Hurdy gurdy man brings 1,000-year-old instrument to life

By Mike Taylor • Last Updated 12:26 pm on Monday, January 14, 2013

Dave Leonard, left, and fellow Tinker’s Folly member Alan Billingham perform a set at River Rock in St. Louis during open mic night. — Courtesy photo


Written and recorded in 1968 by folk artist Donovan, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” remains one of the most recognizable songs of a generation. Yet many have no idea what, precisely, a hurdy gurdy is, or why someone would employ one to sing songs of love.

Like the instrument itself, the precise history of the hurdy gurdy is largely unknown, locked away in time’s immutable amber. Scholars contend it existed prior to the 11th century and is generally thought to have originated in either the Middle East or Western Europe.

According to Shepherd resident Dave Leonard, who knows more about the instrument than most, the hurdy gurdy’s origins can be traced as far east as Pakistan and west as far as France, where the instrument remains popular to this day.

“All these places seem to have gotten the hurdy gurdy at the same time,” Leonard said. “The trade caravans and gypsies spread the hurdy gurdy in their travels, though each country had its own name for the instrument.”

Dave Leonard is one of the few hurdy gurdy players still performing in the area. He is pictured here playing a hurdy gurdy he crafted himself. — Courtesy photo

Performing locally with the band Tinker’s Folly, Leonard is one of a handful of hurdy gurdy players in West Michigan. Moreover, he creates the instruments on which he plays — hurdy gurdies, banjos and mountain dulcimers.

Learning to build these instruments was a trial and error endeavor, one undertaken without the benefit of professional luthier’s training. In fact, all the woodworking skills Leonard possesses were gleaned growing up on the family farm and handling the woodworking tools his father kept in a small shop there.

“I had read about the hurdy gurdy in ‘Frets’ magazine, and then I heard one on the ‘Thistle and Shamrock’ radio show on NPR back in 1997,” Leonard said. “I decided then and there I had to have one. I did some research online and it turned out they were available, but they were all in the $1,000-plus category and I couldn’t afford that.”

Leonard had already crafted a few banjos and mountain dulcimers and decided to try his hand at building a hurdy gurdy. The result of his first effort was less than stellar.

“I bought the plans for one from Elderly’s (music store) in Lansing for $8,” Leonard said. “The best thing you can say about that first one is, it played. But once I knew how they worked, I kept building them. Those first couple were a little squeaky and squawky; there were things I hadn’t learned yet. But each was a little better than the last. That’s why I built so many.”

Ten hurdy gurdies later, Leonard finally has an instrument he is “more or less” happy with.  As each new instrument is created, Leonard sells off the previous model to pay for materials.

It has never been a commercial venture. Leonard’s singular goal is to build an instrument capable of producing the sound he holds in his head. No small task, considering the relative complexity of the hurdy gurdy.

“It’s a stringed instrument that works on the same principal as a violin,” Leonard explained. “It has a wheel that is rosined and rubs against the string like a violin bow. It has buttons set up like the keys of a piano that push little fingers against the strings, kind of like fretting a guitar.”

The instrument can have anywhere from one to four strings, as well as numerous drone strings and sometimes a bass string tuned an octave below the primary strings.

Hurdy gurdy builder and player Dave Leonard, left, is pictured with bandmate Alan Billingham. Together, with Billingham’s sister, Pam Billingham, they comprise the traditional music group Tinker’s Folly. — Courtesy photo

As with the building of the instruments, Leonard’s live performances also are a non-commercial venture. In addition to his annual showing at the Wheatland Music Festival in Remus, Tinker’s Folly appears sporadically at Loafer’s Glory in Blanchard and the River Rock in St. Louis.

“I also usually do workshops at Midlands Folk Festival in September,” Leonard said. “As far as Tinker’s Folly goes, we’re not really in it for the money. We just do this for fun. Every so often, someone will call because they’ve heard of us and we’ll go play. This is just our hobby.”

Tinker’s Folly is comprised of Leonard on hurdy gurdy, dulcimer and banjo, Alan Billingham on guitar, mandolin, fiddle and harmonica, and Alan’s sister Pam Billingham on percussion.

Alan Billingham has been performing with Leonard for about 10 years. The two met after Billingham called a number posted on a music store billboard.

“We didn’t know each other before that,” Billingham said. “I had heard of him, but we’d never met.”

The group’s mix of traditional songs, as well as newly-minted tunes designed to sound like their traditional counterparts, has proven popular with “roots” audiences.

“Mostly we’re doing Celtic, maritime and other old music,” Billingham said. “We play the Tall Ship Festival in Bay City so a lot of our songs are of the sea and that sort of stuff.”

Though non-commercial, the band does maintain a Facebook page for those interested in learning more about its music and performance schedule. Also, copies of Tinker’s Folly’s latest CD are available and may be ordered via the band’s Facebook page.

In an era of generic pop-sounds, Leonard and the rest of Tinker’s Folly provide a rare conduit into an age when music cut to the bone of the human condition; when love and loss, heartache and joy, had yet to be drowned in the cacophonous noise of modern life.

That alone makes them worth hearing, the next time they come singing songs of love.

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