The Music of Mutual Identity


Hurdy Gurdy Man

The hurdy-gurdy man sat alone on a park bench in the provincial city Nimes in the south of France. I heard his music before I saw him. A light, acoustic tune danced over the paths leading down from the Tour Magne, the “Great Tower” ruin high on the hill above. I had just spent the morning exploring this monument to Roman conquest and domination. It reminded me how fluid are our affinities, our national origins. And how fleeting. This entire region, not to mention much of Europe, all once was ancient Rome, as attested by the abundance of nearby coliseums and forums and aqueducts. Now, as the melody filtered through the air of the park, falling on any visitor’s ear it could find, I felt transported not so much into the past as into a future time, a world secure and apart and serene among stately cypress trees and tropical palms and wispy wisteria bushes. The music had an alluring effect—inviting, attracting—and a calming one. It drew me closer and seemed to ferry me into other worlds.

Springtime had arrived in France’s Provence. Colder air on the so-called mistral winds, funneling down the Rhone Valley out of the north, had been displaced by the occasional southerly sirocco sweeping up from the Sahara. All across the Mediterranean basin, flowers exploded in bloom. The hurdy-gurdy man’s tune, the closer I came, seemed to convey the color of these blossoms in magical, exuberant, sound.

As I neared I could see he played automated violin, of the same genus and species as the hurdy-gurdy, that hand-cranked instrument of exotic backstreet markets of the Middle Ages. I soon would learn his instrument was called a ‘vielle à roul,’ literally ‘drum fiddle,’ cranked, yes, with roots in the monastic culture that once expanded out of ports to the East. This button keyboard variation prompted sound from a rosined wheel pressed against fiddle strings. What was this?

He smiled and kept playing. Clearly not a busker, he had no receptacle set out for tossing coins in his direction. No hat, either. No open case soliciting contributions. He nodded a greeting, turning the crank the whole time. No one else was there except me. The music kept pulsing from the apparatus in his lap. His head swayed gently side to side, kept pace with the melody, as his smile motioned me to take a seat beside him.

His only other piece of paraphernalia was a 3-ring notebook binder lying open on the bench beside him. I sat down, the notebook between us. He motioned again with his head. I took a look, browsing the pages of the booklet. He didn’t really seem to be French. Something other. I couldn’t quite grasp the meaning of the pages of the binder, each encased in plastic, but at first glance they seemed to tell a story.

With my halting French, I could only figure out he had some sort of connection to Catalonia, that region removed by not so great a distance in nearby Spain, with Barcelona as its capital. Now, a year and a half later after that fine spring day, this disputed territory is a hot topic in the daily news. Catalonians have mounted a fierce and full-fledged referendum on sovereignty. They want their own country, making for a crisis of national identity in paternal Spain, who in opposition has declared these acts of independence to be treason.

But that spring day, surrounded by ageless history and innocence of the first flowers of spring, the tune resounding in the park was a pacifier and premium tourist moment. The pages of his booklet taught me of the strong bonds between Catalonia and neighboring Provence. A century and a half before, a Catalan national poet had been exiled by Spanish authorities. Subsequently, he’d been given refuge in French Provence, an act of generosity not soon forgotten. Nor was this forced exile lost on the people of Provence, who’d had their own national claims and ambitions squelched when France was consolidated under King Louis 14th. In gratitude for giving sanctuary to the Catalonian poet, the gift of a ceremonial cup was given by the Catalans to the people of Provence. And in return a song was written to celebrate the occasion, “Coupo Santo—The Sacred Chalice,” which—as much as I could glean from pages of his notebook—was the national song of Provence, penned by their own national poet, Frederic Mistral, a champion for Provençal independence, who had his name from the very winds associated with clear weather and endless sunshine of the region.

Gradually, I realized this was a political protest. One of a seemingly benign and inviting sort, maybe, at the time. But with his music, the man attempted to educate me on the history and identities of these two neighboring regions. And his efforts seemed to be working. As I studied pages of the notebook—full of facts and pictures as well as text describing the national tune and folk instrument of the drum fiddle—others were drawn in to listen, too. A couple of mothers with baby strollers and accompanying toddlers in tow had stopped to listen. The children were transfixed, mesmerized. His cranking, alluring tune seemed to become a medium of greeting and introduction, then a bridge to friendship and understanding.

We all are aware of folk music generated from ethnic roots. Most every nation cherishes sounds and songs distinct to its own culture, tunes often played on musical instruments native to the area. Even so diverse and varied a country as our own, the amalgamated American melting pot, has the unique sounds of the banjo and guitar to flavor the songs of our blended cultures.

That day—after listening to the determined Catalan expatriate, separated off in the Provençal south of France—I got to thinking of my own ethnic roots. What role did music play in the perpetuation of my own past? And how is it that music can bridge the divide of languages and divergent peoples? I’d been schooled recently in the notion that there really is no such thing as national music. There isn’t really Danish or Swedish or Scottish music. There is just music, an international language. I recall once buying a book of Japanese musical selections, then wondering if I would be able to understand it. I could immediately read everything but the cover, which was in Japanese Kanji script. Inside, everything else on the interior pages and on the CD that came with it was instantly recognizable. Just music. Every ear in the world could appreciate it.

This is our birthright by being human. The most basic of native instruments, after all, is the human voice. We hear it from birth. And what we hear first is probably our mother singing.

Not too long ago the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard visited North America. He’s the author of the epic (some would say encyclopedic) series of non-fiction novels describing My Struggle, his six or seven volume battle with inner demons and an alcoholic father. Knausgaard was hired by the New York Times magazine a few years ago to come to North America and apply his Nordic literary talents to the question of a Viking presence on this continent. He was given a car and driver/photographer to accompany him on the journey. His first assignment was to visit Lanse aux Meadows at the northern tip of Newfoundland, the original of now two confirmed Viking sites on that island. From there he was to head halfway across the continent to Alexandria, Minnesota, to ponder the validity of the Kensington Runestone. Had Vikings really come so far inland?

The trip turned into an odyssey, of course. In classic Knausgaard form, he comments hardly at all on traces of the Viking past in America. Instead, he writes about every aspect of North American culture other than his intended topic, the Vikings. For one, he’s mesmerized by the glaring mundanity he sees—from obesity to pervasive, repetitive sameness. But at one point, after driving westward through the faceless Rust Belt, with its broke-down, ghosttown neighborhoods, Knausgaard made a surprising insight into Americana.

Why, he asks, can he drive from town to town, city to inner city in America, and find no end of cheap billboard representations of Christ, seemingly a land of bathtub Jesus sculptures and non-descript, single-room churches where people still gather en masse for worship, yet in buildings of virtually no aesthetic value or artistic content whatsoever? No art on the walls. Not even an altarpiece behind the cross. No representations to the greater glory of God. Comparatively, he remarks, he could go from town to town in Russia, and on the wall of every little church in every little village would hang iconography of the highest artistic merit, almost more art galleries than houses of God.

Then the insight. Why hadn’t I thought of this? The art of American churches, Knausgaard claims, is not on the walls or in the windows or behind the altar. It’s in the music. Gospel is, literally, the gospel. The music carries the momentum of cultural identity. And it is spread to every one of us who ever listens to virtually any form of American music, from blues to R + B, jazz to country western, folk to blue grass.

Maybe the human voice truly is the aboriginal musical instrument that inspires all else.

So, too, perhaps, the Scandinavians. They have a number of instruments unique to the region. Swedes have the nyckleharpa, a distant cousin to the hurdy-gurdy of southern Europe. Like the drum fiddle, it changes notes by depressing fingered keys, only it’s bowed with a stubby fiddle bow rubbing the strings rather than a circulating cylinder. Early versions of the nycleharpa are pictured in medieval religious frescoes in churches from Sweden to Italy.

The Norwegians as well have their exclusive instrument, the harding fele, ‘hardanger fiddle,’ also originally associated with the church. Similar in form to a traditional violin, it is usually elaborately inlaid with decorative designs. Most unique, however, is that it’s strung with eight or nine strings rather than the usual four. But only the four on top are touched by the violin bow. The under- strings resonate sympathetically, and when tuned to the mysterious “troll tuning” provide a droning descant that sends shivers down the spine. Once a remote mountain instrument, the harding fele has gained popularity in the cities as a carrier of folk culture.

Ditto the case with the Finns. The Finnish kantele is a kind of folk harpsichord sounding a bit like a balalaika with plucked strings. Originally an obscure instrument of the deep north woods, it was ‘rediscovered’ by polite society of Helsinki a hundred years ago and is fashionable again in Finnish folk music. It’s popularity stems from the same time of increasing interest in their national poetic epic, The Kalavala, in which it’s told how the kantele originally was invented from the jawbone of a giant northern pike.

Even the Inuit cultures of Arctic Greenland or the Sami of the far north have their skin drums, pulsing out dance rhythms and chants in the aboriginal lands of the midnight sun.

What about the Danes, then? What is the Danish national instrument? There is the lur, of course. That’s the elongated, curled horn associated with Heimdal of Norse mythology that would be used to sound the onset of Ragnarok, the end of the world. A dual statue, “The Lur Blowers,” stands near city hall in Copenhagen, twin lurs curling above their heads. Also called gjallarhorn by the Norse, two of these priceless horns originally were found near Gallerhus in southern Jutland. Minted in gold and adorned with runes, the horns became a celebrated cause in 1802 for the rising Romantic movement in Denmark, inspiring poetry and pride and no little national chagrin when they were stolen and never found again, presumably melted down for the crass value of the gold. Yes, the lur might qualify for the Danes. Except for this: When was the last time you saw a lur pulled out to put a little life into a party? Have you ever even heard one? Well, other than the lame, over-sized horn blown at the start of Minnesota Viking football games?

Consider this instead: As with the gospel song tradition of black America, maybe the true national instrument of Denmark is Folkehøjskolens Sangbog, the Folk High School Songbook. Printed in ever-changing editions over the past 120 years, this collection of music is unparalleled anywhere. I doubt another document like it exists in the world.

What distinguishes the blue Folk High School Songbook most of all is the affection with which it is held by the people who use it. And in Denmark that is nearly everyone. It’s in constant use, not just in folk schools, but at everything from union meetings to secular or religious celebrations—even when friends just gather for a little fællessang of communal singing. There’s something in there for everyone and every occasion. An online website—hojskolesangbogen. dk—allows the listener to hum along to every melody. And once a year, many devotees still love to gather for an extended sing-a-long lasting an entire week, going through every verse of every song in the entire collection, start to finish.

Musical notation has been added in a later edition for a preferred melody line, some even with guitar chords, so that accompaniment for singing can proceed with gospel gusto for any occasion.

The fact that fully 20% of the songs are all by one author, Grundtvig, makes it all the more unique, perhaps. Though given that these, and many of the rest, all were written in the 19th Century might also make a case that the songbook is altogether outdated, even though a newly edited version comes out every few years. Older, little used tunes are deleted and replaced by more current ones. There was a time when even Bob Dylan had a couple songs included. But now, while Grundtvig still way out-numbers not only Dylan, who’s been deleted, but all other authors, doesn’t that mean the songbook is a remnant of dusty, musty history? And isn’t Grundtvig himself a kind of Stephen Foster on steroids, a voice of a bygone era? A review of a recent television version of Danish history referred to him as “not your grandfather’s Grundtvig.” And isn’t all this anyway just preservation of a repressive past, though admittedly a celebration of songs touching the heart? The Catalonians sing their lament honoring a national poet and long for independence. But are the Danes any less, or more, free from the shackles of colonialism, paternalism, chauvinism, sexism . . . or any of the -isms that can conjure up lock-step perpetuation of outdated ideas?

In conversation at a folk school gathering years ago, I heard it suggested, half in jest but also half seriously: “Skal vi ikke snart begrave Grundtvig?” (Isn’t it about time we bury Grundtvig?)

That was over 50 years ago.

Through all this, it’s easy to wax nostalgic about the run-down days of old. But how real, how valid, anymore, is the 19th Century model of national mono-cultures and arbitrarily redrawn borders? Isn’t it time for a more modern version of who we are, a world society of endlessly blending, mending, multi-cultural pluralism? Even so, we are easily convinced that such a diverse future is full of dire uncertainty, that our national identity is threatened. And we cling more fiercely to our mutual identities.

In thinking of this, a certain song comes to mind. Every individual era is different, of course. We share some things, a language and music and art tradition among them. But wait. The next time it’ll all come out okay.

Just listen: “Udrundne er de gamle dage . . .” ”Gone ’way are all the days of old . . .”

The melody lingers a moment in the mind. Memorable, familiar. At closer look it turns out, of course, the melody is by another national treasure, the musical Great Dane himself, the composer Carl Nielsen. As for the words, it’s easy to guess the author. It’s one of his earliest songs, written in 1833, now close to two centuries ago. As fluid as the melody, the words flow of themselves.

“Isn’t it about time we bury Grundtvig?”

The answer, it seems, in modern jargon, is: “I don’t think so.

“Gone ‘way are all the days of old, like rivers run into the mighty sea, and where once died both weak and bold, the graves of all lie sheltered in a lea; And thanks to grace from heaven above, the lineage we live is one of love.”

The paltry translation is mine. But the words, and the passion, and the message, of the original are sublime. We are blessed to live always in a present moment forever renewed. The old days are gone, long live the new.

“Nearby where earth is scattered on a grave, a cradle rocks away all remnants that are gone, is given to generations then to save and trace again in footsteps each new dawn the memory of mercy we behold, replanted once again a thousand-fold.”

And then the convincing coup d’effect. The third and final verse. The paradox of music and mutual identity. This is by no means preservation of the past, but a regeneration of ever-present life, reawakening feelings of perpetuity and a once promised land.

“So keep your eyes upon the prize, of what was once a joy in life! And fight for all that’s right and wise, and dare to live despite all mortal strife! We greet each day and turn our backs to death by grace divine draw in another breath.”

It’s the first song in the Folkelivet section, “The Lives of the People,” #458 in Folkehøjskolens Sangbog, in the 18TH and latest—though no doubt not the last—edition.

You can look it up.