Uilleann Piper / A True Irish Gentleman


By John Touhy

Dave Page was born in Dublin on April 17, 1906. While in his early twenties his father enrolled him in Leo Rowsome's piping school and purchased for him a set of Rowsome pipes. Although undoubtedly pleased with his son's piping advancements, Dave's father was apparently not at all pleased with the pipes themselves, a new full set pitched at or slightly above 'D'. Being accustomed to the sound of the older flat sets, his father contemptuously referred to these new pipes as a 'tin whistle'. Classes were held once a week. Leo started his students with marches, later adding jigs, then set dances, hornpipes, and reels. Dave remembers that Leo put extra emphasis on the set dances, especially the 'Blackbird'. Dave recalls that Leo frequently turned down the students requests for new reels and bid them to practice the 'Blackbird', over and over. Leo's brother, Tom, occasionally filled in for Leo and was a great favorite because he was more easily persuaded to teach the students the reels and jigs they wanted (and were probably not ready for).


Clearly an addicted young piper, Dave remembers practicing his chanter playing on pencils as he rode the bus to and from work Dave's progress as a piper must have been very fast. Within two years he was winning piping competitions and within 3 years he was playing with Rowsome in his piping quartet. Dave has always considered himself a strong air player, much of which he learned from his mother's singing around the house. One of the first competitions he won was for his air playing. He played 'Eamonn a' Chnuich (Ned of the Hill)' with full regulator accompaniment. Dave remembers the adjudicator telling him after the competition that he had to award him the prize, for he was clearly the best player, but that he played the pipes too much like an organ. With fifty years of hindsight Dave now feels that the objection was correct. During this period Dave played for a short time in one of Rowsome's piping quartets. At the time the members of the quartet were Leo, Dave, Tom Rowsome, and Eddie Potts (Sean Potts' son). The band played a wide selection of music consisting of marches, airs, set dancesm jig, reels and hornpipes. Leo provided music of the fancy regulator work and chanter harmonies while the other three players played the melody. At one point during each show Leo would leave the stage to prepare for his solo. While the three remaining players played a selection, Leo changed the reeds in his pipes replacing the stiffer, less damageable reeds that he used for group playing with thinner, more sensitive reeds that he preferred for his solo playing. When Leo Rowsome left the Siamsa Gael Celidhe Band, Dave took his place. The band was 7-10 pieces with Dave on pipes, Tom Page (Dave's brother) on fiddle (and leader), Mrs. Sheridan on fiddle (Dave always calls her the queen of the Irish fiddlers), Mrs. Whelan on fiddle, Leo Malloy on piano, Billy Tighe on drums, Tommy Breen on piccolo, and other occasional fiddlers. The Siamsa Gael band was one of the two most popular ceilidhe bands in Dublin and they played at dances and concerts throughout Ireland. A typical band performance was both a concert and a dance. The evening started as a concert. The band played and the audience sat on the floor. Sometime during the concert Dave would perform a piping solo. He usually left the stage and took a seat among the audience so that the pipes could be better heard. One of the tunes he remembers playing often for this solo was Hartigan's Fancy (or Coppers and Brass). When the concert was finished the floor would be cleared and a long evening of dancing would begin, often lasting until morning. Dave has fond memories of the band playing the medley of 'Paddy on the Railroad/Peter Street/Devil's Dream/Mason's Apron'. Being aware that the last three tunes are in the key of 'A' and ill suited for the pipes I finally asked Dave why he remembered these tunes so fondly. His reply was that indeed there was no way he could play these tunes on the pipes, therefore it afforded him the opportunity to get off the stage and dance with a clear conscience. In fact, it was not uncommon for Dave to get in trouble for being on the dance floor when he was expected on the stage. His brother, Tom, fired him from the band at least once for this reason. The band provided Dave with his first experience with keyboard playing. During a dance, the piano player had helped himself to too much 'poteen' and was out of action. Responding to the crisis Mrs. Sheridan taught Dave a few chords on the piano and the fundamentals of 'vamping'. Dave became the piano player for the rest of the evening. The Siamsa Gael Band made two 78 recordings with Dave. One was made in London on the Parlophone label, the other in Dublin on the Columbia label. Dave remembers playing 'The Burning Sands' (or 'The Road to the Isles ') and reel and jig medleys (possibly 'The Copperplate'/'The Salamanca' and 'Jacksons Morning Brush'/'Tobins'). At the first recording session the producer, upon finding that Dave played bagpipes, asked him sit at the other end of the room away from the band and the microphone. As the producer discovered that the Irish pipes were not quite as loud as the Scottish pipes Dave was slowly moved forward until he was sitting in front of the microphone with the rest of the band behind him. Much to Dave's regret he never kept copies of these 78's and has been unable locate any. (Please, if anyone should run across these recording please let him or myself know.) In the late 1930s Dave gave up the pipes and took up the piano accordion. The pipes, at that time, were considered to be "old fashioned".


During this time Dave and his wife, Bridgie, left Ireland and moved to London where they lived for 20 years. While in London Dave became quite proficient on the accordion.While on vacation in the 1950s the Pages met a Polish couple from Chicago who convinced them that they would enjoy living in America. Shortly thereafter they lifted their roots and jobs and moved to Chicago. There they spent a year amongst the Polish-Americans before they discovered that a large Irish population lived in the city. In the late 50s Dave got back on the pipes. A man in Chicago had purchased a new set of Kennedy pipes for his daughter. His daughter decided she could not handle the pipes, and Dave was offered the pipes. Excited at the prospect of getting back to the pipes Dave made himself a case for his pipes (at the time he was doing leather work at a company that made brief cases, etc.) before he ever got the set. The excitement soon turned to disappointment when it appeared that 20 years off the pipes had taken its toll. He could do very little with the pipes. Fortunately it was more of a problem with the pipes than the piper. Chicago pipemaker Patrick Hennelly was able to overhaul the pipes and get them in working order. Hennelly's repair work was not always conventional. He originally set the pipes so that the drones sounded the notes D, A, and D. This sounded great in the key of D, but was not so great in G. At Dave's insistence, Hennelly set all the drones back to D. Dave did get back on the pipes although he never felt he really got his fingering back. He always blames that on the piano accordion. Dave was active in the Chicago Irish music community playing both pipes and accordion. Some of the musicians he played with were Tom McMahon (accordion, fiddle, and pipes under Dave's tutelage), Burt McMahon (banjo), and Joe Shannon (pipes).


In 1974 Dave and Bridgie vacationed in San Diego and decided they liked it enough to move there. Dave believed at that time he that he would be 'retiring' from the music. This retirement lasted several months until Dave went out, found some young people playing traditional American music in the streets, introduced himself, and was consequently introduced toandwas consequently introduced to others interested in the music. Actually it was a rather spectacular introduction. A pot luck dinner and dance was being held at the house I was living in for the musicians and dancers who had been participating in the weekly New England style dances held throughout the year. The players whom Dave had met in the streets, Pam Ostergren and Dave Brown, brought Dave and Bridgie along as their contribution to the party. That night we discovered that we knew many of the same tunes (that is Dave knew most of our tunes). Dave sat in with the band and a memorable evening was had by all. From that time on, Dave has been an integral part of San Diego's traditional music culture and the cornerstone of the Irish music scene. People were showing up at his house in groups from 2 to 10 play and learn. Visits always consisted of new tunes (if we wanted to learn new music), old tunes (if we wanted to play), plenty of beer, and always, "a nice cup of tea" in the kitchen with Dave and Bridgie. I have some wonderful, wonderful, memories of those evenings. Demand for Dave's playing picked up and Dave played solo (which he didn't like doing) and whenever possible joined by his young friends as the resurrected Siamsa Gael Celidhe Band (consisting of Dave, Bruce Culbertson, and myself, and later Dave, lan Law, Judy Lipnick, and myself). Performances ranged from local Irish socials to folk festivals to Dave's appearance at the 1975 Smithsonian Folk Life festival in Washington D.C. In 1978, Dave decided that he was not playing his pipes as much as he should and rather than letting them sit he offered me the set and volunteered to teach me (proof that occasionally dreams come true). Although now officially "retired" from the music Dave still takes an active part in the music, occasionally joining us on his accordion, teaching us new tunes, offering us advice, and always improving the quality and the spirit of the music.


In general, Dave's piping is modeled after Leo Rowsome's, distinguished by open chanter playing and constant rhythmic regulator accompaniment. Visually, there is no doubt that you are watching a seasoned player when watching Dave play. He always manages to get the maximum music for the minimum amount of effort. His fingers always stay close to the chanter, although not as close as he would like them to be. He says that you should not be able to see the fingers lift off the chanter of a good chanter player. His bellows action is smooth and relaxed, and he manages to move his wrists around to reach all the regulators with ease. The chanter stays mostly on his knee although he does move it around to get to certain regulators. He has always used a popping valve on his chanter. His basic regulator playing method is to sound the regulators on the offbeat in reels and hornpipes, and play them on the onbeat in jigs for the length of one quaver. This pattern will be embellished by holding down the regulators for a half or full measure (done most frequently at the beginning of a new part, the ending of a part or to emphasize a particularly strong chord change) or catching the on beat as well as the offbeat on reels and hornpipes. Dave tends to play two (bass and baritone) or all three regulators using primarily the middle two rows occasionally dropping down to the bottom row. Dave's chanter playing is very open in the bottom octave (with the exception of tight AC#A and BDB patterns) with a mix of open and closed playing in the upper octave. In the upper octave he will use tight fingering to separate repeated notes of the same value and execute triplet figures (F#GF#, EF#E). Dave places great importance in melody. His years of playing has taught him what notes belong in a tune and, perhaps more importantly, what notes and embellishments do not. Because of this Dave uses embellishments that enhance the melody and stays away from embellishments that obscure or simplify the melody. He uses graces (and to a lesser extent pats) extensively, particularly to accent the downbeat. He uses short rolls sparingly and long rolls hardly at all. An example of this nay be seen in his playing of Donnybrook Fair. In measure 1, where many players would use a long G roll and possibly a long A roll, Dave plays the melody preceding the GF#G figure and the AGA figures with grace notes. This type of embellishment creates a strong rhythmic lilt without removing any melodic detail from the tune. Another notable aspect of Dave's playing is his use of melodic embellishments. Instead of varying a tune with different graces and rolls Dave will often restructure a phrase melodically. Examples of these kind of variations may be found in the second 'A' part and second 'B' part of Donnybrook Fair. Much else of his playing style applies to his accordion and whistle playing as well as his piping. His years of playing for dancers in Dublin, London, and Chicago has created a style with a relaxed tempo, a strong lilt, and faultless rhythm. Dave feels that he is a stronger air and jig player than a reel player. His repertoire is very large comprising many reels, many airs, most all of the common jigs, polkas, hornpipes, set dances, and popular waltzes. Dave never used the term polka to describe tunes such as the 'Rose Tree' or 'Maggie in the Woods'. He refers to them as simple reels, the ones the player would use for the dancing. Dave is a natural musician. He is one of those people you can hand a new instrument to and in a few minutes he will be playing a tune. He reads music, and on accordion can play a tune in any key. He is also quite skillful in backing up singers on his accordion. One other feature of his accordion playing which deserves mention is his beautiful air playing. This playing has to be heard to be appreciated. 


Finally, mention should be made of Dave's attitude towards Irish music. Dave has no pretensions that Irish music should only be played by the Irish, or that it should even be played in an Irish style. At sessions, he always goes out of way to make sure that all players present get a chance to play. He rarely offers criticism or advice to a player. When criticism is extracted from Dave (this requires force) it can be extremely detailed. This is especially true of his teaching of airs. I remember trying to play back one of his airs one time and not getting more than three notes into the tune before being stopped and corrected on numerous points. It probably took forty-five minutes to work through eight measures of the music. Needless to say, the advice given was invaluable. Notes on the transcribed tune, 'Donnybrook Fair' 'Donnybrook Fair' was one of the first tunes I heard Dave play. Since then, I have played it with him countless times. As with all of Dave's music, there is no flashy playing here, just well thought out solid playing designed to bring out the tune's unique beauty and identity. Careful attention should be paid to the grace notes; they provide much of the lift which is so strong in Dave's playing. A common feature of Dave's jig playing is the slight lengthening of the first eighth note of the three eighth note jig pattern. Where it is noted as such in the music it should be even more marked. This combined with a preceding grace note creates a very nice lilt. Note that on the B E'E' patterns (i.e measure 2) the two E' notes are played staccato. Also, note the nice melodic variation in Dave's second playing of the 'A' part and 'B' part. Dave plays this at a relaxed medium tempo with regulator accompaniment provided in a manner described above.  ~  John Tuohy (written in 1982)