The Goliards to play 450-year-old music at celebration of Jean Ribaut landing

The idea of sitting through a concert of hymns from the Genevan Psalter mixed with 450-year-old dance music might not sound all that appealing at first. But, as The Goliards have found, all they have to do is get people to listen.

"The problem isn't getting people to enjoy the performance. The problem is getting people to come at all," said The Goliards member John Hillenbrand with a laugh.

Hillenbrand is the founder of the Savannah-based group, which specializes in medieval music. It's nothing that will hit the Top 40 charts these days, but give it a chance and Hillenbrand promises it'll prove enlightening.

As part of the 450th anniversary celebration of Jean Ribaut's landing in the Lowcountry, The Goliards will perform at 7 p.m. May 23 at The Shed in Port Royal.

Their selection of music will be what Ribaut and his fellow Huguenots who came to the New World to escape religious persecution would have enjoyed, or at least would have been familiar with. There will be selections from Protestant Reformation leader John Calvin's Psalter, written in the 1500s but still heard in churches today. There will be French love songs and other popular music of the era. Expect a few pieces from King Henry VIII, who was a talented songwriter himself.

"We'd like to say that this was what was going on musically when Jean Ribaut was alive," Hillenbrand said.

The Port Royal concert features selections from a bit later than their usual songbook that stretches back before 1400. The Goliards (named after the band of satirical poets) features experts of medieval music and its instrumentation. Hillenbrand plays the vielle, a Renaissance version of the fiddle.

Other members play the harpsichord or the hurdy-gurdy. At times, they'll sing in languages that few are fluent in today.

The songs themselves often were composed before standardized record-keeping, meaning interpreters such as Hillenbrand have to research ancient musical notations and fill in the blanks.

"It's not like you can go into a music store and ask for medieval sheet music," he said. "But that's what makes it fun. You start with little indication about how to play. And then you try to make it into something that at least makes sense and at best you make it into something that sounds good."

Hillenbrand started the group about 13 years ago in Atlanta. He carried it on when he moved to Savannah about seven years ago. Like the other members, he plays in several other musical groups locally, such as the Irish folk trio A Murder of Crows.

It's proven challenging to keep a group together. Members frequently change as players move in and out of the area. And it's not like there's a plethora of musicians steeped in the medieval traditions to begin with. But they play throughout the year whenever they get a chance.

"It's not the easiest thing to keep going," he said. "But we're all doing it for the love of the music."