The Shepherd’s Pipe

Shepherd's Piping by Elihu Vedder via Flickr
Shepherd’s Piping by Elihu Vedder via Flickr

Recently, I’ve been reading about English folk music, specifically about the shepherd’s pipe. The shepherd’s pipe is a simple wooden flute with no reed, typically with 6 holes. These would be similar to the recorders and tin whistles that some of you may have learned to play in school.

Amazingly, humans have been playing this type of flute since the late Pleistocene(!). The Divje Babe Flute, made from the femur of the now extinct cave bear, was discovered in a cave in Slovenia in the 1990s. This flute is about 43,000 years old and was most likely carved and played by Neanderthals. That is awesome.

“Flûte paléolithique (musée national de Slovénie, Ljubljana) (9420310527)” by dalbera from Paris, France

Returning to our own epoch (the Holocene, for those keeping score), English shepherds carved their own flutes by hand, for the most part, but typically from wood rather than cave bear femurs. The music of the flute served both functional and recreational purposes. It was functionally used to call the flock, drive off wild animals, and to communicate with other shepherds. And it also served as a method of entertainment on long days out with a flock.

In her informative book on medieval English folk ways, Lost Country Life, Dorothy Hartley writes, “Here we try to imagine the music of the landworker when he herded his beasts on the common, or worked in penfold or field. With long hours, often working alone, he would have plenty of time to practise, and he would hear and incorporate the sounds around him.”

These are the pastoral sounds truly lost in the modern day.

In A History of European Folklore, Jan Ling writes, “The grazing fields, the mountains, and the forests used to be an exciting soundscape of calls, music, barking, mooing, and bleating.”

This is a soundscape that is for the most part extinct. Now, even in our state parks, I hear the sound of the freeway and jets overhead.

One thing that strikes me about the shepherd’s flute is the way it celebrates a different pace of life. A time when people weren’t always busy, weren’t always concerned about turning every moment into an opportunity for productivity. I think of the shepherd in his field, whittling his pipe by hand, and then slowly, day by day, learning to play. But, with no urgency. There is no try-out or rehearsal waiting for him. He is learning to play for the simple pleasure of it (oh, and to keep the wild animals away, apparently).

I’m no luddite. I looove my phone, kind of to the point of embarrassment. But, that said, it has changed things. Just like the soundscape of calls, music, and mooing has been replaced by the freeway and jet traffic, the boredom and slowness that compelled that Neanderthal and that shepherd to craft a flute and play it has been replaced by a life of bustling, industriousness – where we are perpetually a click away from more entertainment and more distraction.

And I wonder, do we need that quiet place of boredom? Is that where creativity is born? Is that where character is built? Is it what children need to grow and adults need to heal? Who would bother to turn a cave bear femur into an instrument when Madmen is on Netflix?

Until next time, here is a professor of biology playing a replica of that cave bear pipe:


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