw record numbers of old and new faces, and there was something for everyone, with Scottish athletics, jousting and birds of prey as featured attractions. Music by Celtic Reign, the Jollies, the Kiltlifters and local musical groups with harp, Irish flute and uillean pipes filled our ears and brought joy to our hearts. Thanks to all who attended - we will be back NEXT YEAR! For more information, follow this link.
Come and Join Us!
Our practice rooms are at the St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Feel free to stop by when we are there to discuss learning the Great Highland Bagpipe. See the Contact Page for details.
We practice at the Church on Wednesdays from 1:00 to 4:00pm, and Sundays at 3:30pm either at Marshall Park or the Church, depending on weather. Stop by and Say Hi!
Pipe Major/Primary Instructor:
Bill Muzzy, Ocean Springs - firstname.lastname@example.org
Email P/M. Muzzy for free beginner lessons and general information.
Bill Christmas, Ocean Springs - email@example.com
Email COL. Christmas for paid individual lessons, bookings and requests for pipers
For obvious reasons, we do not publish members’ phone numbers. Email us and we will respond. For your convenience, we have an auto mailer form on our Contact Page to make this easier for you. Please include a contact name, phone number, appropriate time to call, and a few details about your inquiry.
Learn to play the Bagpipes
Ready to learn the bagpipes?
The St John’s Bagpipe Academy has everything you need to master this unique instrument. Our comprehensive course includes step-by-step personal lessons, interactive sheet music for tunes and exercises, and tuning and maintenance assistance. Plus, with 1-on-1 coaching from our experienced instructor, P/M Bill Muzzy from the North American Academy of Piping and Drumming, you'll achieve your bagpiping goals in no time. Our courses are affordable (free), flexible, and perfect for beginners and intermediate players. Join The St Johns Bagpipe Academy today and start your bagpiping journey.
Advanced players can benefit from the individual lessons from our instructors at $75/hr for individual lessons. P/M Bill Christmas provides focused lessons on execution, timing and musical interpretation in a highly focused lesson series designed to boost performance, speed and stage presence for those competing at regional and national levels.