On any given day, Jim Johnson walks from his Merriam Park home to the World War I memorial at Summit Avenue and Mississippi River Boulevard, opens the case that contains his bagpipes and plays for a while. Dr. Johnson has become a fixture beside the 36-foot granite monument that is dedicated to the soldiers and sailors of the First World War.

“I think I first played by the monument in 1991, shortly after we moved into our current house,” Dr. Johnson said. “Initially I played there only intermittently. Nowadays it’s almost daily from spring through autumn and also on warmer winter days.”

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Jim Johnson plays his bagpipes almost daily beside the veterans memorial on Summit Avenue and Mississippi River Boulevard. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“I go down to listen to him occasionally and always note the number of folks who stop and listen for a few minutes or longer,” said Brenda Ryan, who also lives in the nearby Shadow Falls neighborhood.

Dr. Johnson said he was drawn to the spot because of its beauty and significance and the prospect of adding to the experience for people stopping by. “This spot attracts picnickers, bikers, dog walkers, runners, hanger-outers,” he said. “Their presence gives a feeling of quasi performance or community involvement to what could otherwise be a very solitary experience.”

Fifty years a bagpiper

Dr. Johnson has been playing the bagpipes for more than 50 years. He started playing while a student at Highland Park High School. “I was the son of a Macalester College professor, so I sort of had an in at Mac.” There he became familiar with the venerable Macalester College Pipe Band. “They were trusting and seemed to like me and thought it would be OK to have me be a groupie to the band,” he said. “They even loaned me some practice materials. I made enough progress that they let me continue with them while I was a senior at Highland High. Then I went to Macalester, played in the pipe band and led the pipe band.”

Dr. Johnson studied music at Macalester. “I was very interested in composing and arranging,” he said. “I also sang in the elite choir. So I have this classical choral background and an interest in classical music, and all of these things led to my continued interest in playing the bagpipes.”

Dr. Johnson continued playing the pipes while in medical school at the University of Minnesota and throughout his residency in Seattle. After returning to the Twin Cities as a University of Minnesota professor and a physician with Veterans Affairs Health Care, he joined other musicians in creating what they called a piping society. It motivated him to work on his playing and eventually led to his impromptu recitals at the Summit Avenue monument.

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Dr. Johnson takes a breather beside the Summit Avenue monument. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Although bagpipe music is associated with the military, the pieces Dr. Johnson plays go beyond that. “A lot of the tunes I play are considered to be laments,” he said. “Some are salutes or an elegy or in praise of someone for their life. Some are cross genre, like putting the bagpipe to classical music or other folk kind of themes.”

A bond between those who have served

Lloyd Enos, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot who flew over 1,000 hours during the Vietnam War, said he has always considered the World War I memorial on Summit to be “a place to pause and reflect. Then one day I heard my neighbor playing the bagpipes there. I’m telling you, there’s a bond between all those who have served. As you look at the monument and listen to the bagpipes, you’re transported to a place where the memories of those who served with you, before you and after you are present. There’s a certain sound that the bagpipes make that no other musical instrument can duplicate. It’s almost magical. Feelings of reverence, honor and respect come to the surface. It makes one proud to be a veteran.”

Randy Conaway, a social worker for Veterans Affairs and a member of a pipe band himself, said he has heard Dr. Johnson play on several occasions as he has biked down river road. “Dr. Johnson’s pipes seem to fill the valley,” Conaway said. “The slow airs and classical pieces pay respect to the fallen. I like to think of his music as yet another way to give back to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.”

A special feel to the spot

Dr. Johnson said his affiliation with Veterans Affairs may have given him a sense of connection to the Summit monument, but it “was subtle and unconscious. There’s just a special feel to the spot. I see the area as a confluence of everything, with the view across the Mississippi River, the sunset, everything that Saint Paul is and its relationship to Minneapolis and the country as a whole. When I was playing there recently, a hawk flew in and perched on the cross at the top of the monument. Nature, man, time and space meet there, so you could say there’s a sacredness or a grandness, a sort of eternal flavor at that spot.

“One of my neighbors raised an interesting question about the indigenous people who were here before the Europeans came,” Dr. Johnson said. “Was this spot important to them? I especially enjoy receiving indications of appreciation from non-white listeners. I feel I’m bridging an ethno-cultural gap and tapping into something universally human with my Celtic music from the northern British Isles.”

Dr. Johnson recalled the listener who wrote “Piper’s Point” in bright yellow chalk on the cliff just below the monument. He did not know who that listener was at the time. Then one day while walking home, he came across a woman sitting on the ground. She had fallen from her bike and, though not badly hurt, was waiting for a ride. After a brief conversation centered around the bagpipes he was carrying, she introduced herself as the one who had scrawled “Piper’s Point.”

Dr. Johnson said his playing is well received for the most part and often earns him applause. He has rarely been asked to stop by someone who prefers quiet, and has only been the subject of one or two disturbing-the-peace complaints. The police officers on those occasions were very polite, he said, and he was happy to pack up his pipes and come back another day.

 

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— Anne Murphy

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