Alan Lomax: Selected Writings

Alan Lomax set sail for Europe in 1950 with "a new Magnecord tape machine in my cabin and the folk music of the world as my destination." He stayed there until 1958, using the intervening years to travel extensively and document the folk music traditions of Ireland, Scotland, Spain and Italy. His recordings during a seven-month trip to Spain in 1952-1953 formed the basis of a BBC radio series in 1953. Read through some of his notes.

Lomax: Musician playing a traditional song on the bagpipe
Musician playing a traditional song on the bagpipe. Image courtesy of Lomax the Songhunter

Musical Styles in Spain and Italy

Leaving aside Catalonia, which presents special problems, Spain may be divided into three main stylistic areas -- the South, the Center, and the North.

The South, including Andalucia, Murcia, Valencia and parts of Castile (56), is Eurasian, with strident high-pitched monody among the folk and a high, pure controlled tone among professionals (57), both delivered from a tense throat and with an expression of agony on the face. The melodies are long, highly decorated, and the mood varies from tragic to nostalgic; dances are solo or duo improvisations, tense, impassioned or frenetically gay. Both dance and song are, as in the Arab world, often performed by highly skilled folk professionals. Southern Spain formed a part of the Mediterranean world of high culture in classical times, and subsequently was thoroughly acculturated by the Arabs who brought fresh Oriental influences.

Columbia Records launched their World Library of Folk and Primitive Music in 1955. Seventeen volumes were issued before the series ended in the early 1960s.Columbia Records launched their World Library of Folk and Primitive Music in 1955. Seventeen volumes were issued before the series ended in the early 1960s.

This is a land of great estates and of extremes of poverty and wealth. Labor was once performed by slaves, and today the country people who work on the land often live on the edge of starvation. Even today women are housebound, Arab style; courting couples may not be alone together except at the barred window; chaperones are strict, and marriages are arranged. Three main roads lie open to the Andalucian woman -- marriage, prostitution or old-maid dependency. Sexual pleasure is a male prerogative, and lovemaking is often forced on married women, wearied by child-bearing and fearful of pregnancy. Equal measures of physical punishment and passionate love are meted out to the children. The whole area is dominated by hunger and, beneath a surface gaiety, an underlying asceticism and melancholy and a mood of violence and sexual jealousy exist -- all brilliantly expressed in a neo-Eurasian musical art, in which dance and song are inextricably linked. The instruments are the flute and tabor, the guitar, the Arab friction drum, castanets and other rhythm-makers.

Central Spain, including Extremadura, parts of Castile and Leon, is a Modern European region with Eurasian influences to the South, Old European traces to the North and strong influences from the high culture of the Middle Ages (58). It is a monodic area with some unblended unison singing. The Castilian voice is lower-pitched and more open than the southern, but still is harsh, high-pitched and strident, delivered from a tense throat, the body being rigidly held with the face a composed mask. The melodies are extended but not prolonged as in Andalucia and, compared to southern Spanish tunes, relatively undecorated. This is the ballad area par excellence of Europe, a culture where words have more importance than the melodic ornament. Work songs are similar to those of southern Spain -- long, high-pitched wails of despair. Instruments are the guitar, the banduria, played as rhythmic instruments, the flute and tabor, a simple oboe, castanets, a primitive violin, the Arab friction-drum, and various rhythm instruments. Dances are both duo and group in form.

Lomax - Filmmaker Rogier Kappers returned to Canizzo, Spain and met several villagers who had recorded songs for Alan Lomax in the early 1950s. Filmmaker Rogier Kappers returned to Canizzo, Spain and met several villagers who had recorded songs for Alan Lomax in the early 1950s.

This area, dominated by the Romans and conquered by the Arabs, is poor but there are many small holdings as well as large estates, and less misery than in the South. Women are still restricted to the house and jealously guarded. Contact between the sexes is difficult, but courtship customs are freer than in Andalucia, though marriages are still arranged between families. Children are given more independence and are not so often punished physically.

The North, including the provinces north of the Pyrenees as well as parts of Catalonia and Aragon, is Old European with Eurasian traces; the picture is further complicated by the Celtic ties of Galicia and by the mystery of the Basques. Although there are many types of solo songs -- some, like the Asturianada, in flowery Eurasian style -- the majority of songs and dances are choral. Voices are more open and more low-pitched than in central Spain, with more liquid vocal quality and occasionally with ringing tones. Bass voices are fairly common (41).

There is less vocal tension. The singer's body is relaxed, the throat is not distended with strain and the facial expression is often composed and lively and, though not always animated, neither melancholy nor mask-like. The voices blend easily, and choral singing comes naturally to the people. I did not find any polyphonic forms, but a bent toward polyphony is evidenced by the ease with which the northerners have adapted simple chordal ideas from Central Europe to the melodies of their regions. Melodies are brief and undecorated and most songs are short, except in the case of the Asturian ballads and the improvised satirical songs of the Basques. Often the singers pass from one tune to the other, weaving together long chains of tender, slightly ironic lyric songs -- a trait of Udina in Italy and of Croatia. The mood of the songs is tender, gay, ironic, at times wholeheartedly joyous. The simple flute, the bagpipe and the various forms of flat hand-drums are the commonest instruments.

This is an area of small holdings scattered in the mountains, of small villages of shepherds and independent proprietors, of factory towns and mines and strong unions. Lightly colonized by the Romans and hardly touched by the Arabs, this area was the base for the reconquest of Spain by the Christians. In the Middle Ages the pilgrim route linked this region with the rest of Europe. Yet beneath a Christian surface, there are many traces of a pagan past and a pre-Roman communal society, especially among the Basques. Women occupy a fairly independent position, courtship is a more relaxed affair and there is freer contact between the sexes -- as, for example, at the corn-shucking bees common to the Basque countryside. In spite of centuries of campaigning by the church, coastal Galicia has an illegitimacy rate of almost 40 percent, but the people themselves do not appear to be unduly disturbed by this. Children are treated with tenderness, and early acquire a sturdy independence.

When I left Spain, I had established in my own mind the possibility that a correlation exists between a musical style and certain social factors, most especially the position of women, the degree of permissiveness toward sexual love and the treatment of children. I had also begun to see the bearing of local history on the problem, but this still seemed secondary to the more basic factors of social structure and sexual pattern. I then prepared to test these tentative conclusions in Italy. To say that the strident falsetto in Andalucia was Arab and the open voice of the North was Nordic was merely to beg the question -- to put it comfortably in the distance. Why then do the Arabs sing in strident falsetto, the Nordic in a more open, deeper voiced style? A more provocative question posed itself-why was one style acceptable and another unacceptable in a given area?

The main questions that I proposed for my Italian research were: 1. What role did history play in the formation of musical style, and; 2. what were the social and psychological mechanisms involved in implanting a musical style in all the individuals of a given region?

Italy proved to be an ideal laboratory for posing these questions and testing my hypotheses. Its equable climate, its fertility and beauty, had attracted invaders for thousands of years. Since the time of the Romans, however, no strong national culture had united Italy, and hundreds of cultural enclaves, some dating back to the dawn of European history, had been protected in the folds of her rough terrain. The early urbanization of Italy had worked for rather than against the preservation of a variety of folk patterns.

Since the high culture of the Italian city states of the Renaissance was based upon the culture of classical times, a high wall sprang up between the life of the townsfolk and that of the peasants, though each city was proud in a rather snobbish way of the peculiarities of its dependent villages. Thus the two-way exchange between city and country which gave unity to the emerging Spanish, French, and English national cultures, scarcely disturbed the ancient variety of Italy until modern times.

Italy proved to be a museum of music, as it was of classical art during the Renaissance. For example, the pagan practice of the sung funeral lamentation, which has virtually disappeared in the remainder of western Europe, is still an everyday matter in most rural areas south of Rome. However, when the innumerable cultural pockets hidden in the folds of the Italian hills had been taken into account, the main contours of Italy's stylistic map proved to have the same north-south orientation as that of Spain.

The North (including the Alpine arc, the province of Genoa, the Valley of the Po, and the northern slopes of the Apennines) is Old European but far more markedly so than northern Spain, as it directly adjoins Central Europe and thus has been constantly re-acculturated by invasions from the North. Dancing and singing is choral -- so strongly so, in fact, that song is virtually impossible without a harmonizing group. Polyphony exists in a wide variety of forms, from the seven-part longshoreman choruses of Genoa to the Slavic use of seconds and fourths to the East. Voices are open, clear, bell-like, and deep in pitch; in Genoa, again, basses are more common than tenors. Singers stand with arms round their cronies' shoulders, or, leaning across a wine-soaked table, blend their voices, smiling at one another benignly over the pleasures of drink, sweet chords, and the often bawdy or tenderly sexual verses of their songs. Most songs are short and lyrical in character, but even the ballads of Piedmont and Genoa are performed in chorus and with such a strong beat that it is plain they had once been danced as they were sung (57).

The open, comradely, tolerant spirit of the North is evident to any visitor who knows the whole of Italy. Where the people work in factories or in big estates, they sing together at work, organize powerful unions, and vote labor at the polls. The courtship patterns are closer kin to those of France, Switzerland, or Croatia than of Italy to the South. Contact between men and women is relaxed and friendly, and children, especially in the mountains, are treated with respect.

The Center. The Apennines, running in a southeasterly direction to the Adriatic South of the Po Delta, form the most dramatic stylistic borderline that it has been my fortune to encounter. I criss-crossed this hundred-mile-wide mountain barrier at a dozen points, and always found that I passed from one musical style area into another. As one musician, who lived in northern Tuscany 50 miles south of choral Piedmont, remarked to me, "It is impossible to organize a chorus in my town. There people simply can't sing together."

Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio and parts of the provinces further South is Italy's Modern European area. Here, song is predominantly solo in performance, with occasional harsh and unblended unison choruses. Singers stand or sit stiffly erect, their throats showing the tension of this vocal delivery, their expression withdrawn and their eyes often closed -- in other words, following a familiar Modern European pattern. The singing voice is harsh or hard and clear, and notably higher in pitch than in the North. The function of the song is to mount the text, even more than in Central Spain, for Tuscan singers favor long, improvised, somewhat satirical verses (stornelli and ottavi) or present long, melodically dull folk operas (maggi). A generation ago, most marriages were arranged between the families of these small land-holders; girls were closely supervised until marriage, and illegitimacy was severely stigmatized. The texts of the countless stornelli consist of an allusive, ironic fencing with the opposite sex. One woman told me, "South of the Apennines, the men are wolves, and they wish only to eat you once" (60).

The South. The old kingdom of Naples, together with Sicily and Sardinia, is another Italy and is so regarded by many Italians of the North. From the point of view of musical style, it is indeed another world. The norm of Southern Italian singing is in solo, in a voice as pinched and strangulated and high-pitched as any in Europe. The singing expression is one of true agony, the throat is distended and flushed with strain, the brow knotted with a painful expression. Many tunes are long and highly ornamented in Oriental style, and in Lucania are often punctuated with shrieks, like the cries of the damned (61). The universal subject is love, the beauties of women, the torments of courtship; the commonest song-type is the serenade, of which there are two kinds -- the serenade of compliments and the serenade of insults, if a suitor is refused. Laments for the dead are common to the whole area, and a singer from Lucania (which is the area of greatest isolation) moves from a lament to a lullaby to a love song (62) without change of emotional tone. Here, too, sexual jealousy reaches a peak unique in Southern Europe. The presumption is that a man and a woman left alone together for five minutes will have sexual contact, and thus the smallest violation of courtship taboos may stain a woman's reputation so that she will never find a husband. For a person sensitive to the treatment of children, travel in the South is a torment, so slapped and pushed and mistreated are the young people of this Arabicized world.

However, the poverty, isolation, and political retardation of Southern Italy have also permitted the survival of many cultural enclaves of varying musical style. Most of these cultural pockets, in which one can hear various types of polyphony, were formed when one or another group of invaders came into the area and took over a region or built their villages on hill tops. Thus we find chordal singing in the villages where Byzantine Greek is still spoken along the Eastern Coast of Puglia (63), and again in the Albanian-speaking villages of Abruzzi, Lucania and Calabria (64). But there may be survivals of a more ancient level of Old European singing style in the strange, shrieked chords of Lucania and Calabria (65), and in the case of Sardinia, to which we will presently come.

In Italy, as in Spain, history and the social patterns seem to work together. For over two thousand years the South has been dominated by classical (Eastern) culture and exploited by the imperialistic governments. The principal invaders, after the Romans, came from Eurasian musical areas -- the Byzantine Greeks, the Saracens, the Normans, the Spaniards.

The Center, between Rome and Florence, was formed by the Etruscans, an Oriental people of high culture who apparently brought the saltarello with them from the east. Later, the flowering of poetry in the Renaissance confirmed the folk of the center in their attachment to solo lyric poetry, to improvisation and to the primitive solo-decked Maytime operas of the high Renaissance.

In pre-Roman times, the North was the domain of the Ligurians, who today are the most accomplished polyphonic folk singers in Western Europe. Celts from the North poured into the Po Valley in the Roman era, and later invaders -- the Longobards, the Goths, and the Slavs -- all came from the heart-lands of the Old European song style. Moving across the North, from west to east, one passes from Liguria into French Piedmont, the ballad country of Italy, where ballads are invariably sung in chorus, into an area of Tyrolese and Austrian song, and finally into the eastern provinces where Slavic choral singing is found.

One of the most important discoveries of the trip showed a North-South line of Slavic influence which cut across these three Italian musical areas. In the mountains near the Austrian border are small enclaves of Slavic-speaking-and-singing people (66). The whole province of Friuli has a Slavic cast to its song (67). In La Marche, on the Adriatic coast facing Yugoslavia, the dominant type of work song is in two parts, harmonized in seconds and fourths and sung with an open, far-carrying tone in the Slavic manner favored in Croatia and the mountains of Bulgaria and Romania (68).

Anywhere in the mountains south of Rome one may come upon a community that sings part songs in a Slavic style (69). The province of Abruzzi, today an island of accomplished modern rural choruses in the Eurasian South, has a coastline closer to Yugoslavia than any other part of Italy, and its oldest choral songs, found on the coastal plain (rather than in the mountains which were once monodic) are Slavic in color (69). I believe it was by this avenue that the bagpipe and the custom of singing counter-melodically with the bagpipe entered Italy, for one finds this instrument and this practice all along the mountain routes of the shepherds from coastal Abruzzi into Calabria.

Many colonies of Albanians came to Italy as refugees from the Turks in the thirteenth century. In their villages, scattered through the hills of Abruzzi, Lucania, and Calabria, old Albanian dialects are still spoken, and singing is without exception in the choral, open-throated, Old European style. Some non-Albanian villages in the South have apparently adopted Albanian style, but it is interesting to note that here the harmony is shrieked in high-pitched, agonized voices, and that the mood is one of torment and frustration as compared to the Albanian. This may be a case of the formal elements of a musical style failing to carry with them their emotional content.

The folk-song map of the South is further complicated by the colonies of Byzantine Greeks in Puglia and Central Sicily, who practice an antique harmonic vocal style that they imported with their Greek Orthodoxy many centuries ago. However, as these villages have been absorbed into the southern pattern of sexual jealousy, the singing is harsh-voiced and strident and so is the harmonic blend.

Finally, I discovered in the mountains between Naples and Salerno some colonies of Saracen origin, people who had fled into the hills when their coastal cities were recaptured by the Christians, and who have preserved intact the music of their North African forebears (70). This is, I believe, the only occurrence of purely Arab music in Europe.

To return to the main theme, in every case which I had the opportunity to examine there is a positive correlation between the musical style and the sexual mores of the communities. The Slavic enclaves of the North are open-voiced and permissive, those of the center less markedly so, and finally, in the South, the Albanian and other Slavic communities stand like islands of feminine independence in the sea of southern jealousy and frustration, though the Eurasian social and musical patterns have altered the Albanian style considerably.

-- Alan Lomax. Excerpted from a typewritten manuscript titled "SPAIN: December 1952, Galicia"


(41) The Spanish Basques, WF 12018; Galicia, WF 12020; Alsurias and Santander, WF 12021, Westminster.

(56) Spain, KL 216, Columbia. Cities of Anadalucia, WH 12001, Jeres and Selville, WF 12003; Eastern Spain and Valencia, WF 12019, Westminster.

(57) Cante Flamenco, WAP 301, Westminster.

(58) Castile, WF 12022, Leon and Extremadura, WF 12023, Westminster.

(60) Side II, Nos. 18-25, ibid.

(61) Southern Italy and the Islands, Side 1, No. 14, KL 5174, Columbia.

(62) Nos. 17-18, ibid.

(63) No. 12, ibid.

(64) Side II, Nos. 31-37, ibid.

(65) Side II, No. 22, KL 517.

(66) Side I, No. 12, KL S173.

(67) Side I, No. 11, ibid.

(68) Side II, No. 23, ibid.

(69) Side II, No. 27, 30, KL 5173; Side I, 6, KL 5174

(70) Side I, Nos. 2, 3, KL 5174

Parenthetical numbers refer to notes indicating albums and other recorded music illustrative of the points made.

Cover jacket for Alan Lomax: Selected Writings, 1934-1997Excerpted with permission from:
Cohen, Ronald D., ed. Alan Lomax: Selected Writings, 1934-1997. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis Group, 2005. 154-161.