Hurdy-Gurdy Facts and Fictions?

by John Holbo on July 20, 2015

I’m still preparing to teach Nietzsche. Today I was rereading “The Convalescent”, in Zarathustra – the key chapter in which the animals clue Z. in that his job shall be to teach Eternal Recurrence. A minor linguistic detail auf Deutsch: he is moping in the depths of his most abysmal thought and they – the animals – sing to him about how everything that goes around, comes around, and he calls them ‘barrel organs’ [Drehorgeln] and accuses them of bothering him with a mere Leier-Lied. Which seems like it should just be translated ‘lyre-song’, which it has been. But the Del Caro translation is ‘hurdy-gurdy song’. Which seems a bit unnecessarily far from the original. Curious, I put ‘Leier-Lied’ in Google translate and got ‘lyre-lay’. But then I tried ‘Leierlied’ – no hyphen – and got ‘gurdy song’. Is that a thing? (Obviously I have too much time on my hands.) ‘Hurdy-gurdy’ in German is Drehleier. Leierkasten, by contrast, is a synonym for barrel-organ, so it makes sense that the translator would make a connection. Both barrel-organs and hurdy-gurdys operate by means of cranked cylinders, which makes sense: Zarathustra is complaining that the animals’ philosophy is just cylindrical crankiness. Round and round and round. Very lowbrow stuff. The animals set Zarathustra straight and tell him he needs to make himself a new Leier, so he can sing this song himself, because this is totally his jam. At this point there is no question of translating it as ‘hurdy-gurdy’. Dude is in the middle of nowhere and those things are very complicated engineering feats. He’ll be lucky to string a few strings on a frame, to sing to the sheep, thank you very much.

So my question is: is there any difference, that a German would recognize as significant, between Leier-Lied and Leierlied? Is there some special reason why ‘hurdy-gurdy’ is definitely right, and better than plain vanilla ‘lyre-song’. I have no interpretation of Nietzsche that hinges on a hyphen, so you can’t break my heart either way.

Also, this is crazy. Wikipedia says in Ukraine there was a tradition of itinerant hurdy-gurdy players called ‘Lirnyky’. (I’m guessing ‘Lira’ is cognate to ‘lyre’.) And this:

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

It’s got one of those ‘citation needed’ Wikipedia flags. I can hardly believe this isn’t someone’s joke. ‘Eventually they got around to coming for the hurdy-gurdy players …’ But that’s the trouble with Soviet history. Complete, impossible insanity is so often no obstacle. Anyone able to verify, one way of the other? The idea of baiting 250-300 blind hurdy-gurdy players to come to a dummy (?) ethnographic conference, so you can murder them? ‘Rounded up for an ethnographic conference and executed’ really doesn’t compute, even by murderous standards.

But if true, this is one of the most bizarrely horrifying episodes I have heard tell of.

There’s a TED Talk on the hurdy-gurdy, if you’re interested. Pretty cool. But more trouble than it’s worth to play the thing. That’s obvious from looking at it.



Charles 07.20.15 at 12:51 pm

This page cites Shostakovich’s memoirs for the story:


The Dark Avenger 07.20.15 at 1:02 pm

The so-called Memoirs attributed to Schostakovitch are problematical, to say the least. I wouldn’t rely on them for anything historical. YMMV.


John Holbo 07.20.15 at 1:13 pm

A mystery! Why are the (so-called?) Memoirs problematical?


Phil 07.20.15 at 1:26 pm

A couple of things here. First, forget all about lyres. From the Middle Ages onwards, ‘Leier’ meant ‘hurdy-gurdy’. Around the seventeenth century, with the revival of classical knowledge, the German speaking people collectively remembered about lyres & renamed the hurdy-gurdy the ‘Leierkasten’. But if somebody – possibly Wilhelm Müller – told you they’d heard a Leierlied or seen a Leiermann, the missing ‘kasten’ wouldn’t throw you; you wouldn’t think they were referring to a lyre lyre. So, as far as it goes, there’s no difference between Leierlied and Leier-Lied, and Leierlied definitely means ‘hurdy gurdy song’ – or, later, ‘barrel organ song’. The German idiom for ‘harping on’ involves a Leier, but it’s the hurdy gurdy or barrel organ that’s being referred to. (Both of which work better in context than a harp – or a lyre; barrel organs repeat, and hurdy gurdies drone.)

As for the line about telling Z. to make a new Leier, I think I’d say that both meanings of the word are in there. I suspect N. was playing with the high- & low-culture connotations of the hurdy-gurdy and lyre, so that Z. is being imagined simultaneously as a beggar (and one who hasn’t even got an instrument to beg with) and as a young Apollo about to invent music.

Shostakovich’s story is batshit crazy & I really doubt it’s historically accurate. But it’s interesting that he refers to ‘lyrniky and banduristy’ as a collective term for folk singers;
the bandura is a kind of accordion, another portable instrument with chordal & harmonic possibilities.


Nimby 07.20.15 at 1:53 pm

Now I have an idea where Mao may have got some of his ideas for one part the 100 Flowers campaign, but it was on China scale so it was tens of thousands who turned themselves in as counter-revolutionary preforming artist, to disappear into the Turfan camps. Mao truly admired Stalin.


Chris 07.20.15 at 1:56 pm

Factual. Stalin’s government did round up and execute Ukrainian minstrels. Have a PhD student working on this topic.


John Holbo 07.20.15 at 2:18 pm

Thanks Phil, I’m sure that’s my answer. Musical instruments are interesting. As to the high-low, and young Apollo inventing music: I worked that much out myself! (I didn’t thinking Nietzsche was really worried about whether it would be realistic to have Z. build a whole Hurdy-Gurdy in his cave, with his snake and his eagle.

I do wish Disney would adapt “Zarathustra”, however. Doing the talking animals as Disney-style wisecracking sidekicks would be great. Z. is moping about his bad dream. The sheep starts singing. “Que sera sera!” Z. glares at the sheep. The eagle and the snake break into “Hakuna Matata”!

“Zarathustra” isn’t funny enough, but there is a deadpan absurdism to the talking animal asides that are easy to miss, if you are kind of getting bored and thinking – meh! mock-ancient Persian mumbo-mythicism.

I think this bit would film well.

As I lay sleeping a sheep munched at the ivy wreath on my head – munched and spoke:“Zarathustra is no longer a scholar.”

Plus, Zarathustra could be a girl’s name, so there’s no reason she can’t be a Disney princess.


John Holbo 07.20.15 at 2:20 pm

And again re: Schostakovich. I’ve never doubted him before but I’ve never trusted him either. It never came up. Is there some reason to doubt this story, except on the internal evidence that it doesn’t quite make sense and has generally a whiff of urban myth.


John Holbo 07.20.15 at 2:22 pm

Sorry, Chris and my comments crossed.

I wouldn’t doubt a graduate student working on the topic. That sounds fairly authoritative. Any more facts from this grad student to pass along with those interested in this.


John Holbo 07.20.15 at 2:25 pm

Wait, it wasn’t Apollo, it was Hermes, who invented the lyre, and then gave it to Apollo to pay him off after he stole the cows, wasn’t it?


Phil 07.20.15 at 2:25 pm

The clever part is that (by the sound of it) “make your own Leier” is the point where the lyre Leier comes back in – up to then there’s been no reason to read ‘Leier’ as anything other than ‘hurdy gurdy (or possibly barrel organ)’. Not just a high/low double image but a focus pull. Which in itself could be very Disney – I can see Z.’s dawning comprehension now:

“They’re right! I need to make my own Leier!”

Doesn’t work in English, of course.


John Holbo 07.20.15 at 2:28 pm

Yes, that does sound right, Phil. That’s funny.


John Holbo 07.20.15 at 2:29 pm

I mean, funny even without help from Disney.


Phil 07.20.15 at 2:29 pm

Chris – ye Gods. I owe the shade of Shostakovich an apology. Is the grotesque detail of doing the round-up by way of the First All-Ukrainian Congress of Lirniki and Banduristy accurate?


Bill Benzon 07.20.15 at 2:36 pm

The eagle and the snake break into “Hakuna Matata”!

How about “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”? After all, it begins with Z.


John Holbo 07.20.15 at 2:41 pm

Nah, it needs to be about fatalism. The circle. Very particular.

Otherwise (I think I made this joke somewhere else before), we should just rewrite “Oklahoma!” as “Zarathustra!” Maybe Hugh Jackman is even available for the role.


Bloix 07.20.15 at 2:57 pm

“Traditional kobzari [blind minstrels], as they are attested from the middle of the nineteenth century, when scholars first began collecting information about them, to 1939 when Stalin called a convention of kobzari and had most of the participants shot, were highly trained professionals…

Kobzari worked alongside lirnyky… Lirnyky were virtually identical to kobzari except for one thing: they played a strikingly different musical instrument…

The lira, from which lirnyky take their name is a hurdy-gurdy. It has a crank-driven wheel which rubs three strings and produces a continuous drone. The melody is played by lifting keys which depress one of the strings…

“Whatever remained of the tradition was wiped out for good in 1939,at the infamous congress in Kharkiv, where Stalin summoned those minstrels who were still left and had them executed.”


Bloix 07.20.15 at 3:16 pm

There’s even a recent movie that refers to it (without showing it, apparently.) It was Ukraine’s submission to the Academy Awards “Best Foreign Language Film” category in 2014.

Using the film as a jumping-off point, a historian at St Andrew’s University wrote in April that the Congress of Kharkiv is “[a] commonly cited event … although somewhat dubious owing to a lack of documentation,” and

“Historical evidence for the Kharkiv congress can be found in individual testimony and personal memoirs, the most notable of which is Solomon Volkov’s biography of Dmitri Shostakovich, the authenticity of which, is still a matter of debate,” but

“Regardless of the details of the event in Kharkiv, under Stalinist USSR, kobzari were commonly arrested and condemned to execution, exile, or imprisonment, or else they were beaten and their instruments broken… While on a different level from the Kharkiv congress, these actions certainly point to a targeted persecution of kobzari in that the tradition itself was all but destroyed.”


Doug K 07.20.15 at 3:17 pm

some more discussion of the massacre,
“I emailed Natalie Kononenko, and she agreed that the mass slaughter of kobzars was badly documented, and perhaps even semi-mythical. She said no one had really gone into the archives yet and done the research to prove or disprove it. ”
Natalie Kononenko is the author of the book Bloix mentioned above.

of course the archives for Ukraine scarcely exist as such (cf The Museum of Abandoned Secrets), so all we know for sure is the kobzars were disappeared in the 30s sometime.


Anon 07.20.15 at 4:12 pm

“I can see Z.’s dawning comprehension now: ‘They’re right! I need to make my own Leier!’”

Initially read “Leier” as “Leiter” and was puzzled about what kind of joke was being told about Brian.


ZM 07.20.15 at 4:17 pm

Talking animals are definitely more evidence of the importance of the pastoral to Nietzsche, and now maybe evidence of Zarathustra’s influence on the Hurry Gurdy Man?


kent 07.20.15 at 4:18 pm

I am like John, I have a very hard time imagining someone (even Stalin) actually ordering the wholesale execution of street musicians, no matter how irritating the music may have been found.

I imagine a miscommunication. Picture some all-powerful asshole ruler whose courtiers dote on his every word. He walks down the street and is briefly annoyed by a line of hurdy gurdy players. “They should just die,” he mutters to himself, and some assistant to an assistant takes him at his word.

I’m kind of surprised the movie guys haven’t gotten hold of this and run with it. The Coen brothers or Tarantino would love this combination of power, kitsch, and murder.


John Holbo 07.20.15 at 4:20 pm

“Talking animals are definitely more evidence of the importance of the pastoral to Nietzsche”

Nah, I still think you are confusing genre conventions with zoning regulations for sheep farming.


John Holbo 07.20.15 at 4:27 pm

“I am like John, I have a very hard time imagining someone (even Stalin) actually ordering the wholesale execution of street musicians”

Actually, that isn’t the implausible part, for me. It’s the idea that you would go to the trouble of faking up an ethnographic conference, to lure 250 or so blind men, just to kill them. It’s the confusion in the story of whether there was a conference or not. Too elaborate long con for too few bodies.

“Stalin actually ordered the wholesale execution of x” makes sense, in the abstract, for any living being he could order anyone to reach with a pointed object.


Glen Tomkins 07.20.15 at 4:32 pm

Well, Verdi is said to have made a practice of paying off hurdy-gurdy players not to play La Donna e Mobile. Presumably, he didn’t like the constant reminder of the preeminent popularity of the most banal and vulgar of the music he wrote — of the sort that organ grinders would find suitable to play over and over — in order to characterize banal and vulgar characters like the Duke, a tenor of course. In the opera, the Duke’s offstage reprise of that aria is the revelation that he isn’t dead, but that the assassin the baritone hired has instead killed his daughter the soprano. This is very much the wrong sort of eternal return. You can’t kill off the banal and vulgar, while innocence, goodness and ethereal beauty always manage to die young. The soprano’s music was not something the organ grinders found suitable.

It’s a bit of a stretch to think that Nietzsche was referring to this practice of Verdi’s, but there are all sorts of similar episodes, eternally returning, if you will.

Sticking with Verdi’s operas, there’s Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, who is closer to the one in Verdi’s Don Carlo than the one in Schiller’s original that the novel directs us to. The difference is that Verdi’s Inquisitor has more blatantly and unsubtly “gone over to the other side” than Schiller’s. Ivan consistently vulgarizes Schiller, himself obviously thought by this time to be banal and passe, and this treatment of the Grand Inquisitor is one of the tells. Ivan isn’t just stealing from Schiller in what he presents as bold new thinking, vulgar enough, he’s managed to grind out the even more vulgar and trite operatic version.

But the locus classicus is Socrates’ denunciation of the poets, with Homer in the lead, at the end of the Republic. The rationale is that they misrepresent the true tekhnai, substituting a bowdlerization. But if you search for an example to try to make sense of this odd claim (after all, at first glance you would think that in literature only really hard SF pretends to be technical) that poetry pretends to be technical but fails, the natural place to look is the start of the Iliad, where Nestor tries to explain to Achilles how government is supposed to work, namely that wisdom (Nestor’s) is supposed to govern and guide the thumos that Achilles possesses in such abundance. Both wisdom and thumos are, of course, supposed to govern desires. Also, of course, people have gotten coarser and weaker in the three generations that Nestor has survived, and we all know that human affairs are in a constant state of decline from the primeval Golden Age.

The whole edifice that Socrates has constructed in the Republic, the best state and its stages of decline, presented as it is being constructed as daring and novel — like Ivan and his Grand Inquisitor story — is shown to be the repetition of the same banal old theory of govt that Nestor spouts, and of the decline through stages that was received wisdom three generations before the time of the Iliad. Hurdy gurdy stuff!

You can’t leave this topic without a word about the metallic ages. Socrates brings this idea in at the start of constructing the best state, slightly modified as different metal quality people, but these different qualities in individuals play out as a declining succession of governmental ages near the end, as the best state declines. But there is this twist that Socrates gives the idea, that the end-state, sump of history, democracy, is presented as potentially giving rise to the dictatorship of a philosopher king. Decline from the Golden Age is inevitable, but once things reach the bottom, the cycle can restart.

While it is true that the metal thing is described as a gennaios pseudos, or noble lie, and that would seem to violate the idea of the vulgarity of eternal return, perhaps the idea is only supposed to be seemingly noble, but once you see that the cycles will repeat endlessly, and that you only get to gold by going through the sump of democracy, it is vulgar after all. There is a definite (if presumably quite insincere)move to disavow the origins of these ideas, as with the attack on the poets, and describing the metallic ages idea as a Phoenician tale. Not that there isn’t retaliation in kind from “Phoenicians”, as the Book of Daniel has Nebuchadnezzar dream of a metallic succession of ages, an idea that was clearly identified with Hellenism (Hesiod and Plato) by the time that book was written.


john c. halasz 07.20.15 at 4:44 pm

“the bandura is a kind of accordion”

No, a bandura is something like a cross between a lute and a harp.


The Temporary Name 07.20.15 at 4:55 pm

Phil was probably thinking of the bandoneon.


Harold 07.20.15 at 5:05 pm

Lute and zither? (zither and guitar — same word origin: κιθάρα (kithára)– like leire and lyre).

When I hear the hurdy gurdy mentioned this comes to mind:

No-one comes to listen,
no-one comes to greet,
and the dogs are growling
at the old man’s feet.

And he lets it happen,
lets it as it will –
cranking – and his organ
never staying still.

Strangest of the Ancients,
must I walk with you?
Will you drone my music
on your organ, too? [random internet translation of Wilhelm Mueller’s poem Der Leiermann]


ragweed 07.20.15 at 5:08 pm

I too would be interested in hearing some reason why Stalin would be out to get blind or otherwise folk musicians. My guess is that there was some connection to them either as a form of popular information exchange (passing news that Stalin didn’t want people to know from town to town), or that they had a tendency to play potentially subversive songs. Or one had once been heard playing a potentially subversive song, and he killed the rest to set an example. I know Stalin didn’t need a reason to do crazy things, especially in the Ukraine, but it would be interesting to find out if blind musicians were a crucial part of the Ukrainian underground (to the extent there was such a thing).


Glen Tomkins 07.20.15 at 5:28 pm

Stalin also had it in for Shostakovich, I believe on the grounds that his music was too decadent by way of not being properly representational. Whether the perceived distortion of reality is high brow like Shostakovich, or low brow like these folk musicians, once you start off with the notion that you have to control how people think about the world, whether you’re a Grand Inquisitor or Stalin, you have to stop the folks who are doing the distorting.


The Temporary Name 07.20.15 at 5:29 pm


bianca steele 07.20.15 at 5:30 pm


According to the D’Aulaires.


The Temporary Name 07.20.15 at 5:36 pm


TM 07.20.15 at 6:07 pm

The link doesn’t get to the passage you re talking about. Would you mind posting the German passage in toto?

I think Phil 4 has it right. A reference to Leier in German (e.g. “es ist immer die alte Leier”) means something mechanically repetitive. I have never before heard of the instrument called in English a hurdy-gurdy. Contemporaries of Nietzsche probably knew this instrument but I doubt many present day Germans know about it. Nevertheless the idiomatic use of Leier or Leierlied is understood by any German. It doesn’t have to evoke a specific instrument (certainly not the actual Lyre!) but if it does, it’s more likely the barrel organ than the hurdy-gurdy.

In short, Leier in this context doesn’t refer to any specific instrument. To translate into English, you’d have to find an expression that conveys the meaning of mechanical repetitiveness, not worry about the etymology of the expression.


TheSophist 07.20.15 at 6:20 pm

I know that I have heard the story somewhere. The only candidates would be either one of the museum’s I visited in Kiev a couple of years ago, or else in Snyder’s Bloodlands.


TheSophist 07.20.15 at 6:23 pm

Sorry for the grocer’s apostrophe. “museums” of course.


graeme 07.20.15 at 6:24 pm

“Disappeared in the 30s”? Blind homeless people during the Holodomor…

or the dastardly reach of Stalin?


Harold 07.20.15 at 6:45 pm

Cromwell also banned street musicians.


Glen Tomkins 07.20.15 at 6:51 pm

Quite. Street musicians are all of a piece with Popish mummery.


rootlesscosmo 07.20.15 at 6:51 pm

One of the conventions of Singspiel was a comic character who introduces himself with a simple, hummable ditty–probably the best known is Papegeno’s “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja” from Magic Flute. One of the ways you knew your singspiel was a hit was that the hurdy-gurdy players in the streets of Vienna would all be playing that tune the next morning.


Harold 07.20.15 at 7:04 pm

Churches and charities routinely taught musical skills to blind people who then became piano tuners and/or had other kinds of musical careers including as street musicians. This was the case both here and in Catholic countries such as Italy. I don’t know about other countries, but I imagine this would be so in Austro-Hungary and Spain. Doc Watson went to such a school as did Gary Davis, whose music was very sophisticated.


Christ, Uhren, und Schmuck 07.20.15 at 8:18 pm

I know from very reliable sources that not only millions of blind Ukrainian musicians were murdered – they were in fact eaten by bloodthirsty Muscovite hordes, who then proceeded to dance on their bones.


Mr Punch 07.20.15 at 8:23 pm

Stalin’s attitude should have been a problem for the American Popular Front, with its love of folk music (real and synthetic) … But of course not.


Anderson 07.20.15 at 8:41 pm

Re: the vicissitudes of execution in Soviet Russia, there’s this in Orlando Figes’s book on the Revolution:

In 1919, during a session of Sovnarkom, Lenin wrote a note and passed it to Dzerzhinsky: “How many dangerous counter-revolutionaries do we have in prison?” Dzerzhinsky scribbled, “About 1,500” and returned the note. Lenin looked at it, placed the sign of a cross by the figure, and gave it back to the Cheka boss. That night, 1,500 Moscow prisoners were shot on Dzerzhinsky’s orders. This turned out to be a dreadful mistake. Lenin had not ordered the execution at all: he always placed a cross by anything he had read to signify that he had done so and taken it into account.

So Stalin probably *meant* for them to execute the hurdy-gurdy players, & they shot the barrel-organ players by mistake. Or vice-versa … hell, I’m confused myself.


maidhc 07.20.15 at 9:15 pm

A hurdy-gurdy is a musical instrument as described by Bloix at 27.

A barrel organ is not a musical instrument at all. The barrel has prongs on it that control the organ, similar to a music-box. All you have to do is crank it.

The only similarity is that they both hang around your neck and have a crank.

A hurdy-gurdy requires a skilled performer just like a violin or any other musical instrument. You would expect a hurdy-gurdy player to know thousands of tunes, just the same as a folk violinist, accordionist, etc.

Barrel organs were particularly annoying because most people who played them on the street didn’t own very many barrels, so they played the same song over and over. The closest modern equivalent would be an ice cream truck, except with the barrel organ you didn’t get ice cream, just someone asking for money.

Barrel organs were also used in the Church of England (see Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree) and the British Navy in the days of sail.

Hurdy-gurdies were once popular throughout much of Europe, but today you mostly find them in France (it’s called vielle à roue). I saw Abel Gance’s Napoleon a few years ago with the Oakland Symphony, and they had a hurdy-gurdy player in the orchestra for the hurdy-gurdy scene in the film. He did a great job.


William Berry 07.20.15 at 10:18 pm

The Sophist @ 35:

Yes. There is a very similar event in Bloodlands.

A Polish-Jewish Communist leader (DRTN) is lured to his death by a similar subterfuge carried out by Stalin’s man Zhdanov.

The scheme was not elaborate. That there would be some sort of convention was merely a ruse.

So, this sort of stratagem was actually a thing.

And murdering 250 “useless” blind beggars does sound rather Stalinesque, if you ask me.


Phil 07.20.15 at 11:22 pm

Re: misidentifying the bandura, I was actually thinking of the Bayan (and probably the bandoneon).

I think the cultural angle – traditional not modern, ‘folk’ not scientific, rural not urban, ‘peasant’ not ‘proletarian’, and (last but not least) Ukrainian not Russian – is key. That, and the fact that the kobzars would have been pretty marginal socially. At a time when it suited the Party to promote traditional/’folk’/rural/peasant/multi-national social & cultural forms, being able to tick all these boxes would have counted in favour of the kobzars, securing them some official recognition despite their marginality. When the wind changed and the modern/scientific/urban/proletarian/Russian alternative had all the plus signs, the same attributes would have counted against the kobzars, knocking them down several notches on the social scale – and since their starting point (homeless beggar unable to work) was already more or less at zero, to be demoted in this way was to go from ‘social issue’ to ‘social problem needing to be dealt with’.

My guess (no more than that) is that a genuine conference of folk musicians may have been called or at least planned, but that at some stage before it took place – perhaps even before it was announced – this kind of shift had happened within the Party. What had been planned as a celebration of contributors to vernacular culture became a handy pretext for gathering enemies of the people into one place. The alternative – that the whole thing was a setup from the start – seems too elaborate; why not just round them up?

Interesting comparing #44 and #34. My etymological sources are silent on how ‘Leier’ made the additional leap from hurdy-gurdies to barrel organs, but it does seem to have happened.


Harold 07.21.15 at 12:27 am

Well, there were a lot of them in Eastern Europe, including Lvov, which in the 1930s would have been part of Poland and is now the center of Ukrainian nationalism.


Peter T 07.21.15 at 12:43 am

I have only dipped here and there into the exploration of Soviet archives, but there are a few instances where some general opinion or expression of irritation by Stalin translated into death or prison for some unfortunate group. Quite often this was followed by prison or execution for the over-zealous underlings. Similar things happened in Ne Win’s Burma and Suharto’s Indonesia.


The Temporary Name 07.21.15 at 1:02 am

There’s a terse entry about the kobzari in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia:


John Holbo 07.21.15 at 1:45 am

Not to derail the thread. TM requested the German, here it is. Those who understand can read, those who can’t, ignore:

Oh ihr Schalks-Narren und Drehorgeln! antwortete Zarathustra und lächelte wieder, wie gut wisst ihr, was sich in sieben Tagen erfüllen musste: –

– und wie jenes Unthier mir in den Schlund kroch und mich würgte! Aber ich biss ihm den Kopf ab und spie ihn weg von mir.

Und ihr, – ihr machtet schon ein Leier-Lied daraus? Nun aber liege ich da, müde noch von diesem Beissen und Wegspein, krank noch von der eigenen Erlösung.

Und ihr schautet dem Allen zu? Oh meine Thiere, seid auch ihr grausam?
Habt ihr meinem grossen Schmerze zuschaun wollen, wie Menschen thun?
Der Mensch nämlich ist das grausamste Thier.

Bei Trauerspielen, Stierkämpfen und Kreuzigungen ist es ihm bisher am wohlsten geworden auf Erden; und als er sich die Hölle erfand, siehe, da war das sein Himmel auf Erden.

Wenn der grosse Mensch schreit -: flugs läuft der kleine hinzu; und die Zunge hängt ihm aus dem Halse vor Lüsternheit. Er aber heisst es sein “Mitleiden.”

Der kleine Mensch, sonderlich der Dichter – wie eifrig klagt er das Leben in Worten an! Hört hin, aber überhört mir die Lust nicht, die in allem Anklagen ist!

Solche Ankläger des Lebens: die überwindet das Leben mit einem Augenblinzeln. “Du liebst mich? sagt die Freche; warte noch ein Wenig, noch habe ich für dich nicht Zeit.”

Der Mensch ist gegen sich selber das grausamste Thier; und bei Allem, was sich “Sünder” und “Kreuzträger” und “Büsser” heisst, überhört mir die Wollust nicht, die in diesem Klagen und Anklagen ist!

Und ich selber – will ich damit des Menschen Ankläger sein? Ach, meine Thiere, Das allein lernte ich bisher, dass dem Menschen sein Bösestes nöthig ist zu seinem Besten, –

– dass alles Böseste seine beste Kraft ist und der härteste Stein dem höchsten Schaffenden; und dass der Mensch besser und böser werden muss: –

Nicht an diess Marterholz war ich geheftet, dass ich weiss: der
Mensch ist b̦se, Рsondern ich schrie, wie noch Niemand geschrien hat:

“Ach dass sein Bösestes so gar klein ist! Ach dass sein Bestes so gar klein ist!”

Der grosse Ãœberdruss am Menschen – der würgte mich und war mir in den Schlund gekrochen: und was der Wahrsager wahrsagte: “Alles ist gleich, es lohnt sich Nichts, Wissen würgt.”

Eine lange Dämmerung hinkte vor mir her, eine todesmüde, todestrunkene
Traurigkeit, welche mit gähnendem Munde redete.

“Ewig kehrt er wieder, der Mensch, dess du müde bist, der kleine Mensch” – so gähnte meine Traurigkeit und schleppte den Fuss und konnte nicht einschlafen.

Zur Höhle wandelte sich mir die Menschen-Erde, ihre Brust sank hinein, alles Lebendige ward mir Menschen-Moder und Knochen und morsche Vergangenheit.

Mein Seufzen sass auf allen Menschen-Gräbern und konnte nicht mehr aufstehn; mein Seufzen und Fragen unkte und würgte und nagte und klagte bei Tag und Nacht:

– “ach, der Mensch kehrt ewig wieder! Der kleine Mensch kehrt ewig wieder!” –

Nackt hatte ich einst Beide gesehn, den grössten Menschen und den kleinsten Menschen: allzuähnlich einander, – allzumenschlich auch den Grössten noch!

Allzuklein der Grösste! – Das war mein Ãœberdruss am Menschen! Und ewige Wiederkunft auch des Kleinsten! – Das war mein Ãœberdruss an allem Dasein!

Ach, Ekel! Ekel! Ekel! – – Also sprach Zarathustra und seufzte und schauderte; denn er erinnerte sich seiner Krankheit. Da liessen ihn aber seine Thiere nicht weiter reden.

“Sprich nicht weiter, du Genesender! – so antworteten ihm seine
Thiere, sondern geh hinaus, wo die Welt auf dich wartet gleich einem

Geh hinaus zu den Rosen und Bienen und Taubenschwärmen! Sonderlich aber zu den Singe-Vögeln: dass du ihnen das Singen ablernst!

Singen nämlich ist für Genesende; der Gesunde mag reden. Und wenn auch der Gesunde Lieder will, will er andre Lieder doch als der Genesende.”

– “Oh ihr Schalks-Narren und Drehorgeln, so schweigt doch! – antwortete Zarathustra und lächelte über seine Thiere. Wie gut ihr wisst, welchen Trost ich mir selber in sieben Tagen erfand!

Dass ich wieder singen müsse, – den Trost erfand ich mir und diese
Genesung: wollt ihr auch daraus gleich wieder ein Leier-Lied machen?”

– “Sprich nicht weiter, antworteten ihm abermals seine Thiere; lieber noch, du Genesender, mache dir erst eine Leier zurecht, eine neue Leier!

Denn siehe doch, oh Zarathustra! Zu deinen neuen Liedern bedarf es neuer Leiern.


David Irving (no relation) 07.21.15 at 2:46 am

I’ll see your hurdy-gurdy, and raisde you this


Harold 07.21.15 at 3:09 am

“Ukrainian but not Russian” — um, wasn’t Stalin a Georgian? Kozlovsky was Ukrainian and made a specialty of Ukrainian folk songs and he was a favorite of Stalin and very proud of the medal Stalin had given him. Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor was also Ukrainian (and greatly enlarged the province, awarding it the Crimea).

They were banned for the same reason they or their equivalent were banned by Robert Moses in NYC, because they were considered beggars and as such a public nuisance.


bianca steele 07.21.15 at 3:11 am

This reminds me of cummings’ almost ungooglable “you may turn O turn that airy hurdysturdygurdy”.

What’s become of Maeterlinck
now that April’s here?


bianca steele 07.21.15 at 3:24 am

And even as we say we know it’s wrong,
We much prefer a novel to a song.

Not that we’re claiming to be HEALTHY or anything.


TM 07.21.15 at 3:33 am

I now learned that Leier also means Kurbel, crank. So apparently Leier is derived from Lyre but when the Lyre was equipped with a crank to become the hurdy-gurdy, both the new instrument and the crank alone came to be called Leier. Thus it makes sense that the barrel organ would be called Leierkasten – literally a box with a crank. There is also the term (herunter)leiern, referring to soulless, mechanical recitation, e. g. of a prayer or a poem.

I’ not quite sure which of these meanings exactly Nietzsche refers to when he speaks of a new Leier – “Zu deinen neuen Liedern bedarf es neuer Leiern”. But then, does it have to make sense? Much of the rest doesn’t, anyway.


js. 07.21.15 at 4:22 am

You people are way too high brow. 50+ comments and still missing the most obvious reference!? I’m here to fix this problem.


John Holbo 07.21.15 at 4:28 am

I agree that the talking animals in the Disney version should also groove to Donovan, as well as “Que Sera Sera” and “Hakuna Matata”. This will make Z.’s complaint that it is just a Leier-Leid extra funny.


John Holbo 07.21.15 at 4:48 am

Good points, TM. The dictionary doesn’t support ‘Leier’ as a noun meaning crank, but ‘leiern’ as a verb for ‘to crank’. I never bothered looking up plain ‘Leier’ because I thought it just meant lyre. But Google translate says it means, not just lyre and hurdy-gurdy but barrel-organ. A hurdy-gurdy could be a crank-lyre, ergo a crank for short. But a barrel-organ isn’t anything like a lyre. It’s a music box/player piano cylinder type thing. So if it’s a ‘Leier’ from ‘leiern’, then we have a funny sort of semantic backwash effect. Funny.

The fact that barrel organs aren’t musical instruments but music boxes, more like primitive computers – preprogrammed with all those pins – is significant and I never really thought of it before. In calling the animals barrel organs, he is not just calling them low-brow and tedious but deterministic. No one is playing this tired tune. It’s just playing. That’s life! (He eventually realizes.)


John Holbo 07.21.15 at 4:49 am

(I’m not lecturing you about what you just said, TM. I’m just talking to myself here.)


Glen Tomkins 07.21.15 at 4:56 am

One thing that quoting the original text suggests is that the choice of the word Leier may have had less to do with any particular instrument that Nietzsche might have been trying to suggest, and more to do with playing against the word Lieder. The juxtaposition of “neuen Liedern” and “neuen Leiern” in the last line seems to be what he was building to.

Any musical instrument, any art form or genre, any religion and any philosophy can become overused and trite, lose its original meaning in endless imitation and mindless repetition of the same tropes or techniques that the thoughtless now only imitate because they used to mean something to the mindful who originated what has since become a mere fashion, and then, inevitably, an outdated fashion.

“Leier” and “Leierlied” seems to have suggested a variety of musical instruments and music itself, so it’s not a word set that creates a specific image of a particular instrument or particular music, and I don’t think the range of possible instruments is limited by anything else in the text, so presumably a concrete image is not what Nietzsche is going for here. He’s presumably going for just the abstract idea expressed above, neuen Lieder need neuen Leier. New wine needs new skins, only he couldn’t use that image because it had already been used by that damned prior incarnation of the endlessly recurrent, and he needed a new Leier, dammit, because the Christian leavings were all spent.


John Holbo 07.21.15 at 5:18 am

It would be funny to translate it as ‘earworm’.


ZM 07.21.15 at 9:18 am


“You people are way too high brow. 50+ comments and still missing the most obvious reference!? I’m here to fix this problem.”

No way — I referenced The Hurdy Gurdy Man at comment 21, and being even more lowbrow I used the Buttonhole Surfers version as I think it is more like Zarathustra’s diss of the talking animals (no offense to Donovan of course, whose version is really much nicer)


Phil 07.21.15 at 12:01 pm

Thanks, Harold, but I’m well aware of Stalin’s nationality. If you look at the name endings of the leaders of the USSR, after Lenin (-ov) there were three typically Ukrainian -evs, one even more typically Ukrainian -enko and a Georgian -shvili. Only one -ov among them, and he was Armenian; there were rumours that he’d changed his name from Andropian.

None of this has any bearing on the policy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union with regard to the national question, but it’s nice to chat.


Phil 07.21.15 at 12:04 pm

the Buttonhole Surfers

About 20 years ago, my then boss made me a tape of the soundtrack of Romeo + Juliet. He spelled it like that too. I didn’t like to tell him.


John Holbo 07.21.15 at 1:44 pm

Buttonhole Surfers! That does sound debonair. I’m thinking maybe a kind of surf + teddyboy look.


TM 07.21.15 at 1:49 pm

“So if it’s a ‘Leier’ from ‘leiern’, then we have a funny sort of semantic backwash effect.”

Yes. The alte Leier is the old song mindlessly repeated so the neue Leier is a new song but it will also become a Leier, mindlessly repeated.


Bloix 07.21.15 at 3:42 pm

According to Wikipedia, “By the end of the 17th century … the hurdy-gurdy [was only played by] the lowest social classes; as a result it acquired names like the German Bauernleier ‘peasant’s lyre’ and Bettlerleier ‘beggar’s lyre.’” And you’ve got Drehleier – spin lyre – as the standard word for it. So whatever its name was, “lyre” was part of it.

In Ukraine the hurdy-gurdy was called the lira and its players were “lirnicky” – lyrists.

This prompts the question whether in Nietzsche’s day the German word “Leier” by itself, not in compound form, could be used as a name for hurdy-gurdy. If so, your translators are correct in calling a Leier-Lied a hurdy-gurdy song.

PS – in English, barrel organs were sometimes called hurdy-gurdies, which (as maidhc at 45) points out is a slander but it’s true nonetheless. If that’s the case in German as well, then Nietzsche’s Leier-Lied might literally have been the kind of music cranked out by an organ grinder with a monkey.


Jörgen in Germany 07.21.15 at 4:12 pm

The German verb “leiern” terms speech or song as boring because it is repetitive. I think this would support ” hurdy-gurdy”.


Phil 07.21.15 at 4:29 pm

Bloix – according to the German etymological dictionary I consulted, Leier (by itself) had been used as a name for the hurdy-gurdy since the middle ages; if anything the term had begun falling out of use (in favour of Leierkasten) by N’s time.


Matt McIrvin 07.21.15 at 4:46 pm

Charles Babbage also famously hated street musicians, and lobbied to have organ-grinders driven off the streets. He also campaigned against the menace of hoop-rolling.

Hurdy-gurdies and barrel organs seem to be very commonly confused in English; for a long time I assumed they were synonyms.


Bloix 07.21.15 at 5:37 pm

Phil – #69 – ah, I see you said this in #4. These long threads get away from you.


SBc 07.21.15 at 7:34 pm


oldster 07.21.15 at 7:37 pm

Clean up needed on Aisle 4,, stat!

I just looked up “Barrel Organ,” realizing that I shared Matt McIrvin’s confusion. Under the “Terminology” section what should I see but:

“” German names include Drehorgel (“pull organ”), Leierkasten (“brace box”), ”

Which are both wrong with added wrongness.

I don’t edit Wiki, but someone should.


Ike 07.21.15 at 8:23 pm

The article on Drehorgel in the German wikipedia ( starts with the statement “Eine Drehorgel, oder auch Leierkasten, ist ein mechanisches Musikinstrument”, and proceeds to give a description – with pictures and all – of an instrument that looks very much like a barrel organ to me. Admittedly my German is even crappier than my English, so I may have misunderstood. Plus meanings may have changed since Fred’s day etc.


Bill 07.21.15 at 10:05 pm

The Schubert setting of Der Leiermann (mentioned by Phil in 4) is certainly referring to the hurdy-gurdy with its repetitive drones. Compare the arpeggios of the setting for An die Leier, evoking an archaic style of Anacreon.

Incidentally, Joseph Roth’s novel, Rebellion, is about a wounded veteran of the Great War who has a special permit to play the “hurdy-gurdy” (i.e. work as an organ grinder), and he makes his living cycling through his eight cylinders of popular songs.

Finally, in Tyler Ambinder’s Five Points (pp. 368-70) we learn that one in twenty Italian men living in that New York neighborhood in 1880 was an organ grinder. Monkeys were “an integral part of the organ-grinder’s trade, climbing up building facades to solicit donations from those in upper-story windows” There was even a monkey training school: By 1890 a law against the monkeys caused a large decline in the organ-grinder trade.


Phil 07.21.15 at 10:44 pm

Man, this is confusing. Wikipedia auf Deutsch has a whole entry on the Drehorgelspieler, also known as a Leierkastenmann. But then we get to Schubert, and it turns out that *his* Leiermann should be understood as a Drehleiermann – a Drehleier being, wait for it, a hurdy gurdy! Brane hertz. I guess, historically speaking, the HG could have epitomised mechanical repetition by virtue of the LH crank – until along came the BO, which was all LH cranking and no RH at all.


js. 07.22.15 at 12:39 am

ZM — apologies! I think I searched for “Donovan” and nothing came up. And I somehow totally missed the linked video.


Collin Street 07.22.15 at 12:54 am

@Phil: like all lute-family instruments, the strings on the hurdy-gurdy are [generally] set in motion by the right hand and the pitch controlled by the left.

[which, yes. Panda’s thumb / qwerty, and all that… as a left-hander who plays right-handed, I’m not the person to ask.]


John Holbo 07.22.15 at 12:59 am

Yeah, I’m a lefty, too, but who plays left-handed. Please, mister, can you tell me where I can buy a left-handed hurdy-gurdy?


maidhc 07.22.15 at 1:02 am

71. Matt McIrvin

Hurdy-gurdies were not a common instrument in England, so it would be more likely for the English to be confused about nomenclature than the inhabitants of continental Europe.

77. Phil

Actually the right hand cranking of the hurdy-gurdy takes quite a bit of skill. A good player can inject little accents into a tune that really make it hop, in the same way as a fiddler uses the bow.


oldster 07.22.15 at 1:11 am

Phil @ 77

So the same word–roughly “crank-organ”–is used to describe two instruments, one of which requires skill to play and allows the artist some liberty of expression, the other of which requires no skill and allows a drudge to grind out the same few themes ad nauseam. Both employ cranks.

This semantic phenomenon is not all that confusing, or unparalleled for that matter. Consider the word “blog”.


oldster 07.22.15 at 1:21 am

So about the economics of the trade–

Doesn’t it seem like there’s a discrepancy between the unskilled, sometimes disabled workers, eking out a living at nearly beggar’s wages, and the fact that they have a very complicated piece of high-tech capital?

Who bought them these organs? Who bought them the monkeys, for that matter? Did you just rent an organ, like driving a taxi for a big company?


John Holbo 07.22.15 at 1:34 am

To recap. Here is one version of how the chain of associations evolves:

Leier = lyre

Originally a word for a lyre, harp or stringed reasonable approximation thereto. Any stringed instrument.

Drehleier = lyre with a wheel attached, to sound the drone string. [drehen – to turn]

Arg! You’ve got that stupid tune stuck in my head!

But instead of blaming the wheel, people irrationally blamed the lyre, which was more or less a musical bystander to the droning droning droning. Ergo,

leiern = to drone on and on

Leier = a repetitive hurdy-gurdy tune

Leiermann = that guy in the street driving us crazy with “Let it Go” on his barrel-organ, because it’s the Disney hit of the year

Which presumably actually comes after

Leierkasten = synonym for barrel organ

That is a semantically confused term because it appears to describe the device: a lyre-box, i.e. box with a lyre in it. But there’s no lyre in there. It’s not a stringed instrument. Drehorgeln – turn organ – is the accurate term. But, obviously, Leier has left lyre completely behind and been semantically washed up into the ‘Dreh’.

All this no doubt explains why, in English, we have a wrong sense that hurdy-gurdy means that thing that’s actually a barrel organ:

It also explains why we say ‘harping on’, to mean droning on, even though harps are associated with swirly, sparkly sounds – that’s our cartoon of a harp.

The mystery – to me anyway – is whether ‘Leier’ to mean hurdy-gurdy song, is really a post-barrel-organ development. Did people first blame hurdy-gurdy songs for sounding droney, because they have a drone string? Or did people first blame barrel-organs for sounds droney because they are repetitive and mechanical, but hurdy-gurdys got the retroactive blame, via Leierkasten, ergo Leier?

Did hurdy-gurdys ever bother people, to the point of driving them to semantic distortion, or is it only ever barrel-organs that are maddening? Besmirching the gurdy name?


John Holbo 07.22.15 at 1:43 am

Schubert’s ‘Leiermann’ seems to have been named at a time before ‘Leiermann’ had negative, organ-grinder connotations. So it seems reasonable to hypothesize that in Schubert’s time, ‘leiern’ did not yet mean to drone on. Supporting the hypothesis that we have here a post-barrel-organ development. ‘Leier’ to mean hurdy-gurdy song is born as an actual confusion of two different musical devices.


John Holbo 07.22.15 at 1:45 am

All knowledgeable German speakers, who have a dual-competency in the history of music, are hereby invited to set me straight if I’m wrong. There is more to German than a priori deductions by people – .e.g. me – who don’t know German at all well. (Man, my German has faded.)


TM 07.22.15 at 2:07 am

84: Your story seems right to me although I too cannot solve the “mystery”. A really good etymological dictionary or perhaps a musical encyclopedia in German might help.

The “harping on” example is interesting. It might be a good analogue to “leiern”. I guess when you hear “harping on”, you don’t really picture a harpist. Neither does “leiern” evoke an actual musical instrument to a German speaker (a 21st century German is very unlikely to have ever seen a Drehleier, or even a Leierkasten except perhaps in movies) although this may have been different in the 19th c. I wonder whether a classically educated 19th c German would have pictured an actual lyre, or a Drehleier, or a Drehorgel.

One more observation. The sound of the word “leiern” is quite unpleasant – compare “grinding” – not apt to evoke beautiful music but (in my ears at least) very fitting as a word for boring mechanical repetition. Compare the word “lyrisch” (lyrical) from the same root which evokes beauty and mystery. Or am I making this up post hoc?


John Holbo 07.22.15 at 3:26 am

Onomatopoeia is a harsh mistress. Never one of the muses; etymologists don’t trust her further than they can throw a large barrel-organ. But ‘leiern’ does sound upleasant, yes. It would be interesting if there was a point at which ‘Leier’ for hurdy-gurdy song was positive, and the verb ‘leiern’ didn’t exist. And then ‘Leier’ became unpleasant and ‘leiern’ was coined, the very sound itself vaguely unpleasant. You could check which came first.

Looking at the lyrics, Schubert’s Leiermann seems like an organ-grinder, after all. Not a hurdy-gurdy player.

Drüben hinterm Dorfe
Steht ein Leiermann
Und mit starren Fingern
Dreht er was er kann.

Drehen not spielen.

Check this translation, for example:

Note how the final lines are really not very well translated in that version (apart from the dubious rendering of ‘Leier’ as ‘hurdy gurdy’.)

Wunderlicher Alter!
Soll ich mit dir geh’n?
Willst zu meinen Liedern
Deine Leier dreh’n?

That is translated:

Strange old man,
Shall I go with you?
Will you play your organ
To my songs

Better, for the last two lines:

Do you want to grind/turn my songs on your organ?

That sounds balanced between negative and positive. The old codger is a figure of pity, but there is no hint he has talent. His fingers are frozen and he can barely turn a crank. Should the speaker want his good songs ground up like that, even if it helps the old guy out?


oldster 07.22.15 at 3:30 am

“Better, for the last two lines:
Do you want to grind/turn my songs on your organ?”

No; I don’t think “my songs” can be the direct object of drehen. The direct object is Leier, and Liedern is governed by the preposition “zu”.

Maybe you are being thrown of by “willst zu”, reading it as though it were “willst du”?


John Holbo 07.22.15 at 3:32 am

Oh, sorry, I mis-scanned ‘zu’ as ‘du’, to incoherent effect. I guess better would be:

Do you want to turn your crank/play your organ to my songs.


John Holbo 07.22.15 at 3:33 am

oldster’s and my comments crossed. Yes, I mis-scanned willst zu as willst du.


John Holbo 07.22.15 at 3:39 am

This is very funny. Now I don’t know what to think. ‘Play to my songs on your organ’ would mean the guy was a player, not just a grinder. ‘Turn my songs on your organ’ would mean the guy was a grinder, not a player. ‘Turn to my songs on your organ’ sort of splits the difference. In English it doesn’t even make sense.


John Holbo 07.22.15 at 3:41 am

But, then again, on a hurdy-gurdy it sort of makes sense. You are turning to the song because you are actually playing it (with the other hand.) Now I’m just making stuff up.


rootlesscosmo 07.22.15 at 3:50 am

The piano part is repetitive and uses a D (or a major fifth, D-A) as a drone, so the singer actually is singing his song to the “hurdy-gurdy’s” accompaniment.


John Holbo 07.22.15 at 4:00 am

Good point!


John Holbo 07.22.15 at 4:20 am

A break from making things up. The hurdy-gurdy is a thousand years old. Although originally it was quite different. How old is the barrel-organ?

This 1911 encyclopedia entry contains a wealth of detail. The things date back to the 1400’s. The hand versions go back to the late 1700’s at the latest.

“Mr Thomas Brown relates that one Mr Stephens, a Poultry author, proposed to parliament for any one that should presume to keep an organ in a Publick House to be fined £20 and made incapable of being an ale-draper for the future. In 1737 Horace Walpole writes:—”I am now in pursuit of getting the finest piece of music that ever was heard; it is a thing that will play eight tunes. Handel and all the great musicians say that it is beyond anything they can do, and this may be performed by the most ignorant person, and when you are weary of those eight tunes, you may have them changed for any other that you like.”

That’s makes me wish that “The Castle of Otronto” started with a huge barrel-organ crashing down, instead of a helmet. What a prodigy! Heavenly gurdy!

Here is Robert Fludd’s design for a hydro-hurdy, I guess you’d call it:

Some steampunk author out there had better be writing this stuff down. We need some kind of Frankenstein as Solomon Gurdy tale.

I was assuming barrel-organs came later. They are engines. Probably came around with the industrial revolution. But no. Obviously clocks have been around a while. Why not barrel-organs?


ZM 07.22.15 at 4:20 am

John Holbo,

I concede that this is a good example of irony in the text.

“It also explains why we say ‘harping on’, to mean droning on, even though harps are associated with swirly, sparkly sounds – that’s our cartoon of a harp.”

Well we have some very nice harpists in the shire here, so probably the term “harping on” came from people listening to super annoying harpist who sing gothic twee songs in grating voices with a barrel organ sounding tune. For an example, another artist I have complained about for not following the legal advice for artists when she wrote about her trip to our shire here where Lola Montez once danced at the Theatre Royal:

One would think someone who writes about writs would follow the legal advice for artists.


ZM 07.22.15 at 4:21 am


Harold 07.22.15 at 4:24 am

The hurdy-gurdy is actually a respectable folk instrument (at least in France), which had its beginnings as a church instrument in the middle ages and I think would be a mistake to view the drone only in negative terms — lots of bagpipers would bridle at this, I believe.

In classical music the use of the drone is a legitimate technique. And it is used by Schubert and others (such as Bartok in his Hungarian dances) to suggest the vitality and energy characteristic of folk music. I always thought that in the Winterreise the hurdy-gurdy man represented the enduring universality of artistic expression, as well as the precariousness of the artist’s trade. The drone-like piano accompaniment in Der Leiermann is beautiful and very moving in its concision and simplicity.


John Holbo 07.22.15 at 4:25 am

I was actually thinking about posting a link to Newsom’s “The Sprout and the Bean”:

We are, after all, having trouble figuring which notion, semantically, is sprout and which bean. Is it essentially a function of going round and around or of plucked string?

That the difference between
the sprout and the bean
it is a golden ring,
it is a twisted string.


John Holbo 07.22.15 at 4:26 am

I love Joanna Newsom, by the way. Won’t hear a word against her, writ or otherwise. Susceptible to flame or not.


John Holbo 07.22.15 at 4:31 am

“The hurdy-gurdy is actually a respectable folk instrument (at least in France), which had its beginnings as a church instrument in the middle ages and I think would be a mistake to view the drone only in negative terms — lots of bagpipers would bridle at this, I believe.”

I didn’t mean to speak against droning, Harold. I myself am a proponent and practitioner of drop-D tuning, and of finger-picking. Constant thumb-plucking ain’t some kind of thumb-sucking thing that sucks.


Harold 07.22.15 at 4:33 am

Romanian dances.


Val 07.22.15 at 4:40 am

@ 88
Well I’m only a beginner in German but this is intriguing – the link you gave for translation doesn’t work for me, but it does look as if there could be subtleties not picked up in the translation you quoted.

For example, definitely ‘zu’ would carry a meaning of turn ‘to’, which if you think of it as poetic and allusive can carry the meaning of ‘turning’ the barrel organ as an accompaniment ‘to’ the songs, but also could carry the sense of ‘turning to’ such that not just the instrument but the player is turning towards, and not just towards the songs, but also to the person who wrote the songs – that is there could be a sense of alliance or likeness in this. In this regard I wonder if the translation of “Wunderlicher Alter” as ‘strange old man’ would necessarily convey pity in quite the sense you suggest. Wunderlicher translates as ‘strange’ on google translate and others I tried but “Wunder” translates as ‘miracle’, so you could read that as being strange in the sense of otherworldly, perhaps. Therefore the composer of the songs might be, at least in fancy, identifying with the old man and suggesting that they are allies or companion spirits in some way.


Val 07.22.15 at 4:47 am

Though I guess I might be thinking of ‘hey Mr tambourine man’ in my comment @ 104, too :)


Val 07.22.15 at 4:47 am

Or Mr Bo Jangles


John Holbo 07.22.15 at 4:49 am

‘Wunderlich’ has less inbuilt wonder than you might think. But yes.

It’s halfway between ‘I wonder’ – which could just be ‘I wonder if I remembered to turn off the light’ – and ‘wonderful!’

‘Curious old codger’ might be about right. ‘Miracle’ too strong.


ZM 07.22.15 at 5:07 am

“I love Joanna Newsom, by the way. Won’t hear a word against her, writ or otherwise. ”

Well I cannot for the life of me fathom why. I myself only hear words against her and won’t for a minute hear any words for her.

I guess Joanna Newsom hasn’t written any songs misrepresenting and defaming you and invading your privacy &c. John Holbo — just imagine how you would feel if she determined to write about you. How would you feel then?

I have no idea why she took such an interest in writing about a concert goer like myself, so my only guess is that it is because she was Bill Callahan’s girlfriend as Chan Marshall also wrote about me when she was Bill Callahan’s girlfriend in 1998 when she recorded Moon Pix in Melbourne with the drummer Jim White (whose lovely mother danced with the pianist Liam Hayes at The Punters Club concert where I had my book stolen and was almost stepped on) and the guitarist Mick Turner.

I have of course complained to Chan Marshall’s record company too, but the company is most unusual and no one answers the phone and the emails go to the President of the company but he doesn’t return the emails and nor does anyone return my voicemail messages.

You are lucky that no one would write about you John Holbo without your prior permission as you can afford a lawyer to issue some legal notices, writs or otherwise, on your behalf and go to court, while I can’t afford a lawyer to help me at all so I just have to write complaints to record companies and then they get Royal Trux to taunt me in photographs.

You see my sorry situation now, and why I only hear words against Joanna Newsom.

And really the Sprout and Bean song is not on topic, the Monkey and Bear song is more on topic for this discussion. Although if I can recall the song correctly, Joanna Newsom does not mention how and why the bear Ursula escaped.


maidhc 07.22.15 at 5:18 am

Here is a video of a really good hurdy-gurdy player. Check out his crank technique. It is pretty amazing.


maidhc 07.22.15 at 5:46 am

83: oldster

So about the economics of the trade–

Doesn’t it seem like there’s a discrepancy between the unskilled, sometimes disabled workers, eking out a living at nearly beggar’s wages, and the fact that they have a very complicated piece of high-tech capital?

Who bought them these organs? Who bought them the monkeys, for that matter? Did you just rent an organ, like driving a taxi for a big company?

There is a well-researched book that answers that very question:

It’s possible that the term “harping on” comes from these child street harpers, because I think that the padrone would not bother to take the time to teach them that many songs before setting them out to work. So they might have a repertoire as limited as any barrel organ.

In contrast, the Welsh gypsy harpers were great artists, even if they were playing on the street. They played triple-strung harps. This tradition was preserved by Nansi Richards and can be heard nowadays by Robin Huw Bowen and others.


Zamfir 07.22.15 at 6:02 am

There’s a musuem here in town devoted to historical mechanical instruments. It’s wirth a visit. If you take the guided tour, they’ll play selected machines.

The old ones are delicate clock-like mechanisms to be displayed as showpieces in wealthy homes. By the late 19th century, it’s more self-playing pianos that serve as jukeboxes in bars, and barrel organs for the outdoors. The last pieces in the museum are barrel organs the size of semi-trailers. Those would play in dancehalls at fairs, and they play loud. You can’t talk when they playing.

Barrel organs (called draaiorgels) are still a common sight here on the streets anyway . i haven’t seen them often abroad?


ZM 07.22.15 at 6:38 am

“There’s a musuem here in town devoted to historical mechanical instruments”

Don’t forget movies about mechanical instruments.

When we were teenagers me and a younger friend watched Unfinished Piece For Mechanical Piano. Although as she said last Summer the Tarkovsky movies we watched are really the most of beautiful films. A support musician, I think the guitarist Chris Smith, asked her out to dinner with Bill Callahan and I think Chan Marshall in Sydney in 1998. I didn’t go to the Sydney shows.

This is a clip from Unfinished Piece For Mechanical Piano. The women faints when it’s revealed the piano is mechanical.


Zamfir 07.22.15 at 6:49 am

I just realized: ‘lier’ in dutch is either a winch, or a classical lyra. I would never have connected those meanings, but it must be the same etymology. Lier as crank-driven musical instrument, generalized to other crank-driven machines, specialized to winches.


oldster 07.22.15 at 10:52 am

From the Brittanica citation:

“There is nothing singular in the early date of this invention, for the 15th century was distinguished for the extraordinary impulse which the patronage and appreciation of the dukes of Burgundy gave to automatic contrivances of all kinds, carillons, clocks, speaking animals and other curiosities due to Flemish genius.Mref>Van der Straeten, op. cit. p. 231.”

Yes, fair enough, and the ancient inspiration from Hero and Vitruvius is plausible enough, too.

But at the same time: barrel organ barrels are a lot closer to computer programs than clocks are. You encode some information in a storage device. You use it to control the operation of a machine. You can reprogram it with different programs. It’s pretty amazing for the 15th c.. It’s a bit like the Jacquard loom (demonstrated 1801), only several centuries earlier:

“The ability to change the pattern of the loom’s weave by simply changing cards was an important conceptual precursor to the development of computer programming and data entry. Charles Babbage knew of Jacquard looms and planned to use cards to store programs in his Analytical engine.”

In 1700, was there any mechanical device other than the barrel organ of which you could say, “it contains a stored program, which can be replaced fairly easily with a different program, which controls a hardware output to do a job that was originally done by skilled labor”?


TM 07.22.15 at 1:22 pm

google points me to other Leier references elsewhere in Zarathustra:

“Süsse Leier! Süsse Leier! Ich liebe deinen Ton, deinen trunkenen Unken-ton! Wie lang her, wie fern her kommt mir dein Ton, weit her, von den Teichen der Liebe! Du alte Glocke, du Süsse Leier!”

This sounds like a real lyre (although also identified as a bell).

Here’s a Nietzsche interpreter identifying the “neue Leier” with the Uebermensch:
The animals speak to Z. about the eternal recurrence, but this idea is only bearable played on the new “Leier”, which is the Uebermensch.


Phil 07.22.15 at 4:01 pm

How far do musical boxes date back?


Zamfir 07.22.15 at 5:44 pm

@ Phil, the history lesson from the muse says that the oldest mechanical instruments were carillons in the 14th century that could play an automated melody. They moved into houses in the next century, still playing bells. In the 16th and 17th century they expanded to strings (struck with hammers) and air-driven organs.

The familiar music box, with a comb driven by a cylinder, is a much later invention. The museum says 1796. Apparently it was advertised as a carillon without bells.


bianca steele 07.23.15 at 3:54 pm

In Bloomian terms, N. seems to be trying and failing to overcome Wordsworth’s Ode on Intimations of Immortality.


Minnow 07.23.15 at 3:58 pm

Amazed to discover from reading this thread that a hurdy gurdy is not the same thing as a barrel organ. Also, what a horrible noise the hurdy gurdy makes. Having listened for a little to the YouTube clip, I am afraid I am with Stalin on this one.


Harold 07.23.15 at 4:01 pm

It is very plausible to me that N. is suggesting that the “answer” is Art.


ZM 07.23.15 at 6:17 pm

John Holbo,

“I love Joanna Newsom, by the way. Won’t hear a word against her, writ or otherwise. “

I notice you haven’t said you’ve now revised your totally misinformed high opinion of Joanna Newsom I’ll give you more details of why she is an awful person.

Joanna Newsom toured Australia in late 2005 with Bill Callahan, it was promoted by the tour promoter Woody who was a friend of a friend of one of my housemates at the time.

I had previously seen Bill Smog in 1998 and some other times. He would stare at me and my friend a lot when he was playing, and we found it weird and looked down at the floor. You see in Red Apple Falls he writes about staring at women in his song Stranger “why do you women in this town let me look at you so bold”. We talked about it afterwards and thought it was odd, he would do this whenever I saw him until one time instead of looking at the floor I turned it into a staring competition and just stared at him until he looked away.

In late 2005 I have absolutely no idea that Chan Marshall (Cat Power) in Moon Pix or anyone has written any songs about me. I never even went to a Cat Power concert in my life.

At the Melbourne show Joanna Newsom made a prominent announcement at the start of the song Sadie from The Milk [Lake] Eyed Mender, saying it was not about her dog as the local music writer Anthony Carew had written in the promotional article, but this was a metaphor.

The next show they played here in town on a bill with The Tenniscoats and another unpronounceable Japanese band, Josephine Foster, and Guy Blackman.

At this show even though I was sitting near the back of the theatre the woman singer from The Tenniscoats stared at me during one whole song. This was annoying because I wanted to watch the drummer who was playing with twigs he’d picked up but I politely stared back at her to help her out. As well as being annoying this was unsettling, as the only other singers who were in the habit of staring at me at their concerts were Bill Callahan regularly and Will Oldham twice.

Over the next about 8 months I start getting upset all the time and crying and not knowing why, and can hardly talk to people, and stop eating.

When the next Will Oldham release comes out in August 2006 the Cursed Sleep EP I listen to it and tell one of my housemates I think it is about me and then the next day have a psychotic episode.

Now I have an affective disorder.

I have complained to the record company but it does no good, and I can’t afford a lawyer.

Joanna Newsom just kept releasing songs about me on the next record Ys, maybe since she seems to think she identifies with me since she grew up in a goldfish town with peppercorn trees too — but I do not identify with Joanna Newsom at all — I dislike her songs and think she is a really awful person.

Then not satisfied with writing about me on two records, she writes obviously about seeing me in Castlemaine on her next record Have One On Me where she calls me Lola Montez. I am nothing like Lola Montez as you can tell from my internet comments so it is defamatory as well as invading my privacy. Not that there is anything wrong with Lola Montez. But Joanna Newsom has now written about me on all three of her grating overwrought records. Joanna Newsom also writes obviously about Will Oldham on a song Have One On Me too.

But just like Will Oldham never mentions the real life events of him stealing my book and trying to step on my head, Joanna Newsom never mentions the real life events of how she and the woman from The Tenniscoats decided it would be amusing to try to see if they could make me realise people were writing songs about me, and when I did I had a psychotic episode and now have an affective disorder which is a great disability.

She even has the guile to say she consulted her lawyer father about the song Emily on Ys and also that it is about her sister an astronomer — why consult her lawyer father about the song and not just ask her sister? I bet because it is not really about her sister and her lawyer father told Joanna Newsom to just say it was to get around the legal advice for artists — which is improper legal advice to give Joanna Newsom. I can tell the song is not about her sister because as her sister is an astronomer she really does not need any advice about the nature of meteors from Joanna Newsom, and really the advice about the nature of meteors is rather like the advice about Sprout And Bean advice too. She played Emily when she played here too.

When I was a teenager I read just about all of Barry Hannah’s books and his advice to writers was try to be a more interesting person — not write about someone in Australia without their permission!

Now I hope you will revise your opinion of Joanna Newsom and see her as the awful deceitful person she really is.


ZM 07.23.15 at 6:20 pm

should be “she grew up in a goldrush town”

But it feels like a goldfish bowl when singers you don’t know take to writing songs about you without your permision


bianca steele 07.23.15 at 9:56 pm


I feel like there should be a link between Zarathustra and The Music Man, which I was watching with my daughter. Anyway, I like the line “But he doesn’t know the territory!”


Richard Gould-Saltman 07.23.15 at 11:18 pm

My father taught me never to let a straight line go past, because it may never come by again. With that in mind, I cannot resist offering, from one of his chapbooks:


The Soviet composer, Serge Prokofiev,
Arrived at the Office of Cultural Exchange.
“Comrade Prokofiev,
You have been summoned
In response to reports
Of inappropriate costume
During your recent conferences
With musical composers in California –
You were observed
Attending such meetings
In flamboyantly multicolored flowered shirts
Such as those worn in Honolulu.”

“With due respect, Sir,
Such shirts are customary apparel for musicians
In the American motion picture industry.
Dressed otherwise, I would have been conspicuous.”

“Nevertheless, Comrade,
Our Committee feels that
As a cultural representative of our homeland,
You must be particularly dignified,
And therefore dressed (Excuse the expression, please)

We have consequently designed garments
In which you will appear
On future occasions,
And which shall be named,
In your honor, of course,
The Prokofiev suit.”

The director opened a wardrobe trunk
Holding handsomely matching sets
Of dark blue jackets, vests, and trousers.
“Sir, I appreciate the Committee’s view.
I am gratified by the honor
And impressed with the quality of the material,
But I am not altogether happy
With the enhanced role the State has assumed.”

“I understand, Comrade,
But we all must make compromises.
To that end,
We would be pleased to expand the name
To the Unhappy Prokofiev suit.”

Hence, subsequent to this directive,
And persisting until
The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991,
This type of attire was known,
In musical circles
As “The Unhappy Prokofiev Suit”.

Or, in the westernized version,

As Blue Serge. ”

from “Nearly Devoid of Profundity” by Edwin S. Gould

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