Alan Lomax Collection
Monferrina; Erano tre sorelle; Io parto per l'America; Che bel felice incontro; E picchia picchia la porticella; Donna donna; O Pinota bella Pinota; Cante j'euv; La filera; Maria Giuana; Mamma mia voi maritarmi; Tarantella; Dove sei staito o bell'alpino; Quei cacciatori; E mi voi cul Giuvanin; La ricciola; E la picundria malinconia; Trenta giorni; Brando; Mamma mia dammi cento lire; Tutti mi chiamano bionda; Eviva 'l Munfra; La valdotaine; Jodler; Hirondelle legere; Salla de Carnaval; Sylvie o ma Sylvie; Ne ne mon poupon; Dze lo si beun que te Melie; O beau printemps; Pappa rogne; N'en maria noutra Fringuetta; J'ai fait une maitresse; Etoile des neige; Bells of an Alpine Cattle Herd.It's rather strange to listen to this new CD - almost half of which comprises 'previously unreleased' tracks - and yet be so familiar with the songs and music it contains. This is partly because much of the repertoire has been employed by the several Piemontese bands I am privileged to call friends, and partly because a good deal of the Lomax / Carpitella material 'escaped' from the archives of Roberto Leydi, and has been circulating on cassette amongst this same collection of musicians for a number of years - one of whom was good enough to give me a copy some time ago.
Perhaps because of this - perhaps because it's actually true - this CD seems to me to capture the essence of all that I love of the Piemont. Yet this cannot really be the case; Lomax and Carpitella recorded for only nine days in the regione, and at only eight locations. As the map below indicates, they recorded in rather less than one third of the area, and completely missed the repertoire of the mountains to the West and South, the unique culture of the Quattro Province to the South-East, and heard very little of the women's rice field songs of the Po valley. Nonetheless, there are hints of all these in the recordings they did make, and listening to much of this CD is deeply evocative ... and makes me want to hop on a cheap flight there right now!
For those of you who've not had the good fortune to go there, a little basic information will be useful. Piemont - as its name implies - lies at the foot of the mountains; indeed it's almost completely surrounded by them. To the south are those which separate it from Liguria and the Mediterranean cost; to the west are the Maritime Alps, separating it from France, while to the north lie the Alps proper, marking the border with Switzerland. Only in the east is there a clear exit to Lombardia and the Padana plain.
The typically excellent notes from Franco Castelli, Ellen Harold and Goffredo Plastino (mentioned before in relation to other Italian Treasury volumes) tell us that there are essentially two Piemonts - that of the mountains and that of the plains. This does rather forget that of the city, for in the centre of the province lies vast Torino and its suburbs, where the majority of the population live and work, leaving the rest of the place somewhat sparsely populated and almost entirely agricultural. This may account for the wide range of splendid local wines available, and the food - which truly is second-to-none!
However, we should really have a look at the music. We start with a monferrina - probably the most typical of Piemontese dances - performed by 'members of the Bersagliera band and mixed chorus', from Tonco, near Asti. The notes devote a full page of text to this ensemble, and we get a further 5 tracks from them later on the CD. This strikes me as a shame because, whilst they are good players, they are grossly over-represented and, as we discover in subsequent notes, they were actually semi-professional. I would have hoped that, amongst the 90 tracks we're told Lomax and Carpitella recorded in Piemont, there might have been some other instrumentalists worthy of inclusion. This reminds us that Lomax, whilst an absolutely admirable collector in most instances, could occasionally be sorely misled - one remembers his over-emphasis on the works of MacColl and Lloyd in the UK.
Next we get the first of five delightful songs from Maria Bergamaschi and Maria Patritti, recorded in Gurro (Novara province), in the north-east of the area. My favourite is Mamma mia dammi cento lire (sound clip), concerning a daughter asking her mother for 100 Lire to go to America. Her mother says that if she sails to America she will drown - it's a modernised version of an older ballad called La maledizione della madre (The Mother's Malison) which is, of course, a familiar theme in British balladry. This is one of several songs dealing with going to America - either permanently or for a shorter period, to get employment. Trenta giorni deals with this latter seasonal emigration, where 19th century Italian farm-workers would, after having finished the harvest, make the long and dangerous winter crossing (the thirty days of the title) to work on a second harvest of grain or coffee in Argentina or Brazil.
The only rice-girls song comes from Rovasenda in Vercelli - a little out of the area, really - and despite some of the singers having 'gone to the rice' in the past, the song O PinÚta, bella PinÚta isn't completely typical. But it's very nice, and well worth a listen (sound clip - left). Also we need to hear something from the south of the collected area, so let's go down to Asti, and the village of Casorzo, where a group of men and women sing, once again, of leaving for America - this time for good. The emigrant in Io parto per l'Americo is glad to be leaving behind the hard lot of the Italian peasant - But before I go, I'll take a stroll in the piazza to see if there's a girl there who will weep for me. There aren't any girls there. (sound clip - right)
It may be of interest that all the songs I've mentioned are by women - and indeed, while there are some men in the choruses of a lot of the songs, it's only women we find leading the singing anywhere on this CD. The year was 1954, so the decline of agriculture and the exodus from the countryside had already begun, and with it, the slow death of the rural culture and traditions - to be seen almost everywhere in the world. As we know, it tends to be the women who keep the songs for the longest in this situation.
Rather obviously, a 35-track CD precludes a comment on every song and tune; suffice it to say that there's a great deal here worthy of your attention, and most of it will also gladden the heart. But I can't end the review without commenting unfavourably on three of the inclusions here - the final track is of almost 3 minutes of cow-bells. Yes, Lomax spent that much valuable tape - which the notes tell us was very difficult to obtain - recording a herd of cows walking past. The other two tracks I would have been happy to have done without were recorded in Cogne, near Aosta in the north-west. the first is a Yodel, which the notes tell us is uncommon in Valle d'Aosta, adding that the melody is not found in the valley, and that it was inspired by a 1950s' radio publicity campaign. The second, by the same performers, is a song called …toile des Neiges (Star of the Snows - yes, they speak French in much of Valle d'Aosta), which you will know rather better as For Ever and Ever - and which was written only seven years before this recording was made - and has more yodelling in it! Call me old-fashioned, but I would again have hoped that, amongst the 90 tracks recorded in Piemont, there might have been some other traditional items worthy of inclusion here.
Rod Stradling - 17.11.05