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Billy Pigg

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Billy Pigg (1902–1968) was an English player of Northumbrian smallpipes. He was a Vice-President and an influential member of the Northumbrian Pipers Society from 1930 until his death. He learned the instrument from several pipers including Tom and Henry Clough. He won many competitions in the 1930s, certainly playing in the traditional staccato style characteristic of the instrument. In the 1950s he was noted for playing not only Northumbrian, but also Scottish and Irish tunes on the instrument. He also wrote many fine tunes for the instrument. A.D. Schofield and Julia Say produced a biography and tune book, The Border Minstrel, published by the Northumbrian Pipers' Society in 1997. This includes all his known compositions. These include the slow airs The Gypsy's Lullaby and Border Spirit, marches in 6/8 and 4/4 such as Bonny Woodside and The Old Drove Road, many hornpipes, including The Carrick Hornpipe and The Biddlestone Hornpipe, jigs such as Coffee Bridge and reels such as Cote Walls and Anne of Hindhope. One of his most spectacular pieces is Bill Charlton's Fancy, a 6/8 variation set. His version of the traditional tune, The Wild Hills of Wannies with his own variations, was entirely distinctive, and a good example of his Highland-influenced style.

During the 1950s Forster Charlton recorded his playing on many occasions. In 1958 Royce Wilson, an American working in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, acquired a tape recorder and made some recordings. Other recordings were made by the BBC and by the School of Scottish Studies. An album of selected recordings made by Forster Charlton was issued as "The Border Minstrel" on the Leader label in 1971, and re-released on CD in 2004. Through these recordings of Pigg's own compositions and his repertoire of traditional tunes, Pigg became influential throughout the world of bagpiping. Some other recordings may be heard on the FARNE website[1]. Most players of the instrument will have several of Pigg's compositions in their repertoire.

Playing styleEdit

The distinguishing characteristic of Pigg's playing style is the use of complex open-fingered ornaments, in imitation of Irish and Highland piping. His father was a Highland piper, while Billy himself had great interest in Irish music. By contrast, most respected pipers before him would have stuck with an almost wholly staccato style. Tom Clough considered that any departure from this, a style where the chanter was closed and silent between any two notes, would be "a grievous error in smallpipe playing".

The popular Northumbrian pipe tune Holey Ha'penny was originally Irish, known there as The Chorus Jig. Pigg recorded it, as had Tom Clough in the 1920s. The contrast between the two styles can easily be heard between these recordings.

The more open-fingered style was very successful for Pigg's music, allowing him a greater range of expression than a more traditional style. However, his tempos were ferociously fast and somewhat erratic, making his music unsuitable for dancing, and he was notoriously hard to accompany. Unfortunately, he was suffering badly from worsening ill-health throughout the 1950s and 1960s, when all the recordings were made, and it is certain his playing must have suffered. However, the best of his recordings have a wildness and passion which is both inspiring and wholly distinctive.

He has been hugely influential, and many pipers seek to emulate his style, notably Adrian Schofield.

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