I’ve been wrestling with the challenge of introducing the hurdy-gurdy to blog readers. I’ve lived with and around the instrument for most of my adult life, and simply don’t know where to start.
I first saw the instrument in 1972 in the collection of a music store just outside of Washington DC. It looked much like the guitar shaped instrument pictured below. The store owner was happy to take it to a back room and let me examine it – at the time there was little written about the instrument and even less recorded, and it took research in the Library of Congress to get an idea of what the 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 met 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 and through my friend Mac McCreary, 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 instruments of the last 1000 years. Europeans get this – they don’t think that history started in 1776, and they have the advantage of being surrounded by surviving instruments and folk traditions that reflect this long history.
This is not a Hurdy Gurdy
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.
Another confusing reference is Donovan’s song, Hurdy Gurdy Man. The song is vague and does not really describe any existing instrument, but on the other hand, it’s a great song.
So, what IS a Hurdy Gurdy?
The hurdy gurdy that most people play today is a style 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 (instead of your finger-tips) 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. This produces a constant sound, much like a quieter version of a bagpipe, where the drones and the melody strings sound all the time.
- Perhaps 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.
YouTube has some amazing performances, like Gregory Jolivet above . A more traditional 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 some 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? If you have a favorite, be sure to add it in the comments below.