From Banjos to Bagpipes: We want to know who we are

Tuesday , June 12, 2018 - 12:00 AM

D. Louise Brown

I noticed the woman sitting next to me wipe her eyes a couple of times. I finally turned and asked, “Why does this make us cry?” She laughed through her tears. “I don’t know. I just can’t listen to this without crying.”

“Are you Scottish?” I asked.

She nodded. “McFarland.”

Me: “Buchanan.” Then we turned back to the music, rendered by a field of more than 100 bagpipers playing “Amazing Grace” complete with drums, kilts, tartans, caps, and all the heraldry needed to inspire the enthusiastic audience to cheer at the final notes. They didn’t need to be Scottish to appreciate that distinctive, piercing, haunting sound. But it helped.

The Utah Scottish Association’s recent Annual Festival & Highland Games played to a huge crowd that filled up the Utah State Fair Park parking lot by mid morning, ate up all the scones and Scottish eggs, and cheered at everything from hulking men in colorful kilts tossing around phone poles (“cabers”) to muscular women in colorful kilts pitchforking hay bales over horizontal poles hung high above their heads, accompanied by bagpiping competitors droning in the background. The whole event made you proud to be Scottish if you were, or long to be Scottish if you weren’t. A lot of Scottish wannabes roamed the park that day.

So why the growing interest in reaching back to our roots? We assemble our family trees, research online, scan old photos, interview grandparents, and spit into little tubes to send off to ancestry-analyzing companies that send back the list of countries your ancestors came from, along with contact info for close cousins you didn’t know you had. (That could make for some interesting introduction lines). I spit into a tube and learned what I already knew: I’m Scottish, British, German, Irish, Scandinavian, Danish, Turkish, and more — a real poster child of the American melting pot. Knowing my ancestry somehow makes me proud — and grateful — that those people once existed and because of them, now so do I.

An ancient banjo is displayed on my mother’s living room wall. The relic belonged to James William Buchanan—Mom’s father, my grandfather. He played it in the early 1900s with a band he formed. Sounds kind of idyllic—but Grandpa Buchanan was anything but. He was an inheritor of a bloodline that traces back to the Turkish regions eons ago, a hotheaded, physically powerful bloodline known for its production of capable mercenaries who gamely fought for and defended whomever paid them the most. As the best in their questionable trade, they moved on with those whom they defended, gaining goods and lands, eventually making their way into Scotland. Some stayed there. Some eventually moved on to Ireland, then America, where they spread out into the Midwest—including my ancestors.

So what’s so important about the banjo hanging on my mother’s wall? The back story.

The back stories create the intriguing, unique history that makes us eager to claim those genes as our own, and want to know more. I’m here because of the banjo. Grandpa’s band played in a local pub, and Grandma admired the banjo player. That same evening (according to family legend) Grandpa—employing his inherited physical skills and temperament—tossed an obnoxious heckler out a second story window. This was apparently attractive to Grandma, who was of hotheaded German descent. Germans and Scots—now there’s a potent mix. The German side of this story is fodder for another chapter. Suffice it to say theirs was a tempestuous, romantic, sometimes belligerent relationship. They even divorced once, realized their error, and married again. The whole story reeks of romance in a sort of brutish way.

Knowing our roots is more crucial than we may realize. In a March 2013 New York Times article titled “The Stories That Bind Us,” author Bruce Feiler builds the case that knowing family stories helps children deal better with life’s problems. He interviewed psychologists studying “the dissipation of family.” Their work discovered that children who know more about their families manage challenges better. They were “more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress…. The answers have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family,” Feiler wrote, quoting Dr. Marshal Duke, a psychologist at Emory University.

“They know they belong to something bigger than themselves,” Feiler wrote. He concluded, “If you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”

So find those stories and tell them—from banjos to bagpipes. Power and protection lie in them. We know that because each of us inherently possesses a deep desire to know not only who we are, but whose we are.

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