John ‘Bagpipe’ Fredericks - there is more to the name
By Vibert C. Cambridge, Ph.D.
November 9, 2003
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The Daily Argosy of May 2, 1926, carried an article with the caption: ‘Police Band: Bag Pipes Presented.’ The article stated:
“The police drum and fife-band has been presented with four sets of Scottish bag-pipes. The donors are Colonel E. Woolmer, D.S.O. of Curtis Campbell & Co., Mr. H.P.C. Melville, Mr. Jas Smith, manager of Pln. Rose Hall and Mr. Jas Bea, manager of Pln. Albion.”
The Police Drum and Fife Band had been formed in 1925. According to John Campbell, the instruments for the band were purchased with private funds. So, the gift by Messrs Woolmer, Melville, Smith, and Bea was continuing a practice.
In November 6, 1927, ‘Theo,’ who wrote the column Topics of the Times in The Daily Argosy asked ‘Uncle Stapie’ to:
“Better go an’ see you fren’ Broadburn an’ aks he is whah happen to Blackwood foo-foo-ah begs pard’n ah mean de late Mr. Col. Black-wood semi-military police drum and fife ban’. Fo’ah lang time ah ent hear it neida ah can hear nutt’n bout dem bag-pipe what certain police Highlanders from de Eas’ Cose was to play.”
During the 1920s through the 1940s, ‘Uncle Stapie’ performed a watchdog role in society, it was clear that he focused attention on topical issues.
The November 6, 1927, article was clearly asking about the bagpipes that had been donated the previous year to the new Police Drum and Fife Band. The article referred to the emergence of bands in institutions across British Guiana, and it hinted at the place of Highlanders - Scots - in that development.
This interpretation would not be an extreme one as the Scots had at that time played a significant role in Guyana’s social and economic life. According to Cruickshank, by 1759 Scotsmen had already “invaded the Land of Mud. Up the [Demerara] river was a coffee plantation owned by Benjamin Nicholls named “Tweedside.” Another Scot, Donald Stewart, grew sugar cane at Dunoon.” Cruickshank also reported that by the end of the 18th century Scotsmen were significant plantation owners across Demerara.
This presence and influence would continue through the 19th century. The cornerstone for St Andrew’s Kirk was laid in 1811, making it one of the oldest churches in Demerara. The first concert of sacred music in Demerara was held in 1822 at St Andrew’s Kirk. In his important essay Colonial Images of Blacks and Indians in Nineteenth Century Guyana, Robert Moore noted “by 1870 the practice of employing coloured overseers [on sugar estates in British Guiana] had died out. Only young English-men or Scotsmen were employed.” Henry Kirk’s Twenty-Five Years in British Guiana covers the period 1872-1897 and makes clear that although the numbers of Scotsmen had declined by the end of the 19th century, their influence was still significant in British Guiana’s economic, social, and cultural life. The donations of the bagpipes could be seen as a contribution of the Scottish members of the community to an institution whose leadership was dominated by Scotsmen. Our featured musician, John H T Fredericks, remembers that the leadership of British Guiana’s Police Force during the early decades of the 20th century was dominated by Scotsmen.
John H T Fredericks join-ed the British Guiana Police Force’s Drum and Fife Band on September 26, 1935, at the age of 19. The band, which had 40 members at that time, was directed by Sgt Phillips. The drummers included Benjamin, Cort, Dowridge, Ladoo, and Medas. The buglers included Nunes, Rollins, and MacFarlane. James Pheonix played piccolo, and Fredericks played the first flute.
The Drum and Fife Band played on police route marches and related ceremonial events. It joined with the British Guiana Militia Band to ‘Beat the Retreat.’ According to John Campbell, “members of the band, on many occasions entertained guests of the Governor at Government House Drawing Room concerts. The instrumentalists usually performed on fife, drum, violin and ukulele.”
Fredericks tells the story of “discovering” the bagpipes and related instruction manuals in 1944 in the attic of the Police Training School at Eve Leary and teaching himself to play. He recalls that his first attempt at playing the instrument made him dizzy. How-ever, his early attempts at playing attracted the attention of Major Henwood of the British Guiana Militia Band who encouraged him.
In time, Fredericks became proficient on the instrument and was invited to perform for a visiting member of the Royal Family at the Government House during the 1950s. For that performance he was accompanied by an-other policeman, Trenton Heywood, who played the drones. Fredericks played melody. He concluded his performance with a rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ The performance was well received and he earned a nickname - ‘Bagpipe.’ Today he is still known affectionately as John H T ‘Bagpipe’ Fredericks.
But there is more to the story. The scene was a dance at Haley’s Hall (Smyth and Durban streets). The period is just after the 1953 crisis and the curfew is lifted. British Guiana is still occupied by the crack Scottish Regiment - The Black Watch. As all occupying forces would do, they make efforts to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the citizenry. This includes socializing. Members of the Black Watch attended the dance at Haley’s Hall and engaged in friendly banter with Guyanese. The soldiers are told that there was a Guyanese who could play the bagpipes as good as any Scotsman. The Scotsmen dare them to produce the evidence. A delegation was sent to fetch Fredericks, who was at that time the duty corporal at the Police Training School, Eve Leary. Well, Guyana’s pride was at stake during these testing colonial times. Arrangements were made for Fredericks to be temporarily relieved. He proceeded to Haley Hall and represented Guyana. He performed admirably and remembers that the hat that was passed around after his performance was “very nice.” The name ‘Bagpipe’ was reaffirmed.
Fredericks started his musical education at the age of nine with Miss Edna Elcock, later Mrs Edna Jordan, the mother of Bro Pascal Jordan. He completed Grade 8 of the Associated Boards of the Royal Schools of Music.
At the age of nine, Fredericks also joined the Christ Church Choir. He later sang with the Dawson Musical Lovers Club, the Maranatha Choir, the choir of St Andrew’s Kirk, Skeldon Music Lovers Choir, and the British Guiana Police Male Voice Choir of which he was a foundation member.
Fredericks also plays the organ. He got his start with that instrument when he served as a page turner for Christ Church’s celebrated organist Mr Chapman-Edwards. His first solo performance was during the Lenten season in 1938 at age 23.
After retiring from the Police Force in 1970, Fredericks spent some time in Boston, and he reports that for two years he studied choral conducting and musical analysis at Harvard University.
He returned to Guyana in 1975 and started another musical career - music teacher. He taught music at the Sophia Centre, Lodge Community High School, and Critchlow Labour College. Fredericks also became intimately involved with the steel band community, establishing bands at the Sophia Centre and at Critchlow Labour College. In the mid-1980s he became coordinator for the annual Mashramani Steel Band competition, replacing Mr Charlie Hubbard. Fredericks emigrated to the United States in 1984.
Throughout his musical journey, Fredericks has remained committed to choral singing and playing the organ. He considers Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, Hayden’s Serenade, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude, and Schubert’s Ave Maria his organ favourites.
The story of John ‘Bagpipe’ Fredericks demonstrates the capacity of Guyanese to be adventurous musically. Fredericks, who now lives in New York, is a member of the popular Guyana Ex-Policemen Mixed Voice Choir and is the organist for the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Brooklyn, New York and the Excelsior Masonic Lodge, also in New York. He is proud to be known as John H T ‘Bagpipe’ Fredericks.
For more information on Guyana’s cultural heritage visit http://www.guyfolkfest.org/
(1) John Campbell History of Policing in Guyana (Georgetown, Guyana : Guyana Police Force, 1987.)
(2). J. Graham Cruickshank Notes on the History of St Andrews’s Kirk (Georgetown, Demerara : Estate of C.K. Jardine, Deceased, 1911.)
(3) Robert J. Moore Colonial Images of Blacks and Indians in Nineteenth Century Guyana in Bridget Brereton and Kevin A. Yelvington, Editors. The Colonial Caribbean in Transition: Essays on Post-emancipation Social and Cultural Life (Gainesville, Florida : University Press of Florida, 1999, pp. 126 - 158.)
(4) John H.T. Fredericks The Success of a Great Thought (Boston : n.d. (circa 1974).)
(5) Telephone interviews with John Fredericks, June 3, 2002 and October 24, 2003.