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 Vagaries of Field Work

As our Sephardic collecting was going forward, I soon came to realize that, as a complement to our work, as a key to understanding what Judeo-Spanish balladry was all about, I would need some standard of comparison, what scientists might call a series of controls or control experiments. Consequently, starting in 1963, I began to explore selected rural communities in Spain and Portugal. Between 1963 and last year, I have visited some 36 villages in northern Spain and eight villages in northeastern Portugal, to bring together about 500 versions of some 120 different traditional ballad narratives. From a comparative perspective, this experience and the texts brought together during this field work have been of inestimable value.

Yet, again, I still did not have first hand experience with what traditional balladry was like in Spanish America. To attain such an experience, I decided to explore some American-Spanish communities that were relatively close by, easily accessible, and whose ballad tradition had remained almost completely unknown. Between 1975 and the present, I have undertaken numerous field trips to Louisiana (the last one was in the Spring of 1997) to study the language and the oral literature of four isolated Spanish-speaking enclaves there. In the Mississippi Delta, I discovered a still-vital ballad tradition, as well as an abundant repertoire of lyric songs, riddles, proverbs, and folktales. I have found this Louisiana experience also to be immensely useful and have gained from it invaluable insights for our comparative work.

Working with books is great fun and I do plenty of that, but working with people is even better, most of the time, and often even more interesting. It's also very hard work. One of the most rewarding--but also the most daunting--aspects of our field work involves this human element, getting to know and to understand the very diverse peoples from whom we have collected ballads: Sephardic Jews in their adopted American or Israeli homelands and others who still lived in North Africa, at a perilous moment of de-colonization--urban peoples in both cases; but also rural ballad singers in villages in northern Spain and Portugal; both with their highly distinctive cultures and attitudes; or again shrimp fishermen and muskrat trappers on the bayous of southern Louisiana.

Each group required very different techniques for successful field work. The Sephardim, heirs to a Jewish tradition of deep respect for knowledge and to a Hispanic tradition in which the singing of ballads was an affirmation of their distinctive culture, . . . the Sephardim instantly understood what we were doing. But Spanish villagers, rugged individualists, were not so easily convinced. They were not at all certain about our motives. Collecting ballads? Who goes around collecting ballads? This was obviously some sort of front, a cover-up for something else. We were really ominous, intrusive agents from the local government, concerned perhaps with taxes or with the distribution of water for irrigation. So most interviews were preceded by some 45 grueling minutes of attempting to show that we really were professors from North America, that we really were working in good faith, that we really were interested in their songs.

In most cases, such preliminary--very arduous work--was, in the end, successful and we ended up being on very good terms with the singers, who then turned out to be helpful and hospitable. I remember, however, one instance in particular: Having persuaded two ladies, excellent singers, in a Spanish village, to sing for us; having convinced them, after much persuasion, that I really had no ulterior motives, suddenly--out of nowhere--a very grumpy, frowning gentleman appeared who began to watch, with a skeptical eye, what was going on. From time to time, he would merely exclaim ¡Claro! (Spanish for `Of course!'), followed by a very ominous silence. Naturally, I began to be seriously concerned about just what so many grumpy Claros were all about. Finally, after 4 or 5 resounding Claros, he clarified his suspicions: "Of course, it's obvious, all the money they're going to make, when they present these songs on television."

I'm proud to say that I had convinced the ladies, I got my songs, and we all finished up on good terms. There are a great number of anecdotes connected with our field work, but overwhelmingly, my experiences, with few exceptions, have been quite consistently positive: admirable people, once they realized what we were looking for, who treated us with the greatest of kindness, shared their ballads with us, took us into their world. Indeed, one of the major motivations of my work has been the awareness that these people have confided into my care the treasures of their collective memories. Most of these people are now no longer with us, but I am left with an important responsibility, a strong commitment: that their confidence in me should not have been in vain, that their ancient songs should survive into the future, in a permanent form.

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