The Hurdy Gurdy Man

You know how once you become familiar with something, you start seeing and/or hearing about it all over the place? Well, that's what happened with me and the Hurdy Gurdy. Before last year, my only reference to the Hurdy Gurdy was from Donovan's 1967 song , The Hurdy Gurdy Man. I frankly had no idea what it meant, but I thought the song was cool.

Thrown like a star in my vast sleep,
I'm opening my eyes to take a peep
To find that I was by the sea, gazing with tranquility'
Twas then when the hurdy gurdy man came singing songs of love
Then when the hurdy gurdy man came singing songs of love
Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy gurdy he sang (3X)

Histories of ages past, unenlightened shadows cast
Down through all eternity, the crying of humanity'
Tis then when the hurdy gurdy man comes singing songs of love
Then when the hurdy gurdy man comes singing songs of love
Here comes the roly-poly man, he's singing songs of love
Roly poly, roly poly, roly poly poly he sangRoly poly, roly poly, roly poly poly he sang

In April, 2006, I went to Union Square in NYC to meet my daughter who works at Washington Irving High School, more or less across the street from Union Square. As I departed from the subway station to the Square, I was confronted by a young girl sitting there, playing the strangest looking and even stranger sounding insturment. I asked her what it was and she informed me that it was a Hurdy Gurdy. She played it by turning a crank on one end as she pressed some notes that seemed to pluck strings. I can't say that I liked the sound, but I was more than pleased to have something to identify that oldie but goody Donovan song.

Then last Saturday I went to the last of three plays that were presented by a Theater Company in NYC called Theater For A New Audience that is basically a classical company, Shakespeare and the like, but takes a new look and in this case had a theme to the triumverate. The plays were The Jew of Malta, The Merchant of Venice, and Oliver Twist. The theme, as you may have already guessed, was Jews and how they are portrayed in classical literature and plays and what it meant then and what it means for today. The first two plays starred F. Murray Abraham (of the movie, Amadeus fame). It was, however in the last play, Oliver Twist, which contained some incredible accapella singing as well as some instruments of the day (that being the early 1800's)

which included, yes, the Hurdy Gurdy!

Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy gurdy he sang


Dave said...

I've personally never come across a hurdy-gurdy man (I think they were an urban phenomenon and I'm a relatively rural guy), but the image of a hurdy-gurdy man used to include a performing monkey along with him. The guy would stand on a sidewalk and turn the crank to make the music, the monkey would dance or something, and passers-by would drop coins into some handy receptacle. Seems to me the monkey would usually be wearing one of those strange caps we used to associate with bellhops.

For some reason, my image of hurdy-gurdy men is that they were almost always of Italian descent. Think of Curious George's pal, "The man with the yellow hat," only with a mustache.

These days I suppose the hurdy-gurdy man (and it was always a man) would need some kind of business license and would be facing lawsuits from animal-rights groups, or maybe the increasing alienation of human beings from each other just makes us less prone to give random coins to total strangers, so the Hurdy-Gurdy Man has gone the way of the Fuller Brush Man and the Iceman.

Ricardo said...

Never heard that instrument or saw it. Have heard of the hurdy gurdy man but never knew it was an instrument. I've learned something today.

Amishav said...

I've heard this instrument and yes it was significantly popular about a hundred years ago, but its sound has gone out of favor. Don't know if it will ever make a comeback.

Anyway that trilogy of plays sure seems like an interesting combo!