Who Is Sandy Jones?
Written by his daughter, Cathleen Jones Nixon
I was asked to introduce the President of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games today, and I do so with great pleasure and pride – he’s my Dad. He has a long history with this highland gathering. He was first invited to the games around 1969 by Agnes MacRae Morton and he brought the United States Air Force (USAF) Pipe Band to perform here.
Dad served as Pipe Major for the USAF Pipe Band and traveled the country and world as a soldier and musical emissary, sharing traditional Scottish music with the world. He was stationed in Washington, DC for 20 years and during that time, helped to create a vibrant piping scene. He was a founding member of the Denny & Dunnipace Pipe Band (later the City of Washington Pipe Band) and he taught a youth band – the Annapolis Pipe Band, of which I was a member. He has served these Grandfather Mountain Highland Games for many years as the Director of Piping & Drumming, as a Board member, and then as President of the Games. While engaged in all of these activities, he started the North American Academy of Piping & Drumming with the late John MacFadyen in 1970, which has been conducted every summer for 48 (now 51) years. Also during this time, Dad was traveling all over the country judging piping at Highland Games and conducting workshops with individual pipers and pipe bands. After retiring from the USAF, he took a job at The Citadel in Charleston, SC, where he taught and directed The Citadel Pipe Band for 25 years, bringing it from a low standard of playing to a competitive band that attracted pipers. He took The Citadel’s Regimental and Pipe Band to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo in Scotland, where they have since been invited repeatedly. During his tenure in Charleston, SC, he started another local pipe band – the Charleston Police Pipes & Drums. He also authored a piping tutor, “Beginning the Bagpipes”, used by many beginners when learning the great highland bagpipes. This is a quick synopsis – but my point is that Dad has had a huge impact on piping, and piping has flourished wherever he has lived – and beyond. It is safe to say he has impacted thousands, maybe tens of thousands of pipers over his years.
In the fall of 2017, our family traveled to Scotland to see Dad presented with a very special award – the Balvenie Medal – for lifetime services to piping. Dad is the first American-born to receive this award. I can’t begin to describe how proud we were for him to have been recognized in this way. I believe he emulates this award to the highest degree in serving the piping community most of his life. With the greatest pleasure, I introduce my Dad, recipient of the 2017 Balvenie Medal and your president of the 2018 Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, Sandy Jones. – Cathleen Jones Nixon
The United States Air Force Pipe Band played at President Kennedy’s Funeral
Everyone old enough knows where they were when John F. Kennedy’s assassination was announced. On a Friday in November 1963, Sandy Jones was the Pipe Sergeant of the USAF Pipe Band and was in the booking office at the US Naval Air Station in New Orleans, LA, making band travel arrangements for the next leg of their performance tour. While at the desk to order a bus, the radio was playing in the background and an announcement was made. Dad said to the Navy personnel helping him, “Did you hear what I think I just heard?” to which the other said, “I think so…”. Then the announcement that the President had been assassinated was repeated. The Office of the Secretary of the Air Force contacted the band and instructed them to cancel their upcoming performances and return to Washington, DC immediately. On the flight home, Pipe Major Mel Ross told the band members not to go anywhere over the weekend, as they didn’t know if they would be summoned. The USAF Pipe Band had played at the White House several times during the Kennedy Presidency, a favorite for dinners and State Functions. At the last minute, First Lady Jackie Kennedy said ‘Be sure to get the Pipe Band’. Sure enough, Sunday evening, before the Monday funeral, the USAF Pipe Band was called into service. P/M Mel Ross told everyone to get their Scots Guards I Book out and learn the tune “Mist Covered Mountains” that night. They had never played it before. A more traditional funeral tune for bagpipes is ‘Flowers of the Forest”, however it is usually played by a solo piper, not as an entire pipe band, with its somewhat irregular phrasing.
Early Monday morning, the day of President Kennedy’s funeral, Sandy was tuning the pipes and running the band through a rehearsal of the tune in a parking lot at Lee’s Mansion, Arlington Cemetery. They played through the tune twice and took a break for coffee and donuts, intending to come back and rehearse again. When Sandy started tuning the pipes again, an Army General came up and told the Band to get in place. They were given explicit instructions to begin playing as soon as the casket was lifted off of the caisson, to continue playing in slow march past the grave site, then stop when the casket was placed down because that was when the flyover would begin. Sandy recollects that band members had doubts that everything would happen with that kind of precision, but indeed it did. They played one and a half times through the tune and immediately after their cut-off, the sound of jet engines roared overhead.
‘Mist Covered Mountains’ became a tune played at funerals after that; Sandy says a year or two later, The Black Watch Pipe Band was heard playing the tune at Winston Churchhill’s funeral.
Dedication of the Clan Cairn 1981
Sandy was at home in Mt. Pleasant, SC, looking through a book of pipe music he had just gotten, “John MacKenzie’s Collection of Bagpipe Music”, when he received a call from then-Grandfather Mountain Highland Games (GMHG) President Bobby Groves, Jr. They were discussing the upcoming 1981 GMHG. Bobby told Sandy that a new cairn commemorating the Clans had been completed and would be dedicated at the next GMHG gathering.
“What would be a good tune to play for that, Sandy?” asked Bobby.
Sandy’s eyes fell on a tune as he was browsing the book called ‘The Cairn on the Hill.’
“The Cairn on the Hill”, answered Sandy.
They finished their conversation and rang off.
The most popular week-long session to attend at the North American Academy of Piping and Drumming in Valle Crucis, NC is the week just prior to the GMHG. Students have honed their skills for the week and are eager to both attend and compete at the games. As this busy week was coming to a close in 1981, Bobby Groves, Jr called Sandy to remind him that he would be playing “Cairn on the Hill” for the cairn dedication that evening.
“What?!? I was just telling you a good tune for that – I don’t KNOW it!”, said Sandy.
“You better learn it!”, said Bobby.
Sandy completed the certificate ceremony that concludes the piping school session and kitted up to go to the games field for the dedication. He did not know the tune, but also did not have that particular book with him! He went through the vendor stalls where he luckily found a copy of the book and purchased it. He brought Bill Muzzy, who was attending and helping out at the piping school, with him as an accomplice. Sandy stood on an outcropping of rock slightly behind the cairn and commenced to playing ‘The Cairn on the Hill’ for the dedication ceremony…as Bill held the book open to the correct page on a tree branch, hidden by the leaves, as Sandy sight-read the tune, playing for the crowd!