An Interview With David Page
Master Uilleann Piper
by Astra Thor
Dave Page is an old time master uilleann piper now living in Southern California. He is helping to keep Irish traditional music alive and flourishing there by encouraging many young musicians.
He was born in 1906 of plain Irish folk living in Dublin. Life there was slower than now. Everyone was relatively poor but no one starved. Progress had not yet arrived in the form of electricity and most households cooked over a peat fire in the fireplace. People went to the neighborhood pub in the evening for a pint or two and a chat. The pubs were supposed to close early then and people would take a few bottles of ale home with them, bring out the instruments and begin the real socializing of the evening. Pub closing was always delayed however, if visitors were still coming in late or music was being played. " There was a lot of music around all the houses because no one had a radio." recalls Dave. Most every home had a piano and there were always lots of fiddles, but not many other instruments. He says that things were nice in Ireland. "Things were not too plentiful but we didn't notice. We were too busy playing music."
As a child, Dave was musically influenced by his Mother, who lilted the traditional tunes to him, and his older brother was a good fiddler. He started on a G banjo and also "fooled around with the whistle", but wasn't so fond of the sound. He recalls that there weren't many good whistle players around then.
Dave discovered the charms of the uilleann pipes in his teens. When he was about eighteen, his brother helped him persuade their father to buy this expensive instrument for him. In those days you couldn't go to a store to buy anything. You had to have it made or make it yourself. A full set of pipes, which cost about sixty dollars in those days, was ordered from Leo Rowsome. It wasn't the custom to get a half set of pipes then because it was very difficult to ever get delivery on the rest of the set.
In due time, a concert pitch set arrived and Dave began lessons with Leo Rowsome. Dave's father was disappointed that the pipes were not the old style, low pitch set. These could only be played with fiddles and low pitch flutes. Musical taste at that time demanded non-tunable, concert pitch concertinas, pianos and accordions in the bands, so uilleann pipes had to conform.
Dave was very anxious to play his pipes and practiced many hours a day and late into the night. He recalls how he rushed from work as a shoemaker to play before dinner and then commenced again after eating. He said that sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, he would think of a tune and rush downstairs just to play it. Since Dave knew many tunes from childhood, he needed only to practice technique. When asked how long it took him to be in command of his instrument, he said, "Well, you never have full command of it." He considered himself pretty good after five years of playing concerts with other musicians.
After studying with Leo Rowsome for about a year, Dave was invited to form a band with Leo, his brother Tom Rowsome and Addie Potts. This was in about 1926, and so began his long musical career.
At this time, his brother was playing in a band with eight other really good fiddlers and Dave says it was fantastic music. There were three sisters in the band, who also fiddled on the streets such as street musicians do today. Dave recalls, "We didn't like that much because street musicians were classed with tinkers," definitely not respectable.
The depression came in 1929, but it wasn't felt so badly in Ireland. Everyone was already so poor, they really didn't notice it. Dave married Bridie in 1933, and lived in Dublin, shoemaking and playing the pipes, till after World War II. After the war, they moved from Dublin to London to find more work. He continued working in leather, making handbags. He also played in dance bands but there wasn't so much call for an Irish piper. He learned to play the concertina and piano accordion. His wife, Bridie, a fine pianist, sometimes accompanied him.
Dave and Bridie came to the United States and settled in Chicago. He again found a job making handbags. The large Irish community there, welcomed traditional music. So Dave began playing music as usual. He eventually was persuaded to try the uilleann pipes again although his old Rowsome pipes had been sold years before. He hadn't played pipes for about ten years, but again became a fine piper.
In Chicago, Dave played with Tommy McCarity, Tommy Sheridan and the McMann Brothers, to name a few. He traveled to Ireland every few years to music festivals, where he was complimented, recorded and invited to parties. When he was living in Ireland, neighbors made him good reeds for the love of it and to keep him playing for them. In Chicago, Dave had no such luck. He had to make his own reeds and found it a real chore. He said he could never stand to play the pipes out of tune and would put them down if they refused to cooperate with him.
When Dave and Bridie moved to San Diego he thought he would never play the pipes again because there would be no interest in Irish music. However, word spread by friends and family reached the University of San Diego and out. Young people began coming to him to persuade him to play the old tunes for a tape recorder. Dave says he was surprised and very pleased over this interest and encouraged it. His door was always open to Irish music fans.
In Chicago, Dave was in a band called SEAMSA GAEL. This great name is now in use again by some of his friends in San Diego who are carrying on the Irish ceili tradition in fine fashion. Sometimes they persuade him to come to their gigs and play with them. Although he doesn't care for sitting on a stage and playing to an audience, he loves to play among and with a crowd. Dave's uilleann pipes are now played regularly by a fine young musician whom Dave taught to play.
Since being in San Diego, Dave has participated in many Irish music activities and has been surprised to learn that he has a large "underground" following. Although he has never recorded an album, he has heard tapes of himself playing in the most unlikely places all over the country. One time, he was in Tucson and met a man who played him the only Irish tune he knew on the fiddle. Dave asked him where he learned the beautiful tune. "From you." the man replied. Dave stated that was impossible as they had never met before. But the man said he had taped Dave off the radio years before. This makes him feel really good because he is contributing to the continuation of Irish music. Today, he says, the aural tradition is aided immensely by records and tapes. Dave is able to pass on tunes which he has forgotten over the years to people he never met. This modern miracle preserves more music, more accurately than the old way.
Dave can always recognize his own playing as well as everyone else's. This is one of the charms of the uilleann pipes. Each player develops his own style even though copying his teacher and other players. Dave thinks it would be pretty boring if everyone played identically or even tried to.
So David Page has become a legendary musician in his own time to thousands of Irish music lovers. He is a great musician, and a friendly, warm hearted man who always encourages every musician, no matter how skilled. To sum up his attitude towards the music, he has said; 'I wouldn't care who was playing Irish music, even if they only picked it up an hour ago. I'd still stand and listen, you know. I always like the live music."