Dressed in a navy blazer, cream–colored socks and other traditional accoutrements, Alexandria Davis stood proudly, every inch the Scots–Irish lass.
“Do I look all right?” she asked as she patted her kilt.
“My mother got me this new costume and it’s the first time I’ve worn it.”
Satisfied with the answer that she looked lovely, she gathered up the unwieldy collection of sculpted wood sticks and pillowy velvet. Soon the somber tones of the Scottish Highlands filled the air.
At 26, Davis one of Georgia’s youngest professional bagpipers and a rare female presence in what’s always been a male–dominated musical genre. Her anomalous status either makes her incredibly fascinating or dangerously radical, depending how conservative the circle.
It certainly doesn’t deter her from booking regular gigs, including last week’s commemorative Girl Scout events when she sent up a spellbinding rendition of “Amazing Grace” at the gravesite of Juliette Gordon Low.
While being the wrong gender and on the wrong side of middle–age are enough to make her stand out among pipe players, she also happens to be blind.
When she’s not practicing the bagpipes, Davis is a noted vocalist, bugler and trumpet player. She serves as a volunteer radio operations specialist with the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary. She built her music website herself and devotes her spare time as a labor activist.
We caught up with this extraordinary and fiercely independent lady last week on the southside, where she lives by herself with her cat, Sable. Her apartment walls are adorned with plaques and newspaper clippings of her accomplishments. Though she can’t see them, she points them out to visitors with pride.
In a melodious voice with a northern lilt, Davis explained how she became the world’s only visually–impaired woman bagpiper, why she settled in Savannah and what fuels her dedication to workers’ rights.
How did you come to play the bagpipes?
Alexandria Davis: I was studying in Canada in 2004—they have really good schools there for people who can’t see. My host family took me to an Irish festival, and when I heard the pipes I immediately thought, “I want to do that!” My host mother was like, “Um, I don’t think that’s possible,” but I just laughed and said “I’ll prove it to you.”
There are lot of pipe bands and pipers in Canada, so I found a teacher and started on the small pipes. I continued studying in Minnesota while at university and then online with a teacher from England. I’ve been playing the full pipes for about two years.
Do you get any guff for being a woman?
Alexandria Davis: There are a lot of guys who don’t think girls shouldn’t play bagpipes. I think that more girls should play, it’s a beautiful instrument.
There’s kind of a rivalry between me and some of the other male players around here; some of them can be kind of mean. My mom says they’re just jealous. [laughs] She’s always been my biggest advocate.
Have you always been a musician?
Alexandria Davis: I started with percussion in grade school, from there I learned trumpet. I toured with a drum and bugle corps for three summers in school, but I didn’t finish college because I got a job with an honor guard. I figure I’m already performing now so I don’t need a piece of paper. I can always go back.
I like to sing, too. I sang with the Philharmonic for a little while here in Savannah, but I got too busy. I always loved the symphony and thought I would pursue opera, but the pipes have turned into a career.
Do bagpipers have to stick to Irish or Scottish music?
Alexandria Davis: We can try to arrange certain music, but we only have nine notes so we tend to stick to the traditional Irish and Scottish pieces. People do write new tunes and I try to learn a new song every month.
I really like Irish music anyway. I’ve always loved the Dubliners, the Chieftains and especially the Dropkick Murphys—they go to union rallies.
How did you end up in Savannah?
Alexandria Davis: I was born in Oklahoma, but my family traveled a lot and I had been here for family vacation. Then, when I volunteered in the Air Force Auxiliary, I came here to serve at Hunter for four months. I just liked it and decided to stay—the people are so nice here, and there are a lot of organizations I can be involved in.
Alexandria Davis: I volunteer with the Savannah Labor Council. That’s my network, my Savannah family. There’s 34 unions in Savannah, and I’m surrounded by amazing people who are plumbers, truckdrivers, electricians, pipefitters... I’m a member of the American Federation of Musicians myself.
When I joined the unions, I felt immediately included. There are some places I’ve gone where I asked to help and they’ve blown me off, but the union people said “Come on in.”
I’m also a new member of the Industrial Workers of the World, and I’m currently trying to get in a IWW Leadership Camp.
I want to help disabled people and save them from their two–dollar–an–hour wages. I’ve just started a project to help people with disabilities to make sure they get treated fairly. People think just because someone’s disabled that they’re having fun making slave wages with no benefits.
How do you accommodate being blind in your work?
Alexandria Davis: I’ve been visually–impaired since birth; it was part of being three months premature. I’m still only a hundred pounds and five–foot–one, so I usually only play the bagpipes for thirty minutes at a time. I usually like to split up performances with other musicians.
My computer talks to me; that’s how I made the website and read emails. As far as reading goes, I like military books and stories. We don’t really use Braille anymore; it’s kind of outdated except for menus and things like that.
You use the term “visually–impaired” rather than “blind.” Is that more politically–correct?
Alexandria Davis: I don’t mind either one, though I think “visually–impaired” sounds more professional.
What would be the pinnacle of your career?
Alexandria Davis: Going and serving people as a bagpiper. I really look up to any kind of service member, police or military, so playing at honor guards and those kinds of events are my favorite places to perform. If I could see, I would have been active duty. I just want to serve our country and my community.
Learn more about Alexandria Davis at www.highlandbagpiper.net.