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The Pied Piper of the north (09/21/2003)
By Janet Lewis Burns

     Jim Smith, Cottage Grove, Minn., his music forever on his shoulder, earned first place, in both regional and national competitions, in the year 2000, for playing his bagpipes. Aside from serenading fellow campers (kiltless), the virtuoso blows folks away at nursing homes, wedding, and countless private and public celebrations.
A lulling hush fell over the entire grounds. The penetrating music filtered through giant oaks, eerie and uplifting on a sleepy, steamy afternoon.

On rare occasions he's strolled the paths of Oak Grove Resort, the Pied Piper of the north, serenading residents, much to their delight. Usually a string of enthralled children follow him, in awe of the unfamiliar sounds, but it was Labor Day weekend, another school year underway.

Something prodded me to rush to our camper to retrieve my camera. The troubadour had made his way down the hill to the boat dock, as I hustled after him. To the swelling tune of "Amazing Grace," I came face to bagpipe with a pleasant, approachable gentleman, and we agreed to meet for a chat.

The Smiths had settled in this campground, at Chetek, Wisconsin, late last season. Feeling awkward invading his space, I was immediately put at ease by his congenial demeanor and enthusiasm to share his story. Jim Smith, otherwise residing in Cottage Grove, Minnesota with his wife Pat, and retired after 21 years in the Marine Corps, tells how his road to success as a bagpiper began to unfold.

Smith admitted that he had no hankering for music until he heard the pipes played by the Shriners, as a child, and absolutely loved it! Ironically, the seven year old had announced to his mother, "Someday I'll be playing the pipes." Years later, he grasped fate by the hand, as he took part in establishing the Osman Shrine Pipe Band, in St. Paul.

All the male members of his family are Shriners, but Jim's the only piper. Not a simple feat, and now his seventh year, one year passed before he learned to blow correctly. He snickered as he told of his family's take on his music. "I practice two hours everyday, and that can wear on a person," he admitted. "My wife prefers the entire band sound."

Poetically, the bagpiper reflects, "The pipes soothe my soul, the very part of me that makes my life worthwhile. They talk to me about spirituality, calmness and peace. They tug on my strings, and the strings of others, beckoning them to the same retreat."

A wellspring of information, Smith brought out photos of an enactment of Biblical times, in which a bagpipe player is evident. The encyclopedia states that the origin of this reed instrument is unknown. "The playing of the pipes goes way back to the beginning of civilization," I am informed. Genesis 4:21 "...he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ."

To further substantiate, I Samuel 10:5 tells of "a company of prophets making music with a psaltery, a tabret, a pipe, and a harp."

What under the kilt? The Scottish plaids of his heritage, which he leaves behind while at Oak Grove, are in the names of McCallister, Smith, and Ferguson. With a sparkle in his eyes, he shared his answer to this most frequent inquiry of the kilt: "Nothing is worn...everything is as good as the day my mother gave it to me."

Jim Smith blows them away in nursing homes! Sharing his hard-earned talent, his greatest reward has been "to see the joy and happiness people receive from the tunes. They especially love the Irish songs, which are so recognizable." Apart from the elderly, the piper has many young fans, as he cheerfully plays and demonstrates the magic of the pipes, at Christmas parties, birthdays, daycare centers, and graduations.

The virtuoso then opened a smallish black suitcase. There lies the treasure! Enthusiastically, he explained how the three shiny wooden pipes and a chanter, a pipe with only nine notes, produce sound. The practice chanter resembles a snake-charmer's flute. Jim's Great Highland pipes came from Scotland, crafted from hand-hewn African black wood, his bag of black corduroy.

Beneath the kilt is a winner! Possibly the windiest guy in the Midwest, he's not prone to blow his own horn. In the year 2000, Smith had come away with the first place honor, in both regional and national competitions of the V.A. Centers' Creative Arts Festival.

The proof is in the puffing. The musically inept writer was challenged to coax notes from those bagpipes. Jim, squeezing the bag, directed me to blow, blow, blow again. One more time! Flushed, winded, and lightheaded, I produced one hesitant, wimpy peep through the reed. I marveled as to how he did this while walking, and for long periods of time.

"Practice, dedication, and, well, I don't smoke," the master remarked. I suppose, if you loved something as much as Jim Smith does, you couldn't just blow it off. As for us windy Oak Grove squatters...we'll keep campfires burning for your welcomed return.

Your bagpipes speak the language of our vagabond hearts. 


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