“The Happiest Year of My Life” — Alan Lomax in Italy, 1954

Wed, 07/13/2011 - 06:33
image courtesy by Alan Lomax Association for Cultural Equity

Italian Treasury: Folk Music and Song of Italy

It is an elegantly designed CD, simply titled, Folk Music and Song of Italy. On the cover is a black and white photo of four women in worn out 1940s-style clothing, standing arm and arm as they sing. This is a sampler from the 10-volume Italian Treasury series of the Alan Lomax Collection, which when completed will run to twenty volumes of riotously diverse, beautiful, and unexpected music. The series is curated by Italian ethnomusicologist Goffredo Plastino, a Reader in Music at the University of Newcastle. Alan Lomax was an American folk song collector and musicologist held to be one of the most influential figures in 20th century American intellectual and artistic life.

The CD was produced with scholarly care by Alan’s daughter Anna, a fluent Italian speaker who spent a good part of her childhood in that country. For anyone seriously interested in authentic Italian music, this sampler has the sonic and emotive force of a double shot of grappa on an empty stomach-it will stir you up, excite every one of your senses and leave you gasping for breath, or make you cry, for on it you will hear some of the most unusual and beautiful folk music ever created and recorded in rural Europe.

Italy's Folk Music

In 1954, despite the social dislocation of Fascism and the recent devastation of WWII, rural Italians were still linked to the land. Since the fall of the western Roman Empire and the rise of the cities of the Renaissance, rural Italians had developed a “counter culture” that often stood in opposition to the hierarchical city based music and literature that gave the west Dante and Italian Opera.

Lomax Folk MusicIf that of the city was hierarchical, literate and church based, Italian folk culture belonged to the peasantry and urban artisan classes. It was highly local in character and contained practices and beliefs that anthropologists and folklorists consider pre Christian, linking Italian peasant life in many ways through an unbroken chain of oral tradition to the soundscapes of Old Europe. medieval Byzantium. the Spanish empires, Arab conquests and Moorish invasions and the Greece and Rome of the ancient Mediterranean.

Jump ahead to track 13, Tammurriata, recorded by Alan in Salerno, Campania on January 6, 1955. The melody sounds like something you would hear at a Moroccan wedding or in a Tunisian café. You do not need to be an ethnomusicologist to conjure up visions of North African caravans, the Silk Road or the travels of Marco Polo when you hear the woman solo singer and the driving rhythms of the accompanying frame drums, ending the song with a lascivious lyric, “It’s under a girl who does it with everyone.” Had Fellini used this piece in his film Satyricon he would have had a more authentic soundtrack, for it has the pathos of a lament by slaves on an ancient Roman Latifundia. Not surprisingly, film director Pasolini did use it and several pieces like it, in his film, The Decamerone.

If this song does not stir you, jump to track 7, Serenata, sung in Albanian in an ancient form of polyphony which resembles the liturgy of Greek Orthodox or Bulgarian Church music. We may ask ourselves, which came first, the style of music, or the liturgy? As a scholar of comparative musicology, Alan Lomax argued for the first option.

Alan Lomax in Italy

In 1954, Alan Lomax was based in London, working for the BBC. There his radio and television series, and his recordings of living folk musicians of Ireland, Scotland, and England triggered the later English and Irish folk song revival of the sixties, just as his American recordings and discoveries of American folk icons like Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie and Muddy Waters and others gave substance to America’s blues and folk song revival of the 1940s and the 1960s. Alan was convinced that Italy had as great, if not a greater diversity of folk music as America or the British isles, due to the comparative isolation and diversity of its regional peasant communities.

He had also persuaded the BBC to fund a full survey of Italian folk music, starting out with the rising young Italian ethnomusicologist, Diego Carpitella, and continuing on his own. From June 1954 to January 1955 Alan engaged in what he later called a “voyage of discovery” starting his recording expedition in Sicily and ending in the Alps. Altogether he made 3,000 recordings. Wherever he traveled, Alan was stunned at the diversity of the music and the virtuosity of the musicians. He wrote in his diary,Day after day I turned up ancient folk song genres totally unknown…I happened to be the first person to record in the field over the whole Italian countryside…I began to understand how the men of the Renaissance must have felt upon discovering the buried and hidden treasure of classical Greek and Roman antiquity…I was a kind of musical Columbus in reverse.

Lomax Folk Music ItalyHis recordings include vocal and instrumental dance music, funeral laments, lullabies, folk operas for the coming of May, epic story songs, songs of protest, wedding songs, Carnival and Christmas songs, work, love, satirical and narrative songs as well as liturgical pieces from the folk tradition.

These are accompanied by conch shells, friction drums, scrapers, rattles, hand drums, tambourines, bowed lutes, violins, chitarre battenti guitars, iron Jew’s harps, cane flageolets, double flutes and panpipes, chromatic and diatonic accordions, and a wide variety of bagpipes accompanied by the wooden oboe. (The bagpipes originated in the ancient Near East and are found in France, Greece, Bulgaria, Spain and North Africa, as well as in Italy!)

Alan and Diego made their survey at a time when folk music was still a vital part of daily life in Italy. Soon after there would be a second massive migration of Italians to Europe, the Americas, and the industrialized North of Italy, which would irrevocably change the complexion of Italian village culture. Recalling his meeting with Alan during his filming at the Straits of Messina Italian film director, Vittorio de Seta, later wrote:

It was a mythic time. None of us suspected that that world-made of music, songs, poverty, joy, desperation, custom, violence, injustice, love, dialect and poetry, formed over the course of millennia-would be swept away in a couple of years…by the voodoo of “progress”.

The Italy of the early fifties is gone for ever. Most of the music has died out in oral tradition although there are hold outs here and there, where people play and sing the old music. But now most modern Italians listen to the pop music that comes from Rome, Naples, London or New York. During his stay in Italy, Alan Lomax recorded and documented enough of this older folk music to give us a sound portrait of an ancient musical tradition. Reflecting on his time spent in Italy he later wrote, “It was the happiest year of my life”.

The original recordings of the Italian collection are housed at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Goffredo Plastino, Anna Lomax Wood and their Italian collaborators have produced ten CDs of regional music (with ten more to come!), with extensive liner notes, transcriptions of the songs in Italian dialects, and English translations — truly an “Italian treasury”. To listen to the sampler you can visit the amazon related page. For a photographic evocation of Lomax and Carpitella’s “voyage of discovery” (in Italian), I recommend, L’anno piu felice della mia vita-Un viaggio in Italia 1954-1955, by Goffredo Plastino, Il Saggiatore, Milan 2008. For more information on the life and work of Alan Lomax, visit: www.culturalequity.org)

Geoffrey Clarfield is the Director of Research and Development at the Alan Lomax Archive at the Association for Cultural Equity in New York City (geoffrey@culturalequity.org)

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Topic:Culture Music