Donne della pianura del Po

Women's Songs from the Ricefields and Farms of the Po valley

Snatch'd from Oblivion SFO 001

[A discussion] [The Women's tradition] [The Ricefield workers] [The Farm workers]

There are those who hold that the first real British folk songs came into existence during the First World War - before that, they were merely regional.  The reasons for this view are many, and not all to do with the war itself.  A huge proportion of the male population of these islands were moved away from their own locality, thrown together with others from another area entirely, confined for weeks, months at a time, often with nothing to do but to wait.  It's hardly surprising that they made songs to suit their purposes, appropriated others, and built a common repertoire of heartening, nostalgic, romantic songs with simple stories, memorable tunes and good choruses.  Later, the survivors would be shipped off to some other front, where the whole process would happen again - the gems being reinforced, the dross abandoned.  Generations of aural transmission were compressed into a single year and pan-national stylistic nuances were melded in one month in a slit trench.  In 1919, the heroes returned, often to another sort of hell, and found that their comradeship, and the songs which expressed it, was needed to help them survive once more.

If we add to this scenario a hitherto undreamed-of social and geographical mobility, plus the widespread ownership of the gramophone, and later the radio, we can see how a national folk music came into being in a decade.  It was reinforced and extended a generation later during World War II, and has left its mark to this day - when at least the choruses of the most popular songs are remembered by everyone over 40.

You might be forgiven for wondering just what the hell this has got to do with a record of Italian women.  Patience - and I'll try to explain.  It should be obvious that what happened in Britain must have had parallels in most countries engaged in the conflict.  In Italy, the effect was even more marked.  Firstly, the troops spent rather less time fighting, and much more time guarding (usually the Alpine passes), than was the case with the British.  Also, and strangely, their regiment structure was rather less geographically oriented than ours - so men from different areas were thrown together even more.  Italy as a nation had existed for barely half a century, and the local dialects were still virtually complete languages - often utterly incomprehensible to people living even in the neighbouring province.  So the newly created folk songs were in Italian - in order to be understood by all the participants - thus, the 'Alpino' tradition came into being.  Not only did a national folk music emerge, as it had in Britain, but the songs spread the new national language, aided by gramophone and radio, with a speed that had never seemed possible before the war.  It will be obvious that both the above mentioned musical developments were, at least initially, almost wholly male-oriented and dominated.


OK - now we come to the women - and I hope you will be able to see the parallels I'm trying to draw.  During the last few years of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, the rice growing industry in the Po valley, the great Padana plain, expanded hugely.  Despite some attempts at mechanisation, it was still an incredibly labour intensive industry, and the seasonal labour requirements were such that they could not possibly be satisfied by the local workforce.  Cover pictureConsequently, large numbers of 'migrant' workers travelled often considerable distances twice a year to work on the planting and weeding of the rice crop.  Whilst in the ricefields, these workers lived in what can only be described as 'bothies' - and we know what a breeding-ground for songs they were.  For the obvious reasons outlined above with regard to the 'Alpino' tradition, most of these new ricefield songs were in Italian - albeit, peppered with local dialect terms.  What is less obvious, and at odds with most of the British agricultural experience, is that a considerable proportion of these rice workers were women.

A second, and largely unexplained, phenomenon was that song tradition which these women developed was almost wholly a polyvocal one (just as was the men's Alpino tradition), whilst the male workers' songs were generally monodic.  This is strange because the surrounding song tradition in the whole of northern Italy contains countless examples of polyphony of all kinds and it's odd that the rice workers' songs should be so sharply divided, stylistically, on grounds of gender.

Earlier, I used the term 'polyvocal' to describe the performance style, rather than the more usual 'polyphonic'.  This was intentional, for - as Roberto Leydi, compiler of this disc, collector, ethnomusicologist of renown, points out in the excellent booklet notes - these singers tend to 'hear' their respective parts independently of each other.  It's as if it were a question of autonomous melodic lines developing in parallel, unlinked by conscious harmonic relationships.  Leydi believes that much of the polyvocal music of northern Italy is still mainly perceived in this 'horizontal' fashion, rather than in a 'vertical' - harmonic - way.  (I would add that I tend to feel that this is true of the more primitive 'harmony' singing throughout much of western Europe.  It is certainly perceptible if one compares the singing of the older generations of the Copper family with that of (say) Coope, Boyes & Simpson. Even the Watersons are noticeably much closer to the older 'horizontal' approach.)

To sum up - what the War did for the macrocosm of Italian folk song was mirrored in the Po valley rice fields, and had considerable effects on the microcosm of the women agricultural workers throughout the whole Padana plain.  It's no surprise, therefore, to find that these women had similar songs, and performed them in a similar style.

This CD contains seven tracks of songs from five different groups of ricefield workers, followed by fourteen from two groups of women farm workers.  Roberto Leydi describes the style as being based on the following structures:

play Sound Clip The comment about vocal production reflects what is most immediately apparent to a first-time listener with little Italian.  (Listen to Sound Clip - Track 1, verse 1)  'Tarts screaming their heads off' is a phrase which comes most readily to mind - and this is in no way derogatory - it is absolutely my favourite sort of singing.

In the rice fields, the songs were often sung whilst working - in the hottest months of the year, with their arms and legs immersed in water and mud, their backs practically horizontal - the women found the singing helped them to put aside their exhaustion.  On the farms, the singing was mainly done during periods of rest or ease, or else during collective work such as husking maize.  The style of the farm songs was very similar to those of the ricefield - many women 'went to the rice' to boost the family income - but the vocalisation was rather more relaxed, and the 'complete polyvocal model' of three voices and drone was quite rare.


Photo of a group of women rice workers Tracks 1 & 2 of the CD come from recordings made by Ente Nazionale Risi (National Rice Office) for publicity purposes in 1953, and represent the earliest known recordings of ricefield workers.  (Alan Lomax and Diego Carpitella's recording of Tutti mi chiamano bionda (Everyone calls me Blondie) from the Coumbia World series, dates from one year later.)  Despite the technical mediocrity of the Rice Office recordings, the energy and attack of the singers comes through loud and clear - as does the inclusion of several male voices in some of the choruses (as you may have noticed at the end of the Sound Clip, above).  Nella città di Genova is probably a street song, a narrative from the late 19th century, widely known in northern areas.  O marinaio che cosa rimiri? is a ballad noted widely in central Italy during the last century, though it's quite rare in the North.  Here the sailor in the title becomes, as might be expected, a handsome 'mountain dweller' - and later, during the resistance against the Fascists and the Nazis, a 'handsome partizan'.

Track 3 is La mia mamma l'è 'na ruffiana (Me Mum was a Hooker) - a widely known song in the country repertoire, with numerous variants - track 10 is another one.  The recording dates from 1964 and it was made at the very start of the modern fieldwork investigations of the Po valley singing traditions.  All that is known is that the singers were four working women from Novellara in Emillia.

In 1978, ARCI (which may be seen as a sort of Workers' Educational Association - and then some!) organised the recording of a group of 22 women from Medicina (Bologna) who had, until recent years, worked in the ricefields.  We do not know whether all of them sang at the same time, but it's clearly a large group we hear - perhaps this is a glimpse of the true colour of the singing at a time when dozens of gangs were working at the same time.  The examples included here are Sento il fischio del vapore, which is well known and tells of various famous historical battles, and Moretto, o bel Moretto, which is a muddle of two other songs.

Tracks 6 & 7 are by workers at Bentivoglio (Emillia), and were recorded in 1973.  By this time the repertoire of protest songs was very strong, particularly in the 'red' areas of the countryside.  Both are modern songs, but use earlier melodies and scraps of traditional texts tailored to suite contemporary events.  Lavoro è molto poco (Working Doesn't Amount to Much) could well have been written by the women who sing it, and who participated in the wave of farm stikes after WWII.  O cancellier che tieni la penna in mano is one of the best known and most widespread political songs of the area.  Again, the tune is traditional from a prisoners' song of the previous century, whilst the words were held to have been written near Bentivoglio during the 1949/50 strikes.  The song is apparently dedicated to a Union carpenter imprisoned for three years, and was later adapted to name other workers arrested in various parts of Emillia.


Tracks 8 to 15 feature Andreina Fortunati, Clara Benedusi and Ebe Dalmaschio; who lived and worked at the Ponte Alto farm of the Barbano Co-operative in Mantua, south-eastern Lombardy.  These three women were 'peasants' all their lives, working for the Co-operative throughout the year, but helping in the local ricefields during the weeding season.  Thus they had first hand experience of both styles and repertoires.  Although they had sung together during their working lives, Andreina Fortunati formally formed them into a group in 1964, in order to record the local singing tradition, which was beginning to disappear.  From then until 1975 they sang regularly at public holiday events and political meetings, both regionally and nationally.  These tracks were recorded at the end of that period.

play Sound Clip I have to say that these eight tracks are far and away my favourites of the whole CD, and that they alone would make the purchase worthwhile.  (Listen to sound clip - track 8, verse 1)  The three women sing with practised confidence, yet retain much of the fire which is the outstanding feature of the ricefield recordings.  These earlier tracks are wonderful to hear - prompting exclamations about the incredible noise the women make - but they are not easy or comfortable listening for more than a few minutes at at time.  Andreina, Clara and Ebe however, can be enjoyed for hours at a time - and are as I write.  All of the songs are well known - I can find almost all of them in my meagre record collection - yet these versions are always new, fresh and most of all, exciting.  I had intended to make a 'favourites' recommendation at this point, as a track by track discussion might be a little over the top, but I really can't single out any one track - they are all lovely.

The CD ends with six tracks from the Bettinelli sisters, from Ripalta Nuova, Cremona, recorded in 1969.  Natalina, Franca and Liugina had lived most of their lives on the Cantu farm, and began to work at the age of fourteen in the local ricefields, and later as far afield as Piemonte.  Like the Ponte Alto farm singers, the sisters have a broad repertoire of ricefield, farm and countryside songs - though no political pieces appear on this record.  Though only in their early forties at the time of recording, they sound much older - more tired and with far less spark.  I don't know enough about the style to say whether that are inferior to the Ponte Alto group - just less to my taste.  I imagine that an Italian in my position might prefer Johnny Doughty to Harry Cox, and that his/her preference might say equally little about the skill or quality of the two singers concerned.

(It might be of interest to note that, whilst increasing mechanisation and the use of chemical weedkillers has much reduced the need for labour in the ricefields, women do still work there and the songs are still alive.  Mariarosa Mulazzi - who sings with the Quattro Province group 'I Müsetta' - was a rice worker and still has a repertoire of the songs.)

This is a fascinating record, very well produced and documented, of the most spirited perfomances within a genre which is likely to be quite outside the experience of most of my readers - though I am told that the sound these women produce is not unlike that of some Scottish Free Church congregations.

This great CD is available in the UK from MT at our Records page.

Rod Stradling - 8.7.97

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