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The Tangled Roots of Rhyming and Troubadouring

We modern troubadours owe some debts for our art to surprising places...

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While researching the tunings of early lutes, which were the direct ancestors of the guitar, I stumbled on the idea that the first people that I would identify as my ancestral troubadours in Europe were probably Arabs playing lutes, having their Kumbaya moments around ancient campfires. This was connected to an idea about the history of rhyming itself that has my head spinning with the idea that my roots and ancestry as an American troubadour are vastly more multi-cultural and less white-skinned than I ever realized. I never knew until yesterday that the word “lute” comes directly from the word “oud” which is an Arabic stringed instrument that I was familiar with. When people who spoke Romance languages in Southern Europe (Italian, French, Spanish, Flemish etc.) referred to “the oud” they probably said “l’oud” because their languages used gendered pronouns. It seems like somebody could have told me that before, but maybe I was daydreaming when they did.

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My point here is that the roots of us guitar-twanging, lyric-spouting troubadours and possibly of rhyming itself in Western music and literature are likely Arabic, or strongly influenced by that culture. This means that modern songwriters, poets and rappers and their fans all owe a tremendous debt to Muslim art, and possibly even to the Koran itself. In America's currently very Arab-phobic and anti-Muslim society, this is extra-interesting and delightful to contemplate. My troubadour roots, and those of rhyming itself may well be older than anything European. Like many other important cultural and scientific ideas, they probably originated in China or Arabic culture, and entered into Europe as a consequence of the Crusades and the Moorish invasion of Europe that took place a few centuries earlier in the year 711. Southern France, the supposed "cradle of the troubadours," sits right next to Southern Spain, where Arabic culture was deeply embedded by the 1100s, when non-Muslim people in Europe started playing the lute, singing and rhyming. I always knew that the guitar as we know it originated in Spain, but somehow the whole idea that playing a fretted stringed instrument and singing songs was Arabic in origin hasn't gotten much traction in modern times. Neither has the idea that rhymed poetry itself was probably also an Arabic import into Europe.

The only places I can find much historical discussion of the advent of troubadouring into Europe are from college textbooks that teach the origins of European poetry in the study of literature. The only sources we have to study this subject are the surviving manuscripts of poetry or music, and whatever letters or books exist that discuss those manuscripts or the music. Since almost the entirety of my musical knowledge is in my head and not on paper, and so is that of every skilled modern troubadour I know, I am immediately suspicious of the accuracy or completeness of conclusions about troubadour music that are drawn entirely from what is on paper, especially paper that is 900 years old. Paper may be fine for poetry, but poetry that is sung is not the same as spoken poetry, as any songwriter knows. Musical notation also doesn't work well for guitars and fretted instruments, and notation didn't exist beyond rudimentary tablature during the time period we are looking at. When I read the discussions and conclusions about early troubadours in the poetry history books, red flags galore go off for me, and I get an immediate feeling that there's more to the story of the origins of troubadour arts than what is in those books. The delightful books written in the 1890s about troubadour poetry by John Frederick Rowbotham are a perfect example, though even the reprints are expensive to get hold of because college textbooks are priced at 5 times what "ordinary" books are. Rowbotham paints vivid and what to me are often clearly fictional pictures of life in troubadour times in southern France. He also states categorically that the violin was invented in England, which makes you question everything else he says. (His inaccurate discussion titled "English Origin of the Violin" is on page 159 of his 1895 book [reprinted since 1969] that you can find as a pdf online called "Troubadours and the Courts of Love," though it's really page 189 of the pdf file.) I've also chased down quite a number of his footnotes and found them to be dead ends.

I recently watched a terrific documentary called “The Journey of Man” where a geneticist traveled to many parts of the world studying DNA samples. He and his team concluded that all humans, and especially people who thought they had no relation to each other were actually closely related genetically. The scenes where he was telling Navaho Indians that they were descended from Mongolian and Central Asian herdsmen were remarkable. I imagine trying to explain to a street rapper in Compton that what they were doing was rooted in Arabic troubadours who came into Southern Europe from North Africa or Turkey over 1000 years ago. The possibility that rhyming came to the Middle East in turn from China or India is also a real one, though my interest is not so much the true or oldest origins of folksinging and rhyme, but in how it came to be such a vital part of European poetry in the Middle Ages, and thus was passed on to American culture and on to me personally.

Modern troubadouring apparently has much deeper multi-cultural roots than the vast majority of us realize. I’d love to see players, singers, dancers and entertainers of all colors, genders and persuasions, plus their audiences, recognize the universal commonality, beauty and value of this unfathomably ancient art form. What better thing for humans to celebrate than the craft of humans entertaining other humans through personally-driven performance art that is centered around a lifetime of devotion to mastering its repertoire, skills, nuances and complexities.


It’s a tumultuous time to be a musician, with giant cultural forces changing our world dramatically, so it’s no wonder that many of us are looking to the past for a better understanding of where we are today. I’m not the only one searching for patterns or similarities in where we have been before to help us deal with where we are now. Here is a good example of how quickly things get fuzzy when we try to look into the past: we don’t even know where the $ symbol came from. Look it up. The United States is not even 250 years old, and we have already lost track of why we use an S with 1 or 2 lines through it to represent the dollar, that was first instituted by our fledgling government in 1785. We also don’t know where Santa Claus came from, or why we accept and celebrate the idea of an Easter Bunny. I dare you to find a satisfactory, certified-as-true explanation of any of those things. We can guess, we can agree, we can disagree, but we can also enjoy wondering and we can enjoy poring over the nuggets of truth, evidence, stories, myths and whatever else we have that help show us where we came from.

So how can we feel sure that we know where the limerick originated, where square dancing came from, why country singers often yodel, why people play slide guitar, or any of the other huge number of questions that come up when we try to understand any part of our cultural heritage? We can’t know a lot of what happened, or why things are the way they are. Part of what I want to call here a “disclaimer” is that I am aware and you should be aware up front that there is no way to know for sure what troubadours were doing or thinking long ago, and that like it or not, nothing is truly provable or unprovable.

We have no audio, no video, and just some scattered written evidence, and that’s about it, for the really old stuff. “Scholars” have weighed in, and written books or theses on things like the origins of poetry, but as part of my “disclaiming” I’d like to point out that they no longer have a monopoly on access to raw information. We armchair historians can now look at the same old documents and read the same rare books that used to be locked up in the rare book rooms in universities. We “outsiders” can read, think and write also, and we have a huge advantage in that we have nothing to prove, and no jobs to protect, and we’re not worried about how much time we spend researching. And most important, many of us have no connection to any community of scholars. Even in the sciences, too often the seekers of truth have waged petty battles over important issues, and let jealousy, rivalries, academic tribalism and personal frictions interfere with their scholarship, and obscure the truth for the rest of us as they squabbled. Historians and archaeologists seem to be often among the worst offenders at this sort of thing, so it doesn't hurt to be wary when you read something by a professor, especially when they are refuting what another professor said. The theories of ice ages, asteroids killing off dinosaurs and even of continental drift were laughed at when they were first proposed.

Words, languages and alphabets themselves are a cultural inheritance of the most fundamental type. I'll mention this and then resist the temptation to elaborate on it. Albert Pike wrote in Lectures of the Arya that “You hardly utter a sentence of our English tongue without speaking some word which was spoken in the same sense by… ancient people, ten thousand years ago or more.” The alphabets we use, the fonts and numerals, the names of the days, Holidays and months often have mysterious origins in far away cultures. Naysayers who think that ancient ideas haven’t percolated deeply into our modern selves and our modern world need look no farther than the language they are using to make their arguments and denials.

For anything in the history of music that predates recording or video technology, we simply can’t be certain of much. The only thing resembling “scientific evidence” we have is whatever we can find on pieces of paper, or what living people say or remember or what they heard an older person say. Any certainty we might feel comes solely from a situation of agreement among many people who are asking the same questions. Paper can capture words to songs, descriptions by writers or witnesses, or pictures of musicians, instruments or performances. Rhythms, nuances, tones, accents, and other key things in music don’t map onto paper very well. And in times past, not everyone knew how to write, and paper was not available to everyone, so old manuscripts that we depend on to tell us about the past are skewed toward telling us far more about the people who used paper than those who didn't.

Ideas, memes, language and culture travel around in populations very much the same way that diseases and pathogens do. The mathematical models are essentially the same. A good example of how frustrating it is to try to go backwards in time musically is the problem of nursery rhymes. Those little rhyming songs, chants and taunts that many of us learned as kids, like “Ring around the rosy” or “London Bridge is falling down” and even “liar liar, pants on fire” have very ancient histories, but are very difficult to trace. Though millions are familiar with them, we don’t know for certain where they came from or how they got all around the world or into our individual heads. A mother, sibling or housekeeper or nursemaid might have sung them to a child anywhere, and there are similarities and differences among the versions we know of them that are perfect examples of the elusive nature of any kind of oral tradition or folklore. We don't even know where the children's song "The Wheels on the Bus" came from, though it first seems to have appeared in the 1950s! Jokes work the same way, especially dirty ones that are not printed much. There are very old oral tradition jokes circulating, that like a lot of peasant music don’t follow traceable pathways of information. One sailor in one ship could have brought a song, a musical instrument, a joke or a disease across an ocean and cause it to spread all over a continent. Of course plenty of sailors also went plenty of places with ideas and diseases that did not spread widely or "go viral." Some things spread and other things don't.

In trying to understand our musical and cultural heritage, we often have to pick apart what are often two different rivers of information: the “scholarly” or “institutional” body of knowledge, and the “people’s knowledge.” I’m sure you are itching to get into some of that "tantalizing" I was promising you, but I want to make this last abstract but important point, and possibly annoy scholars even more. The folklore and culture we all inherit includes a huge variety of songs, melodies, rhythms, slang, jokes, riddles and puzzles, fiddle tunes, folk tales, costumes, recipes and whatever else you can’t stop people from passing on to their companions and descendants. Educated, powerful and literate people have participated intermittently in this stream of information transmittal, and have both helped, hindered and ignored the “people’s arts” all through history. Obviously in the earliest of times, there was only “folk knowledge,” though the compartmentalizing and ghettoizing of information goes very far back, to when priests, magicians, scribes or shamans kept their own secret knowledge from the “masses.”

Think of all those centuries when tons of “important” stuff, including the Bible itself, was only written in Latin. In the 1400’s it was a crime punishable by death to possess the Bible in English, and a man named William Tyndale got into big trouble and was hunted down and horribly executed in 1536 after he made a really good new English translation of the Bible into English and first got it printed on a printing press. So we have to be careful when we look at old things, and realize when we pay attention to old pieces of paper with songs written on them, that they might have come from only the “academic” or literate world and not necessarily been a reflection of what people in general were doing. We peasant musicians were kicked out of churches, academia and high society a long time ago, and the banishment, punishment and scorn we sometimes endured from the rich, powerful and organized still smarts, so forgive me this old wound. Our poetry and music has not been taught in schools or celebrated by the learned and powerful, though I have a lot to say on how Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize is a sign that things are healing, and the long persecution may finally be over.

Richard the First, the “Lion-Hearted" or "Coeur de Lion” (1157–1199), was an important figure in troubadour history, because he was the King of England and he was also a musician and songwriter. It's not an insignificant detail that he was the leader of the 3rd Crusade, and he and his Christian followers battled the Arabic leader Saladin for control of Jerusalem. Being a very popular ruler, a war hero and a man of the arts no doubt did a lot to encourage others to explore this new idea of writing rhyming love songs on the lute. He was probably the high-water mark for the legitimacy of troubadour arts at the highest levels in society. But he and his troubadour knights and nobles who also wrote songs on their lutes in their spare time were also for the most part rich and powerful.

We know a little of what the rich troubadours did back then, but we have much less knowledge about the music and lyrics of the illiterate peasants or traveling musicians, who may or may not have been doing many of the same things. The folk songs that have been passed down through history often did so in the memories of musicians, though of course they were periodically written down by literate people, so we can compare those documents to “see” a different angle into the past. It’s possible that peasants were working so hard they had little time for songwriting, or perhaps the rich men were stealing ideas from the peasants. Maybe the peasants couldn't afford the instruments or make their own. Those Medieval lutes were very elaborate, and it’s hard to imagine a stonemason in the 12th century working all day and then relaxing by playing his inlaid lute, made from ebony, ivory and exotic tropical woods..

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We don’t know much about what gypsies or wandering entertainers were doing at the time, or how vital their contribution was to troubadour history. It might be as simple as a situation where itinerant musicians or poets performed in the courts of the wealthy and powerful, bringing from afar these new ideas of rhyming and playing songs with a lute or guitar. When a new musician passed through, doing things you hadn’t seen or heard before, it was the historical (and probably pre-historic) equivalent of listening to the radio. If the rich guy liked the troubadour and wanted lessons, or if the rich guy was the king or an influential person, or even knew how to write, then the knowledge might have passed from folk to literate in a simple and honorable way. Literacy rates in the Middle Ages are of course difficult or impossible to determine, but those who have tried have estimated it around 5-10%, a notch lower than the 15% rate most often applied to Roman times.

Old poetry and modern poetry, including song lyrics and rap depend on more than just the meaning of words. The sounds of those words when they are spoken or sung or vital, as well as how they might be hung on a framework of melody, harmony, meter and rhyme. I now believe that the Europeans that I have always looked to to understand my roots were quite late to the rhyming party, and that it was a novel idea when it hit them. The epic rhyming that seems to have swept away so many writers long ago may have even been a fad or meme, much like rap is today. All those endless and tedious old rhyming poems we school kids had to wade through, by Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Coleridge and Thomas More and those other white male English language authors– may have been a reflection of a large-scale fascination with the idea of rhyme. The epic poetry bug infected a lot of writers for many centuries, and I remember thinking in high school nearly 50 years ago that the poets I was required to read often seemed more interested in the craftsmanship of their poems than in trying to keep my attention, or communicating anything important to me. My education in the public schools of the U.S. a few decades ago was filled with Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Service, Henry Longfellow, and other long-winded rhymers that we students struggled to stay interested in. There were cultures in the past that ignored rhyme, or did not celebrate it in a measurable way, and rhyme itself seems to be a taste or a fashion that can embed itself into people and cultures almost like a virus.

In his spellbinding book “A World Lit Only By Fire,” historian William Manchester details how bleak the Middle Ages were. The music was boring, the work was tedious, and even the food was tasteless and often rotting. Just about the only flavor additives they had available for their food were salt, smoke and honey. Almost all the other flavorings we accept as normal in modern food were not available to a commoner in Europe 500 years ago. It’s quite a story of how the explorers, Crusaders and travelers like Marco Polo brought things like silk, gunpowder, spices, sugar, coffee, garlic and tea to Europe, where they were all devoured. Europe’s hunger for sugar and tea alone led to the incredible statistic that at its height, the British East India Company accounted for as much as 5% of the GDP of the entire British empire, according to historian Henry Hobhouse. One of the vital parts of the whole slave trade was sugar, which the Europeans wanted for their tea and desserts. Columbus and those other explorers of that era were looking for spices, because they had no flavors or refrigeration, and the only food preservation techniques they had were pickling, smoking and salting. Europe also got things like gypsies, chess, gunpowder, playing cards, and apparently troubadours, guitar playing and rhyming during the Middle Ages, a time when there was staggeringly little creativity or innovation within Europe itself.

There is a reasonable argument that rhyming served a purpose– long poems with meter and rhyme are easier to memorize than just text. Our tribal histories and oral traditions going back into pre-history maybe first gave humans a reason to create long epic poems, though the proliferation of rhymed verse in literature was often not a part of that. We know for sure that what we call “Hindu texts,” that consist of Vedas and Upanishads as well as the fabled Bhagavad Gita and the Puranas, were preserved by memorization only for thousands of years, even though they contained thousands of lines of verse. The Mahabharata is regarded as the world’s longest epic poem, but like the other ancient Hindu texts, it has a little rhyme, but not much.


Apparently there was a taste of rhyming in the Bible, though once something has been translated out of its original language it’s hard to imagine how that could be preserved. According to everything I can find, ancient Hebrew poetry, including the Psalms of David, did not feature either meter or rhyme. (This wasn't all bad; it meant that they suffered less in translation to other languages than more structured poetry.) I even wrote a blog post that details what the early colonial American psalm singers here in New England did to the psalms to make them more singable. There was a small amount of rhyming in ancient Greek literature, especially from playwright Aristophanes, though I found the declaration that “Classical Greek and Latin poetry did not usually rhyme.” Supposedly the earliest evidence of widespread rhyming is Chinese, from the 10th century BC in Shijing or Shih-ching poetry, called either the Book of Songs or Book of Odes. The roots of rhyming as we know it may have been Chinese, but as I mentioned, to keep this from becoming a whole book I am only going part way back to the roots. As best I can determine, Native American culture, though also deeply dependent on oral tradition rather than written language, did not employ specific texts that were to be memorized or recited. The storytelling at the heart of those early Native American cultures was reportedly highly interpretive rather than rote.

We now take it for granted that poems and songs often rhyme, and its appeal appears to be long-lived, even though non-rhyming poetry has been dominant in more highbrow literary circles in Western culture during my lifetime. Rhyme is now just for the masses and pop culture, and very little academic poetry I have seen has featured rhymes. Quora.com says that end rhyme began to appear in Medieval Latin poetry from the 9th century onwards. “This is generally attributed to the influence of vernacular songs and poems in French and other languages although why they adopted end rhyme is not so clear. Arabic literature has a long tradition of end rhyme, so that's been a long hypothesized conduit, via Spain.” We'll look at that shortly.


Old Norse and Germanic poetry, like most ancient poetry, was largely about storytelling. It had meter, which is of course a big part of songwriting and rapping, and apparently a system of accenting (it has been called accentual verse) and also a great deal of alliteration, but not end rhyming. Alliteration means putting words together that start with the same letter or sound. Rhyming involves ending words or lines with similar sounds. Go read about kennings and eddas and Hrynhendas, and other Norse poetic features, and the idea of rhyming as we now understand it does indeed appear to be very limited. The word rime (rhyme) itself is Old French, which may have come from Latin or High German. I can’t find anyone who will claim that the roots of rhyming that I am seeking here are Norse, Teutonic or Germanic. The Germans seemed to have jumped on the rhyming train around the same time the other Europeans did, and the "Book of Heroes" and early Teutonic rhymed poems like "Song of Master Hildebrand," "King Rother," "Song of Nibelungen," and even the suspiciously-titled "Duke of Aquitania" appeared in the 12th and 13th centuries, and seemed to be rhyming reworkings of older subjects.

The plots of the so-called "Teutonic metrical romances" were wildly imaginitive, as Henry Weber summarized a part of one in his 1814 book "Illustrations of Northern Antiquities":

"Afterwards he prosecuted his study with the dwarfs in a mountain, and there reached the summit of his art. His father was killed by the fall of a rock, occasioned by an earthquake, which his tremendous snoring produced. Velint proceeded to the court of Nidung, king of Waringia, living in Jutland, at whose court he was challenged by the smith Amilias to a trial of skill. The latter fabricated a suit of armour. Velint forged the sword Mimung in seven days, with which he cut a thread of wool, floating on the water, asunder, in the presence of the king. But finding the falchion heavy and unwieldy, he sawed it in pieces, and, in a mixture of milk and meal, forged it in a red-hot fire for three days, and at the end of thirteen produced another sword, which cut through a whole ball of wool floating on the water. Still he was not satisfied with its goodness, but committed it again to the flames, and after seven weeks, having separated every particle of dross from the metal, fabricated a falchion of such exquisite goodness, that it split a whole bundle of wool, floating on the water, in two. The smith Amilias trusting to the impenetrability of his breastplate and helmet, sat down upon a bench, and bade his rival strike at him with the sword. But Velint split him to the navel; and when he complained that he felt as if cold iron had passed through his entrails, Velint bade him shake himself a little, upon which his body fell to the ground in two pieces. Velint afterwards assisted King Nidung in his wars, and obtained his daughter in marriage; but, by the order of the king, he was mutilated. After several other adventures, which would occupy too much room in this introduction, to particularize them separately, Velint begot a son, named Vidga, who, going to seek adventures when he had attained to manhood, fought with several of Thidrek's knights, and at last succeeded in vanquishing that hero himself, upon which he joined his company of champions."


There is an alternate theory of rhyming that says that the oldest European rhyming comes from Ireland and the Celtic people. This is another tantalizing but also unprovable idea, that is summed up by Matthew Arnold, Professor of Poetry in the University of Oxford: “Rhyme is the most striking characteristic of our modern poetry as distinguished from that of the ancients, and a main source to our poetry of its magic charm of what we call its romantic dement; rhyme itself, all the weight of evidence tends to show, comes into our poetry from the Kelts.” There are a number of intriguing theories of the origins of Celtic people who lived in Ireland, Scotland and parts of France (Brittany especially) and parts of Spain. The northwest corner of Spain is known as Galicia, and it is actually one of the 7 Celtic nations, along with Brittany, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man.

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There is traditional Celtic language, art and music from all these places, though it is not completely clear who these Celt or Kelt people were and exactly what they were doing. It’s a straight shot of about 500 miles due north with a compass across the ocean and Bay of Biscay from Galicia to Ireland, and to glance at a map it does not seem at all far-fetched that there might have been contact, trade, migrations or invasions back and forth between the two areas. There are a lot of legends and a few mysterious documents that indicate that the oldest inhabitants of Ireland, or some of them, might have come from Galicia.

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King Edward I didn’t conquer Scotland, Ireland and Wales and bring them all under central control by England until the late 1200s, so whether there was ancient rhyming Irish poetry and song widespread there in the year 900 is not clear. There probably weren’t a lot of Muslims in Ireland then, but sailors could easily have had contact with each other, and there were a lot of Muslims in Spain for a long time. The Muslim occupation there lasted 781 years, and when it was ended in 1492 many Muslim people were still allowed to remain for more than another century before they were expelled in 1609.


The Norman conquest of England was in the year 1066, which meant that French culture became dominant in many ways after that, though it’s also not clear how much of earlier language and culture remained. King Richard I that we mentioned earlier spoke French, and his surviving poems are in Old French and Occitan.

Many of us remember English classes in school, where we were taught that the headwaters of poetry in English was from writers like Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343 – 1400) who is often called the “Father of English Literature,” whatever that means. It’s my guess is that no one reading this has too many fond memories of Chaucer, or of the epic poem “Beowulf” that may be the oldest extant poem in English. The piece of paper Beowulf was written on dates from about the year 1000, though the events it describes took place much earlier in Scandinavia. Cliff Notes (an authority!) said nicely about the rhyming in this poem: "Beowulf has no consistent pattern of rhyme, although occasional internal rhyme sometimes is effective and seems more than accidental."

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It says in Wikipedia that Chaucer “seems to have travelled in France, Spain, and Flanders, possibly as a messenger” and there are accounts of him visiting Florence, Genoa, and having contact with Italian poetry. He had a close relationship with the English king Edward III, who bought him out of prison during a war in 1360, and in 1374 awarded him “a gallon of wine daily for the rest of his life.” The fact that he was well-traveled and attended law school support my theory that he was smitten at some point by the idea of writing poems that rhymed. He didn't invent anything- he was an important carrier for the germ of rhyming, but it is pretty deeply racist or something similar for the white male literary world to declare him to be the headwaters of something that he clearly learned from others, became obsessed with, and got good at. His writing was done in “continental accentual-syllabic meter,” a style which had been around for about 200 years (Wikipedia quotes B. McCully and J. J. Anderson, “English Historical Metrics,” Cambridge University Press, 1996) as an alternative to the alliterative Anglo-Saxon metre.” So this means that Chaucer was a rhyming dude, basically a rapper, and he got his inspiration from something that had been around for a couple centuries, but presumably was a folk art, that had not become part of established literature. He seems to be the beginning; the first white English legitimizer of rhyming, which spawned a movement whereby the poets of “literature” were big-time rhymers for many centuries. The systematic encouraging, publishing and celebrating of rhyming poetry led to it becoming quite pervasive among European cultures for over 500 years. Early American poetry followed in step, as did poetry created by colonial writers like Kipling.


It has also recently been determined by DNA evidence that the mysterious gypsies who are still floating around Europe in their tents and campers were indeed not originally from Europe, and that they originated in northwest India, and began their Western migration around the year 500.


Gypsies scattered all over Europe, and were known for bringing music with them. There are also very early reports of gypsies being brought as slaves to the British Isles by the Vikings. This could help explain the term “Black Irish,” an appelation that has long been applied to people from Ireland who weren’t Nordic or Anglo-Saxon in appearance. There has never been a definitive explanation for this phenomenon, since the Viking and Norman (French) invaders and conquerors of the Irish Celts were for the most part lighter-skinned people. The timeline is a little fuzzy, but the first reports of Viking invasion of Ireland was in the year 795. The Norman invasion took place in the late 12th century, but the proximity of Ireland to other parts of Britain, and its accessibility by water from mainland Europe meant that it was by no means isolated from cultural contact.


It’s no secret that the numerals we use are largely of Arabic origins, or that Roman numerals were incredibly stupidly designed, since addition was difficult and multiplication almost impossible. Part of our alphabet, and many ideas, notations and tools in science and astronomy are known to have come from Arab sources. (The common use of the letter x in mathematics to represent the unknown is Arabic in origin, as is the word "algebra" itself.) The maps that the first European explorers used to travel great distances may have been copied from very old Middle Eastern and even Phoenician sources. So right up front we shouldn’t be shocked to think that some vital parts of poetry and music we accept as part of Western music had Middle-Eastern origins.

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The Koran itself was written in what was called “sag,” a form of sacred rhymed prose. Entire books have been written about the many types of complex rhyme structures in the Koran, and rhyming was also part of most Medieval religious Muslim literature. The Koran was first considered to be finished in the year 632, the year Mohammed died, though the version we see today took a few more years to be compiled, and by the latter half of that century the book was considered complete. The oldest written copy of it known dates from the 9th century, which means that it had nearly 200 years to spread around the Muslim world before the first Crusade began in 1095. Millions of Muslims have reportedly memorized the entire book in Arabic, which means that there was never any shortage of people in Arabic cultures with their heads full of rhyming words. Guitar and lute-like instruments started spreading around Europe, as did the ways of playing them, together with the idea of singing rhyming songs.

The fabled Knights Templar were formed just after the first Crusade, and it was in the 1100’s that they began to be known, and it was in this period that they allegedly discovered the secrets of architecture in the Holy Land. Not long after the Masonic orders began to experiment with flying buttresses and somehow began building astounding Gothic cathedrals in a Europe that barely knew how to lay a brick wall. The beginnings of the “Troubadour” era as it is usually known were around this same time, and it is not crazy to suggest that quite a number of vitally important artistic ideas came into Europe from the Arabic world at the same time that scientific and architectural knowledge was known to be migrating.

It's not hard to see a connection and to understand that this transmission of musical knowledge was a consequence of the close contact that Europe was having at that time with Arabic nations, and intensified as a result of the Crusades. The Europeans were not playing instruments that looked anything like a guitar or lute before that time. The Vikings had bone flutes and a number of horns, and some small harps. The ancient Celts seemed to have had mostly drums and horns, featuring a horn called the carnyx. There was also a lot of chanting and vocalizing, but prior to the Crusades, there were no violins, pianos, lutes or guitars in Europe. I have found accounts that said there were over 60 different stringed instruments in use in Arabic culture over a thousand years ago. The idea of a horsehair bow for playing music is an Arabic idea, though it was more associated with nomads and shepherds than high art.

It wasn’t even that a Crusader had to make drawings and take measurements of an Arabic musical instrument so he could make one at home. I found a Muslim Heritage web site that claimed that anyone could have basically walked into a music store and bought one. Richard the Lion-Hearted could have bought or confiscated a bunch of them and had his minions carry them back to London for him. “The visiting traders, scholars and pilgrims could easily buy such artifacts and take them home. There is also evidence that at the time of Ibn Rushd (d.1198) there was an industry, which manufactured musical instruments some of which were exported, most probably to non Muslims, via Muslim-controlled Europe.

oud player Modern oud shop

The touring singers, musicians and poetry tellers, who usually were accompanied by their instruments, visited Christian towns and villages especially in northern Spain, southern France and Italy. The Rabab, and other folk instruments, for example often used to accompany poetry recitals." Farmer said:

"Besides instruments, yet a great deal more than the instruments themselves was borrowed. The roving Arab minstrel was the chief means whereby these oriental instruments became known, and he passed on at the same time a new type of music. He may, indeed, have been the originator of the wandering minstrel class that spread all over Europe".

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I found in “Literatures in African Languages” (Andrzejewski, Pilaszewicz, Tylocha) a good sentence: “…the verbatim mode of memorization is relatively rare in oral literature, the concept of personal authorship is absent in many societies.” Africa is a big place, and it’s not fair to make sweeping judgements about the human cultural history of an entire continent, but I'm going to do it in hopes that no one will call me out. Africa was also a very regionalized and tribal world, so it was probably not a place where important cultural elements or the roots of rhymed poetry were passed to Geoffrey Chaucer or Samuel Coleridge. I can’t find anyone who seems to think that traditional African texts were at the roots of Western rhyming. The massive impact that African culture was to eventually have on the music of the world had to wait until the slaves brought to America met with the descendants of the European settlers. The explosive collision of European and African culture in the American South led to jazz, blues, rock, country, hiphop, soul, R&B and all sorts of exciting music that has conquered the world during the last half century.

What interests me intensely is that rap and hiphop, which have been on or near the top of the heap of American pop music for several decades now, seem to combine the rhythmic and improvisational complexity and intensity of African culture with an urbanized and Americanized version of the venerable old English language, plus a good bit of electronic technology. Charismatic, sexy and hugely popular rappers are exhibiting all sorts of troubadour-like skills, rather than being part of bands, choirs or orchestras, with conductors or directors calling the shots. It’s not hard to imagine high-energy rappers like Kendrick Lamarr or Kanye West being teleported into the court of European royalty in the year 1300, and putting on an impressive show for the noble folks, alongside the lute players, dancers or jesters that we’ve grown used to picturing doing the entertaining.

Thanks for sticking with me, and for hopefully embracing the nearly wacko idea that Woody Guthrie's real roots may be in the Koran. From what I have learned about Woody, I suspect that he would be a lot more accepting of this idea than many of his disciples, and once again I also suspect that having open minds can lead us toward having more open hearts.

This is another posting where I'm trying to raise issues, questions and awareness in the world of modern troubadours... You deserve a reward or a door prize for making it to the end. Please check back to look for new posts as I get them done. I plan to cover a wide range of issues and topics.  I don't have a way for you to comment here, but I welcome your emails with your reactions. Feel free to cheer me on, or to disagree...

Chordally yours,