Jez Smith playing Hurdy Gurdy

Music and song at the museum

Jez Smith, Historic Life Interpreter, describes his historic music research:

My interest is not only in the music and the songs themselves, but most importantly, their social context in which they were written and performed. The study of this music can give another dimension to our understanding of how people lived in the past. Music at the Museum also compliments the multi-sensory experience we strive for, of which the soundscapes of the past is an important aspect. This includes all the familiar sounds of everyday life, of which music is just one element. Immaterial aspects of the past cannot ever be fully recreated, but there is great value in considering the sonic aspect of history, something that has been frequently ignored. Much of our understanding has been based with a visual bias towards the interpretation of history, we can learn a great deal about sound by revisiting the historic record with fresh ears, as well as eyes. The development of auditory culture as part of modern sociological enquiry also has a historical aspect to it that has been gaining popularity in academic circles over recent years. Our interpretation of the past no longer needs to be visual and silent but coloured by sound, giving it deeper levels and dimensions.

There are many ways that you can assess sound in history. One method is to look at the historic record with a fresh filter, scanning the records looking for descriptions of sound that can be recreated, or at least imagined to some degree. A good example are the records relating to the 1607 May Day celebrations in Wells. The revels were meant to be a short and relatively quiet affair, but instead they turned into a wild 2 month party which included every known disreputable social and leisure activity known in early modern England. By re-examining the historic records of this notorious event, there are many clues and references to sound and how it was used. For example, it is clear that drums played a very important part, not only in providing the excitement, energy and focus for much of the prolonged festivities, but the loudness of the drums was used deliberately to disrupt the commands of the unfortunate constable who was trying to disperse the crowds, sending his troops into disarray.

Another way to explore sounds from the past is to bring the printed word alive. For example, many of the broadside ballad songs that were very popular with ordinary people in the late 16th and 17th century can provide us with a wealth of historical information. They can also give us an inkling into what it might have been like to sing these songs, in an ale house, where they were commonly sung. This can give us an idea of the collective unity that this type of singing can provide. These songs were meant to be sung, not just read, and they come alive when presented in something that closely resembles their original setting. Far removed from modern choir singing, it provides something more immersive, personal and relevant to the social context of its time.

Regular visitors to the Museum may have heard me playing historical music, as part of the interpretation of the site and buildings. I play a range of historical replica instruments, including a variety of bagpipes, hurdy gurdies and various stringed instruments. Recently I have been working with my sister (Nadine Smith), who works professionally in film production. Nadine has created 3 music videos of me playing historic melodies at the museum. The videos were all shot largely in one take, very early one spring morning before the museum opened. The weather was perfect and Nadine’s eye for detail really helped to show off the beauty of the museum.

The videos are listed below: Hurdy gurdy in North Cray; bagpipes below Tichfield Market Hall; Hurdy gurdy in Walderton

Jez is involved in some music workshops this season: Early 17th century drinking songs; Songs in the time of Shakespeare; Sound, resonance and listening.

Workshops can be booked online or call our friendly team on 01243 811021.