Robert Green, The Hurdy Gurdy in Eighteenth-Century France (Indiana University Press, 1995)
Blowzabella, Encyclopedia Blowzabellica (Blowzabella, 1987)

Freyja... Blowzabella... Whilrling Pope Joan... Nigel Eaton... Susan McKeown... Prego... Jake Walton, musical partner of Jez Lowe... Hedningarna... Mediaeval Baebes... Sinfonye... Patrick Street... What do all of these have in common? If you guessed that they've been reviewed in Green Man, you'd be right, but that's not the only correct answer. The answer in this case is that all or some of the music -- and blessed music it is -- that they've released is contains the sound of hurdy gurdies! Hurdy gurdies? That weird musical instrument that makes you think of chestnuts roasting and little monkeys dancing in pill box hats? Well, no -- this is even weirder. Really. Truly. Wait, don't leave yet! Like the accordion that Lawrence Welk and his ilk almost forced into oblivion by playing it badly, the hurdy gurdy has been slurred by folks who thought it was what the organ grinder was playing while his monkey danced merrily. (What they play was, surprise, a small grinder organ. A Web site devoted to these beasts notes: 'They were considered a nuisance by many people, not only due to their abundance in major cities, but due to the repetitive nature of their repertoire. Many makers required that their instruments be returned to the factory for a new barrel to be installed, so most grinders simply didn't bother. They were content to grind out the same old few songs day after day after day after day - you get the picture. One British journalist of the day noted that an itinerant organ grinder was paid 'for his silence and not his sounds.')

Now that we've cleared up that confusion, what the frell is a hurdy gurdy? And why should a book called The Hurdy Gurdy in Eighteenth-Century France interest you? Well, let's get a cuppa of Earl Grey from the kitchen and sit by the fireplace to discuss this very question...

So what the frell is a hurdy gurdy? It, and I kid you not, is a stringed instrument in which the strings are rubbed by a wheel coated in rosin instead of a bow. The wheel is turned by the musician's right hand, while the left hand plays the tune on the keys in the keybox. Two of the strings are called the chanters -- yes, like a bagpipe! -- and they run though the keybox with their vibrating length shortened by the key pressing against it. Several drone strings are outside the keybox, and so sound the same note, a drone, all the time. For this reason, the hurdy-gurdy sounds very similar to a bagpipe. A small movable bridge on one of the drones can be made to vibrate rhythmically by cranking the wheel harder, and this buzzing is used for a rhythmic accompaniment to the tune. Weird, eh? Indeed, but it sounds great. Blowzabella had Nigel Eaton, perhaps the finest hurdy gurdy player living, and he really created the Blowzabella sound. Just go listen to their cover of the Violent Femmes' 'Hallowed Ground' to see just how eerie a hurdy gurdy can be! On the other hand, Stevie Wishart of Sinfonye uses one to create authentic-sounding Medieval music. Like the fiddle, it's a versatile instrument in the right hands! in France, it very often gets played with bagpipes, most often the musette (in the 18th century when they were really popular) and more recently the cabrette. Good stuff indeed!

Robert Green's Hurdy Gurdy in 18th-Century France is an historical study with lots of information on the repertoire and playing style of hurdy gurdy musicians of that era. It unfortunately contains almost no information on the design and construction of the instrument itself, but it excels as a look at hurdy gurdies in a period when they were indeed a revered instrument. Make no mistake -- this is a serious study! The author, Robert Green, is professor of music history, holds the B.S. degree from the U.S. Naval Academy and the M.M. and Ph.D. degrees in Musicology from Indiana University. His specialty is music of the baroque, and he has published articles in Current Musicology, Early Music, Haydn Yearbook, and the Journal of the Viola da Gamba Society of America. Though I can't find it, it appears there was a companion CD to this book released on some French label so obscure that it shows up nowhere! Damn!

The hurdy-gurdy, or vielle, was played at the court at Versailles and is still prominent as a folk instrument today. That an instrument now largely considered a folk instrument was indeed a court instrument can be clearly heard on the music of Sinfonye, Stevie Wishart's group. Green notes that the hurdy gurdy has been part of the European music scene since about the eleventh century, but it reached its present design around the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the sound and look (!) of the instrument led to its use in chamber ensembles. No longer part of Court society, it is a common folk instrument today throughout much of Europe!

Green says that one of the distinctive aspects of this instrument is that the repertoire is very experimental in nature. Composers of that era were fascinated by the possibilities of an instrument quite unlike any they had laid their hands on before. Thus, the core of The Hurdy Gurdy in 18th-Century France is the author discussing the evolving techniques of playing the hurdy gurdy, based both on surviving documents from the era and his own experience as a hurdy gurdy player. He gives enough bars of the music to keep a modern hurdy gurdy player happy for many, many months to come. Where these tunes come from is carefully explained in the back of this slim volume. Bottom line's that anyone interested in Medieval music and/or hurdy gurdy music should get The Hurdy Gurdy in 18th-Century France. Though somewhat dry in places, it is an interesting read!

Encyclopedia Blowzabellica is from, oh, go ahead and guess! Blowzabella. What? You've never heard of this great English sort-of-trad group? Sigh... What do you need to know? Well, Let's see... there's obviously a hurdy gurdy.... and bagpipes, both English and Flemish... and how 'bout violins, a bassoon, a viola d'amore, a melodeon, a button accordion, saxes (both alto and soprano), an alto recorder, whistles, flutes, and lots of percussion. And did you know that Blowzabella was named after a rather lively whore? Well, sort of. (The lads differ on just how the name came to be. No matter.) It took me years to find this tune book, but it's definitely worth the effort to find! You get photos of the lads playing their instruments , a history, and set-up & maintenance information for bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy. 120 tunes from the repertoire of the outstanding Blowzabella, in handwritten standard notation, are included -- with most of the tunes suitable for diatonic accordion. Most importantly is that instructions for thirty-one dances are included! Blowzabella was, and still is, a dance band -- a bloody good dance band at that! All you need to know about Encyclopedia Blowzabellica is that Mouse in the Cupboard, me own dance band, has incorporated many of the tunes in this tune/dance book into our repertoire for our all-night dances.

Let's head down to the Great Hall to see who's playing in the sessuin there... Do you hear the sounds of a hurdy gurdy too?

[Jack Merry]