By Scott Williams

        “I really don’t think anything I’ve done would be remotely interesting to any of your readers,” says Donald B. Willis of Lyndhurst, Ohio.  “I’ve never piped in a Grade 1 band, competed or even won an award.  I’m just your average kitchen piper, a non-purist who’s only been playing professionally for about 20 years.  My only claim would be that, of all the people you’ve interviewed, I’m probably one of the busiest.” 

        Donald was an only child, born in 1945. “Our name is actually Wallis,” he explains. “My grandfather, Harry Angus Wallis, went down from Scotland into England during the Great Depression and found work that paid him in script.  His first script payment was made out to Harry Angus Willis, a simple spelling error - but not wanting to upset the apple cart, he kept the name.  He wrote to my grandmother and told her what happened but forgot to tell her their new name.  She wrote back and told him she didn’t care what they called us, as long as they didn’t call us Campbells!  That story always cracks me up,” Donald adds with a grin.

        Donald started taking chanter lessons in 1955 in Minerva, Ohio. “I learned the basics from Bob Robarts, an expatriate Scot. My interest wavered, however, and I found myself leaning toward the fiddle, which became my first musical passion. I was left-handed, so I had to struggle to get used to holding the instrument backwards. I became relatively proficient, and often played at our local Grange Hall for Saturday night dances. I still find the fiddle the most emotive of all instruments. Natalie MacMaster is one of my favourite performers. I subsequently moved on to the clarinet, saxophone and oboe and played in the Minerva Grade School and High School marching and concert bands.” 

        Donald attended Malone College in Canton, Ohio and, having already decided on a career as an embalmer and undertaker – he embalmed his first body when he was sixteen years of age - he lived and worked in a funeral parlour in Canton to gain additional experience and to earn spending money. “At that time,” Donald continues, “I joined the Canton Symphony as a part-time musician. To this day, I love classical music and I often wondered what things would have been like if I would have stayed with the orchestra.”
        Following college, Donald attended the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science, obtaining his degree in 1966. “At this point,” he says, “all music was set aside as I began focusing on my career. I joined the staff of the Brown-Forward Funeral Home in Shaker Heights, Ohio and fell into the routine of embalming and funeral directing.”

        In 1968 Donald enlisted for four years in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio where he trained the new recruits in the art of surgical and operating room techniques. “I also worked as the hospital embalmer and diener (the individual who does autopsies),” adds Donald. “During that time, I lived and worked in Springfield, Ohio where I did all the embalming for three funeral homes. Following my tour-of-duty, I resumed my position with Brown-Forward, met my future wife Francille Susan Polk, and got married in 1970. We welcomed the arrival of our only child, Kristi-Ann, in 1974.

        “In 1976 I went out on a limb and opened my own embalming service to funeral parlours across the northern part of Ohio. Eventually, I ended up embalming for approximately 35 funeral parlours with an average of 1500 cases a year. I kept up this break-neck speed for 24 years, until I semi-retired and returned to the quieter atmosphere of Brown-Forward where I now work as, what else, an embalmer and funeral director.

        “About 1988, I happened across my old chanter and that rekindled my desire to play the pipes. I started lessons with Bruce Greig of Willowick, Ohio, pipe major of the North Coast Irish Pipes and Drums. I approached the lessons as if I had never seen a chanter before and made it a point to practice diligently, something I still do to this day. Bruce introduced me to pipe maker Jerry Gibson who lives not far from us. I ordered a set of his pipes and have been playing them for almost 20 years. I also own a set of Dunbar Delrin pipes for playing in the nasty Ohio winters as well as one of the first sets of Kitchen pipes that Jerry Gibson made. I actually taught myself to get the pipes ‘cranked up’ and going and, being a stubborn Scot, persevered on a daily basis until I thought I was proficient enough to join a band. 

        “Again, practice, practice, practice was my mantra. Even though I can read music, I learn many tunes by ear. As far as the fingering goes, I never thought much about it until somebody mentioned to me at practice one evening that I play an open C, a piobaireachd High A, and sometimes raise the ring finger of the right hand when playing E and I guess some of my doublings and grips aren’t exactly de rigueur, but the music sounds fine. I’ve never once had a complaint from a customer and I get regular callbacks from former clients. I use Wygent Synthedrone reeds in both sets of pipes and David Caldwell chanter reeds for a sweet, powerful, crisp sound.

        “I joined the Cleveland Kiltie Band, which was formed in 1923 and was under the direction of PM Tom Kosiki. I then moved to the Red Hackle Pipe Band under the direction of Sandy Hain who was the PM of the 2nd Battalion, 42nd Royal Highland Regiment before immigrating to the US back in the ‘50s. Both bands were street bands and as much as I enjoyed piping weekly with my friends, my solo piping commitments were becoming so extensive I had little time for the bands. I also took several lessons from my friend Scott Duncan, who is an extraordinary piper with the 87th Pipes and Drums.

        “I average between 35 to 40 weddings and several dozen funerals every year. I play for numerous corporate events, parties, picnics, Grange Hall dances, anniversaries, parades, Masonic Lodge functions, University graduation and commencement exercises, TV and radio programmes, book-signings - any place needing a unique form of entertainment. I was the clan piper for the Scottish Heritage Association of North East Ohio for years and did the piping for the Burns Night dinner. I resigned several years ago but I’m still the piper for the clans Lamont and Wallace, the English Speaking Union, and the Rowfant Club where I play on numerous occasions for the formal dinners, parading around the table while the lads are having their post-prandial brandies.

        “During the recent presidential campaign, I was asked by Akron University, Akron, Ohio to pipe for John Kerry. Rarely turning down an offer to play, I accepted. We arrived and were met by the Secret Service who literally tore my pipes apart looking for ‘whatever’. They made me remove my black knife and dirk and held it for safe keeping until after I was through. Their bomb-sniffing dog was sniffing around my pipe case and suddenly sat down, which must be a signal that she detected something unusual. Everybody descended en masse to check out my case. I told them she probably smelled the seasoning and that seemed to satisfy them. Then the dog started stiffing around my ghillie brogues and began working her way upward and I was concerned she would discover the great Scottish secret of what’s worn under the kilt! Fortunately, her handler pulled her away just in the nick of time. I was asked if I would like to perform up on the stage where numerous photo opportunities with Kerry would present themselves and I could meet him. I thanked them and said no, I’d rather be down mingling with the crowd. That was a much better position for me because I actually gave out about a half-dozen business cards and was subsequently hired for three weddings later that year. Fact is, when Kerry finally arrived, I quit playing and left – I never even saw him!

        On stage with Crimson Rain “I played with the rock band, Crimson Rain on several occasions. The tune I showcased was by a group called AC/DC entitled It’s a Long Way to the Top When You Want to Rock and Roll . It’s sort of heady being up on the stage with the entire audience screaming and whistling, and easy, I’m sure, to get caught up in that frantic life-style.

         “I love Appalachian music, especially the hillbilly fiddle music. It’s some of the best original old-time music still in existence, played in the old style. I have successfully picked up some rousing fiddle tunes by ear and have been able to transpose them to the pipes. My other favourite pipe tunes include old Cape Breton tunes found in the collection compiled by Barry Shears. At 61, my ability to memorize music is still pretty good and my repertoire now runs to around 200 offerings from memory. Also, I’ve got all four of your (i.e. Scott Williams’) volumes of New Bagpipe Music from Nova Scotia and have included several compositions from that collection in my wedding package. What’s fun about the Cape Breton tunes is that no one around here has ever heard them before. Everybody knows Scotland the Brave, Loch Lomond and the awful Amazing Grace, which, incidentally, I never play unless forced at gunpoint, but nobody knows The River Bend, Red Shoes, Miss Proud and Ardrishaig . They are always crowd pleasers. Some additional inspiration came from Duncan MacIntyre of Cape Breton, the son of one of the last Cape Breton community pipers, Joe Hughie MacIntyre. Duncan and I hit it off nicely and communicated by periodic phone calls. He eventually began sending me some old recordings of his father playing years ago and, using my ability to pick up music by ear, I’ve been able to carry on some of his traditions here in the wilds of Ohio.

         “Because of my love of the old Appalachian fiddle music, I took up hillbilly clog dancing some years ago which is similar to the Cape Breton step-dancing, only more aggressive, with the foot touching the floor constantly shuffling back and forth. It is tremendous exercise and quite a work out. I also took up Irish set dancing which I really enjoy. Last year I piped for their end-of-class recital.

        “My piping engagements have grown to a point where I now have about seven or eight skilled piping individuals as back up when my schedule gets too full. I guess I’m just a good self-promoter. I’ve got personal websites, Internet access and two agents who keep fielding gigs my way. I’m also very active in the area and know a lot of people who know a lot of people who call me for piping gigs. I rarely turn down an assignment or request and often travel quite a distance to perform. For example, I’ve gone as far west as Madison, Wisconsin and just this past weekend piped at a wedding and reception in Pittsburgh, PA.”

        Just like his piping, Donald came to his writing later in life. “In August, 2000 I ordered a copy of Sandy Chisholm’s Chanter Lessons and read it in one sitting. One week later, while looking at my print of Kenneth MacKay at Waterloo, I decided to attempt my first novel, Mystery of the Waterloo Bagpipes, a story based loosely on the pipes that Kenneth MacKay played at Waterloo. My copy of Sandy Chisholm sat on my desk for the entire eight weeks it took to write the book, as an inspiration. My first book was a smashing success, with four printings and I’ve sold thousands of copies. It’s still selling very well. 

        “Over the next two years I received so many emails, phone calls and letters from people who read the first book and wanted to know what happened next, I decided to write a sequel incorporating the same characters as the first book with one new addition – with a nod towards Scott Williams of Antigonish, my literary inspiration, I received permission to bring his character Sandy Chisholm back to my hometown in 1959 rural Ohio as a major character in my second novel, The Secret of Lightning Ridge . This book, which came out last October, has done quite well and is in its second printing. I’ve got a great niche market and loyal customer base. I just sent a copy of each novel off to England for a gentleman’s 93rd birthday. 

        “Having one more book in me, I’ve just completed writing an 80,000 word novel entitled Calvin Hemingway’s Diary – A Novel which is due to come out in mid-June, the same day I’m piping and lecturing on the history of bagpipes and doing a book signing in Coshocton, Ohio at an all day old-time music festival. The Diary is a complete change from the other two books, in that it is written as a farce and a character study in the style of Catcher in the Rye . I think it’s my favourite.

        “As a result of the three books, I’ve had to become involved in numerous book signings. To draw customers to the bookstores, I stand out side and play for about a half hour. Then we go inside and I autograph books and visit. Then, back outside. At the same time, I’m also handing out business cards and making appointments for wedding requests, events or parties. I’ve also been able to promote each book by appearing on a WCPN radio show, The Sounds of Britain and Ireland where I get to talk about the books and play a tune or two. The hosts, Joe Nicholls and Kevin McGinty have been extremely supportive of my efforts.

        “It’s not all piping, though. I enjoy reading, writing and lecturing on Egyptian mummification techniques. I possess one of the largest privately owned collections of books on mummification, many out-of-print first editions.

        “I love the bagpipes because of their ballistic sonics and taurean substance. Combine that with the wild music of the Highlands and you’ve got heaven on earth. As I said, I’ve played in bands where I’ve had to make sharp attacks and crisp, clear finishes necessary in good ensemble playing. When I play solo, however, I revert to the primitive aspects of the pipes and let them wheeze and gasp and squawk and groan as a build up to the introductory note E. The bagpipe is a primitive instrument and I don’t hesitate to let it clear its throat before bursting into its beautiful song. My thought is, if you’re looking for CD quality, buy a record. I like the charm and power and uniqueness the pipes demonstrate when let loose in their original, untamed form.”