When North Branford Fire Chief William Seward took up the bagpipes in 2000, he never thought he would end up playing "In A Gadda Da Vida" on television.
Seward said he learned to play clarinet in a music class at Wilbur Cross High School. "So I had some musical ability and could read music," he said.
It still took him over a year to learn how to play bagpipes, which can be tricky. "It’s a woodwind instrument that has four reeds. The trick is to provide enough wind to cause the music to project out of four pieces," he said.
At that time, Seward was the director of the New Haven Regional Fire Training Academy. He retired from the New Haven Fire Department in 2008 after 30 years as a firefighter. By that time, he was already the North Branford fire chief, which is a part-time position.
Other woodwind and brass instruments only make musical notes when you blow through them. Bagpipes, however, sound continuous notes by squeezing air out of the bag into the chanter tube and three drone tubes.
The bass drone and two tenor drones harmonize to create the familiar bagpipe droning sound, while the piper plays the melody on the chanter tube, which is played like a recorder flute.
Seward said before a person can learn to play the instrument, he has to be able to blow enough air into the bag to keep it filled so the sound can be maintained uninterrupted.
Once he learned to play, Seward joined the New Haven County Firefighter Emerald Society Pipes and Drums group, which marches in parades and plays at funerals, firefighter promotion ceremonies and retirement dinners.
In fact, last Thursday the group played at the dedication ceremony for the newly renovated fire training academy he used to run.
The timing of Seward’s decision to learn the instrument proved auspicious. In 2002, the New Haven County Firefighter Emerald Society Pipes and Drums was among the groups that played at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service. That service was held that year at the National Cathedral in Washington DC to remember the 343 New York City firefighters who were lost in the terrorist attacks in 2001 at the World Trade Center.
So how did his bagpiping land him on television?
It turned out that one of the Pipes and Drums members, Lt. Greg McGovern of the Meriden Fire Department, plays hockey with actor Denis Leary, the star of the FX Channel program "Rescue Me," about New York City firefighters. The sixth season featured a bagpipe performance in an episode.
Seward said after a hockey game, the Pipes and Drums player asked Leary what he thought of the bagpipe playing on his show, and Leary replied what he really wanted was a bagpipe performance of "In A Gadda Da Vida," a hit song by the 1960s psychedelic rock group Iron Butterfly.
The 17-minute song, notable for a long drum solo in the middle, took up a whole side of the band’s vinyl LP record and is one of the signature songs of the psychedelic pop era. Although the program dealt with serious dramatic themes, it also included a strong strain of Leary’s brand of edgy comedy, and playing "In A Gadda Da Vida" on bagpipes fit that type of ironic humor.
McGovern immediately promised Leary that the New Haven County Emerald Society Pipes and Drums could play that song. Seward said it still took some doing, however, because they had to figure out how to transpose and distinctive rock song for bagpipes.
In May 2010, nine members of them were filmed playing "In A Gadda Da Vida" at a private estate on Long Island, and the scene was included in the series finale episode on Sept. 7, 2011, timed to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack.
You can view the full episode of the series finale of Rescue Me here. If you want to skip to Seward's appearance, go to the 41-minute mark.