updated 22 Decembe 1995
The deep transformation which affected peasants' work and their way of life in the 1950s due to growing internal migration towards cities and the mechanization and industrialization of the country is considered by the Bettinelli sisters the ultimate cause of the death of traditional singing. They say that "as work ended, songs too ended" (Mantovani 1979:35), meaning that collective work was an important occasion for group singing.
The disintegration of the "multiple
families" living in farmhouses, into scattered nuclear
families, was a powerful factor in the change of the
performance practice of ballads. For women to have no other
occasions to live and to sing together, means that the
collective performance practice was substituted necessarily
by solo singing. However, the melodies were often connected
to the old practice, as musical analysis can demonstrate.
Creative processes disappear in balladry
The Bettinelli sisters are right
about another question. When farm work
ended and multiple family living in the farmhouse
scattered, ballads ended because
the life of women's ballads was tied to the women's social
life within the household. In the virilocal system prevailing in the
North, women were powerful agents of the diffusion and
transformation of songs. A girl learned the songs sung by
the women of her family and, when she married, she brought
her repertoire with her, to her hubsband's house and
family. Here she lived in daily contact with a lot of
sisters-in-law and other relatives. So the repertoire was
transmitted to new interpreters and therefore underwent
change and transformation, while the young bride could
learn and re-interpret songs sung by her new relatives.
The process was not mechanical. Personal choice, taste, and the coherence of ballad narratives to the imaginative and effective experience of single women were important factors in determining the diffusion and elaboration of the single ballads in the past (6). But contacts among women and the collective occasions for singing were essential for the process of transmission of the ballads, and for their transformation. Later, the isolation of women within the nuclear family and the lack of social occasions where women's singing was possible and convenient became the final causes of the wane of women's ballads, since there were few occasions for their creative transformation and diffusion.
Northern women lost their role as "ballad
makers". At the same time, the role and models of social
behavior of women also changed (Bock 1992),
in the countryside. The kind of reality and worldview
which gave rise to ballad narratives became obsolete,
as did their educational value.
Transformation of women's repertoire
In the first half of the twentieth century, most women in the Northern lowlands
worked as seasonal laborers in the rice fields.
This work was an
exceptional occasion for contacts among women coming in
large numbers from all parts of the Northern regions, and
lived for a period far from the family. It gave rise to an
important female choral practice, which probably found its
roots in the group performance practice of ballads, even if
the new types of occasions led to transformation in the
vocal style. Rice-weeders' songs have a two-voice
structure, documented also in ballads, but
performances emphasize the choral dimension of singing and
therefore tension and loudness of voices increase.
Work in rice fields had an important historical role in the
production and diffusion of a new song repertoire and the
connected singing style all over the Northern lowlands. The
new songs were not narrative and dealt generally with
feelings and situations connected with work, besides the
usual theme of love (Tormene and Orlandi 1972). For
example, there were specific songs for the different
moments in the life of the rice-weeders: the departure
towards the rice-fields, the arrival, the end of the work period.
Singing was continuous during work and was
used also for communication, discussion, and protest. In
a feature film by De Santis about life in the rice fields
("Riso amaro," 1949), a rice-weeder tells a
friend, "If you have something to say, say it by singing. It
is the custom."
Women's ballads on the wane
Women's collective work in the rice
fields led to important consequences