It's the Hurdy Gurdy, man.
It has been suggested that the origin of the phrase "by rote", meaning mechanically, as in learning facts or music, has its origin in the mechanical playing of the hurdy gurdy, especially the old two-person form, where the person rotating the crank needed no particular skill. However many sources doubt this.
I wonder if you have ever heard the pop single "Hurdy Gurdy Man", by Donovan? In 1968 it reached No.4 on the UK charts, and No. 5 in the USA.
Very psychedelic; now you have auto-tune, then we had tremolo and phasing on the vocals. A pretty heavy sound for a guy who started as a folky singer/songwriter. (Arrangement & bass, drums, and lead guitar are possibly/probably by Jon Paul Jones, John Bonham, and Jimmy Page, that's Led Zeppelin to you!)
The song, although about a Hurdy Gurdy man, does not actually feature a hurdy gurdy in the instrumental accompaniment. (Strangely, it does feature the then-trendy sitar, go figure!)
I would bet most people have never actually heard a hurdy gurdy.
I had always thought I knew what it was, something like a simple, unsubtle, automated machine version of the violin, made for the use of an unskilled player, with a cranked wheel instead of a bow, and simple keys to press instead of having to learn the fingering of the strings. Kind of like the autoharp.
But No! It is a very technical and sophisticated instrument. It has multiple melody strings which can be individually set to sound or not, played with the keys; up to four drones, all individually set to sound or not; and a rhythm string, and note bending and is very cool. Click here for a labelled view of the works if you like.
A short history of the hurdy gurdy
The instrument's form goes back in steps to a large two-person model a thousand years ago in the Tenth Century. By the Renaissance, it had become a smaller one-person instrument and was very popular, along with bagpipes. About then, a feature I have just found out about was added. This was an asymmetrical bridge that rests under a drone string on the sound board. When the wheel is accelerated, one foot of the bridge lifts from the soundboard and vibrates, creating a buzzing sound. Thus the player can create a rhythm with the crank, at the same time as the steady notes and drones from the other strings. (Like many inventions, I wouldn't mind betting this developed from making the best of a poorly designed bridge that vibrated when it wasn't meant to!)
By the end of the 17th C. it had lost favour as too limited and was considered old and rustic. Then "Rustic" became trendy in France (think Marie-Antoinette's fake hamlet), the aristocrats popularised it again, and it spread across Europe about this time. It has since lost favour again, players being discouraged, prosecuted, or even executed, due to its convenience for and association with itinerant musicians and hence, begging.
Donovan's song, despite lacking a hurdy gurdy, sparked new interest, and in the USA and across Europe it has seen revival for many years. There are festivals, and the hurdy gurdy has been used in various modern recordings as well.
Some video clips of and about the hurdy gurdy.
The best example performance I found, at an annual festival held in the English town of Youlgreave.
(Sadly, it appears the festival is no more)
This young woman, Tobie Miller, is awesome and really shows off what can be done with it!
You can see at the start that this is a complex instrument which needs a bit of setting up first.
The drones, melody and buzzing bridge are all clearly audible.
A French player, with an accordionist.
The French call it the vielle à roue
Very gaelic/gallic sounding; although the video poster titles it "Accordéon - Vielle à roue (Hurdy gurdy) - SCOTTISH", I think you can hear a bit of the Irish jig sound, as well as maybe the sea-shanty?
Here is a classical music-styled piece, it sounds very refined, but is pointlessly trying too much just to be a violin, methinks.
It sounds distinctly different because he is not using the drone strings.
Here is a guy called Harry Wass who makes his own medieval instruments, busking with his own compositions in a market in Tasmania.
A more straightforward and robust style, and I can't help imagining more like what you would have heard in a European market a few centuries ago.
If you click thru to YouTube, the poster has added some informative notes about the player, the instrument and the performance.
The TED Talk (and sing) with history.
Hurdy-gurdy for beginners
Her instrument has more mellow tone. Perhaps she is just using the lower strings
(If you don't know what a TED Talk is, you should. You might find one about your own interests, or learn something new; see https://www.ted.com/ )
A better demo of the instrument itself by one of the world's leading hurdy gurdy players.: -
Demonstrated & played
by Matthias Loibner
Possibly not to everyone's taste, but for a historical perspective I have found a video which features
"Wandering blind hurdy-gurdy singers of Ukraine called Lirnyky."
(Those not executed, I guess: -
"Lirnyky were categorised as beggars by the Russian authorities and fell under harsh repressive measures if they were caught performing in the streets of major cities until 1902, when the authorities were asked by ethnographers attending the 12th All-Russian Archaeological conference to stop persecuting them.
In the 1930s this tradition was almost totally eradicated by the Soviet authorities when some 250-300 lirnyky were rounded up for an ethnographic conference and executed as a socially undesirable element in the new progressive contemporary Soviet society.")
Fascinated readers may find out more than they ever wanted to know at the Wikipedia entry for the hurdy gurdy.
p.s. Hurdy gurdy in a Middle-Eastern style (Update 17/05/16)
Last night I was listening to a CD for background music while working at something with my hands:-
Beginner's Guide To Bellydance, 3 × CD, Compilation 2008 Genre: Electronic, Classical
Style: Trip Hop, Dub, Ambient, Dark Ambient, Raï, Baroque, Folk
Suddenly I thought, "I swear that's a Hurdy Gurdy I can hear." The number was Disc 02, Track 12, "Brooklyn Baladi" by Djinn.
A search for Brooklyn Baladi on YouTube revealed this appears to be a generic term for a style of beginner's bellydance taught in New York; a number of clips feature this track as backing.
Djinn turned out to be far from a traditional bellydance band, in their own terms: -
"A modern blend of ancient party music with human beatbox, electronics, a taste of traditional middle eastern flavor, and a mouthful of NYC style." Their website.
I was initially disappointed they didn't seem to have a Hurdy Gurdy player, but then further down the page I find:-
"Djinn Alumni - Melissa "The Loud" Kacalanos - Hurdy Gurdy.
(More about Melissa: www.MelissaTheLoud.com)"
Lo and behold, Melissa the Loud turns out to be the person in a couple of YouTube videos I looked at while researching this very blog post. I was impressed by her gracious dignity when interviewed by a casual observer, but felt other clips were more explanatory for the blog. Now I feel moved to showcase the interview and the CD track. Sadly however, overnight the interview clip has become "Unavailable", even though it comes up in searches. At least the Djinn track plays.
Update 06/06/16 : - I found another similar interview, it suffers from being made in the subway, with some background noise, but it will have to do.