Friday, 29 June 2012

The origins of Bob Dylan


Every now and then, someone from the long-distant past walks into our lives making us realise that they never really left, but have just been wandering around for hundreds - sometimes thousands - of years.  Just as you understand this, they are gone again and unlikely to return for generations to come.

So it was when - one evening - a group of strange-looking, young and bearded East German men came into our 18th century coaching inn and began ordering beer in very poor English, taking it to a secluded corner to drink whilst talking quietly amongst themselves.

They came every night for months and sat unassumingly in the same corner, and I wondered what they were doing in town.  They were not like any other tourists I had ever seen, and they were obviously not students - with deeply unfashionable hair-cuts and clothes, unkempt beards, pallid complexions which betrayed short lifetimes spent entirely indoors and surprisingly muscular physiques which were obviously not attained through sporting activities.

After a few nights I could not resist my curiosity, so went over to them and simply asked them what their business was.  I could never have guessed, not that they asked me to.  They were church organ restoration specialists.

After about one hundred years of belting out foundation-shaking base-notes and glass-cracking top-notes, the massive organ of Bath Abbey was in dire need of a good service, and - being the only people in the world qualified to give it - they had been called over from their homeland to spend about three months climbing up and down the scaffolding inside, hoisting great leaden whistles up and down, tapping and tuning, clearing away accumulated dust, replacing wooden tuning plugs, patching up bellows, etc. etc. until the thing sounded as clear and sweet as it did when first built.

I say 'called away from their homeland', but - being itinerants who only returned home on Christian High Days and Holidays - they hardly ever saw their homeland.  They were an extremely rare breed, and - as such - were in great demand around the rest of Europe.  Five men who went from city to city, spending so little time in each that to learn the language of the country was pointless - even if they had the time.

It is always the traditionally skilled nomads that survive the destructive change of societies.  They never stay in one place long enough to get clobbered, and their A-social mores and foilbles are reluctantly tolerated by the town which pays for their board and lodging - the Pied-Piper is probably still wandering around, somewhere other than Hameln.

Stone-masons used to operate in the traveling Guild system like this, and the last place they were finally allowed to settle down was Ireland (read Seamus Murphy's  'Stone Mad').  After about 7 years of in-house apprenticeship, the young mason was sent out on the road with a pocket-full of choice chisels, and instructed not to return to within 50 miles of his home town for at least 20 years, by which time he was no longer a threat to the retired stone-workers who had taught him in his trade.  The parent birds will attack last year's young, should they be impudent enough to return to the nest before they have been forgotten.

A whole brotherhood was built up to support the young travellers, and it was the duty of all masons already employed on the building of new cathedrals and churches to - if not provide actual work and the tools to carry it out - supply a few nights food and lodging, along with an introductory note to be passed on to the Master Mason of the next nearest building project, asking for work or compassion to be given to the pilgrim who had payed his dues in arduous indenture, but was now freed into a life of proscribed servitude.  The 'freeman' was not, in fact, free at all.

The only trade in Europe which still - to this day - operates within these medieval strictures are the German carpenters called 'Zimmermen'.  They usually wear beards; black corduroy, bell-bottomed trousers; black corduroy waistcoats with huge, mother-of-pearl buttons above a white, collarless shirt; black corduroy, long-sleeved jackets and huge, black corduroy, wide-brimmed hats.  The overall effect is 'Jewish Orthodox Cowboy'.

Because they are forbidden to work within a certain radius of the town in which they were trained, they are permanent travellers.  Also, because they are forbidden to take public transport or drive their own vehicle (for some reason) they are often seen by the approach roads to motorways and autobahns, hitch-hiking a lift to the next town.  They must also use a simple cloth - not suitcase - with which to carry their meagre belongings, and they often tie this bundle to a staff which they carry over their shoulder, like Dick Whittington.

Like the Masai, they are viewed with suspicion in their own country, accused of drunkenness and trouble-making more often than not, and it is a strange sight to see a Zimmerman with rolled-up shirtsleeves on a building-site, sawing up plywood to make formers for a modern, concrete housing project.

A Zimmerman once walked into our pub, and - for a short while - he was an interesting curiosity.  People chatted to him and bought him drinks.  They are allowed - if not required - to beg, should they need to.

After a while, he betrayed too of a much fondness for alcohol and trouble, so he was asked to leave.

He went on his way and has not been seen around here since.

UPDATE:  Research (which I should have done before) tells me that the lads came from Bonn - and worked for the company which originally built the organ in 1903, Klais.  Sorry.  Here's a sample:




11 comments:

  1. The simple cloth bag also being the origin of 'given the sack'.

    I had a Jewish school friend called Zimmerman, when I last heard of him (he's now a big-wig surgeon in Manchester) he'd changed it to Zimmern.

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  2. Good point. I hadn't thought of that. There is that other Jewish Zimmerman who became a big wig when he changed his name too...

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    1. Yes, but times they are a changing.

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  3. Such an interesting post, Tom. Geez, if I don't learn something here on almost every visit.

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    1. I should be paid by Bath Council, shouldn't I...?

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  4. Wonderful story Tom. I like the idea of those pallid, muscular men, so highly and esoterically trained. Just gorgeous. Then the Zimmermen. Yes.

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    1. The funny thing is that not one of those men could actually play the organ.

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  5. I can attest to the fact that the custom of the travelling Zimmermen is alive and well in Germany. I have seen many of them in my lifetime. I never could figure out how they do their laundry. How well does one travel in just one corduroy outfit?

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    1. All the Zimmermen I have spoken to in bars here and in D have been filthy - I suspect the laundry is done rarely.

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  6. I've just added the word, 'Cowboy' to the above text in the post, greatly - in my view, improving the imagery. The whole description could also have been applied to Dylan in his John Wesley Harding phase!

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