Watch any movie with footage of any United States armed services funeral, from World War I up to the war in Iraq. You’re bound to see a familiar scene – the lone piper playing a bagpipe. Traditionally, the song you hear is “Amazing Grace.” It comes just before or just after the military band plays “Taps.” Oddly, the first bagpipe bands in the United States weren’t formed by the military.
Just when did the bagpipe become a part of U.S. military and police ceremonies? The earliest record of bagpipes played in military ceremonies starts with British army bagpipe bands. Near the end of the 19th century, Scottish servicemen leaving the Queen’s service carried the military bagpipe band tradition home. Then they joined their local police forces. The oldest, Strathclyde Police Pipe Band, formed in 1883, is based in Glasgow, Scotland.
Soon after, a multitude of Scottish and Irish immigrants arrived in the United States, seeking refuge from the Potato Famine. Many settled in Boston, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Some found work with the police and fire departments in these cities. They continued their Celtic cultural tradition of playing bagpipes at community gatherings, including weddings and funerals.
As more people became familiar with the music of the bagpipe, these bagpipe groups, mainly immigrants, were asked to perform at funerals and memorials for non-Irish and Scottish police officers. A new tradition soon took hold as the bagpipe’s haunting sound began to be associated with memorializing those who lost their lives as public servants.
In 1961, New York’s famous St Patrick’s Day Parade marked the debut of the Pipes and Drums of the Emerald Society of the New York City Police Department. Chicago’s police department followed in 1982, inspired by New York. The band travels throughout the country to honor their fallen comrades, including firefighters and armed forces personnel. The Chicago bagpipe band and New York’s are still going strong. State and local police departments have established bagpipe bands across the United States.