Celtic piper and pipemaker
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Tim Britton was born into a family deeply involved in the folk revival, growing up at the many festivals throughout the ‘60s. George, his folk singing father, was instrumental in the early Philadelphia folk music scene, founding the Philadelphia Folk Song Society, the Philadelphia Folk Festival, The Main Point Coffeehouse and the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society, as well as teaching guitar to thousands of students. His mother, Charlotte, was an agent for performing artists and ran the Britton Folk Studio for 25 years, one of the most successful folk music schools. His two sisters have traveled the country playing a range from folk to funk.
At age ten, Tim became fascinated with his Celtic roots and immersed himself in all facets of the culture. Picking up the tin whistle, the Highland bagpipes and later the Uillean pipes, wooden flute and mandolin, he studied recordings of the masters. He was further nurtured by the weekly dances held at the Philadelphia Irish Center, quickly gaining the respect of the musicians there, as well as learning to dance.
The thriving east coast Irish music scene enabled him to play with numerous musicians, young and old, from Ireland and America. At age 15, Tim received a grant to attend the Willie Clancy School in Ireland, an annual workshop in Irish music, where he played with some of Ireland's finest musicians, prompting the local newspaper to proclaim him “a discovery.” His determination to acquire a full set of pipes led him to learn the art of pipe making later to become one of the most respected in the field.
Bagpipes likely originated in India several thousand years ago, notes Britton, traveling along trade routes to find their homes among animal herding cultures in the Middle East, North Africa and all through Europe, not arriving in Scotland until various forms were ubiquitous in most of the Western world. Largely a rural instrument, made of easily found materials—wood and reeds for the chanter and drones, goatskin for the air reservoir or bag—the pipes echoed through the hills and across valleys. The relatively modern Uillean pipes evolved at a time when 17th-century British colonialism “cleansed” Ireland of the older Piob Mor, killing all the pipers and destroying every last one of their instruments. A not-quite-as-thorough version of this occurred in Scotland after the Battle of Culloden in 1745, when the British outlawed the pipes and the kilt. Ironically, it was the British who, in the 19th-century, revived the Scottish pipes (as well as the kilt, tartan, and other symbols of Scottish heritage) and spread them worldwide via the British army, making the bagpipes synonymous with Scotland.
As Britton explains, the Uillean pipes consist of a bellows, a bag, a chanter, three drones, and three regulators. The player fills the bag with air by pumping the bellows with his/her elbow at the same time as fingering the chanter to play the melody. Like all bagpipes the bag enables the signature constant sound, requiring grace notes for articulation of the melody. Uillean pipe technique has the player seal the end of the chanter on the thigh. The piper can then close all the finger holes to get silence between the notes as well as venting the bottom to swell the tone. The drones provide a simple but striking harmony, and the wrist activated regulator levers produce accompanying chords and rhythmic accents. The resulting sound is similar in range, tone and volume to a duet of fiddles or perhaps a small organ.
For nearly 30 years Tim Britton has been touring, teaching and recording, appearing on over two dozen records with the likes of Mick Moloney, Eileen Ivers, Johnny Cunningham, Robbie O'Connell, Gerald Trimble, Bela Fleck, John McCutcheon, Patrick Ball, Paddy O'Brien and many others. He has taught extensively both privately and at piping conventions, festivals, and workshops such as the Augusta Heritage Arts Workshops. In 1989 he was designated a master artist by the Iowa Arts Council and was nominated for a Best of Philadelphia Music Award. From 1997 to 2003 he toured with Paddy O'Brien and Pat Egan under the name of Chulrua, which participated in the Arts Midwest Global Sounds, Heart Beats tour. When not traveling, Britton makes pipes and does audio engineering and sales in Fairfield, Iowa. Tim has been the recipient of five Iowa Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grants to teach Irish music and Uillean pipe making and playing.
At home in Fairfield, Tim and his apprentice make pipes, which he sells worldwide. He is also active on the local music scene, playing with other musicians for contra dances and in concert.