Pat Blythe – More Cowbell…..and moosic too!

Weather update…..sort of. Snow tires on. Check. Bag o’salt and snow shovel on the front porch. Check. Pots emptied of dirt and herbs harvested. Mostly. Backyard raked and tidied (three times). Check. Scrapers, shovel and snow brushes in the vehicle. Check. Boiler and heating system services. Check. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be to greet old man winter. It’s November and anything is possible. Snow is predicted for this week and even though, technically, it’s autumn until December 21, (winter solstice) I get this not so warm and fuzzy feeling those Colorado lows are getting lower and lower. Winter is going to be knocking on our doors sooner rather than later.

The “not so lowly” cowbell…..

Over the years I’ve covered the history of the guitar, violin, drums and even music itself. Now it’s the cowbell’s turn; an instrument whose very unique and distinct sound(s) have had a profound effect on so many songs throughout the years….both understated and obvious. Imagine Mississippi Queen, Honky Tonk Women or Time (Has Come Today) WITHOUT the cowbell? No….I can’t either. In fact, these songs, and many others, wouldn’t be what they are with that special “cowbell sound”. Most of us are familiar with the sound of the cowbell in musical contexts only. But, as I continually find out, there’s far more to it than that. As you know, I have a passion for history, and I love nothing better than diving down those rabbit warrens of research so…..here goes.

Where do we start….Wikipedia of course? According to our Wiki friends, the history of the cowbell goes back at least 5000 years to the Iron Age. Pottery cowbells (later replaced with metal bells) were first discovered in Neolithic China. Their usage eventually spread across Europe to the islands of Britain. The Celt, Carthaginian, Greek and Roman cultures all used cowbells. Pictish stone carvings of cowbells appear in Britain, stretching from Scotland to the Yorkshire Dales. Even Chaucer mentions the cowbell in his tale of Troilus and Criseyde in 1374.

Many artisans also took pride in the decorative designs of their cowbells and many were covered with elaborate and intricate patterns and figures.

Originally hung around the neck of free-roaming animals (goats, sheep, reindeer and cattle), to either locate them or scare off predators, the cowbell somehow graduated from a detection and/or warning device to a musical instrument. Crafted from various materials such as bronze, brass, copper and even wood, their unique shapes and sounds had as much to do with the sex, type and species of the animal, as it has to do with the region, geography or culture the animal was from. The “clapper” hanging inside the bell would knock against the side of the bell as the animal moved, producing a particular, distinguishing sound. Today’s cowbell, usually perched conveniently within striking distance on a drummer’s kit, is “clapperless” since the sounds are created by striking the bell with a drumstick.

Side note: The Oxford English Dictionary refers to a “bellwether” a leader or indicator of trends. The term derives from the Middle English and refers to the practice of placing a bell around the neck of a castrated ram (a wether) leading the flock of sheep. A shepherd could then note the movements of the flock by hearing the bell, even when the flock was not in sight.

Cowbell ringing is used in a traditional ceremony in Switzerland. Called Alpaulfzug or Alpine Cattle Drive, the ceremony celebrates the “ascent to the mountains” when both goats and cows are driven to higher pastures in the mountains. (think Heidi) The animals are decorated with floral wreaths and the best milk-producing cow not only leads the procession but wears the biggest bell. A similar festival is also celebrated in Southern Germany.

Mooving on……

Again back to my friends on the internet and more info over at Culture Wikia and this little tidbit, The cowbell is an idiophone hand percussion instrument used in various styles of music including salsa and infrequently in popular music.” I’ll argue with “infrequently” in reference to popular music. A close friend of mine took on the task of seeking out “cowbell music” (as I call it). The list is not short by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, if I added every piece of music that enlisted the tap tap tap of the cowbell, the length of this column would be longer than a football field!

 

The gold “fan” is called a “plucked” idiophone, another sub-category. Sound is created by plucking a flexible “tongue”. A Jew’s harp or thumb piano falls into the “plucked” category.

By the way, an idiophone is any musical instrument that provides sound produced by the vibration of the instrument itself, without air, strings or membranes. Idiophones are considered percussion instruments; conversely most percussion instruments that are not drums are idiophones. Without getting into too much of the minutiae, idiophones are divided into four sub-categories. One of the categories is struck idiophones. Break that down and we have concussive (two similar instrument such as claves or castanets struck together) or percussive (struck with a hand or a dissimilar, non-sounding beater such as a stick). The latter includes wood blocks, triangles, marimba, drums and of course, the cowbell. Incidentally, just to be clear, drums are not idiophones, but they do fall under their own percussive category called membranophones since their sound is produced by a vibrating stretched membrane….but I digress…..

An example of the concussive sound claves make (more of a clicking noise), is found in the following song. The repeating rhythmic beat claves play throughout a song is known as an ostinato or clave.

And I Love Her – The Beatles

The cowbell moovement…..

The cowbell’s journey from the clanging of grazing animals, to its use in music, began around 1904. According to composer David Ludwig of the Curtis Institute, German composer Gustav Mahler used them in his Symphony No. 6 while composer Richard Strauss used them in Alpine Symphony.  Cowbells made the leap to what was then coined as hillbilly music (later called country music) in the 1920s. The cowbell rapidly gained popularity in the Afro-Cuban, Latin American and jazz communities throughout the 1930s and 40s, making the leap to the world of rock in the 1950s. According to Glenn Kotche, the drummer for Wilco, “musicians use the cowbell, especially in rock, because it has the ability to distinctly rise above so many amplified sounds.”

It’s not just the drummer who gets to bang about. Cowbells were predominantly a hand-held instrument before drummers got a hold of them. Cowbells can produce different tones which are modulated or adjusted by striking different parts of the bell (such as the rim or the body), and by damping with the hand holding the bell.

Cow band

The spotlight finally shone on the lowly cowbell in 2000 thanks to Saturday Night Live. In the SNL skit “More Cowbell”,  Will Ferrell portrays an overzealous cowbell player who shimmies, shakes and jumps around in this parody of the recording of Blue Oyster Cult’s hit Don’t Fear the Reaper.  The cry of “more cowbell” became synonymous with the song, any tune that used a cowbell and, much to his chagrin, Christopher Walken himself. (View the entire skit below in the music section) I had the great fortune of photographing Blue Oyster Cult in 2018 at London Bluesfest. Yep, they played THE song. The guitar tech played the cowbell off stage.

Traditional cowbells (or chocalhos in Portuguese) are still hand-crafted with pride in Alcáçovas, in Portugal’s Alentejo region but it is becoming a dying art form. Just a handful of craftsmen keep this ancient skill alive.

Bevin Bros. Manufacturers, the oldest surviving bell maker in the U.S., have been making bells the same way since 1832. From holiday bells to bells for boats or animals in the field, they focus on the art and science of making perfectly pitched bells. The tuning of the bells is done by elderly women who have the best ear for pitch, and musicians who prefer the real thing keep coming back.

Latin Percussion (LP) is another manufacturer entirely devoted to all things percussion. Fifty years ago a young man named Martin Cohen fell in love with Latin jazz. A good set of Cuban bongos were nowhere to be had so he designed and built his own set. Four years later Latin Percussion was born. From shakers to congas, snare drums to cowbells, LP has grown to become a one-stop shop for musician’s percussive and concussive needs.

From Neolithic times to the 21st century, the lowly cowbell has stayed the course to become an important companion to today’s musician, and a key component in today’s music.

According to Uncyclopedia, a tongue-in-cheek comedic site, …many consider the cowbell among the most difficult instruments to master, and hundreds of 13-year-old suburban teenagers have been bitterly disappointed at their inability to become proficient players. This could be due to lack of talent and obsession with bands like Led Zeppelin, Blue Öyster Cult and Will Ferrell more than the cowbell, however, but the cowbell is still pretty hard.”

Grazing in The Grass – Hugh Maskela

I Can Hear You Calling – Bush

I Call Your Name – The Beatles

Mississippi Queen – Mountain

From Uncyclopedia, “In the late 1930s, after the death of Bruce Dickinson, the Blue Öyster Cult were left unattended for several hours. Juan Direction and the Fresh Beat Band took the cowbell and left graffiti on the wall, stating, they have enough cowbell. Afterward, cowbell was the basis of a new musical genre called Dubstep. Rumor has it that auto-tune is the voice of Christopher Walken and he himself is the reaper today’s music fear. Multiple occasions of riots occurred after the assassination of Tom Hanks. He was believed to have died in a car accident with dubstep on the radio. Bruce Dickinson rose from the dead and showed those cocksuckers who’s boss.”

Don’t Fear the Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult

SNL Cowbell Sketch

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/257364428″>More Cowbell From Saturday Night Live</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user14940659″>Gethin Jones</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Nature’s Way – Spirit

I Need You – The Beatles

Stuck In The Middle With You – Steelers Wheel

In the following live video you can see how the two different sounds are produced on the cowbell at this live concert in 1986.

Time Has Come Today – Chambers Brothers (live)

Time Has Come Today – Chambers Brothers

Low Rider – Eric Burden & War

Honky Tonk Women – The Rolling Stones

Take If Off the Top – Dixie Dregs

Oye Como Va – Santana

Incense & Peppermints – Strawberry Alarm Clock

Good Time Bad Times – Led Zeppelin

Rock of Ages – Def Leppard

We’re An American Band – Grand Funk Railroad

Down on the Corner – Creedence Clearwater Revival

Spinning Wheel – Blood, Sweat & Tears

Heartbeat – Buddy Holly

Stay safe. Stay happy. Stay healthy.

Cheers!

=PB=

Pat’s column appears every Wednesday.

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com

dbawis-button7“Music and photography….my heart, my passions.” After an extended absence —  33 years as a consultant and design specialist in the telecommunications industry — Pat has turned her focus back to the music scene. Immersing herself in the local club circuit, attending the many diverse music festivals, listening to some great music, photographing and writing once again, she is eager to spread the word about this great Music City of ours…..Toronto. Together for 34 years, Pat little-red-headed-dancing-girlalso worked alongside her late husband Christopher Blythe, The PictureTaker©, who, beginning in the early 70s, photographed much of the local talent (think Goddo, Frank Soda and the Imps, BB Gabor, the first Police Picnic, Buzzsaw, Hellfield, Shooter, The Segarini Band….) as well as national and international acts. Pat is currently making her way through 40 years of Chris’s archives, 20 of which are a photographic history of the local GTA music scene beginning in 1974. It continues to be a work in progress. Oh…..and she LOVES to dance! 

 

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