As most of you know, Frederick Courteney Selous is on my Mount Rushmore of Frontier Partisans, and I believe he sits on a throne of elephant tusks and rhino hides in Frontier Partisans Valhalla.
Like his friend and eulogist Theodore Roosevelt, I admire the manner in which he achieved “just the right alternations between the wilderness and civilization.” Selous was a prolific writer — book sales were a critical part of the income of a man who never found his own King Solomon’s Mines. Far from being blood-and-thunder tales of derring-do, Selous’ books are fine descriptions of countryside and flora and fauna — heavily larded with the actual stuff of adventure, which is to say mishap and missteps.
He writes with humor and a big heart. Often, when I’m weary of the sturm und drang of the day, I’ll pick up Selous for bedtime reading. It settles the mind and speaks to the soul — soothes the savage beast, as it were. One of Selous’ endearing qualities was his love for music. He was a zither-player.
The zither that Selous played is a multi-stringed instrument of Germanic derivation — popular in the alpine regions. It looks like this:
And sounds like this:
Selous was a youth living in Salzburg, Austria when the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870. Selous, who was much enjoying hunting excursions in the Alps, did NOT want to go home to England as his family importuned him to do. He made a key argument in a letter: He did not want to give up his zither lessons.
“…I shall lose a pleasure and a pastime that would have lasted me my whole life… In three or four months more, as I am working very hard at it, I shall know enough of the zither to do without a master… the zither I have now is not the little one you saw at Wiesbaden, but an Austrian zither, which is much larger and tuned lower and altogether a finer instrument.”
Assuming that the video above is an accurate depiction of the traditional folk music scene of the day, perhaps beer and pretty girls played into the matter, as well…
It turned out that Fred did master the zither — and when he came out to South Africa, where he would win fame and honor as that continent’s most storied hunter, the zither came along. There is a delightful passage in his 1893 memoir Travel and Adventure in South-East Africa where Selous describes playing for his supper at a Boer farmstead out on the veld:
“When I first went out to South Africa, I used to play a little Bavarian instrument — the zither — and I kept up my playing for many years, and when traveling through the Transvaal my musical talents used to keep me in butter, milk and eggs. When we outspanned near a Boer farm, Edwin Miller, a young colonist who was usually with me, and who was thoroughly at home with the Boers, used to go up to the house, and in the course of conversation ask the goodwife if she was fond of music, and then tell her about my little instrument, when, of course, I was asked to play, and my pathetic Bavarian airs used to be much appreciated…”
The devoutly Christian Boers often made comparisons to “the harp that David played.” Sometimes, though, the tuneful Selous ran up against the hard rock of Boer Calvinism.
“Once we came to a farm on a Sunday morning, and Miller at once tried to open negotiations for obtaining milk and fresh butter. The ladies were most anxious to hear the music, but the old Boer had scruples of conscience, it being Sunday, and it was only when Miller pointed out that my zither was the same instrument as the harp that David used to play that he consented to have it brought up to the house.
“When I had it tuned up, he insisted that nothing must be played but hymns; so I played him the Danube Waltz, and noticing his astonishment, assured him that it was a French hymn. He seemed puzzled, but only muttered that it did not sound like a hymn. I then played him “Il Bacio,” when he jumped up, and striking his hand on the table said, “Nay, verdommt, daats geen Paum niet, daats en yodlepijp!” (“No damn it, that’s no hymn, that’s a hornpipe!” ).
Busted. Ever resourceful, young Fred turned to his allies for support and brazened it out.
“With the help of the ladies of the family, we persuaded him that it was an Italian hymn, and he took all the rest quietly, and his wife and daughters set us up again in butter, milk and eggs.”
Well, as a man whose most prized possessions are his guns and his guitars, I doff my slouch hat to Frederick Courteney Selous — again. Tomorrow I head out to Wyoming for a press association conference. They tell me there’s an almighty jam session in the evenings. Maybe I’ll see if I can pass off some Steve Earle and Warren Zevon as hymns, and see if I can come back to camp with a basketful of eggs.