Pop songs get a medieval twist: have you heard of bardcore style of music?

A YouTube screengrab from Hildegard’s ‘Jolene’ cover  

It is the kind of year when millions are entertained by a video of four people dancing their way to a graveyard, a coffin on their shoulders. With a raging pandemic, is it surprising that dark humour is in?

But the coffin dance video did more than teach us to laugh during tragedy, it gave rise to an entire genre of music: Bardcore.

As you read this, musicians around the world are doing covers of pop hits from the ’60s to 2020, as medieval ballads. From ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ by Foster the People and Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’, to Goyte’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’, Shakira’s ‘Hips Don’t Lie’, Nirvana’s ‘Teen Spirit’ and ‘I want it that way’ by the “Squires of Backstreet” (as a YouTube comment put it) are all getting a medieval spin.

Set to the original tune, the instruments in these songs include the Celtic harp, whistles, hurdy gurdys and other sampled medieval sounds to give it an old-timey (5th Century to 15th Century AD) vibe.

It all started with a cover of ‘Astronomia’, originally by Tony Igy and Vicetone — the song to which the suited pallbearers grooved.

Over an Instagram chat, its creator Cornelius Link, a 27-year-old web developer from South Germany, says he had no idea a joke cover three months ago would spawn a new genre. One of his friends posted a picture of the coffin bearers, as they would have been depicted in the medieval period in a tapestry, on a WhatsApp group. “Someone commented it would be funny if there was medieval music along with it. That’s how everything started,” says Cornelius.

Pop songs get a medieval twist: have you heard of bardcore style of music?

Once it went viral — the song has 2.9 million views on YouTube today — he began covering other songs such as ‘What is Love’ and ‘Pumped Up Kicks’.

Although not a musician by profession, Cornelius has been making music for years in his studio. “I mainly use stringed instruments such as lutes, acoustic guitars, a saz (Turkish guitar), talharpas (Finnish horse hair violins), nyckelharpas, hurdy gurdys, harps, zithers, a githern, an Irish bouzouki and also a morin khuur (Mongolian violin). I also use a lot of percussion like frame drums, tambourines, shakers and hand drums. What also plays an important role are the wind instruments such as wooden flutes, recorders, penny whistles or some bagpipes in the background,” he lists.

Cornelius Link in a studio at his home in south Germany

Cornelius Link in a studio at his home in south Germany   | Photo Credit: Anja Hermann

Some of these are virtual instruments, which he plays within his Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) or with his keyboard. “I record different parts one after another and glue everything together. I’m no professional and I would never say that I can play all these instruments. I would say I use them to create the sound I want,” he says.

Soon others online adopted the format, even layering his songs with their vocals and giving it words. Modern English began to be translated into what can loosely be called Shakespearean English, earning the genre its anachronistic name. One such musician is a 28-year-old Canadian graphic designer and singer, Hildegard von Blingin’.

Her name is a spin on Saint Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th Century composer whose works are recorded in modern history, and that is the moniker she insists on going by. Requesting to not publish her real name, she writes in an email, “You can call me Hildy.”

Hildy gave voice to Cornelius’ version of ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ and today her cover is more popular than his, with 5.1 million views. Since then she has moved on to making her own music, with covers of Lady Gaga and Radiohead among others.

“I try to avoid songs that won’t translate well. Certain chord progressions and melodies will sound too modern no matter what you do, so I aim for songs that can convincingly sound older,” she says. “My cover of ‘Jolene’ translated to this style quite well I think, because Country music shares a lot in common with European folk music. I feel like Jolene’s instrumental nearly wrote itself, and was perhaps the most satisfying to work on.” What strikes her is the romantic medieval imagery in pop culture that crops up every now and then: “Post Malone striding around in a full suit of armour, or the fantastical language used in songs such as Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’ and Florence & The Machine’s ‘Queen of Peace’.”

A callback to the past

When the pandemic first crept into the streets of each country, nervous jokes and callbacks to the Black Plague ensued, as did hopes for the emergence of another Renaissance period.

Hildegard isn’t the only one to get into character. Other creators have been translating lyrics to Old English, Classical Latin, Old French and so on. Entire conversations in YouTube comments and on the Reddit page r/bardcore take place in these languages.

Pop songs get a medieval twist: have you heard of bardcore style of music?

For album art (thumbnails), the covers use either paintings from the Renaissance or online tools like the Bayeux Tapestry and Historic Tale Construction Kit that allow you to tell stories, medieval style.

“There is so much to learn by looking backwards, so much art and music to be enjoyed. The past is more accessible now than it has ever been in history,” says Hildy, reserving special mention for Saint Hildegard.

“She managed to carve out a legacy despite the fact that many great female minds have been lost to time and erasure. It never ceases to amaze me that I can sit down at my piano and sing a song that she wrote hundreds of years ago.”

Cornelius too, has been spending his days reading. “There is a lot to discover and a lot of tales and stories.” He also roams around castles in his hometown near Black Forest, a mountainous region often associated with the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. “I try to imagine how people lived in those times, what they felt, what they did the whole day and what hopes they had.”

Like all trends, public interest in bardcore too will simmer down eventually, believes Hildy. But was it the pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns that gave rise to this genre? Cornelius is not sure. “Maybe more people are on the Internet because they can’t work or are forced to stay in quarantine. And a lot of people write to me, saying that the music cheered them up during these times. So yes, it definitely is a reason but probably not the only one. Medieval memes and even covers existed way before bardcore, and so maybe it is the way we produce the music — by not taking ourselves too seriously.”

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 7:14:28 PM |

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