LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2006 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 52, No 2 - Summer 2006
Editor of this issue: Zita Kelmickaitė
SINGING TRADITION AMONG LITHUANIANS IN AMERICA
An Overview From a Personal Perspective
ELENA BRADŪNAS AGLINSKAS
Elena Bradūnas Aglinskas holds a B.A. in anthropology from the University of Chicago, an M.A. in folklore and mythology from UCLA, and a Ph.D. in folklore from Indiana University. She has worked at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and works as a consultant in the field of ethnic studies.
Lithuanians have long been known to love singing. Early collectors of folklore in the 19th century recorded primarily folksongs as examples of lyrical folk poetry. In 1883, the Juška brothers published an extensive collection of folksongs, explaining that Lithuanians are apt to sing when working, relaxing and during personal and seasonal festivities.1 At present, the Lithuanian Folklore Archives in Vilnius have over 684,000 entries of folksongs and have published eighteen volumes of Lithuanian Folk Songs Book classified by theme or function.2 The ever popular song festivals which take place in Vilnius and in America every four or five years and involve hundreds of choral groups and thousands of participants stand as proof of the Lithuanians’ strong attachment to singing.
It is to be expected then that the love of musical traditions followed Lithuanian immigrants and refugees to the New World. As a child of post-World War II refugees, growing up in Baltimore and Chicago, I witnessed many occasions in the 1950s and 1960s where adults, gathered together for weddings, picnics and various celebrations, sang their hearts out. The singing would last for hours, with people linking arms and swaying to the rhythm while seated at tables laden with food and drink. The mood varied depending on the songs: some boisterous and playful, others more soulful and melancholic. It seemed that everyone knew the same songs, for one person would start a song and immediately others would join in.
In Baltimore, when the post-World War II refugees arrived, they found a community already organized by the earlier immigrants who had come before World War I. The immigrants had established a church, a school and a Lithuanian hall where many social and cultural events took place. The two groups of Lithuanians, immigrants and refugees, intermingled for some activities while also developing separate programs for different interests. One example of continuous cooperation was a weekly radio program hosted by an English-speaking immigrant and a Lithuanian-speaking refugee. It was during those bilingual programs that I first heard the old 78 rpm records that were made in America from around 1910 to 1930s.3 I realized what those records looked like when I visited an elderly neighbor, a pre-World War I immigrant, and he showed me a stack of those thick records and played them on his old gramophone. He explained that he had bought the machine with the big playing needle with his hard-earned dollars so he could listen to Lithuanian records. Many of the recordings were instrumental, others had lyrics and one, I remember in particular, had the entire Lithuanian wedding celebration complete with songs and traditional orations.4
In 1958 my Father brought another record home – a long playing 33 rpm – entitled “Lithuanian Folk Songs in America.” 5 The record was accompanied by published texts and translations of songs as well as photographs and biographical information about the singers. Almost all of them were pre-World War I immigrants. I had never heard of those songs; they were completely different from those sung by my parents and their friends at social gatherings. The songs were also different from the ones I was learning in Lithuanian Saturday school and at summer youth camps. The record was a sample of authentic folksongs collected by Jonas Balys, a professional folklorist, soon after his arrival in the United States in 1949. He visited a number of cities where those earlier immigrants had settled and recorded thousands of songs.6 The songs on the record were sung in regional dialects and had strange melodies and harmonies compared to what I was used to hearing. It was then that I first understood the difference between “old, authentic folksongs” and simply “Lithuanian songs.”
Another individual who had a special appreciation for authentic folksongs was Juozas Būga. He did not have academic credentials as did Jonas Balys, but he was an also avid collector primarily around the Chicago area in the 1950s. Toting a heavy wire recorder, he visited many pre-World War I immigrants and recorded hundreds of songs. I had a chance to hear his collected songs when I transferred them on to acetate tapes while doing my graduate work at UCLA in the early 1970s.7
Spurred on by those early recordings of immigrants, in 1972 I also set out to do my fieldwork among Lithuanian immigrants who had settled in the mining towns of eastern Pennsylvania. Before starting, I visited Jonas Balys and asked him for advice. He told me that I was too late, that he probably recorded the last of the singers, and that I should not expect to find much. I did not take heed and ventured out anyway. For several summers I returned to the towns of Shenandoah, Mahanoy City, Tamoqua, Frackville and others to visit elderly singers, mostly women, who had come to the States just before World War I, usually urged on by their brothers who had preceded them. Many of the singers were illiterate, but they knew hundreds of songs by heart. They explained that when they first arrived, singing was very popular and that when young people socialized songs were always included. In time, however, as the first generation of immigrants grew older and died, the younger generation simply did not carry on the same tradition. Some of the second generation sang in church choirs, but rarely knew the songs of their parents. Lithuania became independent in 1918 and very few new immigrants came to the States during the inter-war period. Without new arrivals, acculturation took its toll. By the time I visited the elderly women, who then were in their eighties and nineties, their children, usually daughters who took care of them, were very much surprised to learn that their mothers were such prolific singers.
The reasons why the older women cherished these songs became apparent as I talked to them. They explained that when they sang the songs they remembered their loved ones left behind in Lithuania. They reminisced about their youth and life in Lithuania. When they sang about forests and lakes, they said it reminded them of the countryside of their homeland. When a song mentioned a cuckoo bird, they would remember what it sounded like in the woods in the spring. It seemed each song rekindled a very specific memory. Thus, the singing of the songs was like an audio-triggered replay of their lives. When I asked how could they remember so many songs, they explained that they often sing alone, only to themselves. They did so because the songs brought back fond memories and helped to take their minds off troubles and concerns. The women often spoke with longing for Lithuania, and the songs were a means by which they remembered their youth and loved ones left behind.8
Such explanations offer an insight into the psychological function songs may have had for many of those early immigrants. They helped to connect them back to their life in the homeland and provided a form of expression for their feelings. Their favorite songs were often those that referred to parting from their mothers and going to live far away. In Lithuania, these songs were sung at the time of a wedding, to lament a bride’s parting from her family. In America, these songs had special meaning for the women since they often describe nostalgia for home. Other songs, which they called “Recruit Songs,” were also popular because they retold the heartache of parting for young men forcibly drafted into the Russian Army at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. This experience was something many of the singers remembered about their uncles or older relatives. One reason many young men came to America at that time was to escape the draft. Young girls followed, often urged by a letter from a brother that included a “ship card” for her ocean-crossing fare. The brothers often wrote in glowing terms about life in America, but many of the young women were sorely disappointed when they arrived. The sentiment is well expressed in words of a song created by those immigrants:
pašlovinta, kad daug darbo yra
is praised for there is much work,
Many of the women I interviewed barely knew any English. The linguistic isolation from their non-Lithuanian neighbors became more pronounced as their own numbers dwindled. Their children spoke to them in Lithuanian, but it was obvious that they were much more at ease speaking English. Perhaps as their communication with those around them weakened, their communication with their own “self” – through songs – became even more meaningful. Thus the songs, often sung only to themselves, lived on in their memories for so many years.
The second generation, i.e., the American-born children of those immigrants, sometimes remembered a stanza or two of the songs their parents sang. In general, however, they did not sing, although they were always very proud of their Lithuanian heritage. Lithuanian food seemed to hold more appeal for them as an ethnic marker. During the annual Lithuanian Day Picnic organized near August 15th, the date of the Feast of the Assumption, Lithuanian-Americans from the entire anthracite coal mining region of Pennsylvania would come together to celebrate their heritage. When I visited the picnics in the early and mid 1970s, I heard local bands play polkas and tasted kugelis, skilandis, and Lithuanian sausage served with sour cabbage. When I asked them about the songs that their parents sang, one song was mentioned on several occasions as a favorite that they could still remember:
rūtą, sėjau mėtą, sėjau lelijėlę.
I planted the rue, planted the
mint, planted the lily
This song had a great deal of repetition and was perhaps easier than others to remember. Its lilting melody and commentary on the passage of time may also have held a special appeal.10
In general, most of the songs of the turn-of-the century immigrants could be classified as authentic folksongs. A few songs which I recorded were composed songs popular in their time. One such song is even included in the opening chapter of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.11 In it Sinclair describes a wedding among Lithuanian immigrants in Chicago, and one song which he quotes is
kvietkeli, tu brangiausis,
Good-bye to my dear flower,
This song was written by the poet Antanas Vienažindis, but the fact was not known to my singers. To them it was just another beautiful song. They made no distinction between folk songs and composed songs. That distinction was solely mine, purely academic.
The same could be said about the repertoire of the post- World War II refugees. As I described earlier, my parents’ generation sang the songs that they had sung while growing up in independent Lithuania. Some songs were authentic folksongs, learned while accompanying farm work in the countryside. Others were songs learned in schools or through involvement in youth organizations such as scouts, ateitininkai, šauliai, or neo-lituanai. Some were folksongs, others were popular poems set to song, and still others were learned through formal choral singing or through service in the military. As many young people left their farms and came to the cities to seek higher education, they tended to sing songs that were commonly known to everyone. Regionally specific songs, sung in dialect, were left by the wayside. Through this process the repertoire of songs became standardized. In turn, the singing of this common repertoire enhanced a feeling of shared communality. It made them feel good to know and sing the same songs.
When the refugees left Lithuania in 1944 during the second Soviet occupation, many thought of it only as a temporary escape from Soviet atrocities. As they settled into camps for “Displaced People” throughout Germany, they tried to organize their social and cultural life as it had been in Lithuania. Schooling continued, books were published, art exhibited, song and dance ensembles formed. The five-year hiatus in those Displaced Person’s camps provided a special bonding and helped set guidelines for continued cooperation once the refugees scattered to different countries, depending on where they found sponsors for their resettlement. The communal experience in Germany’s camps helped to consolidate the song repertoire even more, so that as they scattered they took the songs with 19 them to their new settlements. As the hope of a quick return to Lithuania faded, songs about the lost homeland and about the dream of an eventual return became especially poignant and popular.
Children of the refugees, such as myself, who were growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, learned the same repertoire as our parents through informal singing at social gatherings, Saturday schools, organizational activities and summer youth camps. A number of songbooks were printed by various organizations for summer camps and for use at regular meetings.12 Often revised, these printed songbooks and mimeographed or xeroxed stapled song sheets are interesting documents that show which songs remained popular and which songs disappeared through the years. A call for these songbooks should be made while they can still be located. A careful analysis of the texts would provide an excellent insight into the transmission process.
In 1966 the first Lithuanian World Youth Congress took place in Chicago and at Camp Dainava in Michigan. Young people between the ages of eighteen and thirty from various parts of the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and South America came together for the first time to experience their cultural solidarity. At that time, singing was an integral part of the program and it occurred naturally and spontaneously throughout the extent of the Congress. It was apparent that the same songs had been learned in different parts of the world, and the singing experience heightened the communal feeling shared by those who participated. Others who may not have known some of the songs learned them and took them back when they returned.
Young people at the Congress did not differentiate between real folksongs, composed literary songs or simply pop songs. To them singing “Lithuanian songs” was what really mattered. It was the singing of commonly known songs that made young people feel good about being Lithuanian. Sometimes even a newly created song could become especially popular. This occurred during that first World Youth Congress, when a song written and composed by a girl from Australia became a smash hit and has remained a favorite to this day in all parts of the refugee Diaspora:
Tave aš pamačiau,
tave aš pamylėjau.
Once I saw you, I fell in love
The song had a refrain that brought back memories of summer camps and bonfires:
Atsimeni kaip mes linksmai
Remember how we merrily camped,
One can easily see why the song holds such an appeal for the younger generations: almost all of them have fond memories of first flirtations at summer camps.
During the second World Youth Congress in 1971, a group of young singers from Germany brought new songs to the Diaspora repertoire. They were born in Lithuania, but had left when their parents were allowed to repatriate to Germany in the 1960s. They taught the camp participants songs such as Aš nupirksiu batukus tau (I will buy red shoes for you) and Pilki keleliai dulka (The gray roads are full of dust) – songs which were popular in Lithuania at the time of their departure. These songs were never known to our parents’ generation. World Youth Congresses were organized every four or five years and took place in Canada, Germany, South America and Australia. Singing has always been part of those shared experiences, and each congress has strongly helped to keep the singing tradition alive.
Group singing remained popular in the 50s, 60s and early 70s. Youth who attended summer camps or were active with scouts or ateitininkai to this day know many songs by heart. The Lithuanian language was easily spoken by them and singing occurred spontaneously at parties, dances, and outings. Young people knew the words and melodies by heart. These people are now in their sixties, fifties or late forties; and when they meet at festivals, parties or skiing vacations, they can sing songs without song sheets and without accompaniment.
Starting in the 1970s the youth had to rely more and more on published song sheets to learn the songs. An accordion was often used as an accompaniment to help carry the tune. Singing at camps was organized into class sessions, and songs were used to accompany marching or to liven up bonfire programs. Often they would not sing without accordion or guitar accompaniment. Spontaneous a cappella singing was rarely heard. Organizations such as the scouts tried to encourage singing by printing songs in newsletters so that all members could learn the same songs and sing them together at summer camps and especially at jubilee camps when scouts from all over America came together. Scouts even had a special badge to award to those who learned a number of songs by heart. This encouraged some, especially girls, to learn at least a number of stanzas by heart. On the whole, however, spontaneous social singing rarely occurs among those in their thirties, twenties or younger.
In the last two decades, during regularly organized song and dance festivals, one can sometimes hear a few old favorites sung informally, usually after a couple of drinks. Some examples are: Ant kalno mūrai (On the hill stand stone ramparts), Augo sode klevelis (A maple grew in the orchard) with the well-known refrain – viens, du graži Lietuva (one, two, Lithuania is beautiful), and probably the most popular song of all – Ten toli ošia, žalia girelė, prie jos čigonai kuria ugnelę (There by the rustling forest gypsies burn their fires). This last song is simply called Čigonai (Gypsies) and is often the first one requested when someone asks, “What shall we sing?” For many young Lithuanian-Americans, this is the ultimate “Lithuanian song,” yet it is most likely a translation of a song composed in a Slavic tongue that slipped into the Lithuanian repertoire soon after World War II. For the young singers this fact is of no interest; they like the song and they feel truly Lithuanian when they sing it. Most important is the feeling that the song conjures up, not any academic classification trivia.
An interesting phenomenon among the post-World War II refugees and their offspring was a group of songs known as “partisan songs” which were especially popular among the first, second and now even the third generation. These songs were allegedly written by the partisan fighters who joined the resistance movement and hid out in Lithuania’s forests when they fought against the Soviet forces. The songs were mostly about bidding goodbye to one’s mother or sweetheart and about her waiting for the return of the loved one that never occurs. The words were poignant and emotional. At summer youth camps an evening was set aside to commemorate the partisan fighters. It was during those dramatic programs that these songs were sung. They left a strong impression on many young people and helped instill a strong patriotic sentiment towards their parents’ homeland. Today, even some youngsters still in their teens know at least a stanza or two of a partisan song.
One cannot write about the singing tradition in America without stressing the importance of individuals who, through their own love of songs, labored tirelessly to make sure that the songs were handed down to the next generation. These were teachers at Saturday schools and summer camps, leaders of youth organizations, and those blessed with a good ear and voice who could lead others in song. Almost every community had such individuals, and they played a pivotal role in helping to maintain the tradition. It would be worthwhile for communities to document the contributions of such individuals while they or memories of them are still alive.
I did not discuss the formal singing tradition of choral groups and church choirs because they warrant a separate study. Choirs have been an integral part of the pre-World War I immigrant communities and post-World War II refugee settlements. Choral songs are written and arranged by composers and are not, therefore, easily sung spontaneously. They are presented as performances and rarely can an audience join in the singing. People who join choirs are generally the ones who like to sing, and as the tradition of spontaneous social singing weakens, choral singing becomes one venue that provides an opportunity to sing in Lithuanian. People meet for regular practice sessions, and this allows for socializing and bonding though their love of singing. Choral singing provides the same function as the more informal spontaneous singing. As choirs prepare for the regularly held song festivals, they too celebrate their unique Lithuanian heritage, but in a more formal, disciplined way. In general, at present most of the choirs are made up of older individuals with only a few from the younger generations.
Since Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, the borders are now open to travel both ways. The openness has already had an effect on the singing tradition in the Diaspora. Young Lithuanian-Americans who visit Lithuania are exposed for the first time to authentic folk singing and some are very much impressed. Others hear visiting ethnographic ensembles from Lithuania as they tour the U.S. and want to learn those songs and that type of singing. Some older and younger people have now begun to understand the difference between authentic folk songs and other “Lithuanian songs” in general. Some even join the few ethnographic ensembles that have started up in the States. One such ensemble is Sodauto in Boston. The leader of the group had traveled to Lithuania in the 1970s, and while visiting she joined an ethnographic ensemble in Vilnius. When she returned with her Lithuanian-born husband, they started the group which has been singing folksongs in the traditional style for over twenty-five years. Recently ethnographic singing groups have started up in several other cities, and with an increase of new arrivals from Lithuania, the number may grow.
Not everyone is smitten with authentic folk singing. Newly arrived émigrés to America bring CDs of various types of music currently popular in Lithuania. American-Lithuanians also purchase example of different music when visiting the homeland. Some music can be called “country,” others are performances by village a cappella bands, others are Euro-pop type of songs, and still others exemplify “world music.” This newly minted music from Lithuania is now heard on Lithuanian radio programs in many cities, including the bilingual program still going strong in Baltimore. Teachers at Saturday schools often are new émigrés and they pass on their own favorite songs to the youngsters. Recently, popular songs from Lithuania are included in many summer camp programs.
How, and in what form, the Lithuanian singing tradition will live on in America remains to be seen. Much will depend on how the third wave of recent émigrés will organize their social and cultural lives. Much will also depend on how the third generation of those post-World War II refugees will feel about their “Lithuanian” singing once they realize that some of their songs, e.g., Čigonai (Gypsies) and Tave aš pamačiau (Once I saw you) are hardly even known in Lithuania. From the observations made here about the singing tradition among the different generations of Lithuanians in America, it is clear that as long as the songs have personal meaning to the singers, they will at least be remembered by individuals. How long will the songs be sung collectively depends on the social context within the communities. Maintenance of an ethnic tradition is a dynamic process with many factors affecting both persistence and change. Observation and documentation of this development is well worth further study.
1. Juška, 1954, 17.
2. The Lithuanian Folklore Archives 3. Spottswood, 1978.
4. Spottswood. Lithuanian recordings are listed by performers, pp. 1557–1592. Reference to the Lithuanian wedding records is made on p. 1568: “Mahanojaus Lietuviska Maineriu Orkestra, Lietuviska Veseilija,” parts 1, 2, 3, 4 Columbia 61003–f (12”) and 6100-4F (12”), New York, April 1929.
5. Balys, 1955.
6. Songs from Jonas Balys’s collection are deposited at Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music in Bloomington, Indiana; at the Archives of Folk Song at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.; and at ALKA (Archives of American-Lithuanian Culture) in Putnam, Connecticut.
7. The Juozas Būga collection is at the J. Žilevičius Library of Lithuanian Musicology, Lithuanian Research Center, 2345 W. 56th St., Chicago, Illlinois 60629. Copies are also at UCLA Folklore Archives, Center for the Study of Comparative Folklore and Mythology, University of California, Los Angeles, CA 90024, and at the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music in Bloomington, Indiana.
8. The explanations are from notes and tapes from my fieldwork research conducted in Pennsylvania from 1972 to 1976. (E.B.)
9. Aleksynas, 1994, 145–146.
10 Fieldwork notes and tapes, 1972–1976. (E.B.)
11 Sinclair, 1981.
12. Some examples of published songbooks are: Daug daug dainelių, published by Sukurys, M. Morkūnas Press, Chicago, 1960; Korp. Neo-Lituania Dainorėlis, compiled by Antans Plytnikas, published by Tautinis Akademinis sambūris, Chicago, 1963; Dainuokime, Immaculate Press, Putnam, Connecticut, 1967; Su daina, compiled by Gražina Simukonienė, Lithuanian Franciscan Fathers Press, New York, New York, 1967; Dainuojanti jaunystė, Skautų Kernavės Tuntas, Chicago, 1975 and 1978; Subatos vakarėlį, published by Vokietijos Lietuvių Jaunimo Sąjunga (German-Lithuanian Youth Association), Lampertheim-Hüttenfeld, 1982.
Aleksynas, Kostas. “Pennsylvanijos lietuvių dainos,” Lietuvių Tautosakos Darbai III, Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore: Vilnius 1994.
Balys, Jonas, collector. Lithuanian Folksongs in America. Folkways Records: New York, New York, 1955.
Juška, Antanas, comp. Lietuviškos dainos (Lithuanian songs) 2nd ed. Vilnius, 1954.
The Lithuanian Folklore Archives of the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore, Antakalnio 6, LT–10308, Vilnius. www.llti.lt and firstname.lastname@example.org
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Bantam Books: New York, New York, 1981. (First published in 1906).
Spottswood, Richard K. “Commercial Ethnic Recordings in the United States.” Ethnic Recordings in America, Studies in American
Folklife, vol. 1, American Folklife Center: Library of Congress, 1978.
____. Ethnic Music on Reocords – A Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942, vol. 1,
Western Europe, University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago.