Alan Lomax: Selected Writings

Italian Folk Music

Italy has preserved a folk-song pattern that is at once extraordinarily old and extremely varied, exhibiting, in many variations, the principle that the musical habits of an area -- the way songs are sung there -- resist change, perhaps more strongly than any other culture trait. Change seems to come about only when invasion alters the ethnic character of a region, or a social and psychological revolution completely upsets the structure of the old society.

Antonio Grifo of Sommatino, ItalyAntonio Grifo of Sommatino, Italy. Grifo's father, a mineworker, sings in an Alan Lomax recording from the early 1950s: "I have forgotten / I have forgotten / My very own life / I forgot the goodness / Of my mother / Who was even sweeter than you."

Italy, of all the countries of the West, has the most complete folk-song history. In Sardinia the triple oboe brought by the Phoenicians from Egypt a thousand years before Christ is still in use, and keening for the dead, which is pre-Christian and pagan, is still a living custom in all the provinces south of Rome. The tarantella, the dance of the South, and the saltarello, the dance of central Italy, seems to have been established in classical times. Field songs of the most antique style are everywhere in use. And from the early Middle Ages on, more or less precisely datable songs from almost every period of Italian history are recoverable from contemporary singers. Perhaps the most interesting recordings of this year's field work is that of the maggio in the mountains north of Florence; these primitive folk operas date from the time before modern opera took its rise in Florence; and, almost certainly, show what opera was like at its beginnings.

The archaic character of Italian rural music is further evidenced in the instruments which are most commonly found. In order of frequency they are: the tambourine, which was the most popular instrument of the Greeks; the wooden or cane flute, also Greek in origin; the bagpipe; the jaw's harp and friction drum (most probably influenced by the Moors); the guitar; the violin; and, of recent introduction, but today eliminating all other instruments, the small accordion. In the last century, brass-band music has become standard at almost all Italian fiestas.

Many people have invaded this beautiful land since Roman times and everywhere there are pockets of folk song in which these invasions are evident. There are Moorish musical communities near Naples, relics of the eighth-century invasion of the Moors. In Apulia and Sicily one finds folk songs in Byzantine Greek dialect, imported about the thirteenth century. The Spanish left traces all through the South, especially in Sardinia. And one of the discoveries of this expedition was that there are enclaves of Slavic singers from the northeastern border to the very tip of Calabria, testimony to a slow popular migration from across the Adriatic that has gone on for centuries. Finally, throughout the Italian Alps, where populations are mixed, there are also decisive musical influences from the countries to the North.

All of these recent effects, however, have blended into an Italian pattern that is far older. As far north as the plain of the Po, Italy is a land of solo song and strident voices. From the Apennines through the Alps, singing and dancing are normally performed in groups; voices are liquid and blend easily in harmony. In central Sardinia, among a people who have retained a Neolithic hunting culture into modern times, one finds a polyphonic vocal style which is probably pre-Christian and may be the oldest type of European polyphony.

The same generalized pattern applies also in the case of Spain, which is a land of monody as far as the Pyrenees and, beyond, a land of group song and open voices. Apparently southern Italy and Spain belong to the Near Eastern and Oriental song family and the northern parts of both countries to an older European stock. Where these patterns are broken, a recent historical cause may nearly always be found, as in the case of the polyphonic Albanian settlements in southern Italy; but for the tendencies themselves an explanation must be sought in the character of the societies which have been dominant since antique times.

Since the period of the Renaissance this Italian peasant music, documented for the first time in these records, has lived almost without contact with the great streams of Italian fine-art music. It has followed its own course, unknown and neglected, like a great underground river. Indeed, this complete hiatus between folk art and fine art is one of the distinctive features of Italian cultural history. For many centuries until the period of the Risorgimento there was little national circulation of culture, and Italy remained split up into a great number of provinces and regions, each of which developed its own dialect and its own songs. The causes were various -- a complex geography, lack of political unity, the conquest of various parts of Italy by foreign powers, and the early flowering of urban culture.

The brilliant Italian cities developed a high culture the roots of which were in the civilization of the classical past rather than in local folk culture; and the peasants in the hills and villages were left to their old ways. This split between city and country, which still persists, also gave rise to an urban folk song, made by and for the popular artisan class. It is these artisan songs that were heretofore thought of as Italian folk song. Actually, they represent only that part of Italian folk music which has been most influenced by Italy's cosmopolitan fine-art music.

Now that this great underground musical stream emerges for the first time into the light, fresh from its antique sources, perhaps it can play an important part in the growth of a new Italian culture.

-- Alan Lomax with Diego Carpitella, 1955