The Troubadour Tradition
Chincoteague Cultural Alliance
On June 28 at 4 p.m. in Robert Reed Park in downtown Chincoteague, troubadours Amy Ferebee and Regina Scott will give a free concert of jazz, blues and American music. The concert is made possible by grants from the Town of Chincoteague, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The thigh bone of the extinct cave bear, a harp of ninth century Wales, itinerant noblemen singing in twelfth century France and performers entertaining an audience on Chincoteague Island. The connection among all these obscure dots in history defines a profound human tradition that survives in spite of the modern ambush of technology and weapons of mass marketing.
During July 1995 in the foothills of the Alps, under nine feet of earth and human rubble, archeologist Ivan Turk found a femur bone of the long-extinct cave bear. The bone dates to about 43,000 years ago. This object is unique among commonly found cave bear bones because it has four holes lined up and spaced in a predictable pattern.
Canadian musicologist Robert Fink examined the four holes and determined that the bone was probably a flute. The position of the holes in the bone describes the familiar diatonic scale do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do. Fink’s claim is supported by statistical analysis showing that the holes are not random and could not have been made by another animal gnawing the bone.
Those four, possibly musical, holes in a Paleolithic thigh bone lead to the question of what the ancients did to pass the time while their cave bear dinner was cooking. Dr. Fink built a replica of the supposed bone flute and played Danny Boy on it. His conclusion about the bone’s use offers the exciting thought that music as a form of public entertainment predates literacy by tens of thousands of years.
May, 1152 marked the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to King Henry II of England and the beginning of the troubadour tradition in Britain. Troubadours appeared first in twelfth century southern France as traveling musicians who sang songs about chivalry, romantic love and historical events. The troubadour tradition was quickly hijacked by the aristocracy as a means to promote themselves and curry favor with those of higher social rank.
More than four hundred troubadours are known to have lived between 1090 and 1292. The archive of their work includes about 2,500 lyrics and 300 melodies. The most famous among these troubadours was Eleanor of Aquitaine’s son, Richard the Lionheart. His effectiveness as a troubadour, singing his own song, may be judged by the fact that he is the only English king remembered by his epithet rather than his number.
Jump ahead in time to 2007 when North Carolina luthier Ken Bloom was hired by an archeologist and a literary scholar to reconstruct the ninth century harp of Wales. Documents and artifacts from the period reveal the dimensions of the Celtic harp and its construction materials of wood, bone, metal and leather. The literature of the period shows that the harp was used by bards to sing songs that brought news, told romantic stories and celebrated military victories.
This tradition reached its zenith in 1691 when the blind harper Turlough O’Carolan wrote his first composition, Sheebeg and Sheemore. Carolan toured his native Ireland for nearly forty years as a troubadour composing and performing songs for the nobility. Carolan’s music integrated European style with the Gaelic harp technique and Celtic folk music. Turlough O’Carolan, a blind troubadour who died two hundred thirty years ago, is acknowledged as Ireland’s national composer.
Where have 40,000 years of troubadours and their bardic tradition gone? Nowhere. Troubadours are all around us trying their best to get our attention over the ear bud din of Ipods, heavy metal music screaming in bars and the uninterrupted mass marketing of formulaic, commercial entertainment. They have names ranging from Scott Ainslie to Skye Zentz. With paltry marketing budgets to let us know they are coming, contemporary, itinerant singer-songwriter-performers appear in small venues to bring us the blues, the news, love songs and hope. They are the bearers of the troubadour tradition. 40,000 year old ritual in Robert Reed Park on Saturday, June 28 at 4 p.m. when Amy Ferebee and Regina Scott sing the blues, tell us the news and give us a bunch of jazz.
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Bill Troxler is Music Coordinator for the Chincoteague Cultural Alliance. He produced and performed on the Chincoteague Island Library’s CD Music To Read By. He teaches courses in musicianship, music theory, arranging and how to listen to music.