“When we listen to our young men singing, what do we hear?”

“When we listen to our young men singing, what do we hear?”

Local and national in the folk/national/folklore songs of the Goriška Brda region

When a cultural practice comes to be interpreted as heritage in the broadest sense, namely when it is recognised as worthy of a focused effort to preserve it for posterity, this establishes a basis for its protection (Hafstein 2007: 128). From the very beginnings of focused interest in them, folk songs, as an intangible product of singing, have been granted the status of a cultural element of special significance among the broadest strata of society; one which needs to be ‘snatched from oblivion at the last moment’, transcribed, recorded, archived and thus protected, and through various means be revived in practice (within organised singing activities, arrangements, etc. In the hands of the elite constituents of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and their so-called Kulturträger (bearers of culture) – universities, museums, associations and newspapers – folk songs became an important heritage element; collecting, publishing and promoting their use was primarily an endeavour of national affirmation. The (folk) song is a syncretic whole of text and melody, but although its musical elements are related to a particular geographical area, research and collection has usually been dominated by a focus on the text in a particular language, specifically on the philological aspect, which “usually takes place in the search for and affirmation of ethnic entities” (Fikfak 2008: 38).

Throughout Central Europe, interest in folk songs was closely linked to broader efforts to achieve the rights of politically deprived nations within a multinational empire. Songs in the Slovene language were meant to bear witness to the long and rich history of a people who, although speaking a common language, lived in different lands  under Hapsburg rule and did not enjoy the same linguistic and national political rights as the dominant nations of the Empire. Thus, the collection and publication of folk songs in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was embedded in an organised cultural and social activity that aimed to create a single entity out of the diverse local and regional cultures and idioms (Anttonen 2005: 85; Pisk 2013: 110). Thus, in the process of collecting, editing and publishing during the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, folk songs were transformed from local to national, followed by a national recontextualization into the glamour of folk (Bohlman 2004: 48). The emerging folkloristics formed a national canon of songs, authorised by the ‘people’ and speaking with the voice of the ‘nation’ (Anttonen 2005: 88). This conceptualisation is also reflected in the term ‘national song’, which still exists among singers (especially older ones), reflecting both the connection to a particular nation and the social affiliation of singers vis-à-vis elite culture.

In the 1920s, ethnologist, musicologist and art historian Stanko Vurnik (1898-1932) critically reflected on the content and naming of this kind of art, of which the folk song is a distinctive part: ‘What actually is folk art? Firstly the name: peasant is untrue, because it was not only they who enjoyed it; national is untrue, because it varies from place to place and does not have the national tendency that we want to see these days.” (Vurnik 1984: 132). His concerns, however, did not manage to overcome the understanding reflected in the still widespread designation “national song”. This term was replaced in Slovene folklore studies after the Second World War by the term ‘folk song’, and in some contemporary circles it is also referred to as ‘folklore song’.

The conceptualisation of the folk song as a manifestation of national belonging was particularly pronounced in border (or other multilingual) areas; in such locations, and in an atmosphere of “cultural nationalism”, different, often diametrically opposed, meanings of value were attributed to related cultural elements in different languages. The singing of Slovene ‘national’ songs, as the best means to rouse the inhabitants of Goriška Brda (also known as Brici) ‘from their long sleep and make them aware that they are Slovenes’ (Soča, 18 June 1881) was strongly encouraged both through the newspapers and through social activities, while the singing of non-Slovenian songs or bilingual songs was discouraged and reproached. In a letter from Kozana in the Goriška Brda region, the singing of non-Slovenian songs by local women is described as evidence of a lack of national consciousness: “What they sing is some kind of Friulian-Italian minestrone without colour, smell, or taste. The local girls sing without even knowing themselves what they’re singing. Where folk singing gives way to foreign songs this is sad because this is the best proof of national unawareness and negligence.” (Soča, 16 September 1875)

The song of the boy narrating of his journey to Gorizia to find his mistress was widespread in Goriška Brda and Venetian Slovenia.

In order to eradicate “foreign” and unwelcome singing, collections of folk songs were published, which were to be “the means which will surely lead to the desired end, which will revitalise the folk song, spread it everywhere, and make it accessible to everyone, so that everyone, even in the last mountain village, will be able to know all the songs we still have, from all the places where Slovenians live” (Štritof 1908: 34). The printed songbooks became the material basis of Slovenian folk song heritage. In the narratives of the interlocutors from the Goriška Brda region, songs of this kind that appeared in the songbooks are described as “such national songs that are known everywhere”, while other (folk) songs that they sing are called “homemade”, “old”, “from Brda”, “from Kozana”, etc. Locals believed that songs could only be “national songs” if they have been published in songbooks, but do not use the same notion for songs that they sing by heart or for other locally known songs.

Linguistic interweaving in folk songs

By collecting and publishing songs, folklorists (or their predecessors) wanted to stop the constant flow of modernisation and change in folk practices and prevent the “old” songs from disappearing. During the process of collecting the ‘old’ songs, namely in an attempt to capture the disappearing songs, many that were still widely and commonly sung were omitted. Those included – in addition to those which were inappropriate for the collectors in terms of content and genre, or those newly created from foreign (musical) arrangements, etc. – even songs in languages other than Slovene, or songs in which different languages were intertwined: in some cases only single foreign words, in others phrases, whole lines or stanzas. Despite frequent self-censorship by singers who usually want to please their transcribers – and therefore sing what they think the specialist expects of them – as well as the strict criteria of transcription, some of the multilingual songs were nevertheless detailed, but most of them were neither transcribed nor included in the emerging canon of Slovenian folk songs. Folkloristics thus ‘nostalgised homogeneity’ (Kapchan 1993: 307) and rejected impure traditions in the processes of assembling the folk song canon, thus constantly maintaining the notion that cultural purity, not hybridity, was the norm (Bendix 1997: 9). This is not the case with Kajkavian songs, which are now understood as Croatian, but in the 19th century their status was still undefined, nor with the Serbo-Croatian songs from the Belo Krajina region, which were included as a special supplement in the canonical editions of the Slovene Folk Songs I-V during the time of the common Yugoslav federation.

The instrumentalization of folk culture in broader socio-political processes made it impossible to include “impure” or hybrid forms in folklore. Songs in foreign languages and bilingual songs were thus perceived as a disturbing element in the folk tradition (Bendix 1997 ; Klobčar 2020). The fact that they were not written down, however, had far-reaching consequences, as the folklore canon moved in a more-or-less reliable form into textbooks, into publications with wider distribution, and became part of official cultural policy (Kovačič 2012: 43). In the light of changing social conditions, this has become particularly acute in recent decades: local and regional identifications have become increasingly important, and members of these communities want to represent themselves with local traditions that are as distinctive as possible from others. As a result, singers, these days, are most in demand for specific localised forms of folk culture that distinguish a place and its inhabitants from the wider Slovenian and more globally. Similar processes are taking place in Goriška Brda hills.

Linguistically inhomogeneous songs in the Goriška Brda hills

In the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the long unchanged linguistic boundary between Slavic and Romance (Friulian and Italian) speakers, who had lived together for centuries, increasingly became a point of conflict. Although language in songs was perceived as an indicator of nationality in the multinational Habsburg Empire after 1848, the use of different languages in the same village or region rarely reflected significant differences in everyday life (Cvirn 1995: 156; Judson 2013: 736). There were many ‘in-between’ practices in everyday life (King 2002 ; Bjork 2008 ; Zahra 2010; Judson 2016; Van Ginderachter, Fox 2019) that did not necessarily follow the logic of hegemonic nationalist discourse.

This was also reflected in the Goriška Brda region. The “Plebiscite” of 1866 annexed about thirty thousand Slovene-speaking inhabitants of neighbouring Venetian Slovenia to the Kingdom of Italy and further separated the already isolated inhabitants of Venetian Slovenia from the rest of the Slovene-speaking inhabitants of the Princely County of Gorizia and Gradisca. On the slopes of Goriška Brda, the border between the Austrian and Italian states was redrawn, and the inhabitants of Brda became the “border guards” of national traditions and language (Pisk 2018).

Singing and gymnastic societies played an influential role in in the development and expression of national identity in the villages of Goriška Brda. (From the archives of Peter Stres)

In 1911, Josip Tominšek, secretary of the Committee for the Collection of Slovenian Folk Songs within the framework of the all-Austrian collection campaign Das Volkslied in Österreich, sent a letter from Gorizia in which he claimed that “the collection of native songs does not promise much at all, because the people sing less than in Carniola and Styria and, on top of that, they cling greatly to non-native songs” (Murko 1929: 42). Two decades earlier, a correspondent from Šlovrenc in the Goriška Brda region had a similar complaint:

“What do we hear when we listen to our young men sing? Perhaps a Slovene song, of which we have hundreds? Ah, no, they prefer a coarse Friulian or Italian song, which even the Friulians have already stopped using and thrown out of their houses, but which our people in the remote Goriška Brda have carefully picked up and preserved as though it were a precious gem. And when they want to make it longer, they add a »holi-lai-la-la, la-la-liu-la-le-lie«, and so on, with every stanza ending with a »doi, a doi farin l’ amor«, or even »evviva l’amor«. And so they keep singing even up until midnight. So you can never hear a Slovene song? Sure, when they make something up themselves and add a folk melody to the words. This kind of Slovene singing, if I may even call it so, does have its purpose, although I don’t want to discuss it further. Perhaps some understand me well enough. This way, it is mainly Friulian or Italian songs that echo in the remote Gorizia hills (they are especially common at folk dances). But I must draw attention to the fact that here in Šlovrenc you can often hear Slovene songs such as »Zvedel sem nekaj novega« [I Learned Something New], »Kje so moje rožice« [Where are my Flowers?], and some others that I don’t know well. I must grant them this. Otherwise Italian songs are also common in Šlovrenc, and in fairly large numbers at that.” (Soča, 18 June 1881 )

Karel Štrekelj, who completed his primary and secondary education in Gorizia (1867-1878) and was probably familiar with the songs that were popular in the town and its surroundings (Pisk 2017), included questions about songs in a “foreign” language in “Instructions and Questions”, a publicationintended to guide the fieldwork of the collectors in the Das Volkslied in Österreich campaign, but unfortunately the questions remained unanswered. On the other hand, several Slovenian (folk) songs were collected by priest and composer, Ivan Kokošar, who was responsible for the collection of songs in the campaign in the Gorizia region, but he did not send the collected material onwards to the central Slovenian committee. He also compiled a collection of Friulian folk songs and a collection of Italian church songs for men’s choirs.

The transcribers of Slovenian folk songs in the Gorizia county were mainly teachers and priests, who were also the main correspondents of the newspapers of the time and publicly criticised the singing practices in the Goriška Brda region. It is clear from the newspaper articles that they were bothered by non-Slovenian language in the songs, as well as by the inclusion of popular songs in folk repertoire. The construction of the railway enabled greater mobility and trade over greater distances, thus encouraging the movement of songs from one region to another. In the summer months, women from the Goriška Brda region, especially from the village of Kozana, sold seasonal fruit in towns in Carinthia and Styria. During their stay, they not only learnt the local language, but also the songs they heard while working in the mainly German-speaking towns. Another important element in the spread of popular folk and popular songs was military service, which geographically extended the social networks of conscripts to a great extent. In the Habsburg Empire, districts of permanent conscripts were established in 1771, leading, in general, to ethnically and linguistically homogeneous units ([[Klobčar 2007;Klobčar 2007: 39] ; Kozorog 2018: 91). In Gorizia county, the majority of conscripts, both Slovene and Friulian (and Italian) speaking, were assigned to the 97th Trieste Infantry Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian Army. After returning from the battlefield, the soldiers sang the songs they had learned from their comrades, and these songs spread among the rest of the population. Many of the military songs known also in the rest of Slovenia thus intertwine Slovene and German, the common language of military command.

The popular songbook Barčica, from which many of the older singers of Goriška Brda still draw their songs, was reprinted several times during the Italian occupation.

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italian occupation of this part of Slovenian territory, enacted by the 1920 Treaty of Rapallo, Goriška Brda became part of the Kingdom of Italy. The Italian state introduced Italian as the official language and banned the Slovene language in public places. The Fascist regime tried to facilitate the teaching of Italian by introducing Italian songs in schools. Despite these songs being unpopular with most of the schoolchildren’s parents, these songs were, and still are, sung by many, even into in their later years. While Slovenian singing was banned in public places, including taverns, in 1926, it became a sign of rebellion and some singers were even imprisoned for singing in Slovenian (Hrovatin 1951: 32). Songs in a particular language thus acquired a strong political connotation. Knowledge of German and its use in songs acquired the label of politically hostile “Austrophilism”. It can be assumed that this is the reason why Slovene-German bilingual songs disappeared from singing practices here.

Men from the Goriška Brda region served in the Italian army and learned Italian and Friulian songs. Alpine songs were particularly popular, e.g. ‘La licenza’, ‘Quel mazzolin di fiori’, ‘Stelutis alpinis’ and ‘Oh ce biel cjistiel a Udin’. It is therefore not surprising that the most frequently written and published bilingual song was also the military song “Lan san biu u Gorici”, which combines dialectal versions of Slovenian and Italian (Steccati 1932; Hrovatin 1953; Merkù 1976, 2004; Planinska 2015) and which the singers are said to have learned during their military service in the Italian army (Merkù 1976: 174). The use of second/foreign language in songs, especially love songs, often obscures content unsuitable for open expression in the presence of children, e.g. sexual innuendo, etc.

Vernacular forms of speech with words from Slovene, Friulian and Italian dialects are most prevalent in locally coloured jokes, taunts and children’s songs and short folklore forms (Pisk, Šrimpf Vendramin 2021). The combination of Friulian, Italian and Slovenian words and lines is thus an integral part of the vast majority of the region’s counting-out rhymes. These short rhythmic forms are not semantic but functional (lulling, counting out, etc.) and are based mainly on sound effect, sometimes masking pre-Christian (fertility) rituals with a blurred linguistic image. The hard-to-understand mixture of Italian, Slovenian and Friulian dialect words is difficult to write down, so Slovenian folklorists have transcribed non-Slovenian words phonetically (Merkù 2004: 199).

Local song heritage

The corpus of bilingual songs has long been outside the research interest of folklorists, because the songs are neither Slovene nor Italian nor German, but they do have a distinct identity (Marty 2004: 203). Bilingual songs, or songs in ‘non-national’ languages that folklorist researchers have excluded, add to the repertoire of officially recognised songsof a particular community and reflect many aspects of community life and relations. It is therefore important to broaden the focus of folkloristic research to the entire repertoire of songs by a particular singer or community, including any emerging genre and linguistic heterogeneities and inconsistencies. In this way, analysis encompasses not only the focus on the activity itself and its product, but also the meaning of the practice for the singers (Wietschorke 2010: 211). It is the meaning for the singers or the local community that stimulates a variety of local initiatives for the heritage of selected products and practices.

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