Princess of the pipes
College of Arts & Sciences
UND’s Sheila Liming pens essay for ‘The Atlantic’ on the bagpipe’s links to Rock-and-Roll and why the instrument is the brash rebel of the music world
The University of North Dakota’s resident bagpiping expert has taken her knowledge of the old instrument to a national audience.
Sheila Liming, assistant professor of English at UND, recently penned an essay titled “Bagpipes: A Rock-and-Roll History,” for The Atlantic magazine.
Liming, who, in her day job is one of the world’s leading experts on the writings of 20th-Century American author Edith Wharton, also possesses a musical flair, with the ability to sing and play accordion, piano, and, of course, bagpipe.
In her essay, Liming does more than rattle off a list of Rock-and-Roll acts that have experimented with bagpipes in their songs; she goes deeper, explaining why the “iconic kind of racket” of the instrument, especially the more famous Scottish version, is so intertwined with the anti-authoritarian roots of rock music.
Liming pieces together an intriguing musical tale that touches on everyone from English blues rockers The Animals to punk’s Patti Smith to AC/DC. In the process, she demonstrates how these musicians use the “noise of the pipes,” jammed against the melody of the guitar, as a counter-culture clarion call to established norms they rail against.
Or as Liming puts it, “bagpipes have long been part of a tradition of protest – one that’s perfectly in line with the disruptive ethos rock was founded on.”
She explains that the bagpipe’s unmistakable drone and dissonance demands attention, and, for this reason, has made it the perfect instrument at weddings, funerals and as a means for “rock musicians to amplify political messages in their work.”
The essay also is sprinkled with interesting factoids such as the Scottish bagpipes being the noisiest unamplified instrument on earth, with a single set of pipes producing between 95-110 decibels of sound. That would put the instrument more in line with the din of a jackhammer, she writes.
But Liming is at her best when she delves into the musicology of the pipes and the behind-the-scenes motives for using them.
A good example is the passage in which Liming analyzes the conclusion of the title track on Patti Smith’s album Easter.
“[T]he bagpipes sound a final, rebellious note against a wall of church bells and organ, symbols of institutionalized religion,” Liming writes. “The resulting dissonance is intentional on Smith’s part: The bagpipes can only play in one key, B-flat, whereas Smith’s “Easter” is in the key of C.
“That there’s a whole step of interval separation between Smith’s guitar and the bagpipes amounts to pure sacrilege in the eyes of music theory.”
Check out the full essay in The Atlantic.
About Sheila Liming:
Liming, a native of Seattle, began her teaching career at UND in 2014. She currently is spearheading a project to digitize the notes, annotations and marginalia included in author Edith Wharton’s personal library, housed at The Mount Estate in Lennox, Mass.
Liming has played bagpipes since she was 13, taking them up at the suggestion of her Scottish grandmother. She originally attended the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, on a bagpiping scholarship before changing her major to English and women studies. Over the years, Liming has performed in a variety of bagpiping bands and traditional Celtic ensembles. She plays both highland and border pipes.
Dodds, David L., "Princess of the pipes" (2016). UND News Archive. 1301.