The Spanish Recordings : Alan Lomax Collection

Rounder CD 1761

It was probably inevitable that the Alan Lomax Collection would end up as a bit of a curate's egg.  That is because the Collection is a massive undertaking, which involves a lot of collectors, and which reflects field work approaches and editorial and production standards as they evolved over several decades.  Thus, the series has given us the wonderful Southern Journey CDs, and blown the dust off some optimal old masters in the Portraits gallery.  There are superb examples of Italian and Caribbean music, and there are those hair raising convict songs from the Mississippi State Penitentiary.  Cover pictureOn the downside, the Columbia World Library is stacked out with mercilessly attenuated snippets; there is the unavoidably chronic sound quality which plagues huge chunks of Deep River of Song; and there is the inexcusably execrable Sing Christmas and the Turn of the Year.

It gives me enormous pleasure therefore to announce that this disc is on the side of the angels.  It is splendid; it retails a lot of music which is rarely heard outside its native territory; and I am confident that it is an augury for the rest of the series. 

Before delving further, a word on the origins of The Spanish Recordings is in order.  They were made by Alan Lomax during a year long collecting trip in 1952/3, at a time when Spain was in the grip of Franco's fascist regime.  Now Lomax was no slouch when it came to recording in difficult circumstances, but the political climate there made his work particularly arduous.  He included an account of the trip in an article for Hi-Fi Stereo Review of May 1960, and the article is mentioned by Luis Costa in his contribution to the CD booklet.  Surprisingly, the fact that Rounder republished the entire article for the Alan Lomax Collection Sampler is not.

In any event, apart from a single volume in the Columbia World Library, the only commercial fruits of Lomax's Spanish labours came about when the American Westminster label released a substantial portion of them on an eleven LP anthology.  Westminster appears to have ceased trading not long after publication, and the material has languished in obscurity ever since.  We can therefore be doubly glad that it is available once more.

The present series is not, however, a reissue of the Westminster set.  For one thing it includes five tracks not released on either Westminster or Columbia.  Moreover, Rounder have come up with a new publication to suit modern production standards and CD playing times.  One result of this is that Lomax's original sleeve notes have been ditched.  That is all to the good, for his literary style varied between the impenetrably academic and the floridly journalistic.  His Westminster notes fell solidly in the latter camp, for they were truncated and uninformative and littered with clichés.

The contributions here are much better, and I was glad to see that, unlike some of Rounder's World Library reissues, these discs do not perpetuate the myth of Lomax as producer.  The series editor is in fact Judith R Cohen.  She contributes a short but informative Series' introduction, which will presumably appear in all the booklets, and she has written a preface to the present disc.  This latter mentions that the Galician phase of Lomax's trip was a collaboration with Spanish folklorist Eduardo Torner, and includes a lengthy quote from him.  This tells us that Galicia is 'Celtic', and draws parallels with the geography and coastal outline of Scotland, as well as its belief systems. (1)  However, as becomes someone schooled in more recent thinking, Dr Cohen is careful not to overemphasise the connection.  Instead, she discusses the music of Galicia in terms of its history and culture.

There is also an introduction by Luis Costa, the editor of the present volume.  Again, he gives us a thumbnail history, which leads into the growth of ethnomusicological research in the area, and shows how this is linked to the rise of Galician nationalism, and how both declined under the Franco regime.  The meat of the essay though is concerned with formal descriptions of the music, song and dance traditions of Galicia, and with Lomax's efforts in capturing it.  To gauge the extent, and availability in English, of Spanish folk music scholarship, I consulted the New Grove Handbook on Ethnomusicology.  It detailed an extensive Spanish bibliography, with very few titles in English, and I could not see anything relating to Galicia.  That fact makes these articles, plus the notes to individual tracks particularly valuable.  There were places where I would have welcomed more information on function and context.  Nevertheless, in terms of formal description, they do very well indeed.

So what does the listener get when s/he purchases what may be the only CD anthology of field recorded Galician folk music ever produced?  Well, some time ago I wrote a rather scathing review of the Columbia World Library Spanish volume, and I was surprised to find that the present disc and the Columbia both open with the same recording of J M Rodriguez (that's him in the cover photograph) playing an alborada or dawn melody.  To confuse matters, they are given different titles Alborada de Vigo on the Columbia and Toques de Chiffro here.  For that matter, tracks two and three of the Columbia also turn up on this disc, and one of these entails a further discrepancy.  For once, duplications do not bother me, since readers may recall my recommending that they leave the Columbia well alone.  However, it would have been helpful if Rounder had been consistent over their use of titles.

Readers of that review may also recall that I was cut up about the standards of Alan Lomax's editing; to be precise, the cramming of no less than thirty five tracks onto a record of fifty one minutes duration.  Well, purchasers of the Spanish Recordings may expect to fare somewhat better, and the present disc squeezes thirty tracks into sixty six minutes.  Even these timings are short - on average just over two minutes per track - but this time their brevity is not the result of over-ardent editing.  They are a function of cost.  Recording tape was a very new medium in the early fifties, and it was too expensive to be used in any way other than sparingly.

This disc is, by the way, my only lengthy experience of the music of Galicia, so I can do little more than recount my overall impressions. (2)  Oddly enough, the one which grabbed me most strongly was that the music does indeed reflect its Celtic provenance.  No, it doesn't sound Irish, or Welsh, or Breton or Manx or Cornish, and it certainly does not resemble any feature of Scottish music; highland or lowland.  Rather, I mean that Celtic social cultures tend to emphasise behavioural extremes.  Stereotypical role models emphasise devout religion and humble piety, or they accentuate devil-may-care hell raising.  In popular conception, Celts are seen as weepingly sentimental, or hard headedly practical.  They are fierce drinkers or they are total abstainers.  Often, both extremes are combined in the one world view, and that is rather what we find with this record.  On the one hand, it serves up some remarkably lively entertainment.  On the other there are a number of songs which sound lugubriously austere.

play Sound ClipOn the lively side, there are several instrumental pieces which suggest that the dancers of Galicia are a pretty wild lot, and I was particularly taken by the disc's second track; Muiñera de Caballo.  It cracks along at a driving pace and is played by what seems to be a typical Galician ensemble; two bagpipes, tambourine and tabor. (sound clip).

Further joviality is found with the next track.  Cuando la Niña es Casada is sung in positively manic fashion by a group of women, again with tambourine.  If the song has any function it is not specified here, but recreational singing by groups of women with percussive accompaniment seems to be characteristic of many musical traditions of Iberia and North Africa.

There are a couple of other singing groups who sound who sound as if they are out to enjoy life.  Their songs are made out of coplas - floating verses which, the booklet tells us, are strung together more or less at whim.  One of these, Vente Vindo, is sung in verse and chorus form, and the lead singer is credited as Aurea González Avendaño.  Aural evidence indicates at least two lead singers, however.  Eres Una, Eres Dos, on the other hand is a straightforward choral performance, if a delightfully undisciplined one, by a trio of singers.  I am not clear whether this latter is extemporised, for choral singing, by its very nature, militates against improvisation.  However, rather like work songs of the southern United States, there are places where the lead singer starts a verse which the other two join in; presumably once they've realised what they're singing.

On the more prosaic side, there is a brooding religious song, a couple of very moving seasonal pieces, and a lullaby which the booklet describes as being sung in a gentle tone.  I can only say that it is the harshest gentle tone I ever heard.

However, the selection is particularly notable for a varied selection of work and occupational songs, and several of these sound very austere indeed.  At first sight the selection of work songs suggests that the Galician economy is centred around flax, wheat and grape cultivation, with a tradition of stonemasonry also.  This latter occupation is represented by a single stonecutter's song, which unfortunately comes across as little more than a series of grunts and groans with a sung interlude.  Pointing to the decline of work songs in the region, the notes describe this one as a rare and valuable document.  It might be, but I found it tedious listening, especially when compared with the other work songs on this disc.

play Sound ClipAmong these are two ploughing songs, which turn out to be versions of the same ballad.  It is known in Galicia as The Adulteress and her Cat, but emerges as a local version of Our Goodman (Child 274) and is sung by groups of women in absolutely hair raising fashion. (sound clip).

The presence of this pair of recordings raised several queries in my mind.  First of all, I was puzzled by the fact that, in Galicia, ploughing seems to be a female activity.  The song note didn't enlighten me, but Judith Cohen's introduction mentions that the region is also dependent on sea fishing; that fishing trips tended to be long and hazardous; and that farm work was carried out by the women in their menfolk's absence.  So that is the reason why women sing ploughing songs.

All well and good, except that solving this riddle set me wondering how representative this disc is of the Galician folksong repertoire.  First of all, it contains no marine work songs, if one discounts a single longshoreman's song that is, and there appears to be only one other track where the sea even gets a mention.  Secondly, inhabitants of the Gaelic sea fringes of Ireland and Scotland likewise indulge in dangerous sea navigation.  As a result, both these regions possess drowning laments.  The present disc contains no laments of any description.

Finally, The Adulteress and her Cat was the only song in narrative ballad form which Lomax collected in Galicia.  It is not an indigenous composition, being drawn from the stock of European balladry, and it is one which many scholars would regard as marginal to the ballad form proper.  Scarce imports like this present a familiar scenario to students of Gaelic folksong, and I'm wondering if Galicia is another locality where narrative ballads and Celtic aesthetics fail to mix (3).

Back on terra firma, there are some extraordinary flax working songs.  They are narrow in compass and harshly sung to strange melodies which, at first hearing, seem devoid of form or shape.  To try and interpret musical sounds is a risky business at the best of times.  To do so when one is working with an unfamiliar language and culture is virtually impossible.  Nevertheless, these songs create an impression of harsh relentless back breaking toil in a cruel and poverty stricken world.  They are a reminder, and it is an uncomfortable one, that folk songs flourish best where people suffer most.  Forget the fact that these people were bound down by the miseries of fascism.  play Sound ClipWork songs from the Eastern Bloc were often just as harsh.  But if the dance music of Galicia makes it sound a happy and exuberant place, these songs make it sound a poor and desperately broken hearted one.  If you want a definition of stark beauty, these songs are it. (sound clip).

But it was the record's only grape trampling song which had me most intrigued.  Again, the notes do not explain the song's function, but neither rhythm nor tempo seem to lend themselves to the remorseless plod of a party of grape treaders.  I'm wondering therefore whether this piece might have been used as a celebratory song once the treading was over.  To inflate the enigma, the singers do not appear to be a party of grape workers.  They are a conventional western choir, although an extremely vivacious one, and their lively full throated performance is reminiscent of some of the wonderful Basque choral singing which Lomax caught during his stay there.  Anyone who enjoys this track as much as I did should invest in a copy of the Basque CD in this series also.


  1. Galicia is a coastal province situated at the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula, and its location is somewhat analogous to that of northwest Scotland.  So is its geographic outline.
  2. I have no idea whether any commercial 78s of Galician music were ever made or reissued.  Equally, I am unfamiliar with the current state of the Galician folk revival, although the Rough Guide to World Music claims it is in 'fine fettle'.  That is excellent news.  However, as far as field recordings of Galician folk music are concerned, I only know of the following Albatros VP 8148, which has one track from Galicia; the wonderful Antologia del Folklore Musical de Espana on Hispavox, which has three; Folkways FE 4411, which has two; and Espagne Septetrionale, on Chant du Monde 2741003, which has four.  The first two have been deleted for many years, the third can still be got by special order from Folkways, and I am unsure of the status of the third.  I should be glad to hear if anyone knows of anything else currently available.
  3. I can only add that Roger Wright, in his collection of Spanish ballads, says that ballad singing is widespread throughout the Iberian peninsular, and that ballads are sung in every Hispanic language and dialect.  He does not specifically mention Galicia, and the catch here may be that we are dealing with a Celtic culture area, rather than a Hispanic one.  To complicate the problem, Wright is a linguist, rather than a folklorist.  As a result, the only sources he specifies are literary ones.  He does not name the singers from whom the songs were collected, or give their locations.  Roger Wright, Spanish Ballads, Aris & Philips, Warminster, 1988.

Fred McCormick - 25.6.02

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