Staff photo by Mark Kennedy / Chris Johnson, an employee at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, practices the bagpipes earlier this month during his lunch hour in the Citizen Cemetery.

Most weekdays around the noon hour, the Citizen Cemetery near the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga becomes the stage for a reverential little bagpipes concert.

For the better part of an hour, the mournful sound of bagpipes, with its reeds in full throat, settles over the cemetery and adjacent campus like a musical fog.

For pedestrians along Third and Fifth streets, which bracket the cemetery, it's hard to pinpoint the location of the instrumentalist, although the sound is clearly coming from deep inside the cemetery, where many of Chattanooga's 19th century leaders are buried.

Follow the sound and you will eventually encounter Chris Johnson, 41-year-old UTC senior instructional designer with family roots in the Scottish Lowlands. He stands beside a big tree, which he uses for a coat rack, and appears to be playing to an audience of headstones and squirrels.

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Johnson said he has been playing the bagpipes off and on since he was a teenager growing up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He even went to bagpipe camp as a kid. Now, as a husband and father of two young children, it's harder to find time to rehearse, he said, but his lunch break offers a nice respite from his busy day.

"People say it's a haunting sound, so I guess this is an appropriate place," Johnson said one day earlier this month during an interview at the cemetery. "I'd rather be here than at my closet at home."

Sometimes passersby cut through the cemetery and notice Johnson, he said. But they usually just scurry along, he said, perhaps a bit disoriented by the unexpected scene.

One UTC faculty member does sometimes come to listen, Johnson said. He stands off to the side and occasionally offers a tip of his hat or solitary applause.

Meanwhile, Johnson gets to perfect his repertoire of about 30 songs, which he plays in competitions with his friends in the Chattanooga Pipe Band. The bagpipe and drum ensemble travels around the South playing competitions that are often attached to Highland Games, traditional sports and music celebrations focused on Scottish and Celtic culture.

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The songs have names such as "Gardens of Skye" and "Radar Racketeer." There are jigs and marches in the songbook in a variety of time signatures such 3/4, 12/8 and 4/4.

Johnson said he took up the bagpipes as a teen at the urging of his late father, who found a University of Alabama graduate student to give private lessons. After high school, Johnson took a hiatus from the bagpipes that lasted two decades before jumping back in a little over a year ago.

Playing bagpipes can be a physically demanding hobby that requires lots of breath support and physical stamina.

When he restarted his hobby, he could barely complete one song, he said, and now he can play continuously for more than 30 minutes before he gets tired.

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Just about every culture has some kind of bagpipes, Johnson said. There are Irish bagpipes, English bagpipes, Scottish bagpipes. Even Biblical texts talk about "pipes."

Johnson says there is something mentally restful about playing the traditional instrument, although it takes some concentration to stay on track.

"When you are playing, it's almost a meditative sound," he said. "It's somewhere in between focusing and not focusing. You can't let your mind wander with random thoughts because you will lose where you are. It's a nice mental place to be."

Life Stories is published on Mondays. Contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPcolumnist.