Armstrong Uncovers Important Bagpiper’s History
“I have difficulty believing no one knew about this,” remarked Alan Armstrong, professor of music at University of Mount Olive about a large collection of bagpipe music housed in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. While looking for a research project dealing with the Great Highland Bagpipes, he discovered that the collected works of a Mr. John Grant had been purchased by Harvard in the early ’60’s, and had not been examined since.
Grant was already known by the bagpiping community as an amateur piper and composer who flourished in Edinburgh in the early decades of the twentieth century. However, he has been mostly relegated to the side-lines of Celtic history as a “wannabe” with little to recommend him. When Armstrong examined Grant’s manuscripts at Harvard this all began to change. Armstrong discovered that Grant was an accomplished calligrapher and artist in addition to being a composer of bagpipe “tunes.”
Armstrong made a trip to Scotland in June 2010 and discovered Grant’s beautifully-illuminated books of “piobaireachd” (pronounced “pee-brock”), the “classical” music of the bagpipes, an esoteric art-form known primarily only to bagpipe aficionados. Figuring that there was still more to Grant’s story, Armstrong began looking for Grant’s descendants. After months of digging through genealogical materials, he found them. Thanks to the modern technology of e-mail, he was able to communicate with grandchildren of John Grant, and discovered that one of Grant’s own daughters-in-law was still alive and in good health at age 97.
Armstrong traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland and Zurich, Switzerland in January 2011, thanks to a sabbatical he was granted (no pun intended) from his teaching duties at University of Mount Olive. He had the opportunity of interviewing the family members who recalled their grandfather and father-in-law, and was given full access to all of John Grant’s private letters, newspaper clippings, and memorabilia. The letters were especially valuable, providing Armstrong with enough resource materials to write a biography.
Armstrong is writing a book on the life and works of John Grant, but while doing so, has had the opportunity of creating a web-site on which to house some of his findings and has had three articles published, two of them this month. The first, published last July, is entitled “Piobaireachd for a President,” and details a classical bagpipe piece Grant wrote in honor of Franklin D. Roosevelt immediately after V-E Day. Armstrong was able to photograph the reply letter from Eleanor Roosevelt in which she thanked Grant for the music, and promised to place it in the FDR Memorial Library. (Unfortunately, FDR passed away before he had a chance to see the music.)
This article, and one just published on “The Windsor Marches”–music Grant composed for members of the British Royal Family from George V to Queen Elizabeth–were published in The Voice, the official journal of the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association. A third, “A Noble Pursuit: The Early Works of John Grant” was recently published in “Piping World,” magazine in the UK. A fourth article, entitled “John Grant and the Army School of Piping” is soon to be released in “Piping Times,” the official journal of the College of Piping, Glasgow. This article will be of particular interest to many in the UK because this is the 100th anniversary of the Army School of Piping and next to nothing is known of Grant’s tenure as instructor. Armstrong invites all those interested in learning more about John Grant, hearing his music performed, and seeing his artwork, to visit the John Grant website at www.pmjohngrant.com.