LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2006 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 52, No 2 - Summer 2006
Editor of this issue: Zita Kelmickaitė
WHY IS SONG SO IMPORTANT TO LITHUANIANS?
Zita Kelmickaitė lectures on musical history, ethnomusicology and editing for television and radio at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theater. She has written and hosted several television and radio programs, produced recordings with the Vilnius University folklore emsemble and organized folk festivals in Lithuania and abroad. She has been awarded the J. Basanavičius prize.
Every nationality expresses its happiness, sadness, and pain in its own fashion. Song is indispensable to Lithuanians. Through song they give voice to the most beautiful loving words to their mother, father, sister and brother, and to their country’s nature – the trees and the birds. In the end, it’s not that important what a Lithuanian sings about – the most important thing is that they sing! It’s an unusual need to express one’s feelings through song, not necessarily gathered around a table, but also through hymns and laments in the face of misfortune, which our grandparents have not been the only ones to experience. In the Sąjūdis meetings in 1988 and on January 13, 1991, when unarmed Lithuanians fought for their country’s freedom in the face of Soviet tanks, the characterization Singing Revolution flashed in the world press. This was because the people of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had only one weapon in their search for independence, song.
Throughout the cold night, next to the Lithuanian Parliament Building, songs led by people of various ages never died down. It was possible to determine the ethnographic region that most people came from according to the dialect. When the tension lessened somewhat, wedding songs, songs of youth, love, and family could be heard; but with a change in the situation, the topic would change immediately – an avalanche of patriotic songs to the texts of Lithuanian poets gushed out. When the crowd of many thousands would roar: “Oi, neverk motušėle, kad jaunas sūnus, eis ginti brangiosios Tėvynės” (Oh, don’t cry mother, that your young son goes to defend our precious homeland), no one in the square could not believe in the words. Being there and singing in the face of political unknowns was tantamount to an unwritten oath to love and defend your country. When the people gathered at the Lithuanian television tower saw the approaching tanks, no one fled; they just joined hands, and an elderly woman standing next to me asked, “Ma’am, what would it be better to do now – pray or sing?” However, after these words, shots were heard, breaking shards of window glass flew about and Lithuania’s Radio and Television building was occupied. Our songs stilled for the time being...
Even today, writing down folklore in various places around Lithuania, every elderly person you meet will tell you: ”In the old days the entire village would ring with song, but today it’s no longer the same...” During a 1971 expedition to the village of Dubičiai in Dzūkija we, then conservatory students, would compete to see who could write down the most old songs in a single day. At that time, it was possible to write down as many as 150 songs, sometimes a hundred from a single person. Only there, in Dzūkija – the poorest but surely the most songful part of Lithuania – do you understand what song means to a person. In Dzūkija, it is the treasure of treasures. Let a woman from Dzūkija sing, and she’ll forget the entire world: it’s not important, that her husband’s dinner isn’t fixed and the cows aren’t milked, but they’ve come to write down songs... and that’s a very serious thing. You can imagine how they run through the pine groves hunting mushrooms and berries and singing in the woods... Others said that they didn’t sing in the woods, because they feared the neighbors would hear them singing and know where to find the best places for mushrooms... Even today, in the bogs, the women in Dzūkija can’t get by without singing while gathering cranberries. One starts; and the song surges deeper into the bogs through the women in their variously colored scarves bent over the berries... Many a folksinger has written that song shortens hard work. The famous Anelė Čepukienė from Dzūkija remembers the rye harvest this way: “Cutting and cutting, one of the women straightens up and with a melodious voice strikes up: “Oh, you little swallow, you little bluebird...” The sound ripples down the waving field of rye to the very edge of the woods. And the echo reverberates from there back to the harvesters. A second harvester grabs the second verse; then, still another... So the entire field of rye begins to resound...” 1
In Suvalkija, if you’re promised several songs, then several will be sung, no more, no less; and after that you’ll go to work and no amount of sweet talk will allow you to convince them to put it aside for music. Work is waiting! In Aukštaitija, a man won’t start singing without a glass of beer, but if he drinks three – you won’t be able to converse with him. Even now hop vines grow by every house, and the people of Aukštaitija produce a tasty beer for their needs; but, it’s said, that one glass isn’t enough and two is too many. It’s hard to convince people from Žemaitija to sing, but if you manage to do it, then the loveliest old extended songs will roll out. In the Skuodas area, in the village of Mosėdis, the men even cupped their hands around their mouths so that the sound would travel farther. In all of Lithuania’s ethnographic regions, people stressed that the young people would gather in the evening and compete among themselves to see which village sang the best. One group would strike up, and another, several kilometers away, would listen and answer. The entire surrounding area would know which villages sang the best. Singing not only provided the satisfaction of singing in a group with one’s contemporaries and those of the same persuasion, but it also provided spiritual strength and transported one into a world of dreams.
Petras Zalanskas from the Varėna region (Dzūkija): “I sang everywhere, in trouble or not, I made myself merry everywhere... I sang all my life, I warbled like a bird... Oh, how cheerful it was to beautify the fields with song... Songs prolonged my life... We would ride out to pasture the horses atnight and sing, all the roads resounded, and the girls by the rue garden would listen to us singing...2
Stasė Žilevičienė from the Telšiai area (Žemaitija): “I sweetened myself with song during a hard life.” 3
Bronė Bogušienė from the Lazdijai area (Dzūkija): “I said to my grandchildren: ‘Children, learn to sing. You’re young, beautiful. You need to know how to sing. It’s not right that you don’t know how. Song lifts a person up.’” 4
Magdelena Ratkevičienė from the Varėna region (Dzūkija): “My mother taught me: ’Don’t take sorrows to heart, sing instead – song beats everything.’ And that’s what I do...” 5
Kunigunda Zaleckienė from the Varėna region (Dzūkija): “If it wasn’t for song, Lord forbid, it would be like being in jail. A person sings, that’s how he calms himself. Life with songs is completely different...” 6
Adelė Kazlauskienė from the Marijampolė area (Suvalkija): “I wouldn’t know what to do without song. I don’t know. What then – get gloomier and gloomier?” 7
Feliksas Mulkis from the Kėdainiai region (Aukštaitija): “Without song, life would be empty and purposeless. As long as I sing, I feel like I’m alive. It cheers you up and others, too... When we’d harvest the hay the men would sing the hay-mowing song. During threshing, on Saturday nights – there was song everywhere. And how they’d sing after the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary! They’d sing in Kapliai, and in Milžemiai, beyond the woods, they’d listen and listen and strike up a song; then in Stašaičiai, beyond yet another forest, they’d answer. Then Kapliai would listen and strike up again...” 8
Emilija Brajinskienė from Šeduva (Aukštaitija): “Song lives in every person’s heart. It lives quietly, but if it wells up from a person’s heart, it’s so powerful that it gathers people together. When everyone starts to sing, it’s not just a person who hears it, but God in heaven, too. If song were taken away from people, the world would be dark and cheerless. As long as a person is alive, song is alive. When I leave this vale of tears, I’ll take song with me, too. Because, when I’m with God, I’ll start singing right away – maybe that’s how I’ll get into heaven...” 9
The restricted life of the village didn’t diminish the senses or the imagination of village people. Beliefs, principles of life and a sense of beauty were passed on from generation to generation. In Dzūkija, even today, to sing is beautiful, meaningful, and significant, although to speak the dialect isn’t considered proper. In the meantime, keeping the dialect in Žemaitija is a mark of distinction and importance.
Under the straw roofs of the village, Lithuanian folk song was born, matured and, with the seekers of a better life in the city or those preparing for schooling, became an inseparable part of the people living in the city. Today, Lithuanian folk song still lives, as long as it is recreated and enlivened by folklore ensembles. In these times, when folklore creations have lost their original connections and customary functions, the understanding of its aesthetics has grown even more; as time passes, however, the vital folk tradition is slowly fading. This occurs as the lifestyle of its creators and guardians changes. Professional music, literature, and the Internet have a great impact as well.
Through the efforts of traditional culture’s popularizers to organize folk art festivals – Pentecost, the Feast of St. John, Shrovetide and others – the folklore festivals attempt to pay particular attention to phenomena of Lithuanian self-expression, such as songs. It must be remarked that singing evenings, when all of the participants can take home small prepared songbooks, are a new and effective form of preserving the vitality of traditional folk song in the city. Fewer and fewer authentic inhabitants of Lithuanian villages, the teachers of ancient songs, remain. For this reason, it is extremely important to find as many bearers of live folklore tradition as possible. The role of talented presenters – individual folksingers, musicians, and storytellers – in creating and passing on folklore creations for future generations is invaluable.
It’s hardly possible that Lithuanian folk song will endure for long in its current authentic form. More and more often it’s said that folk song needs new clothes. Lithuanian folklorists and devotees of traditional culture truly have attempted to keep song as pure and authentic as possible for a long time. With the opening up to Europe and the rest of the world, however, this protection has broken down: other countries’ instrumental accompaniments and other cultures’ rhythms have appeared. But Lithuanian folksong hasn’t died! Traditional culture, more than others, has a miraculous power. In various centuries its demise has been predicted, but like the phoenix it keeps rising from the ashes in the most incredible way and in the most incredible forms. In 1883, the folk song collector Antanas Juška wrote: “... in our epoch, the love of song among young girls has already begun to fade. In many a family you can find this illustrated by the fact that the daughter doesn’t know how to sing half the songs that her mother, old aunt and grandmother sing.”10
When you look at Lithuanians singing in Lithuania, America, Canada or Australia, you still see a live source of folk song. When a thousand Lithuanians break into song at a song festival, it’s magnificent! Will we sing a hymn to our grandparents and parents, who pressed us to their breasts crooning a lullaby in Lithuanian? Will we swear to ourselves today that we must sing our joy and sing away our pain in Lithuanian? Perhaps the words of our neighbor, the famous Latvian poet Imantas Zieduonis, would be appropriate here: “Sing by the grave! Why are you quiet, sing! He doesn’t hear. It’s not for him. Don’t sing for him who has departed, but for yourself, for those who remain. Not about the thorns in the grave, but about the leaf above. For yourselves, the living! You are the ones who need song, not he.”11
Will the desire and the need to sing the way our ancestors sang – to the point of giddiness – while traveling the highways and vales of Lithuania, remain?
Translated by E. Novickas
1. Vėlius, l973, 275.
2. Krištopaitė and Vėlius, 1983, 18-19.
3. Krištopaitė, 1985, 254.
4. Ibid, 387.
5. Ibid, 393.
6. Ibid, 394.
7. Vylius and Jurkšaitienė, 2003, 16.
8. Krištopaitė, 1988, 562-563.
9. Merkytė, 2006, 14.
10. Juška, 1955, 24.
11. Krištopaitė, 1985, 160.
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Krištopaitė, Danutė. Aš išdainavau visas daineles. Pasakojimai apie liaudies talentus – dainininkus ir muzikantus I. Vilnius: Vaga, 1985.
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Merkytė, Vilma. Tetirvins subilda. Emilijos Brajinskienės gyvenimas ir veikla. Šiauliai: Saulės delta, 2006.
Vėlius, Nobertas. Oi tu kregždele. Anelės Čepukienės tautosakos ir kūrybos rinktinė. Vilnius: Vaga, l973.
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