When Donovan played at The Basement in Sydney he related a story midway through his rendition of Hurdy Gurdy Man. The tale was that while he was in India with The Beatles visiting the Maharashi ("There's a good guru.") George Harrison decided that he could write a verse:

When the truth gets buried deep
Beneath the thousand years of sleep
Time demands a turn around
And once again the truth is found.

A much older song called Hurdy Gurdy Man is the final song of Franz Schubert's 1827 song cycle Die Winterreise (The Winter Journey). Schubert was dying, and the protagonist of the song cycle is in despair, finished with love and the world, and seeking death, in that doomed Romantic way they had back then. In his final song, he meets a decrepit and destitute old hurdy-gurdy man, who seems to put his own troubles in perspective.

The hurdy-gurdy is called in German the Drehleier 'turning-lyre' or Radleier 'wheel lyre' or Bettlerleier 'beggar's lyre' or Bauernleier 'peasant's lyre'. The player gives his name to the song, which in German is Der Leiermann. The words were by Wilhelm Müller.

The music is somewhat slow (etwas langsam), cold, cracked like a hurdy-gurdy played by a beggar whose fingers can't work as they used to. It is eerie and clearly is a presage of Death, but it is not at all sinister. It's more accepting, a journey's end. But there's also a feeling that the wanderer, the singer narrator of the earlier songs, is now just looking on at a human misery greater and older far than his own.

Drüben hinterm Dorfe steht ein Leiermann
Und mit starrem Fingern dreht er, was er kann.

Barfuß auf dem Eise wankt er hin und her
Und sein kleiner Teller bleibt ihm immer leer.

Keiner mag ihn hören, keiner sieht ihn an,
Und die Hunde knurren um den alten Mann.

Und er läßt es gehen, alles wie es will,
Dreht, und seine Leier steht ihm nimmer still.

Wunderlicher Alter, soll ich mit dir gehn?
Willst zu meinen Liedern deine Leier dreh'n?

Here is my literal translation. It is of course usually sung in German, but there is an extraordinarily moving, eerie version in English by Harry Plunket Greene (1865-1936) well worth listening to.

Over there behind the village stands a hurdy-gurdy man
And with numb fingers he grinds what he can.

Barefoot on the ice he staggers to and fro,
And his little plate always stays empty.

No-one wants to hear him, no one looks at him,
And the dogs snarl around the old man.

And he lets it go, all as it will,
Grinds, and his hurdy-gurdy is never still.

Wondrous old man, shall I go with you?
Do you want to grind your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?

An electronic form of the tune (no singing) may be heard at www.texaschapbookpress.com/leiermann.htm
The score can be viewed at www.dlib.indiana.edu/variations/scores/bhs2046/sc1h0120.html

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