Published June 8, 2004
Informal should not mean rude, but it often does. I attended the Dulci-More folk music concert on Memorial Day weekend, and Saturday’s featured performers, Bob Zentz and Madeline MacNeil, gave excellent performances. Zentz performed for a half-hour and MacNeil, after the intermission, for about 45 minutes. And in that time, not two minutes passed without someone in the audience getting up to go somewhere.
I have attended and performed in dozens of concerts and plays, where the audience stays in its seat during the show. You stay there because you might miss something, and if the show isn’t your mug of tea you sit still out of respect for the performers and other audience members.
I realize the folk concert was an informal affair. Folk music by nature is an informal creature. Doors in the concert hall were left open to keep the room cool. Snacks were available for sale on a side table, and vendors manned their stations at the back, selling recordings, instruments and accessories. People continuously went outside and came back in.
With only about two songs left in Maddie’s show, a woman bought an apple and stood to the side and ate it. Two other women stood next to me at a vendor’s station and talked. I can’t believe that people can’t sit still for 45 minutes. Is it short attention spans? Does our society give minimal instruction in manners? Our culture confuses informality with discourtesy. Can’t the vendors close their booths during the show? Being a performer, I am sensitive to this coming and going and wondered what those performers thought about it.
Here’s what you do: Before the concert, eat supper, take a walk, hit the head. Get everything done, so when the performer is performing, you can sit still.
One final annoyance was digital cameras. People held their digital cameras which, with their little screens, remove the need to hold them to the eye above their heads to photograph the performers. Technology allows more ways for people to be obnoxious.
I enjoyed hearing Holly Hays play bagpipes at the Alliance Memorial Day service on Monday. A fine piper, she played “Amazing Grace” at the ceremony. I can’t speak for other pipers, but I know one who rolled his eyes when his wife asked him to play that tune, which has become a bagpipe standard. It’s not Scottish, I’ve never seen it in Scottish music collections, and I’ve never heard a piper play it unless asked. But for some reason, it is, in the minds of the masses, the Scottish bagpipe tune, the “Stairway to Heaven” of Scottish music, and, like Danny Boy in Irish music, it’s not part of the tradition but is requested by everyone who only occasionally hears Celtic music. (While I’m here, let me point out that Celtic is pronounced with a K sound and is an adjective. That basketball team doesn’t know how to pronounce its name and should call itself the Celts. Makes as much sense as Browns as a noun.)
I can understand why people ask for “Amazing Grace” at commemorations. Its sentiment is fine: It was written by a slave ship captain who found redemption at sea and turned his ship around. The melody is beautiful and moving. It sounds fresh to those who only hear it every other year or so. But slow, eloquent tunes are thick as heather in Scottish music. Called slow airs, they commemorate those fallen in battle, departed loved ones, or an emigrant’s final farewell to the ancient homeland. Slow airs grab the Celtic soul and fill it simultaneously with joy, sorrow and longing. Scottish musicians love those tunes as they do the marches and the driving jigs and reels.
So before you ask a piper to play at an event, go to the library and borrow a recording of Scottish bagpipe music. Every library has one or two recordings of pipe standards, usually titled “Amazing Grace and Other Bagpipe Favorites” or “Sounds of Scotland” or some such name. Listen to “Amazing Grace” over and over until you’re sick of it. Then ask your piper to play a tune that moves him. He’ll play it with more feeling because his heart will be in it. And don’t ask for “Amazing Grace” unless you want to see how far up his eyes will roll.