The Forgotten Hits of the Nineteenth-Century
What were the songs that animated the everyday life of the nineteenth-century rural European population? These were people who were certainly exposed to mass culture. From popular woodcuts to cheap books printed on coloured paper, there was no shortage of commercially-produced entertainment and news. But alongside this mass culture, many regions of Europe still had vibrant folk cultures of storytelling and singing. The tales and ballads might have come from early-modern written sources, or even older literate traditions, but the men and women who performed them made them their own. They sang what pleased them, or was important to their lives.
Mass and folk culture are different in several important ways. Mass culture, at least in terms of its production, is uniform and fixed. Every reader who picked up a newspaper or an almanac in the nineteenth century was confronted with the same materials, and historians studying this printed culture are confronted with this fundamental sameness, which can only be sidestepped by studying how people used these objects. For any historian interested in society from top to bottom, books are not as interesting as what people did with them.
Folk cultures, on the other hand, are local and changeable. Every woman in a given village might sing a slightly different version of the same song, and the song might be completely unknown a few miles down the road. When historians have records of these songs, they have an insight into culture that these people modified and transmitted themselves. These texts are interesting in their own right, and already contain some of the information about how singers used them.
These folk songs are the forgotten hits of the nineteenth century. They are forgotten because they were transmitted through performances which left little trace in the historical record, and the only sources that do remain from this period before sound recording are the notes of the odd bunch of local specialists who spent their time collecting folklore. One of these folklorists, a man named Félix Arnaudin, is my window into this world of songs. Arnaudin lived his whole life (1844-1921) in the village of Labouheyre in the Landes de Gascogne in south-western France. He recorded tunes and collected songs in the local dialect of Gascon, as well as some in French, from 517 different singers. I spent several months trying to work out who these people were. Farm wives, shepherds, seamstresses, navvies, and even a local fish-monger all provided songs for his collection.
Counting the songs in Arnaudin’s notes turns out to be much harder than counting the singers. The collection contains 3,620 different song texts, but many of these texts are summaries of other examples Arnaudin collected, with minor variations noted. One singer might sing a lullaby with the nonsense word “Tintan” while another sang exactly the same words but used the equally nonsensical “Dindan.” Folklorists studying these different songs make use of an academic construct, loosely based on what singers themselves believe, the concept of the song type. Rather than seeing very similar texts as different songs, they can be considered variants of the same song type. This does not mean that the different versions are more or less accurate renditions of a perfect type. Rather, it means they are all related to one another. When a type is represented by many related versions, it could be called popular. For Arnaudin’s 3,620 texts there are 485 types in his published writings. Some of these songs were so popular that he collected 56 different versions, while others were sung by just one singer.
Problems of Evidence
Right from the start, I have to be honest about the problems with trying to assess what the most popular songs were. The question of song types and versions means that any numbers I use are necessarily fuzzy. It would be possible to argue that some of the types are not really separate types, while others should really be divided into several. This means that there are not really 485 meaningful types. 19 of these types are so similar to other ones that it would be impractical to separate the texts in Arnaudin’s manuscripts between types, so they have been eliminated. Another song is reproduced in the different volumes, while three songs were recorded anonymously. Finally, I was unable to find any trace of 42 of the songs from the published edition in the manuscripts. This leaves 420 song types.
The next question is whether Arnaudin’s fieldwork methods were rigourous enough that over a hundred years later I can use them to talk meaningfully about the popularity of songs. Arnaudin made no claims to producing an exhaustive record of all of the songs all of his singers knew. He himself was particularly interested in certain types of songs. He put a lot more effort into collecting the lullabies, counting-out songs, and dancing songs in the first volume than he did into finding the love songs, legend songs, and songs of local scandal in the second volume. This was partly because the first volume was the only one he actually finished in his lifetime, and he ran out of energy before he could publish the remaining songs. But this is also partly because Arnaudin had a special interest in the songs of the first volume, such as the songs describing local villages and their nicknames. He had less interest, on the other hand, in songs that mixed French and the local dialect of Gascon, and he worried about songs with rude words. The same reservations could be extended to his singers. If he was particularly meticulous in collecting songs from old women who lived near him, such as Babé Plantié (1826-1912), Marichoun Dauba (1821-1895), and Tchignoye dou Cla (1827-?), he was less exhaustive with younger informants and those who lived further away.
But the same caution should be exercised with any song collection. The folklorist Alan Lomax suggests: “Experienced field folklorists despair of making exhaustive collections because human beings are too inventive. I have never managed to exhaust the repertory of a small area or even of one talented singer.” (Folk Song Style and Culture, p.28) And Arnaudin’s collection does have several strengths. The most obvious is its sheer size. 3,620 different song texts, and at least 420 song types collected from 517 singers may not be “exhaustive,” but it seems likely that it represents a good sample of local singing. Arnaudin was nothing if not zealous in his efforts to collect what he considered to be the most complete or correct version of each song. While this is not the same thing as trying to collect as many versions as possible, it produces a similar result. He often went to singers with a check-list of songs, and in some cases he even kept records of which songs his singers did not know.
Singers learn new songs, forget songs they once knew, and refuse to sing songs they consider rude, inappropriate, or too valuable, so once again these numbers have to be treated cautiously. But the fact that singers themselves have some control over what Arnaudin collected is also an important point. Rather than simply representing the songs Arnaudin was interested in, his notes include many that he himself called “useless” (“nulle”) or suspected of being literary rather than folk songs, or French, rather than authentically Gascon. His manuscripts contain a much broader selection of songs than he himself wanted or felt able to publish, including songs that he never asked for, which his informants sent him by letter.
The numbers, then, might be rough, but they still offer insights into the outlines of musical culture in the region at the time. In particular, they are most helpful in their extremes, those songs that Arnaudin collected many times, or those he only found very rarely. Because of the large size of the collection, and the ways his singers imposed their songs on him, these extremes of popular and rare songs are likely to reflect what singers actually sang.
The Greatest Hits
There were not many songs that Arnaudin recorded many times. The mean number of times he recorded each of the 420 songs is just under 8, but the median is just 5, meaning that he collected most of his songs in 5 or less versions, while he recorded a few exceptional songs up to 56 times. He only noted one version of 64, and just two versions of another 48 (see fig.1).
So what were these exceptional hits? 9 of the top 10 were songs he published in 1912 in the first and only volume of his projected series. Many of these songs were very repetitive, and featured nonsense. There were, for example, a couple of counting songs, including the most popular song of all, “We are Nine Gossips,” which Arnaudin recorded 56 times. Singers counted down from nine gossips rhyming different foodstuffs with the numbers, and wishing their husbands would be turned into the food so they could eat them. “In Larroque’s Meadow,” the other counting song, was not quite as popular, sung only by 30 singers. The song counted down the “little turtle doves” washing themselves in a fountain of silver in Larroque’s meadow. Although nonsense songs were popular, there was only one children’s song, “Gee Up! Gee Up!” and one list song, “Oats, Oats,” which lists the ways that the singer has abused the oats, ploughing them, hoeing them, cutting them, and so on until they are eaten. Two of the most popular songs were “farcical” songs. “The Ant and the Chaffinch” was set at the animals’ wedding, which sadly lacks any provisions. The other animals come to the rescue, each bringing food or drink to liven up the occasion. “Yonder, Yonder, in the Meadow” seems even more nonsensical. When a passing prince kills a bird in a tree, the birds blood floods the entire land, breaking the mills, and causing a famine.
The best represented genre of song are what Arnaudin called “satirical” songs. “When the Millers Mill” runs through different occupations and social groups, summing up what they habitually do. Young girls talk only of marriage, young men show off how handsome they are, women “chatter like a flock of magpies,” men talk of business and enjoy a drink, old women spin, and old men spit, cough, and try to warm themselves up. Another satirical song “Girls, Don’t Love Men So Much” warns girls about the failings their future husbands will undoubtedly have. They will gamble, and drink, and beat their wives. Worse, they will give her clothes away to other girls. Arnaudin called the last satirical song in his top ten “without a doubt the most popular [dancing song] of all those that are sung and danced” in the region. “Long Live the Women of Sabres” describes these women as heavy-drinking, sausage-loving, child-neglecting heathens.
What conclusions can we draw from this brief overview of the most popular songs? First, it seems clear that some of the things singers were fondest of singing approach meaninglessness. The sound, rhythm, and rhyme of these songs made them good to dance to, and fun to sing, and it seems likely that singers invested little thought in the significance of the words. On the other hand, some patterns of meaning do emerge. Alan Lomax has suggested that “as people live, so do they sing” (Folk Song Style and Culture, p.4) and the greatest hits of the nineteenth-century Landes refer explicitly to the colour of local life. Both the most popular song “We Are Nine Gossips” and another song, “When the Millers Mill,” deal with gossip, so it would be safe to suggest that rumour and scandal were important in local culture in some way. Several of the songs deal in transgressions of propriety, such as the drunken heroines of “Long Live the Women of Sabres,” or the gambling, wife-beating husbands of “Girls, Don’t Love Men So Much.” When singers weren’t singing nonsense, they liked to sing about indecency.
Popular Love Songs
Only one of the 10 most popular songs comes from the second volume. As I mentioned, Arnaudin may have put less effort into collecting these songs than he did for the first volume, since he ran out of energy. For this reason I think it is worth thinking about the popularity of the songs in the second separately. Once again, a similar picture emerges. The most popular song “I Rose Early in the Morning / Before the Sunrise,” which Arnaudin collected 30 times, is very obscure in meaning, if not nonsensical. A knight arrives to take the young girl in the song away to her homeland, which is being ravaged by war. On the way, they are forced to sleep on the open moor. He promises they will have a thread stretched between them to protect their decency. If the thread breaks they will “kiss” (and naïve modern readers should be in no doubt that a kiss is never just a kiss in folk songs). But the girl won’t give it up so easily, and points out that “No man has ever kissed me without giving me money.” The knight does so, but once the “kiss” is over, asks for the money back. The song then takes a turn for the weird as the girl and her lover take their dispute to the parlement in Toulouse to be judged.
Like the other popular love songs, this could hardly be called a happy ending. Rather than a tale of courtship followed by marriage, the songs most often tell the story of girls who have been “naughty” before nuptials. “I Have a Little Brother” tells of a brother returning from war who recognizes that his sister has not remained “faithful” (in fact, the word fidéle is a recognized euphemism for puncéle, virgin) from the state of her clothes. She is not as light on her feet as she once was, her stockings are dirty, and her apron is too tight at the front. “In Clarac There is a Miller” is about the miller’s sick daughter. The family call the doctor, who takes her pulse and burst out laughing: “Sir, marry her this evening, / Tomorrow she will be cured. / Give her to a young man, / Who knows how to read and write. / Who knows how to sign his name / And his sweetheart’s, too.” In this case, there is no sign of the culprit, but “I Rose Early in the Morning / Early in the Cool” is more explicit about a rupture between lovers. The girl goes to find her lover in the army, but he does not recognize her, and asks “Who is this shepherdess?” She replies “I am no shepherdess / I am your fiancée. / If you are my fiancée / I never loved you. / My sweet, if it hadn’t been for your deception. / I would be married.”
Many of these songs are sung explicitly from the girl’s point of view. Of the 465 songs Arnaudin collected, just 38 speak from the suitor’s perspective, while 77 are sung as if the singer is the female lover. As well as dealing with pre-marital sex, these women’s points of view are particularly interested in adultery. “When I was Little / Two or Three Years Old,” one of the most popular songs in the second volume, is a typical story of the young girl married to a “peasant,” who has little sexual interest in her. (It helps to understand that the pagës, or peasant is not, as we might assume, someone who is poor. In this region where share-cropping dominated, the “peasants” were actually a slightly richer class of farmers. Unlike the share-croppers, who produce for a landlord, the peasant was a small-holder, closer to the lower middle class perhaps than to the working class.) The unfulfilled new wife of the peasant goes to ask her mother for advice. Her mother is direct: “Make him a cuckold / Since your father is as well … Your father has worn through seven hats / In the time he has been a cuckold.” Another of the most popular songs, “The Other Day When I Was the Groom” imagines a similar situation from the man’s point of view. At his own wedding his wife cheats on him with a monk who she tells him is her cousin.
The most popular songs in the second volume have much in common in terms of imagery. They refer to flowers, the early morning, items of clothing, and kisses, setting the stage for making love. Yet the love these songs describe is surprisingly jaded. These are stories of the morning after, or indeed the unhappiness of marriage.
What might this have to do with the lives of the singers? Marriage, as songs about impotent but rich peasants remind their audience, is a complicated calculation in an agricultural society. It is not just about love – although singers certainly do sing of longing, beauty, and affection – but about economics, family ties, and fertility, about having enough money, enough support from parents and siblings, and a good prospect of producing enough children so that the family will not need to hire shepherds and labourers. The songs caution against girls who get mixed up in the wrong balance, who give too much before they have family approval and economic security, or trade this stability for husbands who provide no children.
Why Do the Greatest Hits Matter?
For all of their medieval knights, vague poetry of flowers, and archaic language, these greatest hits provided ways for the singers to think about real world problems in the nineteenth century. But do the songs help historians to think about how these problems might have been changing? Recorded in 20 versions, “In Saint-Léger There are Four Beautiful Girls” was one of the most popular love songs Arnaudin collected, and the only one to discuss the occasion which probably provided the most important context for the underlying theme of many of the love songs: courting. In the song, the four young beauties stay at a dance too long. They enlist the help of a young man named Pierrille to guide them home through a forest. When they get into the forest, Pierrille takes one of the girls and “kisses” her. The others cry out “Leave that one / She is my sister.”
It seems very likely that at the start of the nineteenth century, this kind of pre-marital messing around between young men and women was quite common. Arnaudin’s father told him that: “In the old days, no-one paid any attention to what was going on. Fathers did not exert the least control over their daughters.” Young women were free to experiment sexually on their way home from the dances, or indeed working in the fields. But things had changed by the 1880s, when Arnaudin began collecting songs. “These days,” a note from an unnamed source lamented, “you can’t do anything if you don’t want people to know.”
This was not just unfounded nostalgia for a period of carefree peasant love before the modern age. The demographic history of the region reveals that it went from being one of the largest producers of illegitimate children in France in 1820, to one of the regions producing the fewest children out of wedlock. Partly, this could be put down to contraception, whose secretive history is largely beyond our reach today. But the decline of illegitimate children was more rapid than the decline of children within marriage, and marriages in the Landes continued to produce more children than the national average throughout the whole period. Contraception alone cannot explain the decline in bastardy.
For Arnaudin, the explanation lay in the rise of closer surveillance of local society. Gossip was to blame for the tightening of rules of sexual propriety, and gossip itself was a product of the grasping capitalism of the second half of the nineteenth century. Gossip, as we have seen, was explicitly addressed in two of the most popular songs singers sang. But aren’t most of the songs silent on the question of how sex and society were changing? Unlike the greatest hits of mass culture, which tend to have a short half life, and extreme contemporary relevance, aren’t many of these songs insights into the love-making of a fading generation? It is true that folk song is a relatively conservative genre. Many of the Arnaudin songs preserve Gascon vocabulary and phrases that were no longer used in everyday life. But it would not be entirely fair to say the songs are an echo of the old ways.
To ask how they were changing, I will need to think about who the singers were. When were they born, and what were their lives like? Did they marry, and have children? Were their husbands and wives farmers and shepherds, or did they work in the new industries introduced into the region in the second half of the nineteenth century. The greatest hits might have been generally conservative, but the modifications of individual singers suggest ways that these old messages could be adapted to a changing world.
When I get round to it then, my next post will be about the singers, these artisans and shepherds, seamstresses and servants, not to mention the women of Sabres, those heavy-drinking, sausage-loving, child-neglecting heathens.
“The Women of Sabres”
Long live the women of Sabres!
Dondaine la dondaine
Et la dondon
To enjoy wine.
They go to mass…
Not because they are pious.
From there to the inn…
To have a party.
One has brought some sausage…
Another some ribs.
One has a pint of beer…
They are drunk.
They go from room to room…
To find the horse-dealers.
Their husbands go looking for them…
With thwacks of their sticks.
What are you doing, woman?..
Off we go! To the house.
The children are crying…
They want to suckle.
Let them cry…
You don’t have any who are crying.
Whose are they, woman?..
If they aren’t mine?
One is the vicar’s…
The other the priest’s.
The priest is a good man…
He recognizes his children.