Plumber chit-chat tends to focus on the business at hand. When it comes to the philosophy as well as the down-and-dirty details, Allen Baker knows his pipes, valves and fittings as well as any plumber you’ll find.
But that’s not all he knows. If you’re lucky enough to get onto his schedule (which isn’t easy because he’s so in demand), you’ll also hear a great deal about his other passion, concertina accordions. Because if there’s anything he knows and loves better than plumbing, it’s concertina in a traditional Irish folk setting.
“Bless his heart, Allen is obsessed with two things – plumbing and concertinas – and he’ll weave back and forth between them,” said Skillet Gilmore, a noted local musician/artist as well as a regular Allen customer. “But I can’t imagine another plumber working on our plumbing. He rules, and he always compliments us on our toilet: ‘Nothin’ fancy but it’s what you want, American standard four-inch pipe that’ll take anything you throw at it.’ Which is disgusting to think about, but…”
Well, there’s a reason Baker says he goes through “a thousand rubber gloves a week.”
Baker, 59, was born in Missouri and grew up in Florida, where he became acquainted with the Irish and Scottish musical vernacular at a young age. His entree into that style of music came at a party late one night when a friend played an album by Steeleye Span, the ’70s-vintage English folk-rock band.
“Changed my whole world,” Baker said. “I also got into Pentangle, Fairport Convention, all this magnificent stuff, and I started collecting. First record I’d ever bought was ‘Ring of Fire’ by Johnny Cash. My next one was ‘The Irish Pipes of Finbar Furey.’”
Baker first took up bagpipes before eventually settling on the primary instruments he still plays today, concertina and pennywhistle flute. He moved to Raleigh in his mid-20s, in 1981, drawn by the annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games festival that still happens in the North Carolina mountains.
“That was like the Woodstock of 1812,” Baker said. “Stuff we’d do there, you would not believe it. But I lived to play around the campfires all night, and one year they told us we had to stop at 9 p.m. or be arrested. So I don’t go back there anymore.”
What pays the bills
Around the same time he was learning folk music of the United Kingdom, Baker became a plumber. All these years later, he remains proudly old-school and eschews devices wherever possible. Instead, he prefers to do things by hand.
Baker doesn’t own a computer. In fact, he says the most high-tech piece of equipment he owns is a rubber stamp to endorse checks made out to the plumbing business.
“I became a ditch-digger in 1971, learning bagpipes and plumbing at the same time,” he said. “They handed me a shovel and I never let it go. Shovel’s the best thing in the world. People are too lazy to dig now, but there’s an art to it. I got to apprentice when stuff was cast-iron, lead, good old stuff. I’m adept at old houses. The newer a house is, the harder it is to troubleshoot. The old houses are built like tanks and will go forever.”
Baker works solo and doesn’t advertise, but enthusiastic word-of-mouth endorsements insure that he stays busy. By now, he has as many war stories as any plumber, like the house where a woman had been trying to flush ham-hocks down the toilet.
“Just gross beyond reason,” he said, shuddering visibly at the memory.
By now, Baker rarely takes on new customers beyond his established client list. But if somebody he knows vouches for a newcomer, he’ll do his best to work them into the rotation.
“If I take on new customers, it means leaving my old customers in the dirt and a lot of them are in hospice, dealing with dementia,” he said. “I work by myself and I get more work than I can handle, but I like it that way. I know where I’ve been, what I’ve done and all my people.”
What feeds the soul
Baker lives alone in a log cabin in west Raleigh. Thanks to an understanding landlord, he’s in what he calls “year 26 of a 30-day lease.” The place has the feel of an antique store, filled with old things Baker has accumulated on his travels.
There’s a harp one customer gave him as payment for a job, and a windup Victrola Baker will happily fire up to play what he calls “the worst record ever made.” It’s an old 78-rpm with a tune called “Irish Mambo,” which is every bit as horrific as the title suggests.
A shelf holds what Baker calls “the first thing I ever learned to play,” a small violin-shaped case that holds a bottle of Bushmills Irish whiskey rather than an instrument. And there’s “the place where old accordions go to die,” a room with about 130 of them in widely varying conditions.
When he’s not on the job or hanging out at home, Baker can often be found at Tir Na Nog Irish Pub in downtown Raleigh. He teaches pennywhistle flute there Monday evenings, and he’s one of the ringleaders of a regular Sunday-afternoon Irish jam that draws players from far and wide.
“I’ve had so much fun playing with Allen and his folks,” said Barbara Moore, who lives west of Carrboro. “He’s always buying whiskey for everybody, a total love bug. He just wants folks to be happy, and he’s so exuberant in his playing.”
The Sunday Tir Na Nog jam is open and free, but it still draws some of the most renowned players in the area. One recent Sunday brought Clay Buckner, fiddler from the venerable string Red Clay Ramblers. The jam was supposed to end by 6 p.m., but Baker said they didn’t get kicked out until about 8.
“The Tir Na Nog thing is a lot of fun, but it’s hard to predict,” Baker said. “We’ll get maybe 10 people one weekend, then 25 the next. Fiddles kind of rule the roost. If you’re ever in doubt, follow the fiddle. But I’m still learning, from bagpipes to pennywhistle to concertina. Worst thing you can do is buy an instrument, decide after three months that you have no talent and quit. You’ve got to keep playing no matter what.”
Once a month, we share the story of a local artist hidden in plain sight. You never know what talented person may be waiting tables, sitting in the office down the hall or working as a cashier at your local store. Meet them here.