Folk Literature of the Sephardic Jews Multimedia Digital Library

Oral Literature of the Hispanic World
Samuel G. Armistead, Faculty Research Lecture, 1998, University of California, Davis

Contents of Article:

Dedication and Acknowledgments

The Nature of the Pan-Hispanic Ballad

The 700-Year Oral Tradition of the Pan-Hispanic Ballad: A Case Study

Enter Judeo-Spanish: A Living Matrix of Pan-Hispanic Ballad Traditions

The Vagaries of Field Work

Medieval Epic and the Ballad: An Example

The Invention of Tradition: A Case of "False Memory"

Creative Cultural Fusions: "Orientalizing" the Ballad Melody

Conclusion: A Sense of Urgency

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The 700-Year Oral Tradition of the Pan-Hispanic Ballad: An Case Study

Starting perhaps around 1200--if not before--and certainly by 1300, a distinctive form of oral narrative poetry--brief songs that tell stories--begin to show up, sporadically and fragmentarily in manuscripts all over Europe: in Scandinavia, in England, in Germany, France, Italy, the Iberian Peninsula, and also further east, in Greek, Slavic, Balkan, and Baltic countries. Ballads similar to those we can still hear today in Hispanic communities once were also sung in English-speaking countries and all over the length and breadth of Europe. They are an integral part of our shared heritage.

Artistic creativity is essential to the ongoing traditional life of ballads. These texts are memorized, but they are not learned by rote; the memorial process is, over time, dynamic and creative. The following two texts represent two different versions of a famous little ballad known as El prisionero (The Prisoner).

(Cancionero general, Valencia, 1511, fol. 136 ro.-vo.)
1. El prisionero  The Prisoner 
Que por mayo era por mayo  It was in May, in May, 
quãdo los grandes calores  when the weather begins to warm, 
2 Quãdo los enamorados  when all young lovers 
van seruir asus amores  go to serve their loves, 
Sino yo triste mezquino  and I, sad and wretched, 
que yago enestas prisiones  who lie in this dungeon, 
4 que ni se quãdo es de dia  not knowing when it is day, 
ni menos quãdo es de noche  nor yet when it is night, 
Sino por una avezilla  but for one little bird, 
que me cantaua allaluor  that sang for me at dawn: 
6 matomela vn ballestero  A cross-bowman killed it. 
dele dios mal galardon  God give him an ill reward! 
(Benita Puentes, San Ciprián de Sanabria, Spain, July 7, 1963)
2. El prisionero  The Prisoner 
Mes de mayo, mes de mayo,  Month of May, month of May, 
mes de la rica calor,  month of delightful warmth, 
2 cuando los bueyes 'stán gordos  when the oxen grow fat 
y el caminito andador;  and the roads can be traveled; 
cuando a las damas bonitas  when beautiful ladies 
las van a ver el su amor,  are visited by their loves, 
4 y yo, la triste de mí,  and I, woe is me, 
estoy en esta prisión,  am locked in this prision, 
sin saber cuándo amanece,  not knowing when the dawn comes, 
ni cuándo se pone el sol,  nor yet when the sun goes down, 
6 si no son tres pasarcitos,  but for three little birds, 
que me cantan el albor:  that sing for me at dawn: 
Uno era la calandra,  One was the skylark, 
otro era el reyseñor,  the other the nightingale, 
8 otro era la golondrina,  and the other the swallow, 
la que lo hacía mejor.  the one that sang the best. 
Estando un día cantando,  One day, when it was singing, 
pasó por ahí un cuazador,  a hunter passed by, 
10 con la escopeta cargada;  with a loaded shotgun, 
d'un tiro me la mató.  and killed it with one shot. 
Si la mató por la carne,  If he killed it for its flesh, 
no tenía un cuarterón;  it was of little worth; 
12 si la mató por la pluma,  if he killed it for its feathers, 
de oro se la diera yo;  I'd have paid for them in gold; 
si la mató por venganza,  and if he killed it for vengeance, 
no se lo perdone Dios.  may God not pardon him! 

The first version, very short and very effective in its own way, is from an early collection of Spanish poetry, printed in Valencia, in 1511. I collected text 2 in a mountain village, in northwestern Spain, in 1963. Four hundred and fifty years separate these two versions. Over the centuries, a sequence of anonymous traditional singers--creative oral poets--have continuously experimented with this ballad. And they have been notably successful. Thanks to this collaborative, multi-secular poetic endeavor, the song now embodies some very effective poetic features, that were not present in the early version.

Central to the song's re-creation in the modern tradition, is its tripartite structure: There are three major segments: first, the joyous, vital, dynamic signs of Spring contrasting with the prisoner's deadly, dreadful, static, isolation; then, the singing birds, his only link with the outside world; and then, the senselessly cruel killing--we might almost say: the murder--of the swallow, the best singer of all and the prisoner's last hope of liberation. This three-part structure is echoed--and supported by--other trinary motifs throughout the poem. The recurrent tripartite pattern, typical of oral poetry, informs the song at various different levels. It is an essential part of its structure. It relates the poem's various segments to one another. Thus we have the three signs of Spring; the three aspects of the prisoner's deprivation; the three birds; and the three possible motivations of the cruel hunter. This last segment offers a finely conceived, gradual progression, from the merely materialistic killing of the bird for its flesh, through the priceless value of its plumage, to the intangible problem of the hunter's inexplicable cruelty, . . . which is surely deserving of God's retribution. This text, like so many others in the early and the modern traditions, attests the collaborative multi-secular artistic achievements of generations of traditional singers, whose names we will never know.

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