HAPPY HURDY GURDY TO ALL!
By Norris Chambers
There were a few player pianos in our part of the woods. A player piano was very similar to a regular piano and could be manually played the same way. There was something extra on the pianola, as they were called. By pumping two big pedals on the bottom and inserting a paper roll in the mechanism above the keyboard the piano would play the tune that had been punched into the roll of paper. Each tiny rectangular opening on the roll of paper controlled a key on the piano. The paper moved from the top roll to the bottom and as it passed over a long slot a vacuum pulled air through the properly spaced slot caused a particular key to be actuated. Properly spaced keys on the paper roll played the tune that had been precisely punched on the roll of paper. The pedals operated a vacuum pump that moved the string hammers and turned the paper roller. The vacuum operated motor turned the top roller and rewound the paper when the selection was finished.
The words of the song being played were printed on the paper for those who wished to sing along with the music. There were also several buttons that could be manipulated to add needed emphasis and other effects. The player piano was truly a work of art. This creation was called a hurdy-gurdy by a few folks.
Some cafes, bars and other gathering places had a type of player piano with a coin slot where the operator could insert a nickel and select a favorite song for listening. The vacuum pump on this type of machine was operated with an electric motor. Some of the old timers called these machines hurdy-gurdies.
The second type of musical slot machine that I remember was a violin enclosed in a glass compartment mounted on a wooden cabinet. The strings were contacted by a small, rapidly spinning rosined wooden wheel instead of a bow. The spinning wheel moved from one string to another as directed by the the machine and it produced a note similar to a bow being drawn across a violin string. A spring-loaded slide moved up and down each string from the top producing the proper note as the wheel contacted that particular string. The small spinning wheel could even sound notes on adjacent strings, causing the instrument to sound even more like a violin. Almost everyone called this contraption a hurdy-gurdy.
The true hurdy-gurdy made its appearance in Europe in the middle ages. The instrument was held on the lap and was operated by a crank and a keyboard. The crank turned the rosined wheel that contacted the strings on the violin type instrument and when keys were depressed on the small keyboard a slide moved up and down over the strings and the spinning wheel moved to the correct string. The instruments were widely used in churches for the accompaniment of hymns. Several of the old lap type instruments have survived and are exhibited in museums. I saw one in a museum in Chicago many years ago.
The cranked instruments mounted on a tripod that organ grinders played on the street, sometimes with a monkey to attract extra attention, were also called hurdy-gurdies
Just about everything on the farm, including stubborn mules and quacking ducks , has been called a hurdy-gurdy. I suspect that those using the term for such purposes had no knowledge of the beautiful instrument that has borne the name for so long. There were even a few fights started because one belligerent trouble maker called another a hurdy-gurdy!
Probably neither of the brawlers knew what the term meant, but the way it was said and the way it sounded indicated that it probably was not a good thing to be called.
If you want to play the fiddle I suggest that you just use a polished stick with some hair from a horse's tail attached and drag it across the strings of a real violin. Forget about the cranking and the miniature keyboard and just keep the bow moving across the strings and the fingers sliding up and down the neck.
Did the old timers have fun with their hurdy-gurdies? Well, it might be some kind of fun if some foul-mouthed old timer called you a hurdy-gurdy and you slapped his sassy face!