Hear Classic Rock Songs Played on a Baroque Lute: “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “White Room” & More

In the 60s and 70s, rock and folk bands intro­duced ear­ly Euro­pean music to the mass­es, with Medieval, Renais­sance, and Baroque strains run­ning through the songs of Simon and Gar­funkel, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Fair­port Con­ven­tion, and even Led Zep­pelin. For the most part, how­ev­er, arrange­ments stayed mod­ern, save the appear­ance of a few, still-rel­e­vant folk instru­ments like man­dolins, dul­cimers, and nylon-string gui­tars.

One can draw many lines in pop­u­lar cul­ture from this development—to prog-rock bal­ladry, goth rock’s dirges, metal’s medieval obses­sions, and what­ev­er that tech­no Gre­go­ri­an chant thing was in the 90s. In so many of these evo­lu­tion­ary moves, the trend has been toward more tech­nol­o­gy and away from acoustic music. So, how can play­ers of old Euro­pean instru­ments inter­est con­tem­po­rary audi­ences in their sound?

One pop­u­lar way they’ve done so is by play­ing hits from bands who drew from the tra­di­tion (and from a few who very much didn’t)—hits like Procul Harum’s Chaucer-ref­er­enc­ing “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

At the top, Baroque lute play­er Daniel Estrem gives a solo instru­men­tal per­for­mance of the soul­ful tune, throw­ing in a sec­tion of Bach’s “Air on the G String,” to which “A Whiter Shade of Pale” alludes. (I wasn’t con­scious­ly com­bin­ing rock with clas­si­cal,” com­pos­er Gary Brook­er lat­er said. “It’s just that Bach’s music was in me.”) The song’s con­tra­pun­tal struc­ture trans­lates beau­ti­ful­ly to the lute, as does the sin­is­ter musi­cal­i­ty of Cream’s “White Room,” above, a song with a vague­ly Medieval-sound­ing descend­ing melody in its clas­sic psych-rock vers­es.

Of course, Euro­pean folk and clas­si­cal informed the increas­ing­ly com­plex com­po­si­tions of the Bea­t­les, includ­ing George Harrison’s “While My Gui­tar Gen­tly Weeps” (or at least its first fin­ger­picked acoustic gui­tar demo ver­sion). In his take on the clas­sic, above, Estrem recov­ers the song’s folk influ­ence and retains its shifts in mood, from mourn­ful lament to hope­ful melody. Of course, Estrem not only has to trans­late these songs to a dif­fer­ent musi­cal idiom but to a very dif­fer­ent instrument—one with a tun­ing unlike the gui­tar on which so many pop songs are writ­ten.

Com­mon lutes at the end of the Renais­sance had 10 cours­es (a “course” is a set of two strings tuned to the same pitch). These instru­ments used “a more har­mon­i­cal­ly based ‘D minor tun­ing,’ instead of the more ‘gui­tar-like’ tun­ing that con­tin­ued to be used for the viol in the baroque era,” notes Case West­ern Reserve’s Ear­ly Music Instru­ment Data­base. They were suit­ed to a very dif­fer­ent kind of music than, say, the blues. But whether or not we ful­ly under­stand the chal­lenge of arrang­ing “House of the Ris­ing Sun” (called “the first folk rock song” when the Ani­mals record­ed it) for the Baroque lute, we can cer­tain­ly appre­ci­ate the results. Estrem makes a gen­tly plucked, elo­quent­ly word­less argu­ment for giv­ing the instru­ment a star­ring role in pop­u­lar music again.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

With Medieval Instru­ments, Band Per­forms Clas­sic Songs by The Bea­t­les, Red Hot Chili Pep­pers, Metal­li­ca & Deep Pur­ple

Finnish Musi­cians Play Blue­grass Ver­sions of AC/DC, Iron Maid­en & Ron­nie James Dio

Pak­istani Musi­cians Play Amaz­ing Ver­sion of Dave Brubeck’s Jazz Clas­sic, “Take Five”

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

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