Arts & Culture

Mining a trove of old ballads gives women a new voice

5 min read

In the mid-1930s, Milman Parry, a professor in the Department of the Classics at Harvard, traveled throughout Yugoslavia to research and record folk songs. Assisted by his former student Albert Lord, Parry spent 15 months on the road and returned to Harvard with innumerable texts and sound recordings of more than 1,500 epic songs. Their findings now comprise the Milman Parry Collection at Harvard, housed in Widener Library.

Though the collection has been actively researched, scholars have not focused a great deal of attention on the songs composed specifically for women — until now. Aida Vidan, preceptor in Slavic languages and literatures, is working to digitize the women’s songs for publication. Vidan hopes the project will increase awareness about a cultural legacy from an area of the world that more often garners attention for its political strife.

“Our goal is to make these materials readily available,” said Vidan. “Particularly in light of the economic and political situation in Southeastern Europe, it can be difficult for scholars in this field to access primary sources.”

Vidan knows the difficulty firsthand. She began researching the topic as a graduate student during the 1990s, when the region was rife with political and ethnic unrest.

“So many collections were destroyed because of the wars,” she said.

Luckily, said Vidan, the body of source material at Harvard is rich and diverse. The Parry Collection includes more than 11,000 women’s songs, which range in length from a handful of verses to over 300. Parry and his assistants collected the songs from peasants, mostly mothers, living in the southern part of present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“The oral tradition was very important in this region,” said Vidan. “Lord and Parry caught it at its last moments. There is not much left today.”

According to Vidan, the collection process was complicated. Many of the women were uncomfortable singing in front of strangers, particularly men.

“This was a conservative Muslim society, so there was no ‘performative’ aspect to the music,” she said. “These were just personal songs sung by family members or friends while they performed chores.” The music was typically sung unaccompanied, although women would occasionally hold a cooking pan on its side and sing into the pan for amplification or echo.

The recording devices used by Lord and Parry were primitive and unwieldy. They captured the songs on large aluminum disks, which only held a few minutes’ worth of music. The disks were placed on a double turntable and engraved with recording grooves as the women sung. Once each disk was full it was replaced with a new one. Vidan and others are now converting the music from the disks into digital format.

In the course of her research, Vidan has discovered that the women’s songs are mostly ballads and lyric songs, with family and love themes. The men’s songs, by contrast, tend to focus on battles and acquiring a bride. Despite the continuity of themes among the women’s songs, however, there are so many different story forms that Vidan has developed a database to classify the patterns.

“The stories vary in part because of the flexible, fluid nature of the oral tradition,” Vidan said. “Many peasants would travel to Dubrovnik along trade routes and end up exchanging stories and songs.”

The music and lyrics reflect the ethnic diversity of the region, thereby allowing scholars to explore the material “from a variety of angles,” said Vidan.

One of Vidan’s favorite stories is an account of two lovers kept apart by a meddling mother who doesn’t want her son to marry beneath him. He is forced to marry someone else, and, in keeping with local custom, the couple is locked into a bedroom on their wedding night. Instead of consummating the marriage, however, the young man sings to the new bride and explains that she will never replace his true love. At the conclusion of the song, the young man dies on the spot.

The bride, though upset, cannot leave the room until morning. When the mother enters the room in triumph, she sees instead that her son has died. In place of a celebration the bereft mother prepares a funeral procession, which passes by the window of the young man’s true love. Her heart breaks apart at the sight, and she dies instantly. The two are buried in adjacent graves, from which two trees sprout and grow intertwined.

“It’s an archetypal motif,” said Vidan, “but it is just beautiful.”

The lovers’ tale, along with many other texts, will be featured in a book that Vidan is currently preparing on the women’s songs in the Parry collection. The multivolume edition will also include recorded materials.

“This is a way for me to give back, to show that the world cares about the cultural contributions of Southeastern Europe,” said Vidan. “It is especially important to encourage students, who face low employment rates and rifts along ethnic lines. These songs unify the whole region, because they reflect Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian traditions, and yet they incorporate the idiosyncrasies reflecting the different religious and cultural backgrounds of each group.”

Vidan’s research has already garnered interest. Earlier this month, the Austrian film director Paul Rosdy announced his plan to make a feature film based on one of Vidan’s earlier books, titled “Embroidered with Gold, Strung with Pearls: The Traditional Ballads of Bosnian Women.” According to Vidan, shooting will begin next year.

“It is very exciting to witness one type of art being transformed into another,” she said.

This July, Vidan and other scholars will convene in Tuzla, Bosnia, for a conference on the materials in the Parry collection.