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Bagpiper gives history lesson at HES

Monroe County resident Don Dransfield gives a presentation on the Scots-Irish influence on Appalachia to the students at Hillsboro Elementary School last week. Dransfield played several types of bagpipes and shared information on the style of music created by immigrants in West Virginia. S. Stewart photo
Monroe County resident Don Dransfield gives a presentation on the Scots-Irish influence on Appalachia to the students at Hillsboro Elementary School last week. Dransfield played several types of bagpipes and shared information on the style of music created by immigrants in West Virginia. S. Stewart photo

Monroe County resident Don Dransfield visited Hillsboro Elementary School last week to give a lesson on the Scottish and Irish settlers of Appalachia, and the music they brought with them when they settled in America.

As the invited guest of the Hillsboro CEOS, Dransfield, a West Virginia University extension agent, donned traditional Scottish attire – complete with a kilt – as he played several bagpipes for the students.

In between playing tunes on Scottish Great Highland bagpipe, small bagpipe, and Irish Uilleann pipes, Dransfield talked about the migration of Scottish and Irish people to Appalachia.

“Driving up on Droop on the other side when you get on the top of Droop Mountain and you’re starting into this Hillsboro base, this is perfect for the Scots and the Irish because it’s just like home,” he said. “This is why Scots and Irish settled in this area. A lot of them came in here for various reasons. They started coming in here in the mid- 1700s with the early settlers.”

The two large migrations occurred in the 1700s with Scots fleeing the government, and in the 1800s with Scots-Irish and the Irish leaving Ireland during the potato famine. Scots-Irish refers to the Scottish who moved to Ireland before moving to America.

Once the immigrants reached the port cities in America, they followed directions sent to them by family members who were already settled in the Appalachians.

“They came west and they settled in these Appalachian mountains,” Dransfield said. “A loft of those folks, a lot of the people that came through here kept thinking there was something better and they went on, and what did they find when they crossed the Ohio River? It was flat. As I like to say, ‘God didn’t mean for anyone to be able to see that far’ and that’s the way the Scots and Irish felt. A lot of them got to those plains, the midwest and it was really just too open for them.”

The settlers returned to the Appalachians in a reverse migration, and they settled.

One of the few things the Scots and Irish brought with them was their music and their musical instruments, whenever possible.

“There weren’t many of these bagpipes that came over,” Dransfield said. “They couldn’t afford to bring them with them. All they could bring over with them were their clothes. One thing that did come over in abundance was a fiddle. It came over with the Scots and the Irish, the Germans and the Italians. The Irish and Scots, they learned the tunes the pipers played.”

The origin of bagpipes was not for entertainment purposes, though. Instead, the bagpipes had a much more integral role in the Highlands.

“They had a reason,” Dransfield said. “It wasn’t for entertainment. It was communication and particularly communication in battle time. The pipes were played in Scottish regiments in battle all the way through World War II.

“It was not a very safe thing to be a bagpiper in a fighting unit because just as a radio was critical to commands being shuffled, the bagpipes were critical,” he continued. “If you wanted to mess up the other side really good, shut down their communications and the way you shut down their communication was you killed the bagpiper. You never went to war without a couple of bagpipers. You just wanted to be the guy that never had to play.”

Outside of wartime, the bagpipes were the center of musical entertainment. While Scottish Great Highland bagpipes sound better alone or only with other bagpipes, the Scottish small bagpipes and the Irish Uilleann bagpipes play well with others.

The Uilleann bagpipe also allows the player to sing along, using a bellow under the arm to inflate the bag.

The music the Scots and Irish settlers brought with them, especially the Irish tunes and jigs, were passed down through generations and are known by modern Appalachians as old time music.

“Actually, you start thinking about it, our old-time music here in Appalachia, here in Pocahontas County – this is what us musicologist believe,” Dransfield said. “They came here with Irish music. The Hammons family played Irish music and what happened is the Irish continued to develop music in Ireland. Our folks came here and they preserved it. It was like an ice block. They brought Irish music and Scottish music to the states and there it was preserved in its form of the time. Our old time music here in the United States is the old Irish and Scottish music.
“West Virginia is one of the bastions, one of the strong holds of old -time music,” he continued. “What Burl Hammons was playing up here was straight from Dublin or Tipperary [Ireland]. It was straight from Edinburgh [Scotland]. It was from straight across the water. It just had a different flavor and that is what we call old-time music today.”

After he played a few more tunes, Dransfields thanked the students for their attention and gave them one last piece of advice.

“I encourage you to play music, number one,” he said. “Play music and enjoy it. I play music to enjoy it, to relax, to rest, to entertain folks and to keep a history alive. You don’t have to play my kind of music although I really appreciate that. I enjoy it so much when I see young people playing music.”

Dransfield also encouraged the students to join 4-H, an organization he holds true and dear to his heart – an organization he is still a part of as an extension agent.

“4-H is where I became a musician,” he said. “My mom taught me how to play piano and I picked up a guitar on my own, but 4-H is where I learned to play music because I learned to dance. That’s where I got my start forty years ago.”

To prepare for Dransfields visit, the students studied the history of Scotland and Ireland and the migration of immigrants to the Appalachian mountains.

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at sastewart@pocahontastimes.com

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