I’ve been wrestling with the challenge of introducing the hurdy-gurdy to blog readers for several days. I’ve lived with and around the Hurdy Gurdy for most of my adult life, and simply don’t know where to start.
I saw my first instrument in 1972 in the collection of a music store just outside of DC. It looked much like the one pictured above. At the time there was little written about the instrument, and it took a fair bit of research in the Library of Congress to get an idea of what this old instrument was and how it was played.
A while after that (1989) I traveled to London to study instrument building in the Early Woodwind program at the London College of Furniture. I was lucky enough to meet Sam Palmer, who was a maker and player of the instrument and a student in the stringed instrument division of the school. Through his associates in the band Blowzabella (the subject of a future post), as well as through my friend Mac Macreary, I was introduced to the contemporary folk music associated with the instrument.
Here’s the deal: while most Americans have never heard of the instrument, It has been among the most popular (and most hated) instruments for the last 1000 years. A few Europeans get this – they understand that history did not start at 1776, and they have the advantage of being surrounded by surviving instruments and folk traditions that reflect the long history of the instrument.
However for most of us, if we have heard of the Hurdy Gurdy at all it is most likely through misuses of the name in popular culture. So lets get deprogrammed and move on:
This is not a Hurdy Gurdy
(with apologies to Magritte)
This is a great picture of an organ grinder, monkey, and barrel organ. Not a Hurdy-Gurdy. Although confused in the last century, particularly in popular culture, the two instruments have nothing to do with each other. Not even the monkey.
The other confusing reference is Donovan’s song, Hurdy Gurdy Man. The song is vague and does not really describe any existing tradition,or instrument, but on the other hand, it is such an awesome song that it really does not matter. (Sure, he meant the historical hurdy-gurdy. He was just that cool…)
So, what IS a Hurdy Gurdy?
The instruments history stretches back nearly 1000 years, however the type that most people play today is a style of hurdy-gurdy that became popular in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and was manufactured traditionally in France until the early 1900s. It experienced a revival in the 1970s, along with many other folk traditions, and is now built by several excellent makers in Europe and the US.
It is a stringed musical instrument, played using the keys that you can see in the first illustration above. These keys touch the melody strings which allows you to play melodies.
- It is a drone instrument. This means that in addition to the melody strings, there are drone strings that (not surprisingly) produce a drone to back up the melody.
- The strings are not plucked or bowed, but made to sound by rubbing against a wheel that is treated with rosin, much like a bow. That’s what the crank at one end of the instrument is for. This produces a constant sound, much like a quieter version of a bagpipe, where the drones and the melody strings sound all the time.
- The most distinctive part of the hurdy gurdy is a “buzzing bridge”. One of the drone strings goes over a specially shaped bridge that buzzes when the wheel is sped up slightly. this allows the player to create a complex percussive accompaniment to the tune being played, and is one of the features that makes modern hurdy gurdy music so compelling.
To get a better idea of what the instrument can do, listen to it’s master players. There are quite a few mediocre recordings of second rate players, so be careful. A great example of hurdy gurdy playing can be found on the album “Musiques pour vielle à roue en Auvergne et Bourbonnais” by Patrick Bouffard. Follow the link to hear clips of the album on Amazon – all of the tracks are exceptional so start at the top and work your way down. I’ll list more of my favorites in a future post. After you listen, add a comment and let me know what you think - Like it? hate it? Need to buy the album and see if it grows on you? (and if you have a favorite, be sure to add it in the comments below.)
So, why should you care about the hurdy gurdy and it’s music? I’d say because it is something new. Odd to say that about an instrument with this long a history, but it is true. In a time when rock music is overproduced and impersonal, and folk music for the most part simply does not rock, this unknown, unnamed style of music both rocks and is a personal expression of a very old and powerful sound. Although based on traditional music, it is something new. But that’s the subject of a future post.