A few words to clarify the content of the song in my previous post, "Are the songs beautiful?" When I played this song for the singers in Zdravets, first of all I was delighted that my singing partners were as excited about the song as I am, and want to sing it. But when I told them the text of the song, I got an unexpected question about the last part of the story:
....What Gjúro wants is to send the falcon to his home to see what's going on there. The falcon has already been to his home, he says: "The yard is all overgrown with weeds, and in the weeds there is a dead tree. On the tree sit three cuckoos. One of them is your mother, calling you to breakfast; the second is your sister, calling you to dinner; the third is your wife, calling you to bed."
"So," they said, "they're all dead (the mother and sister and wife)?" That interpretation had never occurred to me, but my friends have learned that cuckoos are not especially propitious omens in these songs, so they thought that Gjuro's imprisonment had killed the whole family. But I wasn't so sure, and today I had the opportunity to ask a Bulgarian friend, a singer herself, who knows the song repertoire very well. She confirmed my own interpretation (that they are not dead, but missing him terribly), and fleshed out for me some of the extensive symbolism in the song tradition:
First, a falcon or an eagle is recognized as the bearer of news (if the story is about a young woman, it might be a dove instead). He has been to Gjuro's home and found desolation:
Gjuro being imprisoned and unable to take care of it, the yard has become overgrown with weeds;
the tree in the yard (trees representing the roots, in this case the foundation of the home) has withered and died;
the three women (mother, sister, wife), bereft and abandoned, are represented as cuckoos, because cuckoos are known for their plaintive, lonely call.
So much intense feeling packed into a few short lines! And so easy for us to completely miss the real meaning of the song, that lies just beneath this delicate phrasing. This is one reason that I never decline to hear again a song that I might have heard a dozen times: because this singer might add a few words that completely change my understanding of the song, or clarify something I've puzzled about for years. I'll have more to say along this line in another post.
In going through my material lately, I came across a song to whose file-name I had added simply the word "WOW". Hmm, which one is that? So I played it, to see what had impressed me. Sure enough, it's well worth a post.
Contrary to usual practice, though, I'm going to hold the song till I've talked about it a bit, because I think you'll get a lot more out of it after I tell you something about why I think it's so special. I recorded the song in what was in 1980 the village of Górni Lózen. Now there is only one town, Lózen, but in 1980 there was a little bit of a break in the houses between Dólni (Lower) and Górni (upper) Lózen.
The song, which the women said they used to sing when they started gathering (after the harvest was in) to spin, tells a very familiar story:
Two dragons are fighting in the mountains, from them flows a river that flows past Sofia to a dark dungeon. No one is in the dungeon but the prisoner Gjúro, with a grey falcon on his arm. He feeds the falcon with bits of his fingers, sheds tears to give him water, combs his hair to make a nest for the falcon. The falcon asks why he is feeding him so well: "Are you planning to send me far away, or are you planning to use me in battle?" Gjúro is not planning to do battle. What he wants is to send the falcon to his home to see what's going on there. The falcon has already been to his home, he says: "The yard is all overgrown with weeds, and in the weeds there is a dead tree. On the tree sit three cuckoos. One of them is your mother, calling you to breakfast; the second is your sister, calling you to dinner; the third is your wife, calling you to bed."
But now, listen to how they sing it! The two parts barely diverge from each other...one part goes up a little while the other goes down a little, then they converge again—repeating this a few times to give the "melody":
Два се змея на планина бият(Dvá se zméja na planína bíjat),recorded in Górni Lózen, Sófia region, 1980
Listen closely, though, and you'll hear something fascinating! There's really a lot of subtle detail in this very minimalist song. The two groups sing different intervals: when the lead singer in the first group goes up to her higher note (which happens a number of times in each verse), at the beginning of the verse she goes up only a little bit (a half-tone), but later she goes up noticeably higher, even a full tone! But the lead singer in the second group goes consistently to the same interval (only a half-tone). Does this bother anybody? Not a bit, as long as you are used to singing with the lead singer you're singing with! Criss-cross the groupings of singers, though, and you'll get consternation and sometimes (when I first heard this I didn't really believe it, but it's true) COUGHING! There's really a very physical component to this singing...
So, is this song "wow" because it is beautiful? Yes, and no. Personally, I find the minimal melody to be very compelling (incidentally, such melodies are considered to be among the most ancient). And that subtle variation between the two groups of singers fascinates me (Try to sing it, and you'll see just how fascinating it really is!)
Those who know Bulgarian and might find it interesting to listen to the discussion that precedes the song, in which one of the women gives the whole text, complete with commentary (they only sing part of it, though). And here is the full Bulgarian text (in my somewhat messy hand-writing!)
No new posts for what seems like ages.... No, I did not fall off the face of the earth, or get lost in a Slough of Despond (though I've spent some time there), or decide to quit blogging — or even taken off for Parts Unknown. I've been caught in a tangled web of my own making! The thumbnail version is something like this:
Some of you know that my archive of recordings is already partially in the American Folklife Collection at the Library of Congress. But about half of it is still here at home, because I have to finish digitizing it (so I have copies) before I can send it. AND...the part that's there is, I would say, virtually inaccessible, because if you look at that page, you will see only the most general information about "what it is":
104 sound cassettes : analog.
4 sound discs (CD-R) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.
manuscripts 1 box (11 folders)
Huh? You, looking at that, might ask, "What's IN those 104 sound cassettes, and how can I find out enough about it to know if there's anything there that might be of interest to me?"
The information about it is actually all very thoroughly documented in the "box of manuscripts", and probably also on one or two of the CD-R's — but how would you know that, or know how to access them? So I've recently been in contact with the folks at Library of Congress, and as a result of that correspondence, I've been copying all my digitized files onto a small drive to send to them, AND....getting the primary documentation (the "track-by-track" one) transliterated into Latin script, so you can read "Zatvoren Gergin založen" instead of "Затворен Гергин заложен"! You still might not be able to understand it, but at least you can read and copy the letters! (And then, accordingly, I will have to do some re-alphabetizing, because З comes early in the Cyrillic alphabet, whereas Z is at the end of the Latin alphabet!) So many details, so little time. Once I've done all that and sent them the drive, I hope they will find a way to put enough of it into the record that a human being who just happens to learn about it, but doesn't know me from Adam, can have a clue.
And...of course, in the process I have turned up a @#$%-load o' little problems, or at least questions. Like: since taking them the tapes I took them in 2006, I have photographed the actual cassettes, etc. that I still have at home, so that I have a visual record of what I have as well as the text record that, Martha being after all Martha, varies from trip to trip, and at minimum tends to get pretty complex. The 1988 material (that I'm now finishing up digitizing) looks like this:
But I didn't take pictures like that for the material I gave them in 2006, included in which are a couple of tapes I didn't intend to give them, because they're copies of material someone else gave to me. BUT, I can find some of those at home, but not all. So what DID I actually send them??? Well, my contact there has kindly sent someone to photocopy the physical tapes I did send, and now (after a week and a half of wondering) I do know.
And exactly what paperwork documentation did I send them? I kept notes, that I thought were "definitive", but 10 years later, those definitive things can become highly debatable! Then there are little details in my documentation, which (having been done over a period of 35 years or so) is not the same for each trip. I won't even attempt to go into that, because I'd be sitting here all day writing, and you'd have stopped reading!
Anyway, this post is to let you know that I've finally gotten that situation roughly under control and definitely underway, so I can come back to writing about the fun part: writing about the material. I even came up with the song for my next "real" post while doing this paperwork stuff, so I hope to get that out soon.
Many kinds of emergencies can happen when one is working in the field - being struck by lightning, having a baby, having a grandchild break an arm or a leg coming down off a pile of hay (this doesn't happen to the 60- and 70-year-olds who have spent their lives doing this, but it does happen to their city-raised grandchildren who come to visit in the summer). Then there was the evening when I saw a friend come home from a day's haying carrying a broken pitchfork [picture]. "What happened?" I asked. "Oh, I'm strong, I broke it!"
My own emergency was of quite a different nature. In 1980 I went to Bulgaria planning to traipse around to as many villages in the south-western part of the country as I could in three months, recording old songs from (mostly) old ladies with a brand-new Sony cassette recorder. My husband Dick and our son Peter came with me for half the time. Dick had selected the recorder (a new model, very high-quality but small enough and light enough not to be a burden to carry). At the time his profession was repairing audio equipment, so he brought along a small selection of tools in case he needed them: needle-nosed pliers, a small soldering-iron and some solder, screwdrivers, a bottle of nail polish.... After a few weeks we began to notice that the machine was not making very good recordings. Inspecting it yielded no clues. For awhile we thought maybe the cold weather was causing the problem, so we would carry it inside our jackets to keep it warm. But it continued to get worse, not better. When we found ourselves in Blagóevgrad, or guide suggested we visit the local radio station, where Dick could use some of their test instruments. There was a power outage...but they had their own emergency generator, so he was able to work on it. But he just couldn't figure out what needed fixing!
We continued south to the beautiful town of Gótse Délčev, where someone loaned us a machine of lesser quality as a stop-gap measure. Finally, one afternoon Dick sent Peter and me out for a walk while he worked on it. When we came back, we found him literally in tears. Why? Well, he had realized what the problem was: within the first 30 hours of using this brand-new machine, the record/play head (the soul of the machine that makes the recordings and also plays them back) had...worn out!!!
Well, since I was officially a participant in the scholarly exchange program with Bulgaria, I was entitled to help from someone at the US Embassy, so we braved the wilds of placing a telephone call—which in those days was not a trivial matter. Fortunately we were able to do it from our hotel (rather than going to the Post Office). We were able to reach my contact, and he asked me where we were. "In Gótse Délčev," I said. There was a pause, and I don't think I will ever forget his reply. "Well," he said thoughtfully, I know who HE is [one of the partisans at the turn of the 20th century, see Gotse Delchev], but I don't know where you are."
We worked my location out and, probably because we were near Greece at the time, his first thought was that maybe we could get a part in Greece. (Leave Bulgaria and come back? Really??! Visas, transportation, all that stuff?!) But it turned out they did not have the part in the store he was thinking of in Solun (Thessaloniki).
So, quite down-hearted, we wended our way back to Sofia, because Dick and Peter were scheduled to leave Bulgaria in a few days, leaving me there to do another month and a half of research with an inadequate tape recorder. (In those days you brought absolutely EVERYTHING you might need with you when you went to Bulgaria—down to the kleenex and paperclips.) I must have called my friend Vergíli Atanásov, a scholar of musical instruments who had technical knowledge. Wonder of wonders: he had a spare head for a Teac machine that he didn't need right then, which he offered to give me! Further wonder of wonders: it fit my machine! but Dick didn't have everything he needed in order to install it. I was able to produce a little nail file that would do, but we needed Epoxy, or something like that. Which it turned out that our friend Lauren Brody, who just happened to be in Bulgaria at the time, just happened to have.
Armed with my nail file, his soldering iron, and Lauren's epoxy, Dick sat down to work on the tape recorder, sending Peter and me off to Bístritsa where there was a huge celebration scheduled in honor of Bábinden—Midwives' Day, when new mothers visited the midwife who had delivered their baby that year, to the tune of raucous and ribald merry-making, ending in a trip to the river where the young men dragged the midwives into the river (this was January...) and everybody got wet....
We had a great time watching the formal presentation, then went down the road to watch the fun by the river from a good vantage-point, and later caought a lovely off-guard photo of the Bístritsa bábi (grannies) in the town square, where the journalists and photographers were lining them up for a formal photo-shoot.
And came back to our hotel room, biting our fingernails. As we walked into the room, we heard the tape-recorder playing: Dick had pulled off his repair!
The next day, Dick and Peter returned to the US, leaving me in Bulgaria till the end of February with a now-working tape recorder.
There is a small sequel to this story. After I returned in 1981, we contacted Sony about our problem. They tried to blame the tapes we were using (not a major brand), but we told them we used those tapes in all the tape recorders we have as well as at the place Dick worked, with no such problem. They replaced the head; the new one wore out also. The machine is still working with Vergili's Teac head!