For a period of about 20 years, Gordon Parsons barely touched his bagpipes.
Since returning to the Conception Bay North area in 2007, however, the native of Coley's Point has gotten lots of use out of his well-traveled instrument.
"All the parades that are done here, like for Remembrance Day on Nov. 11, I pipe there," he said, noting there have also been requests for birthdays, weddings and funerals for Scottish war brides.
Now, the Spaniard's Bay resident has a new title he can thank his instrument for. Earlier this spring, council agreed to name Parsons the official town piper and an ambassador for the community. The move was made at the suggestion of Deputy-Mayor Darlene Stamp in light of Parsons's continued presence at public events in Spaniard's Bay. He is the first person in the community to receive this designation.
Parsons was moved by council's gesture.
"That was a real honour for me," he said.
Parsons left home in 1965 for work in Ontario. It was there he started playing the instrument.
"I was always interested in the bagpipes, even when I was a young fella growing up in Coley's Point," he said. "You'd see the pipes being played on the radio. I was really involved with it. I could get the volume turned up high enough on the radio to really absorb it."
A couple of years after moving to Ontario, Parsons joined the Royal Regiment of Canada, a reserve infantry regiment of the Canadian Army based in Toronto. He started watching a Scottish regiment in Toronto who played every Wednesday night.
Moving to Ajax in the late 1960s, Parsons met Norm Sheer, a piper recruiting members to serve with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada Pipes and Drums group. Sheer served as pipe major for the group.
He decided to join up and finally learn how to play the instrument. As a member of that group, Parsons performed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Ohio Sauerkraut Festival and Fairport Canal Days in New York State, among other events.
"We weren't part of any competition," Parsons said, recalling those days. "(Sheer) wouldn't allow us to take part at all. All Norm was interested in was street marches, because we're military ... He wanted us to have fun, play the tunes."
He remained a performer with the group until 1987, when work took him to St. John's for several years. He later moved back to Ontario and still elected not to pick his instrument back up.
"When I'd come back now to stay, my sister was the manager of the Legion here in Spaniard's Bay," he said. Parsons decided to become a member, and also agreed to get reacquainted with his pipes to perform at special events.
"There's no pressure to it now, because you just do your own thing."
Weather conditions can at times cause problems for bagpipers. Last fall when he performed in St. John's for a Bells of Peace ceremony to commemorate the signing of the Armistice to end the First World War, the winds were strong and cold. Waiting through speeches for his moment to perform, Parsons made it through one verse of "Amazing Grace" before he had to stop. A flap on one of the pipes wouldn't close properly as he was playing, due to the cold.
"The Lt.-Gov. (Judy Foote), she understood it," added Parsons, who is a former president of Royal Canadian Legion Branch 9 in Spaniard's Bay. "She came over, shook my hand. She wanted to meet me."
Beyond the bagpipes, Parsons is known for singing and strumming a guitar with his brothers in a group called The Parsons Boys; depending on availability, other members include Judson, Keith, Roland and Kevin. They host an open mic at the Spaniard's Bay Legion on the second Sunday of each month at 2:30 p.m.
Keeping the pipes fit
The traditional Scottish bagpipes includes a chanter for playing the melody and drones with slides.
Gordon Parsons's instrument has a bass drone and two tenor drones, with the slides used to help correct the pitch of the drone that accompanies the melody performed with the chanter.
All of these pieces connect to the bag. These days, Parsons is fortunate to use a bag that is maintenance-free. The bag for his first instrument was made of pigskin and required regular seasoning; it was over 40 years old. Otherwise, it would dry out and allow air to leak.
"Here you are trying to keep the bag full, concentrating on the tune and concentrating on where you're going, and you'd see stars – they used to leak awful until you got them seasoned up."
The bag he uses now has a tube inside that collects the moisture produced when he's playing, leaving Parsons with nothing to do maintenance-wise, other than giving it the odd polish.