Magrini ballads: 19th c. context

Information about ballads with reference to the performer's gender was not generally available in Italy until the second half of this century, until the beginning of the systematic recording of folk music. Folklore scholars active in the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century widely documented song texts, but did not generally mention the name or gender of the informant.

Costantino Nigra, the most important scholar of Northern ballads, was an exception. In his Canti popolari del Piemonte (1888), Nigra transcribed most of the songs from peasant women's dictation and singing. Much of the rest of his collection was gathered by contributors who worked with the same methodology. Nigra mentions three important informers: Domenica Bracco, Teresa Croce, and Teresa Bertino from Castelnuovo, in Piedmont (Nigra 1974:xxxi-ii). He overtly acknowledges the role of peasant and shepherd women in maintaining the "poetic treasury" of Italian ballads (ibid:xxxiii). From Nigra's testimony, we can assume that during the second half of the 19th century, ballads were commonly sung by women.

Social context

According to Nigra's notes, 19th century ballads were performed by peasant women while working together in the fields, for example, while harvesting.

grapepickers(thumbnail) [Tullia: Need photo credits throughout]

One commonly reads and hears that singing accompanied women's work inside or outside the house: spinning, weaving, sewing, washing, farming, and such tasks.



These tasks were essentially collective until the beginning of 1950s, related to the organization of the family in the countryside. In the lowlands, the prevailing model was the "multiple family household" (Laslett 1972, Poni 1982, Fumagalli 1977), a number of related nuclear families living together under the authority of a chief, the reggitore.


key tofamily photo(thumbnail) [Tullia: key missing]

The chief ruled the community of his unmarried sons and daughters and married sons' families. His wife, the reggitrice, who also depended on the reggitore, ruled all women living in the household and was in charge of domestic tasks (Guidicini and Alvisi 1994). In other kinds of communities, like the frereches, related families of brothers lived together and one of the brothers acted as reggitore (Poni 1982:286). In these kinds of communities, collective work was the rule for the women living in the household and often the occasion for singing. In the 20th century, until the eve of the Second World War, the Bettinelli sisters [Tullia: need citation here], well-known performers of Italian balladry living at Ripalta Nuova in Lombardy, connect singing with working in the fields and on the farm with the other women of the farmhouse. Singing ballads or listening to ballads seems to have been one of their principal means for women to perform in a group.

A same-gender relationship was important in a society where to be male or female made a difference from the beginning of life. A male child was welcome in a family since he represented a source of labor. The birth of a female child was considered a burden since she must be supported until she grew up, then left the family to get married. Moreover, she would require a dowry to get married. The relationship between men and women was not equal, but hierarchical. A woman was always subjected to the authority of a father, husband, or reggitore (Poni 1982, Mantovani 1979). Solidarity and community and group activity through ballad singing may have been an important way for women to reinforce these values.

Narrative meaning

Ballads tell a story. "A story describes a sequence of actions and experiences of a certain number of characters, whether real or imaginary. These characters are represented in situations which change or to the changes of which they react. These changes, in turn, reveal hidden aspects of the situation and the characters, giving rise to a new predicament which calls for thought or action or both. The response to this predicament brings the story to its conclusion" (Ricoeur 1981:277). [Tullia: Your translations throughout?] Since narrative is so essentialto ballads, it deserves careful attention, since "narrative is one of the most widespread and powerful forms of speech in human communication" (Bruner 1992:81).

Narratives are the best means to express and communicate one's perception of oneself, others, and external reality. Recalling Wittgenstein's vocabulary, Ricoeur suggests that, "if narrating is a unique 'language-game', and if a language game 'is part of an activity or a form of life', then we must ask to which form of life narrative discourse as a whole is bound" (Ricoeur 1981:274). Ricoeur says that any narrative is endowed with an episodic dimension, the dimension of time, and is expressed in the succession of events; and a non-chronological dimension, which constructs "meaningful totalities out of scattered events." An essential aspect, "the art of narrating, as well as the corresponding art of following a story, ... require that we are able to extract a configuration from a succession" (ibid:278).

Narrative gives meaning to a sequence of actions. In ballads, narrative is essential and emphasizes above all a skeleton of events which are connected and describe patterns of behavior related to events. These patterns help the narrator to perceive reality or describe what a certain type of man or woman would do in certain situations. Female ballad singers take a detached view, denying emotional involvement through verbal choices and singing style. This impersonal performance style seems related to the impersonality of ballad narratives. They are not dependent on ordinary chronicles or anecdotes as in Italian broadside ballads, for example. Narrative ballads are emblematic rather than historical. "By its mimetic intention, the world of fiction leads us to the heart of the real world of action" (Ricoeur:298). Fictional narratives, like history, assist us to be "in history" and emphasize our need to cope imaginatively with reality.

last updated 4 June 1995 by Karl Signell
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