fortune my foe

28Nov07

Apart from The Snowman and The Bear, nothing sets up Christmas like the miracle that is the York Waits.

One of the things that I’ve liked most about Advent over the past decade or so is getting out our sole Waits CD, Old Christmas Return’d. The kids love it, and it has also encouraged us to discover other forms of early seasonal music. Some of it is serenely happy and toe-tappingly joyous, other parts doleful and deeply melancholic.

“Waits” were bands of musicians originally established by municipal authorities to keep the night watch, among other duties. They were in existence from medieval times up until 1835 when they were abolished, falling victim to the wave of political fumigation surrounding the Great Reform Act of 1832. Until that time they played a central role in communal musical life, and after political abolition a few groups lingered on as Christmas waits. In recent decades there’s been a bit of a revival, and the York Waits — sporting the unignorable scarlet livery, silver regalia and floppy black hats of their sixteenth-century heyday — are perhaps the best known.

To say that the York Waits are accomplished musicians is almost an understatement. Each band member plays about a dozen instruments. They also play inside or out — in a variety of weather conditions, one assumes — and pride themselves on their informality and accessibility. Truth be told, it sounds like so much fun that I’ve had half a mind to set up the Bath Waits. But given the current state of my musical skills that might be too long a wait, and even then, probably not worth the wait.

By chance (naturally), we discovered that the York Waits would be playing a gig not far away, in St Patrick’s Church, Bristol. It was to be accompanied by a dramatic narration of the Gunpowder Plot: a foiled seventeenth century 5/11 if ever there was one.

During the interval there was an opportunity to view all the period instruments (shawms, crumhorns, flutes, recorders, curtal, hurdy-gurdy, lute, cittern, early guitar, early violin, harp, and the unforgettable saggbut), and to have the mechanics of some of them explained. For instance, if you think that the state did not know how to terrorise in those days, the shawm — a kind of very loud oboe — probably produced one of the loudest sounds any medieval human was likely to hear. It seems to have originated with the Saracens in battle as a psychological weapon — to surprise, intimidate and shock the enemy witless — and was brought to these shores by returning Crusaders.

Ahead of a haunting rendition of the ballad ‘Fortune my foe’, which often accompanied executions or the conclusion of battles, narrator Tim Healey described the ghastly retributive justice meted out upon the Gunpowder plotters, including poor old Guy Fawkes, a native of York himself. They cut off his privates, just to be sure that perpetual shame should not be vested on any ensuing progeny. This seemed a little superfluous in light of the fact that his head was to be cut off immediately afterwards. But it seems that, when dealing with terrorists, you just can’t be too careful (can you Mr Rumsfeld?).

Well, the kids stole my phone and camera and made merry with them. This, with the help of an Edirol R-09, was the result.

Coincidentally, on Sunday’s South Bank Show, the sound of bagpipes and their role in post-battle mourning dirges was invoked by Annie Lennox as an essential inspiration for her own melancholic style, particularly in connection with the song ‘Why’:-

The first time I kind of heard folk music that really made the hairs on the back of my neck stand out… There’s a kind of certain Scottish ballad, and that sensibility of grieving, mourning. There’s another kind of pipe music called Piobaireachd (pibroch). It’s the kind of music that a piper would come at the end of the battle and grieve and mourn for the warriors that were slain on the field.”

Details on where to get York Waits CDs.

Here’s what the reviewers have said.

Here’s where you can see them in concert venues.

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