Listen to a Heartfelt Musical Retelling of O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi” with Hanky in Hand

It’s that time of year when cer­tain songs con­spire with cer­tain moods to hit you right in the ol’ brisket.

The feel­ing is volup­tuous, and not nec­es­sar­i­ly unpleas­ant, pro­vid­ed there’s a bath­room stall or spare bed­room should you need to flee a par­ty like Cin­derel­la, as some old chest­nut threat­ens to turn you into a blub­ber­ing mess.

Let the kid­dies deck the halls, jin­gle bells, and prance about with Rudolph and Frosty. The best sec­u­lar songs for grown ups are the ones with a thick cur­rent of long­ing just under the sur­face, a yearn­ing for those who aren’t here with us, for a bet­ter future, for the way we were…

There’s got to be some hope in the bal­ance though, some sweet­ness to savor as we mud­dle through.

(Judy Gar­land famous­ly stonewalled on the first ver­sion of “Have Your­self a Mer­ry Lit­tle Christ­mas” until lyri­cist Hugh Mar­tin agreed to light­en things up a bit. In the end, both got what they want­ed. She got her update:

Have your­self a mer­ry lit­tle Christ­mas

Let your heart be light 

Next year all our trou­bles will be out of sight

But the ten­sion between the promise of a bet­ter tomor­row and her emo­tion­al deliv­ery holds a place for Hugh­es’ appeal­ing­ly dark sen­ti­ment:

Have your­self a mer­ry lit­tle Christ­mas

It may be your last 

Next year we may all be liv­ing in the past

I’ll Be Home for Christ­mas” man­ages to ring some of those same bells.

As a rule, the oldies are the good­ies in this depart­ment.

More recent bids by Cold­play and Tay­lor Swift have failed to achieve the prop­er mix of hope and hope­less­ness.

It’s a dif­fi­cult bal­ance, but singer-song­writer Ellia Bisker pulls it off beau­ti­ful­ly, above, by turn­ing to O. Henry’s endur­ing short sto­ry, “The Gift of the Magi.”

Accom­pa­ny­ing her­self on ukulele as she per­forms under her par­lor rock pseu­do­nym, Sweet Soubrette, Bisker’s sound is both sun­ny and plain­tive. It’s an appro­pri­ate choice for a young bride who parts with her most valu­able asset, in order to give her cher­ished hus­band a “wor­thy” gift:

I want to give you some­thing that I can’t afford,

Let you believe with me we’re real­ly not so poor.

You see that pack­age wait­ing under­neath the tree? 

It’s just a token of how much you mean to me.

(Spoil­er for the hand­ful of peo­ple unfa­mil­iar with this tale: he does the same, thus negat­ing the util­i­ty of both cost­ly presents.)

In an inter­view with Open Cul­ture, Bisker praised the O. Hen­ry story’s iron­ic sym­me­try:

It’s a lit­tle like the death scene in Romeo & Juli­et, but with­out the tragedy. The sto­ry itself still feels sur­pris­ing­ly fresh, despite the peri­od details. It has more humor and sym­pa­thy to it than sen­ti­ment. It sur­pris­es you with real emo­tion. 

The Romeo and Juli­et com­par­i­son is apt. The sto­ry cov­ers a time peri­od so brief that the new­ly­weds’ feel­ings for each oth­er nev­er stray from purest won­der and admi­ra­tion.

Bisker taps into those feel­ings in a way Joni Mitchell’s mean­der­ing, unre­leased take on the same mate­r­i­al did not.

The Squir­rel Nut Zip­pers also took a crack at musi­cal­iz­ing “The Gift of the Magi,” but the sound is more Ozarks than shab­by, urban New York, with back­ground har­monies hint­ing that the young cou­ple may be part of a larg­er sup­port net­work.

Bisker’s song starts, as it ends, with a pair of young, broke lovers who only have eyes for each oth­er.

Let’s not for­get O. Hen­ry’s part­ing words:

The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invent­ed the art of giv­ing Christ­mas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, pos­si­bly bear­ing the priv­i­lege of exchange in case of dupli­ca­tion. And here I have lame­ly relat­ed to you the unevent­ful chron­i­cle of two fool­ish chil­dren in a flat who most unwise­ly sac­ri­ficed for each oth­er the great­est trea­sures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wis­est. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wis­est. Every­where they are wis­est. They are the magi. 

Enjoy this musi­cal gift, read­ers. The artist has made the track free for down­load­ing, though per­haps you could scratch up a few coins in thanks, with­out pawn­ing your watch or cut­ting your hair.

Read O. Hen­ry’s short sto­ry “The Gift of the Magi” here.

Lis­ten to Ellia Bisker’s “Gift of the Magi,” and four oth­er tracks off of Sweet Soubrette’s name-your-own-price Hap­py Hol­i­days album here.

We were young and broke, but we didn’t care 

You had your pock­et­watch, I had my gold­en hair 

We were just scrap­ing by, wait­ing to make it big 

I was an ingénue, you were just a kid 

But it was Christ­mas eve, didn’t know what to do 

How could I hope to buy some kind of gift for you 

Ain’t got no trust fund hon, ain’t got no sav­ings bond 

Just got my stu­dent loans, the clothes that I’ve got on 

I want to give you some­thing that I can’t afford 

Let you believe with me we’re real­ly not so poor 

You see that pack­age wait­ing under­neath the tree 

It’s just a token of how much you mean to me 

Frank­in­cense (here’s what I wish, what I imag­ine) 

Gold and myrrh (that I could give, give what you are worth) 

Put them in (this is the gift, gift of the magi) 

The manger (it’s not a frac­tion of all that you deserve) 

I used to win­dow shop, I would nev­er tell 

There was a pair of combs made out of tor­toise­shell 

I tried them on one time, put up my long long hair 

If I were rich and famous that’s what I would wear 

You wore your father’s watch, it was a vin­tage piece 

It made you feel like fifty mil­lion bucks at least 

But it was fas­tened with a flim­sy nick­el chain 

You want­ed bet­ter but you said it’s all the same 

I want to give a token to you of my love 

A lit­tle lux­u­ry to keep your spir­its up 

I’ll cut and sell my hair, the only gold I’ve got 

To buy a gold­en chain for your pock­et­watch 

Frank­in­cense (here’s what I wish, what I imag­ine) 

Gold and myrrh (that I could give, give what you are worth) 

Put them in (this is the gift, gift of the magi) 

The manger (it’s not a frac­tion of all that you deserve) 

I can’t for­get the look that flashed across your face 

When I walked into our apart­ment late that day 

And I took off my hat revealed a pix­ie cut 

Gave you a lit­tle box told you to open up 

You pulled out the gold­en chain that lay inside 

Were you about to laugh were you about to cry 

You said I shouldn’t have, because your watch was sold 

So you could buy for me a pret­ty pair of combs

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sto­ry of The Pogues’ “Fairy­tale of New York,” the Boozy Bal­lad That Has Become One of the Most Beloved Christ­mas Songs of All Time

Hear Paul McCartney’s Exper­i­men­tal Christ­mas Mix­tape: A Rare & For­got­ten Record­ing from 1965

Stream 22 Hours of Funky, Rock­ing & Swing­ing Christ­mas Albums: From James Brown and John­ny Cash to Christo­pher Lee & The Ven­tures

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City this Jan­u­ary as host of  The­ater of the Apes book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Masterclass Is Running a Special “Buy One, Give One Free” Deal: It Gives You & Family Member/Friend Access to Their Complete Course Catalog

FYI: Mas­ter­class is run­ning a Buy One, Give One Free spe­cial through Decem­ber 27.

Here’s the gist: If you buy an All-Access pass to their 45 cours­es, you will receive anoth­er All-Access Pass to give to some­one else at no addi­tion­al charge. An All-Access pass costs $180, and lasts one year. For that fee, you–and a fam­i­ly mem­ber or friend–can watch cours­es cre­at­ed by Annie Lei­bovitz, Wern­er Her­zog, Mar­tin Scors­ese, David Mamet, Jane Goodall, Mar­garet Atwood, Helen Mir­ren, Mar­tin Scors­ese, Her­bie Han­cock, Alice Waters and so many more. If you’re think­ing this sounds like a pret­ty good hol­i­day present, I’d have to agree.

Note: If you sign up for a Mas­ter­Class course by click­ing on the affil­i­ate links in this post, Open Cul­ture will receive a small fee that helps sup­port our oper­a­tion.

Watch a Playthrough of the Oldest Board Game in the World, the Sumerian Royal Game of Ur, Circa 2500 BC

They may not sur­prise the aver­age mar­ket ana­lyst, but the gam­ing industry’s fig­ures tell a pret­ty com­pelling sto­ry. New­zoo esti­mates that “2.3 bil­lion gamers across the globe will spend $137. 9 bil­lion on games in 2018.” Ven­ture­Beat reports that mobile games account for over 50 per­cent of the total. Cur­rent­ly, “about 91 per­cent of the glob­al mar­ket is dig­i­tal, mean­ing that $125.3 bil­lion worth of games flows through dig­i­tal­ly con­nect­ed chan­nels as opposed to phys­i­cal retail.”

That’s a lot of vir­tu­al dough float­ing around in vir­tu­al worlds. But this vast and rapid growth in dig­i­tal gam­ing does not mean phys­i­cal games are going away any­time soon—and that includes cards, board games, and oth­er table­top games, a mar­ket that has “surged as play­ers have grown jad­ed with the dig­i­tal screens they toil over dur­ing the work day,” wrote Joon Ian Wong in 2016.

Ven­ture cap­i­tal is flow­ing into board game devel­op­ment. Table­top bars and cafes are pop­ping up all over the world, encour­ag­ing peo­ple to min­gle over Scrab­ble and Cards Against Human­i­ty. It seems the time is just right to revive the old­est playable board game in the world. If some­one hasn’t already launched a Kick­starter to bankroll a new Roy­al Game of Ur, I sus­pect we’ll see one any day now. At least four-and-a-half-thou­sand years old, accord­ing to British Muse­um Cura­tor Irv­ing Finkel, the Roy­al Game of Ur was prob­a­bly invent­ed by the Sume­ri­ans. And it seems like it might still be a blast, and a con­sid­er­able chal­lenge, to play.

“You might think it’s so old that it’s irre­triev­able to us, that we’ve got no idea what it was like play­ing, what the rules were like,” Finkel says in the video at the top, “but all sorts of evi­dence has come to light so that we know how this game was played.” He promis­es, in no uncer­tain terms, to wipe the floor with YouTu­ber Tom Scott in a Roy­al Game of Ur show­down, and Scott, who has nev­er played the game before, seems at a decid­ed dis­ad­van­tage. But watch their con­test to see how the game is played and whether Finkel makes good on his threat. Along the way, he lib­er­al­ly shares his knowl­edge.

For a short­er course on the Roy­al Game of Ur, see Finkel’s video above. It takes him a cou­ple min­utes to get around to intro­duc­ing his sub­ject, the dis­cov­ery and deci­pher­ing of the “world’s old­est rule book.” A con­sum­mate ancient his­to­ry detec­tive, Finkel describes how he decod­ed an ancient tablet that explained a game, but which game, no one knew. So, the ded­i­cat­ed cura­tor tried the rules on every mys­te­ri­ous ancient game he could find, till he land­ed on the “game of twen­ty squares” from Mesopotamia. “It fit­ted per­fect­ly,” he says with rel­ish. See the orig­i­nal board, pieces, and dice from about 2500 BC, and learn how Finkel had been search­ing for its rules of play since he was 9 years old.

For more of Finkel’s pas­sion­ate pub­lic schol­ar­ship, see him demon­strate how to write in cuneiform and read about how his work on cuneiform tablets led to him dis­cov­er­ing the old­est ref­er­ence to the Noah’s Ark myth.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Old­est Writ­ing Sys­tem in the World: A Short, Charm­ing Intro­duc­tion

Hear the “Seik­i­los Epi­taph,” the Old­est Com­plete Song in the World: An Inspir­ing Tune from 100 BC

The British Muse­um Is Now Open To Every­one: Take a Vir­tu­al Tour and See 4,737 Arti­facts, Includ­ing the Roset­ta Stone

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

Take a Virtual Tour of Brazil’s National Museum & Its Artifacts: Google Digitized the Museum’s Collection Before the Fateful Fire

How to describe the mag­ni­tude of the loss when Brazil’s Museu Nacional caught fire in Sep­tem­ber? The New York­er’s Ale­jan­dro Cha­coff ven­tured an anal­o­gy that would res­onate with read­ers of that mag­a­zine: “It’s as if, in New York, the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry and the New School, or a part of the Colum­bia cam­pus, had been built on the same spot, and then was reduced to ash­es.” The 200-year-old muse­um lost an esti­mat­ed 92.5 per­cent of its 20-mil­lion-item archive, one of the largest col­lec­tions of nat­ur­al his­to­ry and anthro­po­log­i­cal arti­facts in the world — but not before Google Arts & Cul­ture dig­i­tized enough to recre­ate the expe­ri­ence of vis­it­ing the Museu Nacional vir­tu­al­ly.

Start­ing back in 2016, Google Arts & Cul­ture had begun work­ing with the muse­um to bring their col­lec­tion online — so that any­one, any­where in the world could see and learn about these ancient arti­facts,” writes Google Arts & Cul­ture Pro­gram Man­ag­er Chance Coughenour.

“Now for the first time ever, you can vir­tu­al­ly step inside the muse­um and learn about its lost col­lec­tion through Street View imagery and online exhibits.” In this way you can still expe­ri­ence a por­tion of “the incred­i­ble diver­si­ty of arti­facts in Brazil’s Nation­al Muse­um” that “reflect­ed cen­turies of Brazil’s cul­ture and nat­ur­al his­to­ry, from the Amazon’s endan­gered but­ter­flies to beau­ti­ful­ly-craft­ed indige­nous masks and dec­o­rat­ed pot­tery.”

You can take a vir­tu­al tour of the high­lights of the Museu Nacional as it was here, a tour that of course includes a vis­it with the muse­um’s prized pos­ses­sion: the 12,000-year old Luzia, the old­est skele­ton found in the Amer­i­c­as, whom you can see just as she stood on dis­play in muse­um view. Mirac­u­lous­ly, Luzia counts as one of the arti­facts most­ly recov­ered from the after­math of the con­fla­gra­tion, and the muse­um has announced an ambi­tious restora­tion plan that will cost R$10 mil­lion, an amount pro­vid­ed as emer­gency funds by the Brazil­ian Gov­ern­ment — and an amount much greater than the Museu Nacional, which by its 200th anniver­sary had reached a state of not just seri­ous neglect but near-com­plete aban­don­ment, was ever able to get while still intact. Even in the case of vast repos­i­to­ries of a nation’s cul­tur­al her­itage, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

via Art­sy

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Wikipedia Leads Effort to Cre­ate a Dig­i­tal Archive of 20 Mil­lion Arti­facts Lost in the Brazil­ian Muse­um Fire

1.8 Mil­lion Free Works of Art from World-Class Muse­ums: A Meta List of Great Art Avail­able Online

25 Mil­lion Images From 14 Art Insti­tu­tions to Be Dig­i­tized & Put Online In One Huge Schol­ar­ly Archive

Google Lets You Take a 360-Degree Panoram­ic Tour of Street Art in Cities Across the World

Take a Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty Tour of the World’s Stolen Art

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Every Spider-Man Movie and TV Show Explained By Kevin Smith

Look, I’ve nev­er been a fan of Kevin Smith’s ooooooov-rah, per se, but I will nev­er crit­i­cize his abil­i­ty to spin a bloody good yarn. He’s fun­ny, engag­ing, charm­ing, and knows his pop cul­ture. WIRED also knows this, so when on the eve of the (appar­ent­ly very good) Spi­der-verse movie, they called on Smith to sit down and run through every Spi­der-man Movie and TV Show and opin­ion­ate all over that mess. (And because Sony’s con­tract with the Mar­vel super­hero is up, this might be a nice demar­ca­tion line.)

I stepped on board the Spidey-train when he appeared as a char­ac­ter on PBS’ The Elec­tric Com­pa­ny, the edu­ca­tion­al kids show that would screen after Sesame Street. As Smith points out, this Spidey was mute, a red and blue mime who only spoke in thought bal­loons, some of which oth­ers could lit­er­al­ly read as they hung above his head.

Around the same time the ‘60s car­toon was also screen­ing, copy­ing the rogue’s gallery of vil­lains well known from the Steve Ditko-Stan Lee com­ic book. Both this and the Elec­tric Com­pa­ny Spideys had the best theme songs, and they still haven’t been topped. (If you’re a Gen‑X’er, you can drop the lyrics on request, any­time).

Now, before this, there had been a few live action attempts to bring the wall-crawler to the big screen but, well, they’re as cheesy and not-good as you might expect, so for the peri­od dur­ing the ‘90s, Spi­der-man stayed an ani­mat­ed con­cern. The high­light of the ’94-’98 ani­mat­ed series, accord­ing to Smith, is the final meta episode, where Spi­der-man cross­es over into “our” real­i­ty and meets Stan Lee, while Lee’s wife Joan played Madame Web.

Inter­est­ing­ly, Smith gloss­es over the three oth­er ani­mat­ed series that have run since then because of the begin­ning of live-action Spi­der-man films made with the pow­er and mon­ey of the mod­ern block­buster. (Inter­est­ing, I say, because crit­ics are now declar­ing the new ani­mat­ed film the best of the bunch).

Smith isn’t wild about the first Sam Rai­mi film in 2002. He ques­tions the deci­sion to cov­er up emo­tive actor Willem Dafoe with a Green Gob­lin mask for the final bat­tle. How­ev­er, he not only likes the sequel, but calls it “one of the great­est super­hero films ever made” because it nev­er los­es sight of the man behind the Spidey mask.

He chas­tis­es Sony for the need­less 2012 reboot, just five years from the final film in the Rai­mi tril­o­gy. His prob­lem: Garfield’s Spi­der-man is great, his Peter Park­er is not. The oppo­site is true with McGuire.

Final­ly, they got it right with Tom Holland’s ver­sion in Avengers: Civ­il War, that mix of geeky stu­dent by day, cocky quip­ster by night. Plus, as Smith points out, they gave him his Queens accent back. (Mar­vel comics, at least the first cou­ple of years, was always entrenched in a real New York City as back­ground.)

“The real charm of that character…is that he’s cov­ered from head-to-toe,” Kevin says, para­phras­ing Stan Lee. “You don’t know who he is or what he is. You don’t know if he’s a boy, a girl, you don’t know what he is, what race, creed, col­or, any­thing. So any kid read­ing that book can see them­selves as the char­ac­ter.”

And that leads us to the cur­rent film, which Smith can tell you about him­self. It fol­lows that uni­ver­sal­i­ty of the char­ac­ter and explodes it out to a bunch of alter­na­tive uni­verse ver­sions of all races, gen­ders, and genus.

“We live in such a gold­en era (for com­ic book movies),” Smith declares and even in a world of Mar­vel burnout, you want to believe him. Maybe the new film is the way for­ward: more diver­si­ty, more fun, more talk­ing ani­mals.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear an Hour of the Jazzy Back­ground Music from the Orig­i­nal 1967 Spi­der-Man Car­toon

The Math­e­mat­ics of Spi­der­man and the Physics of Super­heroes

The Reli­gious Affil­i­a­tion of Com­ic Book Heroes

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

The Beastie Boys Release a New Freewheeling Memoir, and a Star-Studded 13-Hour Audiobook Featuring Snoop Dogg, Elvis Costello, Bette Midler, John Stewart & Dozens More

Quick way to date your­self: name the first Beast­ie Boys album you bought (or heard). If you some­how got your hands on an orig­i­nal press­ing of their first sin­gle “Cooky Puss”—released in 1981 when the then-four­some was a New York hard­core band—congratulations, you’re a leg­end. If you first bought 1986’s Licensed to Ill—their major label debut and com­ing-out as a crude rap-rock par­o­dy three­some (minus fired drum­mer Kate Schel­len­bach), pre­ci­sion-engi­neered to freak your par­ents out—congrats, you’re old.

In what­ev­er era you dis­cov­ered them—Paul’s Bou­tiqueCheck Your Head, Ill Com­mu­ni­ca­tion… maybe even their last album, 2011’s Hot Sauce Com­mit­tee Part Two—you dis­cov­ered a dif­fer­ent Beast­ies than the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion did. Over the course of their 30-year career, the trio evolved and matured, grew up and got down with new grooves to suit new audi­ences. That’s always been a very good thing.

As Mike D, Ad-Rock, and MCA—three per­son­al­i­ties as dis­tinc­tive as the three Stooges—got bet­ter at what they did, they tran­scend­ed the misog­y­nist, meat­head­ed mid-eight­ies incar­na­tion they came to look back on with embar­rass­ment and apol­o­gy. “We got so caught up with mak­ing fun of that rock-star per­sona,” writes Adam Horowitz (Ad-Rock) in the huge new Beast­ies mem­oir, “that we became that per­sona. Became what we hat­ed.”

Rob Harvil­la calls these very gen­uine moments of self-reflec­tion the best parts of the book. But with so many sto­ries over so many years, so much bril­liant writ­ing, and so many guest appear­ances from celebri­ty Beast­ie Boy fans, that’s a tough call. “Part mem­oir, part pho­to-heavy zine, part fan-appre­ci­a­tion tes­ti­mo­ni­al… and part sin­cere apol­o­gy,” the book seems both fresh and made to order and a ver­i­ta­ble buf­fet table of nos­tal­gia. Or, as Amy Poehler puts it in her intro to a sec­tion on their videos: “These days, their music makes me feel young and old at the same time.”

Behind the silli­ness and sin­cer­i­ty there is mourn­ing for third Beast­ie Adam Yauch (MCA), who died of can­cer in 2012 and whose voice is con­spic­u­ous­ly absent from the book. Yet the two remain­ing mem­bers choose not to dwell. “You brace for the heart­break­ing account of Yauch’s diag­no­sis and death,” Harvil­la writes, “but those details go undis­cussed. ‘Too fuck­ing sad to writ­ing about’ is all Horovitz has to say.’” The pre­vail­ing atmos­phere is cel­e­bra­to­ry, like any good Beast­ie Boys album—this one a par­ty full of adult peers look­ing back, laugh­ing, and winc­ing at their younger selves.

The voic­es on the page are so vivid you can squint and almost hear them (at one point Horovitz describes unwind­ing a cas­sette tape as “pulling 60 min­utes of wet fet­tuc­cine out of a dog’s mouth”). But we don’t have to imag­ine what they sound like. Along with the 571-page hard­bound cin­derblock of a book, the band has released what Rolling Stone hails as the “audio­book of the year,” a “bril­liant 13-hour radio play” in which Mike D and Ad-Rock are joined by a major­ly star-stud­ded cast of guest read­ers includ­ing Snoop Dogg, Kim Gor­don, Steve Busce­mi, Chloë Sevi­gny, Wan­da Sykes, Jon Stew­art, Ben Stiller, and Bette Midler (that’s just the very short list).

New York hip hop leg­ends LL Cool J, Chuck D, and Rev Run (of Run DMC) show up, as does Brook­lyn act­ing leg­end Rosie Perez and non-New York­ers Exene Cer­ven­ka and Elvis Costel­lo. (See the full cast list at Audi­ble.) It’s not a mem­oir, it’s a mix­tape. Hear excerpts from the audio book in the Sound­Cloud clips above and buy it online, or down­load it for free through’s 30-day free tri­al pro­gram.  Guar­an­teed, no mat­ter what age you are, to make you feel young and old at the same time.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bruce Spring­steen Nar­rates Audio­book Ver­sion of His New Mem­oir (and How to Down­load It for Free)

Hear Kim Gor­don, Son­ic Youth Rock­er, Read From Her New Mem­oir, Girl in a Band

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

Meet the Hurdy Gurdy, the Hand-Cranked Medieval Instrument with 80 Moving Parts

Donovan’s “Hur­dy Gur­dy Man” may be the creepi­est song ever writ­ten about an obscure medieval instru­ment (made all the more so by its use in David Fincher’s Zodi­ac), but the Hur­dy Gur­dy did not give his record­ing its omi­nous sound. Those dron­ing notes come from an Indi­an tan­pu­ra. Yet they evoke the title instru­ment, an inge­nious musi­cal inven­tion “set up pri­mar­i­ly for the pur­pose of mak­ing drones,” Case West­ern Reserve’s Col­lege of Art and Sci­ences explains. “In the Mid­dle Ages, it was known in Latin as the organ­istrum and the sym­pho­nia, and in French as the vielle à roue (the vielle with the wheel).”

With a sound pro­duced by a “rosined wood­en wheel, turned by a crank” that set “a num­ber of strings in con­tin­u­ous dron­ing vibra­tion,” the hur­dy gur­dy can, it’s true, give off a bit of a folk hor­ror vibe. From its very ear­ly, maybe 10th or 11th cen­tu­ry ori­gins in litur­gi­cal music, hur­dy gur­dy expert Jim Kendros tells us in the video above, the instru­ment became asso­ci­at­ed with Euro­pean folk music, shrink­ing from a beast played by two peo­ple to more portable dimen­sions, about the size of a large gui­tar and resem­bling a hand-cranked vio­lin with keys for play­ing melodies on cer­tain strings.

Though it grew small­er and more maneu­ver­able, how­ev­er, the instru­ment grew no less com­pli­cat­ed. Kendros calls it “the equiv­a­lent of a medieval space­ship,” with its more than 80 mov­ing parts.

The hur­dy gur­dy, or “wheel fid­dle,” played in the TED Talk above by Car­o­line Phillips looks less like a fid­dle, or a space­ship, and more like a medieval keytar—just one of the many shapes the instru­ment could take. All of them, how­ev­er, had one impor­tant fea­ture in com­mon: the hur­dy gur­dy is “the only musi­cal instru­ment that uses a crank to turn a wheel to rub strings like the bow of a vio­lin to pro­duce music.” His­tor­i­cal­ly, it was used in medieval dance music “because of the unique­ness of the melody com­bined with the acoustic boom box” of its large body. Try not to shake your body, or to shiv­er, when Phillips plays a haunt­ing, dron­ing Basque folk song.

The Hur­dy Gur­dy spread all over Europe, from Britain to France, Spain, Italy, Ger­many, Hun­gary, and Swe­den, where stringed-instru­ment enthu­si­asts The String­dom caught up with vir­tu­oso Hur­dy Gur­dy play­er Johannes Geworkian Hell­man. He tells us how the hur­dy gur­dy and its dron­ing son­ic cousin, the bag­pipes, set off “an ear­ly folk revival” as com­posers took inspi­ra­tion from peas­ant music. The inter­est from medieval upper class­es meant bet­ter luthiers and high­er-qual­i­ty hur­dy gur­dies. Now mod­ern inter­est in the Hur­dy Gur­dy is grow­ing. While it may take two to three years to hand­craft one, “a lot of new instru­ments are get­ting made,” says Hell­man.

Should you doubt that the 1000-year old hur­dy gur­dy can still sound hip, lis­ten to Hell­man play an elec­tri­fied ver­sion in his hur­dy gurdy/accordion duo, Sym­bio, or hur­dy gurdy/dulcimer two-piece, Mai­ja & Johannes. He coax­es from the instru­ment such a range of rhythms and tim­bres that it’s easy to see why it was so immense­ly pop­u­lar for so long. Yet for all its musi­cal appeal, it is a com­plex machine, dif­fi­cult to tune and sub­ject to any num­ber of mechan­i­cal prob­lems. Not for the casu­al ama­teur, the instru­ment still requires a ded­i­cat­ed Hur­dy Gur­dy man or woman to make it sing—a much more com­mon sight than in Dono­van’s day but an exceed­ing­ly rare one com­pared to the many cen­turies of the hur­dy gur­dy’s hey­day. See more hur­dy gur­dies at the Vin­tage News.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How an 18th-Cen­tu­ry Monk Invent­ed the First Elec­tron­ic Instru­ment

Vis­it an Online Col­lec­tion of 61,761 Musi­cal Instru­ments from Across the World

Watch a Musi­cian Impro­vise on a 500-Year-Old Music Instru­ment, The Car­il­lon

New Order’s “Blue Mon­day” Played with Obso­lete 1930s Instru­ments

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Watch the First-Ever Kiss on Film Between Two Black Actors, Just Honored by the Library of Congress (1898)

In 1896, Thomas Edi­son pro­duced The Kiss. One of the first films ever com­mer­cial­ly screened, it adapts the then-pop­u­lar musi­cal The Wid­ow Jones — or at least it adapts about twen­ty sec­onds of it, a kiss that hap­pens in the very last scene. Two years lat­er came the equal­ly short but dif­fer­ent­ly ground­break­ing Some­thing Good – Negro Kiss, a ver­sion of The Kiss star­ring black actors instead of white ones. Only now, thanks in part to the efforts of Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia archivist Dino Everett and Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Cin­e­ma and Media Stud­ies pro­fes­sor Allyson Nadia Field, has it received prop­er recog­ni­tion as the first such kiss on film.

“To uncov­er the ori­gins of Everett’s footage, Field relied on inven­to­ry and dis­tri­b­u­tion cat­a­logs, trac­ing the film to Chica­go,” writes UChica­go News’ Jack Wang. “This was where William Selig —a  vaude­ville per­former turned film pro­duc­er — had shot it on his knock­off of a Lumière Ciné­matographe. That cam­era pro­duced the tell­tale per­fo­ra­tion marks which had tipped Everett off to the print’s age.”

With sup­port from the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art, writes Hyper­al­ler­gic’s Jas­mine Weber, “Field not only iden­ti­fied the film­mak­er, but the per­form­ers: Saint Sut­tle and Ger­tie Brown. Sut­tle is dressed in a dap­per suit and bowtie, while Brown dons an ornate dress — cos­tumes that Field says were typ­i­cal of min­strel per­form­ers.”

“What makes this film so remark­able is that if you look at films from this peri­od that fea­ture African-Amer­i­cans, first of all, most of them are white actors in black­face,” says Field in the NPR seg­ment above. “They are car­i­ca­tures. They’re cer­tain­ly racist. They fea­ture racist tropes like water­mel­on-eat­ing con­tests and things like that. The Amer­i­can screen was incred­i­bly hos­tile to African-Amer­i­cans for much of its his­to­ry,” but Some­thing Good — Negro Kiss “refutes those kind of car­i­ca­tures and asserts an image of human­i­ty and of love.”

That image has received quite a response on the inter­net as the clip has cir­cu­lat­ed in the week since its induc­tion into the Library of Con­gress’ Nation­al Film Reg­istry along­side the likes of The Shin­ingMon­terey PopBroke­back Moun­tainThe Lady from Shang­hai, and Juras­sic Park. One lawyer-slash-crit­ic even brought this piece of ear­ly cin­e­ma togeth­er with a piece of cur­rent cin­e­ma, mash­ing it up with the score of Bar­ry Jenk­ins’ just-released James Bald­win adap­ta­tion If Beale Street Could Talk. Selig, Sut­tle, and Brown must have known full well that they were mak­ing some­thing new. But did they know they were also mak­ing his­to­ry?

via Quartz

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the Pio­neer­ing Films of Oscar Micheaux, America’s First Great African-Amer­i­can Film­mak­er

African-Amer­i­can His­to­ry: Mod­ern Free­dom Strug­gle (A Free Course from Stan­ford)

Mas­sive New Data­base Will Final­ly Allow Us to Iden­ti­fy Enslaved Peo­ples and Their Descen­dants in the Amer­i­c­as

Down­load Dig­i­tized Copies of The Negro Trav­el­ers’ Green Book, the Pre-Civ­il Rights Guide to Trav­el­ing Safe­ly in the U.S. (1936–66)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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