“A Lewis person will be homesick in heaven.” From Around the Peat Fire.
On the stunningly bright, crisp morning of August 21, 2004 Leslie and I walked into a black house at the Na Garrannan village on the Isle of Lewis in the outer Hebrides of Scotland. Competing with the enveloping smells of a smoldering peat fire, brewing tea, and hay from the byre next door, and the sights of a cramped but efficiently organized living space with a surprising amount of natural light was the sound of Gaelic psalms undulating out of the little CD player on a tiny table in the corner like the swells of sea water rushing unobstructed from the cold North Atlantic just meters away. This sound, a Presbyterian church full of Scots responding to the precentor’s lining out of Gaelic scripture praising the glory of God, enveloped me more profoundly than the peat smoke did.
It also sounded strangely familiar to a recording I’d gotten during grad school of a black congregation at Clear Creek, Mississippi, a recording made by an Irish ethnomusicologist named Therese Smith whom I studied with at Brown. The feeling I got hearing the Gaelic psalms in that black house transported me to the ecstatic moment I first heard the Clear Creek recording. If you’ve heard the Delta blues of Robert Johnson or Bukka White you’ve heard the sonic progeny of this sacred singing. “Free Heterophony” is what the musicologists would call it. And the irony of that description would not be lost on the Clear Creek folks or the Presbyterian Scots, many of whom fled Scotland during the Highland Clearances and ended up in the deep American South.
According to the notes on the Scottish recording, the primary musical influence for this singing style is piobaireachd. I have tended to come to many precious things backward. This is another example. I started my musical journey in life with the Beatles, a British group heavily influenced by the blues but intent on camouflaging and re-purposing that influence (unlike many of their subsequently famous countrymen like Clapton and Jagger). I heard Coltrane before Robert Johnson, and Jaco Pastorius before Jimi Hendrix. But I did hear Beethoven’s Opus 111 (his last piano sonata), which features a section that Scott Joplin absolutely must have known intimately, before ragtime, so that was maybe the chronological exception in my musical trajectory that proves the rule.
What I’m getting at is the joy of finding the precedent links between my sonic milestones. For reasons I still don’t understand and have learned not to care much about anymore, I became obsessed with African American music and its creators’ social, historical, and cultural “situations” when I was a teenager. I carried that interest through college and graduate school, wrote a book about white people who loved jazz and what black musicians thought of them, and then quit that business and moved to the very silly, right-wing state of Idaho (which I love despite its tragic flaws), and took up the bagpipes.
This was not a planned self-discovery mission, just chance with a little intention and a bushel of irony thrown in. But in learning the bagpipes, I have come to find I’m most interested in piobaireachd because – for me – its sound completely eliminates any sense of physical being, just as the psalms I heard on the recording in the black house and from the Clear Creek recording, and from Robert Johnson, Coltrane, Hendrix, and untold other existing and future sound artifacts to which I’m genetically (or not; who cares?) predisposed to respond with what Barthes refers to as “jouissance,” the blissful yet momentary destruction of self in response to sensual stimuli. Maybe this is a way to practice for a body-less afterlife… If that’s what heaven is then this stuff is heaven on earth.
I wonder if the Lewis people who are homesick in heaven ever heard those psalms, or piobaireachd, or Beethoven or Robert Johnson?