This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

Folk Musicians of the Auvergne

15 July 2011

The rustic charm of the countryside was a favorite theme for early postcards, and many pastoral photocards were produced for France's south central region known as the Auvergne. Pictures of the quaint provincial musicians and dancers were popular with French tourists, eager to tell the folks back home about the wonderful time they were missing.

This handsome musician sits atop a tavern table en-wrapped with  his Cabrette, a small bagpipe of France. Originally mouth-blown like the familiar Scottish bagpipes, this instrument uses a bellows under the right arm to pump air into the bag clutched under the left. The chanter and drone pipes are mounted together at the top of the bag.

The word cabrette means little goat in Occitan, the other main language of France. The Cabretaire wears the traditional sabot or wooden clogs that were the standard footwear of farms across Europe.

The card was sent in 1916 and the challenge of reading an old cursive style in a foreign language has defeated me. I do have a notion that the message might involve :
600 œufs a la minute = 600 eggs a minute

The sound of a cabrette is much softer than highland pipes, as it only has one drone. The chanter pipe can have one or two simple finger keys but the scale and range is very limited, so it is only suitable for folk tunes. 

But why do other similar postcards show the musicians seated on top of barrels or tables? After a search for videos on YouTube, like this one from a Dutch bagpipe expert, a cabrette performance explains all. This is an instrument playing to accompany the dance, and the wooden shoes are used as drums. Add a table (and some wine) and one musician can sound like six.

  UPDATE 03 May 2016  

A very generous reader has sent me a translation of the message.
My notion of 600 eggs a minute is not exactly correct.

Mon cher Ozil,
Ton vieux tireur est enfin
arrivé à bon port. Je tire encore,
mais ta pièce va moins vite.
Ce qui ne fait pas du tout le
bonheur de V… qui voudrait des
600 coups à la minute; rien
que ça …
Partirai d‘ici vraisemblable-
ment le 5 janvier. Te souhaite
de tout-cœur une bonne et
heureuse année
ton vieux trempe la mort !

My dear Ozil,
Your old shooter [not the gunman but the gun?] has arrived
safely.  I am still shooting,
but your piece [machine gun] goes slower.
What does not the
happiness of V ... who would of
600 rounds per minute;
just that …
Probably leave here on January, 5. Wish you
from all my heart a happy new year,
your old quench the death [slang: corrects death]

My reader adds this conclusion:

On December 28, 1916, Marcel, French soldier during World War I, is writing this card (sent in an envelope, no address on the card) to his old friend and soldier Ozil. The machine gun sent by this friend has safely/finally arrived. But the rate of fire of this gun is not satisfying to  V…, Marcel’s superior (?), who expects the maximum of 600 round/min. Marcel is going to leave Saint Beauzire, a suburb of Clermont-Ferrand/Auvergne, in the middle of France and far from the front, on January 5, 1917. Thirteen lines, a few 60 words, offering a short glance on the life of a poor, regrettable soldier, sending a view from a stop on his journey to the front, showing a scene of peaceful rural folklore, and joining in a bizarre manner his new year wishes to the description of problems with his death-bringing device and his imperious superior officer.

Thank you, G.M., for providing this translation and giving this charming postcard a better historical context.

If you know Dutch, this video gives a nice explanation of this characteristic French bagpipe.



This next video gives a very good close-up of the Cabrette playing method.
I don't think he is wearing clogs.



Another L'Auvergne Pittoresque musician uses a wine cask for his seat while playing his Joueur de Vielle, or Hurdy Gurdy. This unusual folk instrument has a long ancestry and is a remarkabley complex machine. The sound is made by strings set to vibrate by the friction of a rotating disk turned by a crank. The player has a small keyboard for the left hand which presses little tangents onto the strings at the various scale intervals.

Like the bagpipes, the hurdy gurdy was a traditional instrument in many parts of Europe and came in many regional variations. In addition to the 2 melodic strings there are 4 outer strings set onto a bridge, that produce a nasal drone not unlike the bagpipes.

The hurdy gurdy was often elaborately decorated and on this one you can see a carved figurehead on the scrollbox.

This card was posted to Paris in 1904 and the message reads in translation:

I could not send you peaches,
they were too ripe.
I am sending you at the station
a box of raisins.

Please accept my sincere regards
Stephane ?

Perhaps a  box like the one under the vielle player's clog?

Here's a good example of how the hurdy gurdy works.



And here the Joueur de Vielle and Cabrette are played together in a folk band
dressed in traditional French costumes.

And from an amateur travel video (today's modern postcard) to
the village 
of St. Agnan, in the Dordogne area of France
- a whole band of hurdy gurdies and cabrettes with costumed dancers.

Grab your stick and dance!

And finally a very funny solo demonstration
of La Cabrette.

My contribution to Sepia Saturday
Click the link for more enthusiasts of vintage photographs.


Anonymous said...

At first I found it a little comedic he was on top of a table, some character of the sorts(not to say he wasnt, haha) But fascinating the effect of drums and the clogs... Love the first shot, complete with his drink!

Jinksy said...

Those sepia photos are gems...

Little Nell said...

I love the pictures of the musicians complete with bottles, but that message about the peaches is almost poetic. It reminds me of the Sandburg Poem about the plums in the icebox!

Postcardy said...

That is one of the most interesting posts I have seen. I loved the postcards and all the explanations and videos.

Margaret said...

Love the first photo... I would say he is on the table as a makeshift stage. You put a lot of work into this post... thanks.

Christine H. said...

As I was reading about the Cabrette, I was thinking how much I would like to hear what one sounds like...and voila, you provided it. It sounds very different to me in the first video than in the others. That's an instrument I would love to learn to play. The hurdy gurdy was also interesting - and very mesmerizing.

Sheila @ A Postcard a Day said...

I spend a lot of time in France with family over there, in the Indre, where the vielle is still played to some extent. The local church, dating from the 11th century, has carvings on it of a donkey playing a vielle. I'm not entirely sure of the significance of that.

Tattered and Lost said...

I always wondered what a hurdy gurdy looked like. Thanks for educating me.

Nancy said...

How interesting this post was! I never knew what a hurdy gurdy was and I'd never even heard of a cabrette before. It's all so interesting. Thanks for sharing.

Bob Scotney said...

Even as a non-musician I had heard of the hurdy-gurdy. You have shown us some fascinating photos and educated us at the same time.

Alan Burnett said...

As always I am totally amazed by both the range of old musical instruments that existed - and by your knowledge of them.

Pat transplanted to MN said...

I have learned a lot from your post. Fascinating I'd not heard before about French bagpipes. I noticed the shoes appear to be wooden Dutch clogs to me and wondered why they wore those in France??

Howard said...

Brilliant post Mike. A friend of mine made a beautiful hurdy-gurdy, but it got stolen a few years ago. I'd never heard of a cabrette before though.

Doctor FTSE said...

Yes, a fascinating and entertaining post. Thanks for all the work you clearly put into it. I have always loved Canteloube's "Songs of the Auvergne", and your post adds a whole new dimension to his orchestrations.

tony said...

Mike! Have I Told You? You Have A Brilliant Blog!History & Music in one place! A Heaven of sorts.Thank You.


  © Blogger template Shush by 2009

Back to TOP