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Folk song as an academic discipline?

Or: How we think about Bulgarian songs

I've been having fun reading a Bulgarian book I recently got, and starting to listen to the CD that accompanies it.  The publication augments a book I've had and cherished for many years (it's the book pictured on the cover of the new one), Музикално-фолклорни диалекти в България (Folk Music Dialects in Bulgaria), by Eléna Stóin, published in 1981.  The original book does a beautiful job of outlining the major folk music regions of the country — Thrace, Rhodope, etc.), plus the smaller transitional regions.  It includes a map showing these regions (see below), followed by a thorough description of the region's musical characteristics, and includes musical transcriptions of a goodly number of songs from each region — but no sound recordings.

What this new book adds to this picture is a CD with over 200 sound recordings of these examples — dating from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, a time when the singing traditions were still alive and strong in the villages.  If you're not as deeply into all this as I am, you may not know that this is a layer of the musical tradition of which we have very, very few examples that we can actually listen to.  So this is quite a treasure!  The samples are not long, because Bulgarian folklorists in those days did not have much recording tape available to them, so they could only record a verse or two of the song (some of these songs go on for a long time if sung all the way through), but they did try to get a solid sound-picture of each song: its melody, its harmony if it has any, and the singing style.  Plus information about the song's "social function" — when it is sung, and where it fits into the daily or holiday life of the village.

But what I actually wanted to write about here is how impressed, even deeply moved, I was by the half-dozen introductory pages.  Here the editors of the book (Tsénka Jordanóva and Mariijána Búleva) deftly and in a very readable way outline how the academic discipline of "Folk Music" developed — and the way it is still viewed by us today!  "Dry and dull," you may say?  HELL NO!  It describes the work of a handful of Bulgarian scholars in a way the not only brings them to life as people, but really caused me to sit back and appreciate the way they evolved a way to think about, talk about, and present this material.  Can I bring this to life for you a bit?  Let me try.

The editors create quite a picture of Eléna Stóin as a person.  Her passion was fieldwork, she is the one who came up with the idea of calling these regions "musical dialects".  In the 1950s and 60s when she started doing fieldwork, many of the villages where she and her colleagues recorded did not even have electricity.  The idea of being able to record someone's voice and listen to it later!....well, people came from miles around to try this out.  Stóin was also keenly interested in the peoples' lives, and made many marginal notes in her fieldwork journals about these things.  She sounds so much like "my kind of person" that I found myself really regretting that, although I met her in the winter of 1980-81, I did not really get to know her at all.

As I said, Stóin's book divides Bulgaria's vast folk musical expression into different regional styles (or musical "dialects"), which I will show here on a version of her map that I took the liberty of coloring and labelling in Latin letters as well as Cyrillic:

map - Stoin coloredClick on the map to see it full-size.  The areas in which I have done most of my own work are the blue area, Central West, the green area to the right of it (Ihtiman Sredna Gora), the yellow and orange areas below it (Pirin and Velingrad), plus one village near the bottom right of the red (Rhodope) area.

When this book came out in 1981, it became the standard for describing Bulgarian musical folklore.  But at that time there were precious few actual field recordings to listen to, so as the music started being taught by professionals, it lost some of its "edge".  For instance, the wonderful singer Kreména Stánčeva told me how, when she sang songs she had learned in her village (Kovačévtsi, near Sámokov) for Philip Koutev (director of the choir now known as Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares), he told her she was singing wrong musical intervals (i.e., some of her notes were a little flat, or sharp)!  She had to grab some women who were cleaning at the place they rehearsed (they were from her native region but not "trained singers") to sing for him, and show him that's the way they really do sing there!!!

So I will include here just one example of these early recordings, made by a colleague of Elena Stoin:

Йофчар ме, мамо, излъга (Jofčar me, mamo, izlâga), recorded in Kostándovo, Vélingrad region in 1958 by Nikolaj Kaufman.

(And there are 221 more examples!)

3 thoughts on “Folk song as an academic discipline?

  1. Dan Goldberg

    Thanks for another great post, Martha! Do you have any comments about the parallelism with language that Stoin sets up? Based on the introduction to the 1981 edition, my sense is that she's not just claiming that regional musical styles are similar to linguistic dialects, but rather that they're related to the actual dialects of the Bulgarian language. For instance, she cites (what I gather is) a classic study of Bulgarian dialects, and takes "the generally accepted traditional division of the linguistic dialects … the so-called yat border" (p. 14) as the basic division of the musical dialects into western and eastern groups (for the benefit of readers who have less knowledge of Bulgarian than Martha does, as far as I understand it the yat border is the dotted vertical line on the map that she has so beautifully adapted and relates to pronunciation of the vowel formerly written as ѣ and now written as я or е). Do you have an idea of how far and in what ways musical connections with linguistic dialects might extend beyond lyrics? Also, there isn't a way to buy Bulgarian books like this one from outside the country without exorbitant shipping charges or help from a friend, is there?

    1. Martha

      Wow, Dan....I think I'm a bit over my head here! Let's continue this conversation via email, I'll write to you in a minute.

  2. Katley

    Hi, Martha! Haven't visited in a while and I was totally captivated by what I read here. I have always had an interest in regional differences in Bulgarian folk music. You have found a treasure trove in that book and CD.


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