Musicoligists disagree on what was the first musical device. They generally agree that the first musical instrument was the voice. So it’s a simple leap to believe our ancient ancestors figured out whistling, and from there, the flute. The whistle imitated birds, the flute imitated the whistle and thus, music was born.
But it’s always been my theory, without any scientific evidence mind you, that the first musical device was the drum. Consider this …
Our paleolithic ancestors are sitting around the fire, and one of them discovers that he or she can make a sound with their mouth, which will later come to be called melodic. And now this is way before anyone figures out whistling, keep in mind. So they’re humming away, and before long, another ancestor, most certainly a guy, starts making rhythmic noises with his mouth. Kind of like a prehistoric beat box. Which in turn leads another (again a male of the species) to begin drumming rhythmically on his legs. And we all know how irritating that is, unless the primitives in question had some form of libation, in which all of them would soon be beating on their legs. Next thing you know someone picks up a couple of sticks and musical instruments are born.
What does all this have to do with the 2011 Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous, in Vincennes, IN?
Like most historical reenactments, the participants fall into two camps. The first is those demanding authenticity, most notably in dress. And in this The Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous does pretty darned well, at least among the reenactors. The merchants are a different story, but that’s neither here nor there.
The other camp doesn’t really give a fig for authenticity, as long as it looks right. Or in the case of music, sounds like what people expect period music to sound like. And reenactments aren’t the only victim of this. No less notable a personage than Ken Burns, with his award-winning PBS specials blows it when it comes to musical authenticity.
So at the Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous, let’s face it, the music isn’t authentic (discounting Common Stock, a wonderful pair who I have to believe are as authentic as you’re likely to find). Ironically enough, the guitar might not have been entirely unknown in colonial Vincennes, as the French quite possibly brought it when Vincennes was still trading in furs. But the whole ensemble playing would likely never have happened. And perhaps most inconceivable to many people, the bodhran, or Irish frame drum would never have been played in an ensemble setting. We all would love to believe that the instrument has been accompanying early music for centuries, but it likely dates from no earlier than the 1960s.
Now cast your mind back in time to the Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous, 2001 or therabouts. Your author is playing non-traditional music for non-traditional dancers at the event. It’s hot, and thirsty work. The day’s activities end, and we wander around the encampment and along the river, which is when the site feels most like the 18th century. Darkness falls, and libations are produced. Many libations. At the far end of the encampment, a large fire is drifting sparks up into the sky, in contrast with most of the smaller fires of the reenactors, and we wander to it, where a well-known and unnamed musical act is camping. There are kids being kids, adults being adults, and a ring of people around the fire, which we join. More libations are produced, including a fiery elixer with golden flakes suspended therein, Goldschlager. This bottle and several others are passed around the circle, along with a guitar and songs, and pretty soon, the twentieth century is long gone. I have to believe, based on as much as I can remember, that this was the most authentic experience I’ve had at any reenactment or historic site. Bar none.
I also seem to remember that I slept much of the night in a ditch, which felt pretty authentic as well. A gutter might have been more appropriate but we make do.
‘Twas an evening in October, I’ll confess I wasn’t sober,
I was carting home a load with manly pride,
When my feet began to stutter and I fell into the gutter,
And a pig came up and lay down by my side.
Then I lay there in the gutter and my heart was all a-flutter,
Till a lady, passing by, did chance to say:
“You can tell a man that boozes by the company he chooses,”
Then the pig got up and slowly walked away.”
Clark Van Ness
Of course that was long ago, and certainly not a sanctioned Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous activity. And I’m certain that such a Bacchanalia would no longer be tolerated. The event is wonderful enough without it.
The 2011 Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous was held this past Memorial Day weekend, and I managed to spend most of an afternoon there, before being called back on the road. It’s nice to see a historical reenactment that is so consistently great, especially considering that it’s organized almost entirely with volunteers. So perhaps the music isn’t authentic, it’s still enjoyable. And I still choose to believe that after dark, around some campfire, authenticity still reigns.