I was in my mom’s kitchen on a summer afternoon 10 or so years ago, before a heart attack and series of strokes took away her independence and ultimately her life. She was at the sink, her back to me, and without turning around she said, “You know, when I go, I want to be piped into heaven.”
Might have been just a piping student, might have already passed my audition at the time. Can’t recall, but it doesn’t matter. That was a conversation I wanted no part of. After sputtering something like, “OK, but we’re not going to have to worry about that for quite some time,” I beat a hasty retreat to the living room and the Yankees game.
“Quite some time” wasn’t very long at all and in late 2005 I stood at her grave at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Valhalla, N.Y., in full kilted regalia, pipes on shoulder. When Father Muhs stopped talking, I started playing.
Ma didn’t request it, but what else would I play besides “Amazing Grace”?
A few weeks back, I played that tune during the “Heart for Haiti” fundraiser at Mattituck Presbyterian Church in remembrance of the 230,000 killed in the earthquake earlier this year. During a fire department Memorial Day service, it was “Amazing Grace” once more. This got me to wondering just what is it about that tune that has forever welded it to somber and sad observances. I have yet to meet anyone who can’t stand it — well, other than my sister Eileen, who has expressly forbidden my playing it at her funeral. Funny, she didn’t seem all that pleased when I said I hope she gets her wish.
Some background. “Amazing Grace” is a hymn penned by Church of England minister John Newton and published in 1779. Odd, isn’t it, that a hymn of redemption is arguably the tune most widely recognized and most frequently played on the pipes, ostensibly an instrument of war? (Hey, blame the Brits, not the Irish. We’re lovers, not fighters. OK, that’s not entirely true.) It seems the good Rev. Newton wasn’t always so good. Before becoming a man of the cloth, he sailed in the Royal Navy and for a time was part of the slave trade. His conversion came after surviving a particularly terrifying storm at sea. That explains the line “… that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see.”
Who knew? I always thought it was some counterculture thing, a conclusion reached after hearing it sung in Arlo Guthrie’s movie “Alice’s Restaurant” and during Woodstock. (No, I wasn’t there. Are you kidding? In the summer of ’69 I was all jazzed up about the moon landing, not some stupid concert upstate.) Little did I know that I’d be playing it about as often as Sinatra’s “New York, New York” erupts from the speakers at the end of every Yankees home victory. For you Mets fans out there, that means many, many times.
For rookie pipers, “Amazing Grace” is easy to learn and easy to play. Veteran pipers can play it in their sleep and many bands end their practice sessions with it. I was oh-so-happy to know it inside and out during my first, and so far only, performance in the Riverhead Blues Festival. Wait, I know what you’re thinking, Trust me, this makes sense. Sort of.
The memories of 9/11 were still fresh and raw when the Kerry Kearny Band took the stage. The opening number was a tribute to the lost members of the FDNY and so Kerry thought it appropriate to start with a piper playing you-know-what. I’ve marched in NYC on Paddy’s Day so large crowds are nothing new. The thing is, you don’t see the two million or so all at once. Standing in front of a sea of people, seemingly somewhat confused about a guy standing there in a kilt, is something else entirely. Was scared to death and so played on auto-pilot and high-tailed it off stage right as the last note faded. Might have heard applause, either that or my heart pounding.
With Memorial Day behind us, chances are I won’t be playing that song anytime soon, and that’s fine with me. Enough with the sad stuff already. Still, I could call my sister and just blast it out over the phone. That would annoy the hell out of her, but hey, that’s what little brothers do.
Tim Kelly can be reached at [email protected] or 631-298-3200, ext. 238.