Field Recordings

Field Recordings

Vol1. Desire, Desire, a Bawdy Escape

They called her Schellebelle, on account of her boisterous, infectious singing and laughter. She was fifteen and had “a head of corn-blond hair, wide and weathered, under which her eyes gleamed like carbuncles.”[1] The large eyes of our adorable protagonist glisten even brighter when, one day, she can abandon milking her cows to work with the other women in the flax field. Off to the field she goes, where the presence of the farmer’s son, Luis, makes her feel a tingling sensation. She has noticed it before. It makes her not want him to ever leave. When he does, not three minutes go by before the girls and women start to sing. Beyond Schellebelle’s expectation, their song drowns out her wish for Luis to return almost entirely. Gossip and warnings about men, seduction, love, and deception are held within their singing; racy lyrics are intercut with an occasional cautionary tale. Schellebelle’s ecstatic listening colors her cheeks a fiery red; each song offers a new vocabulary for her budding crush and the feelings “in her little heart”[2] begin to make sense.

This is how the Belgium Flemish writer Stijn Streuvels describes a day in Schellebelle’s life, in a chapter of his popular 1907 novel De Vlaschaard (“The Flaxfield”). It’s a compelling image: women of different ages work together in the field, sharing their life experiences through song. The younger women learn from the older ones about the wonders of love, while also being warned of its deceptions. I want to think that they created, through song, a space for sharing lifesaving information – and Streuvels’ narration can certainly lend itself to a reading that focuses on the collective, somatic practice of singing as a practice of feminist consciousness-raising (whether he intended to do so or not).

There is, however, one problem: Streuvels might not be the neutral, trustworthy narrator that his naturalist writing style suggests. He researched and had a deep appreciation for the life of workers and farmers, but he also allowed his work a more sketchy, or fascist, adaptation when in 1943 it was used for the plot of the movie Wenn die Sonne wieder scheint (“When the sun shines again”) – which premiered in Berlin in 1943.[3] Questions about the trustworthiness and political instrumentalization of writings, recordings, and accounts crop up everywhere when you delve into the histories of rural Europe. At the same time, if we simply avoid looking at these histories, the risk is that we allow them to be entirely co-opted by the political right, without a fight, without at least an attempt to look at rural European histories and traditions through a materialist, feminist lens and find in the heap of conflicted material those traces we want to build current frameworks with. The lore of history is skewed; it always has been, which is why this mixtape series will not attempt to idealize or reconstruct a past exactly as it was. Instead, the series will look determinedly at the past as a prelude to our present and seek precedents in those threads that can spin productive fibers for present moments of assembly, awareness, and resistance, so that the senses can become theoreticians once more.

Singing while at work has been a tool for social organization. With their book Rhythms of Labour: Music at Work in Britain, Michael Pickering, Emma Robertson, and Marek Korczynski describe pre-industrial British work songs—mostly related to the textile industry—as functioning in three distinctive ways. Firstly, singing was both created by and helped to support the rhythm of manual labor. Secondly, singing worked as a way of escaping the draining reality of arduous work. Thirdly, the collaborative effort of singing created a sense of community. Local gossip was often introduced in songs, and workers in the early textile industry found a collective voice through singing and working together.[4] Song is a tool that can help to dissipate information about love, work, hope, the price of butter, (economic) desperation, and politics.

As part of oral histories, songs can transform through multiple social functions, moving from love songs into songs of protest, from work songs into anti-war songs, and back into lullabies. My mom used to sing Bella Ciao to comfort me or lull me to sleep in the weirdest moments. This is a song that originates in the late 1800s with mondina laborers who sang about the unforgiving working conditions in Northern Italy’s paddy fields. Bella Ciao was later adapted into one of the most powerful anthems against fascism, when the Partisans sang it in resistance to the occupying forces of Nazi Germany. What the history of a song like Bella Ciao demonstrates is that historical struggle forms a continuum and that the latent political potential of a song can be tapped into at any moment. At any moment! The improvised, changeable nature of work songs and how they arouse political awareness in certain moments has been an important guideline for me while selecting songs for this mixtape; its composition is informed by the realization that a racy or lamenting love song may be the harbinger of a political revolt.

This Mixtape is the first in a series of three. They are made in the full confidence that people have always and everywhere rejected their marginalized positions based on gender and race, ability and class, etc., and that they have always and everywhere had a political imagination at least as developed as those of our own and those of our contemporaries.[5] For centuries, we have been escaping into (songs full of) love and desire to forget about a tough workday; for centuries, this escapism has also contained or mutated into (songs of) active dissent. The order of the mixtapes in the Field Recordings series follows this insight by starting with a tape titled Desire, Desire, a Bawdy Escape. This cassette explores love songs and their functions in the workplace. While listening to this tape, you may see Schellebelle’s day in the field. The second tape, Rhythms of Labor, will dive into songs that are more directly sprung from physical labor and paced its rhythms. The third tape, Songs of Dissent, will then look at songs that are overtly critical of work and life conditions, war, and systems.

This Mixtape is a love offering, like those we used to make for our budding crushes.

Vol1. Desire, Desire, a Bawdy Escape

This cassette contains 16 excerpts of songs, of songs and conversations that tell us something about the history and function of singing about love and desire. Cheeky songs of longing served different purposes. They could drain out the reality of hard manual labor, and this is where we begin, with some historical bawdies. Singing of love could also involve laments about a soured love, a cheating spouse, or an unrequited desire. The middle portion of this tape will revolve around these kinds of songs that slowly begin to rub against cautionary messages – don’t you do what I/she did! Finally, we will listen to songs and stories of women who choose another life than one confined by love.

Here is a short description of the excerpts I hope you will listen to:

  1. Interview Betsy Whyte x Peter Cooke.

Betsy Whyte, a Scottish (Romani) traveler, singer,and virtuoso of traditional Scottish storytelling, speaks about the bawdies she would sing on the fields while being interviewed by British ethnomusicologist Peter Cooke. The fragment is cut short, but the transcript of the interview shows that Peter Cooke’s next question was:

“What is it about a blue song, a baddie,’ that makes people so cheery?”

Betsy replies: “Ah, I don’ know.  I don’ know.  But it disnae have tae be a baddie, ye ken.  No.”

  1. J’ai perdu ma culotte à lui faire l’amour sung by Germaine Burgaud, Yvette Barreteau et Fernande Vannier, recorded by Jean-Pierre Bertrand, Gilbert Biron, Nathalie Andre and Pierre-Marie Dugue.
    A girl, a shepherdess, lying in a fern bush, another who came to make love without wearing any underwear, and an enigmatic woolen (chastity?) belt are brought up without warning in this French bawdy.
  1. The little ball of yarn, sung by Elizabeth Steward, recorded by Peter Rich Cooke and Akiko Takamatsu.
    This is a typical bawdy seduction song. In it, winding a ball of yarn becomes a metaphor for female pleasure. Recorded in Scotland in 1987.
  1. Moeder ‘k ben zo raar van binnen, sung by ‘t Kliekske
    A bawdy song in which a girl tells of her youthful desires. But shortly after, her mother starts to warn her not to marry too young. She says:

    “Three times six is much too soon

Three times seven, that’s young enough

Three times eight, that can still go

Three times nine will stand

But I know for sure

That three times ten is still the best.”

  1. As he walked down by the river/False true love, sung by Isla Cameron, recorded by Alan Lomax
    A bawdy that tells the story of a young girl who is seduced, taken to a man’s bed, and then rejected. The last stanza of the song is interesting as the plant rue is quickly mentioned:

“There’s a herb that grows in my flowers’ garden/Some they call it rue/The fish may swim and the birds may fly but a man can never be true.”

Rue can cause uterine contractions and bring about abortion, which could indicate the girl’s pregnancy. This song’s vocabulary is rather saucy, but it undoubtedly serves as a warning, and it is possible that women disseminated knowledge about abortifacient herbs through its lyrics.

  1. My bonny boy, sung by Anne Briggs
    W. Percy Merrick collected My Bonny Boy or Many a Night’s Rest on 17 June 1901 from Henry Hills of Sussex, who learned the song from his mother. Anne Briggs sang her version of the passionate song of a betrayed lover for her 1964 LP The Hazards of Love. This Mixtape is an ode to Brigg’s record, and with this song, we have assuredly moved into the love-sick and cautionary phase of our listening session.

  2. De spinster, sung by Joana Guiné
    A Dutch song first recorded in 1853, in which a woman recounts being seduced – or assaulted – while spinning yarn. She does not utter a word to the brown-eyed man in the whole interaction, but her constantly fraying thread must have shown her anxiety and could very well signify the loss of her virginity. Despite knowing numerous versions of the lyrics in Dutch and German, her thread always breaks, and she eventually loses her ability to spin.

    In one particularly grim version of the song, the last stanza sounds:

“With seriousness I rejected the youngster / this seemed to make him even stouter / impetuously he flew around my neck / and kissed my jaw red like fire / Oh! Tell me, sisters! Tell me, if it were possible / that in the end I spun still further?

  1. La fileuse, sung by Camille Renouard, recorded by Hubert Pernot

Another, this time French, account of a spinster who is seduced by a shepherd. The singer keeps on reaping the lines:

“How could you / How could you / How could you think I’m spinning (or: running away) / We can’t always spin away (or: running away).”

The French word for spinning, ‘filer,’ has a double meaning, so we are never entirely sure if our singer cannot continue to spin or that something or someone is hindering her capacity to run away. Later in the song, we learn that the shepherd’s love is sincere and that the priest gives our singer a blessing to continue the kissing. If he wasn’t a priest, she would have made him her lover, too – a song full of mixed messages.

  1. Interview Mary Gillies x Alan Lomax
    Mary Gillies discusses her mother’s wool work and the song she used to sing while at work.

Mary says:
“She was a nice looking woman and a lovely singer. And I have still got some of her songs …and I’m not.. the only thing I am sorry for is I didn’t .. learn them.. better than what I did.”

  1. ’S chunna mise mo leannan (I Saw My Love), sung by Mary Gillies, recorded by Alan Lomax

Mary Gillies continues to sing one of her mother’s songs, a Gaelic song. It heralds the lamenting voices of this mixtape as it tells of a lover who does not recognize the singer.

  1. Cantiga da ceifa, sung by Catarina Chitas recorded by Michel Giacometti and Joana Guiné

A poetic Portuguese lament and worksong, warning about the wink of a boy’s eyes and the warm sun while harvesting.

The first stanza says:

“From above the bread is harvested / Oh, under below stays the stubble / Girl don’t fall in love / Oh, with the boy that winks his eye.”

  1. Er was een meisje van achttien jaren, sung by Gretha Sok, recorded by Will D. Scheepers
    A deceptively cheery song that, in its last sentence, implies femicide. A man seduces a girl. After he leaves her “with a deep guilt,” he takes her into the forest and tells her: “your final resting place is here.”
  1. De valse liefde heeft zovele zinnen, sung by Anna van der Biezen-Akkermans recorded by Ate Doornbosch

Based on an arch that also includes a seduction, a fall out of favor, and a murder in the woods, this song appears to be a more developed version of the previous one.

It laments the death of a pregnant girl named Dina, who is killed by the man who had claimed to be in love with her: Mr. Volto. Dina’s class is one of the reasons Mr. Volto’s friends encourage him to get rid of her – “Volto, thou dost shame thy tail.

That thou shouldst let thy lust err on a maid” – before he acts on their advice.

  1. En bij de prille vroege morgenstond, sung by Trees Torfs, recorded by Pol Heyns
    We finally arrive at the mixtape’s more agential female section. In this song, a hunter encounters a beautiful shepherdess, but she rejects him because she “prefers her liberty.” This version was recorded in 1938.
  1. Interview Eudoxie Blanc x Pierre Bonte, and song by Eudoxie Blanc
    Eudoxie recounts how her husband would never let her sing while spinning. Now that he is dead, she does as she pleases. Here is a little excerpt of the interview Pierre Bonte did with her in 1977:

    Are you a widow, Eudoxie? / What do you mean? / (louder) Are you a widow?! / Oh yes, since six years ago. Oh, and as I said, that’s when I felt resuscitated because my husband didn’t like it. / He didn’t like what? / Well, he didn’t like me spinning. He didn’t like me laughing too much with people. I shouldn’t sing… So I spent my youth… Not that I liked that… And now, voila! I’ve got very nice grandchildren, and we’re all happy, too, so things are going well! / Are you happier now? / Oh ha, no comparison
  1. The false true love, sung by Eliza Pace, recorded by Alan Lomax and Elizabeth Lyttleton
    This song is a (very) different version of the 5th song we listened to. In this iteration, sung by Eliza Pace in 1937, it is not entirely clear which lover confronts which about their infidelity. On Shirley Collins’s record False True Lovers, she and Alan Lomax note that: “The False True Love is one of hundreds of examples showing that the British folk song tradition has grown steadily more lyrical in the past two or three hundred years. As the role of the ballad singer lost its importance, the narrative pieces were broken down into fragmentary lyric songs […] The original piece is a tragic ballad, called Young Hunting, probably Scots in origin, but widespread throughout Britain and North America. It tells of a young man who rides by to visit an old sweetheart. When she bids him to lie down and spend the night, he says that he prefers his new light of love. Whereupon the jealous girl stabs him, throws his corpse into the well and curses him. The remainder of the ballad consists of a dialogue between the murderess and her little parrot, the sole witness, who insists he will tell all and will not be bribed or threatened into silence.”[7]

[1] Stijn Streuvels. De Vlaschaard (Amsterdam: L.J., 1907).

[2] Idem.

[3] Ine van Linthout and Roel vande Winkel. De Vlaschaard 1943: Een Vlaams boek in nazi-Duitsland en een Duitse film in bezet België. (Groeninghe, Kortrijk/Brussel, 2007).

[4] Marek Korczynski, Michael Pickering and Emma Robertson. Rhythms of Labour: Music at Work in Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[5] I am taking this insight from David Graeber’s and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything (David Graeber and David Wengrow. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. (New York, Picador, 2023).

[7] Shirley Collins. False True Lovers (Folkway: 1960, LP)