If you’ve ventured to the Davis Farmers Market on a warm summer weekend, there’s a chance the unmistakable sounds of bagpipes were part of the occasion.
But who could have guessed that the man producing the music — pleasing to the ears of some, possibly irritating to others — has a history with the instrument that far exceeds a casual hobbyist?
The man behind the pipes is 80-year-old George Knutson, a military veteran and Dixon cattle rancher. He’s piled up plenty of anecdotes during his 54 years as a bagpiper.
Knutson said his story — contrary to the common perception of a bagpiper in full garb, kilt and all — does not begin with a heritage in Scotland. In fact, he is of Norwegian descent.
“Everybody thinks when you wear a kilt, you’re Scottish,” he said, smiling. “Though I have visited there quite often, many moons ago.”
Knutson, who often entertains marketgoers in Davis’ Central Park, was introduced to bagpipes as a high school student in Oregon — his home after growing up in Minnesota. He learned on a practice chanter, which is often used for training by aspiring bagpipers.
After graduation, he was drafted into the military. In 1951, he was properly outfitted with a U.S. Marine Corps uniform and joined the first wave of forces responding to the Korean conflict.
However, the change in scenery did nothing to dampen his interest in mastering the bagpipes. Even in boot camp, Knutson practiced marching troops to and from the mess hall with the harmonies of his instrument.
“When I got with the Marines, I was asked if I could perform the ‘Marine Corps Hymn,’ ” he said. “Fortunately, that’s one of the tunes you can play on the pipe. It took me just about half an hour to memorize it.”
As Knutson was shipped off to Korea and moved from station to station in the war-torn country, his bagpipes were never far away. It’s the same instrument he continues to use to this day.
It provided plenty of comfort: “When you’re being shot at by 10,000 enemy forces, you tend to get a little worried,” he said.
Knutson reminisced about playing music at war prisoner exchanges between the American and Korean troops toward the end of the conflict, and one moment in particular — on Jan. 22, 1952.
“I was playing amidst Korean soldiers with machine guns, all looking very stern, like they’d bite you,” he said. “But I noticed, when I looked down, that they were all tapping their toes to the music.”
More than half a century later, he relived this moment once more in a rendezvous after he played the bagpipes at a memorial ceremony at the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon.
“A man came over to me and said, ‘Hey, those pipes bring back old memories,’ ” Knutson said. “I said, ‘How’s that?’ and he told me that he was a prisoner released from North Korea. … I said to him, ‘I can tell you the date.’
“I’ve got more mileage on me now than I did then, so he didn’t remember me,” Knutson added. “I didn’t even get his name. … Well, anyway, I’ll see him again sometime.”
His passion for the pipes is evident, given the sheer amount of time he’s spent performing at the Farmers Market and in Sacramento’s White Hackle Pipe Band. Then there’s this anecdote:
Upon his release from the Marines in San Francisco, “I was heading downtown to the Greyhound to go home, when I saw a parade down Market Street with a bagpipe band,” Knutson recalled. “They sounded good, so I went over to talk to them.
“They said if I wanted to be with the band I’d have to join the Army … so I did,” he said with a chuckle. “Never did make it home right away.”
Still in his uniform, Knutson went into the recruiting office of the U.S. Army to sign up for another tour. He traveled around America, and to neighboring countries, with the Army’s bagpipe band until 1958.
Today, Knutson leads a simpler existence. He lives in Dixon with his wife, Dee, living a life he was familiar with as youth in Minnesota — on his family’s small dairy farm.
The Angus cows he has made a living off of for more than 30 years provide most of his audience now, and they never complain about the sounds of bagpipes in the early-morning hours.
“We had a herd of cows up in the hills, and I trained them,” he said. “Didn’t need any cowboy. I played the pipes, and they’d come right in where they needed to be.”
With no more gallant voyages on the horizon, Knutson seems content in the presence of the bagpipes that have been there for the entire journey.
“I’m gonna play them as long as I can,” he said, letting out an abbreviated laughed before adding: “I guess it’s a superiority complex. Very few people play the pipes, and there are a lot of wannabes.”
— Reach Brett Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett