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The number 69 and 6/9 time signature in Grey Mennonite Culture

From Chapter Twelve of Grey Mennonite Swing: A History, by William H. Rempel (used with permission)

"Crooked-straight" (usually referred to as the 6/9 time signature) is at the very heart of Grey Mennonite Swing, and claimed by GMS musicians to be the most mystical and difficult of all rhythmic forms. The actuality of 6/9 timing is disputed. Romanian musicologist Constantin Brailoiu originally thought 6/9 to be a simple variant of the Bulgarian aksak, a rhythm pattern that subdivides into smaller, irregular beats. Pangravis Pankratz made a more systematic study of Grey Mennonite rhythm, and concluded that 6/9 was, if anything, what mainstream Western musical theory would designate as an "irrational time signature." Pankratz, a rationalist and positivist, was not convinced by mystical explanations. He argued that the existence of 6/9 was more accurately "in the heads, not the hands" of GMS musicians. Most contemporary musicologists and musicians agree with him. 


GMS musicians themselves claim that a ninth note is of an almost impossibly subtle shorter duration than an eighth note, and that only years of playing GMS allows one to hear it. This is, of course, as difficult an argument to prove or refute as is the existence of God.

The doctrinaire history of the number “69," so central to the mythology of Grey Mennonite culture, is that it has no sexual meaning whatever, neither explicit nor suggested. Its importance remains mysterious, and held very close by Grey Mennonites themselves. Their apocryphal bible, the Zuggenschrieft, contains a number of books that are chaptered and versed all the way to 69:69. Much of their music, in turn, is based on this apocrypha. The song "69 Blackbirds," for example, is based on Chapter 69 of Revelations.


Some historians, most notably Edward Ziffle, have claimed that new evidence suggests the number 69 as holding a sexual connotation in some circumstances. The recently discovered notebooks of Opa Willy Nikkel (?-1916), a seminal GMS 4-string guitarist who lived alone in the woods adjacent to the Samara Oblast Colony, suggest that there is a layer of sexual suggestion that ties together many of the grey Mennonite preoccupations. More specifically, the “69” in Nikkel’s lyrics and scribblings suggests a peculiar relationship with sexuality, and pleasure more generally: while pleasure is strictly circumscribed by most branches of Mennonite tradition, limited to singing, eating and drinking coffee, in the Grey Mennonite tradition pleasure is deeply paradoxical: celebrated in pagan fashion while simultaneously derogated in Mennonite fashion.


The 69, then, is a circular archetype much like the ouroboros or yin/yang symbol, suggesting that pleasure and guilt are inherent in each other, in an infinite feedback loop, the same way that“the Church” and the “World” are both separate and inseparable. A further shading of meaning is that the most guilty pleasure of all is mutual pleasure. The simultaneous orgasm, then, may be a physical analog of the “crooked-straight” time signatures that are so deeply imbedded in GMS.

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