South Jiangsu: beyond silk-and-bamboo

Laoximen 2001

Qinglian street club, Old Westgate, Shanghai 2001. My photo.

The Jiangnan sizhu (“silk-and-bamboo of south Jiangsu”) instrumental ensemble has become a reified image of secular Chinese entertainment music. It’s played not only by polished professionals on stage, but by amateur groups in teahouses and leisure centres around Shanghai and the whole vicinity (for amateur chamber ensembles elsewhere, cf. suite-plucking in old Beijing, the Yulin “little pieces”, nanyin, and so on). Shanghai is a hospitable cosmopolitan urban centre, and these clubs are a popular haunt of foreign music students there.

The title was formalized only in the 1950s—one of many instances of the official renaming of genres at the time, such as Xi’an guyue or Xiansuo shisantao. Yet however one may dispute reification, Jiangnan sizhu is indeed “a thing”. Over a long period since the early 20th century we can observe a continuum from life-cycle and calendrical performances, through the amateur clubs, to professional staged performances.

In Chapter 13 of my book Folk music of China I began to put silk-and-bamboo in the wider context of musicking around south Jiangsu (Suzhou, Wuxi, Nanjing, Changshu, Yangzhou, and so on—all large regions each containing several hundred villages!). And I outlined the background of regional opera, narrative-singing, and all kinds of ritual practice, including the Shifan ensembles that accompany Daoist ritual. Indeed, Daoist ritual around Shanghai and south Jiangsu is a vast topic subsidiary only to local traditions in southeast China.

So apart from their use as entertainment in the amateur clubs, the various types of sizhu have a firm basis in life-cycle and calendrical rituals.

Folk-singing in the region is easily overlooked, but fortunately we have a wonderful detailed study by Antoinet Schimmelpenninck, who also saw the wider picture. She refers to ritual styles like xuanjuan 宣卷 performed by devotional sectarian groups, common throughout south Jiangsu. [1]

As Chinese genres go, compared with many traditions in both north and south China Jiangnan sizhu is rather youthful. As commonly with folk groups, the musicians sit around a table, an inevitable casualty of stage performance. They often take turns on various instruments over the course of an afternoon session. The personnel remains predominantly male.

Chinese studies have favoured “music” over social context, and most publications on Jiangnan sizhu are based on the “eight great pieces” (for a simple introduction, see my Folk music of China, pp.275–82). While the repertoire is not so reified as this canonization may lead us to suppose, in the teahouses of central Shanghai it remains rather limited. But local variants of the repertoire abound, as shown by the definitive 1985 collection of transcriptions (770 pages!) by Gan Tao 甘涛. As always, we should regard it not as a reified repertoire, but as a regional form of musicking, a social activity (and since the ambience and sound-world of the amateur clubs may be reminiscent of Irish pub sessions, do enjoy my posts on Cieran Carson!).

Interlude: laowai
By the 1980s the Jiangnan sizhu repertoire was already the subject of analysis from scholars like Ye Dong, Li Minxiong, and Yuan Jingfang. Meanwhile, as China opened up again after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Larry Witzleben spent extended periods based at the Shanghai Conservatoire from 1981 to 1985, resulting in the brilliant early monograph

  • J. Lawrence Witzleben, “Silk and bamboo” music in Shanghai: the Jiangnan sizhu instrumental ensemble tradition (1995),

still one of the most accomplished ethnographies of a local Chinese tradition.

With chapters on the historical background and intergenre relationships, instruments, repertory, form, variation, texture, and aesthetics, perhaps the most innovative section is Chapter 2, a nuanced ethnography of the scene from 1981 to 1985, including relations with the professional music world.

Silk-and-bamboo soon earned a significant place in Western scholarship, and images of Chinese music, also thanks to the writings of Alan Thrasher, albeit concerned more with musical structures than with ethnography.

Silk-and-bamboo clubs, Shanghai 1987. My photos.

In 1986 and 1987, based in Beijing, I used to decamp to Shanghai occasionally, taking what was then a very long train ride. According to my own apocryphal story, my main incentive was that the showers of the foreign students’ dorms there had a rather reliable supply of hot water, still rare in my student accommodation in Beijing. Anyway, even though I was already entranced by northern ritual culture, it gave me an opportunity to take part in some of the many amateur silk-and-bamboo clubs on erhu fiddle—and also to hang out with the wonderful qin-player Lin Youren and acquaint myself with the thriving Daoist ritual scene.

For foreign students, participant observation was both instructive and pleasurable. As laowai, we were more keen on visiting the teahouses than our Chinese fellow-students, who naturally focused on the polished versions of their conservatoire teachers. In 1987 I was roped into a Jiangnan sizhu contest at the conservatoire, joining a mixed group of Chinese and foreign students—the latter including François Picard, Fred Lau, and Tony Wheeler (back row, to my right). Below right is Ma Xiaohui 马晓晖, who went on to a career as erhu virtuoso:

contest 87

The competitive format was hardly my favoured method of engaging with silk-and-bamboo, but it was an interesting experience. Alongside the conservatoire-style ensembles taking part, there were also some fine senior amateur groups. As cute foreign pets we inevitably won a prize, but our sound ideal, however flawed in execution, was modelled on folk practice rather than the more polished version of the professionals. Soon after, Helen Rees also became a regular participant at Shanghai teahouse sessions, while embarking on her fine studies of ritual music in southwest China.

Thinking back, guided by mentors at the Music Research Institute and Yuan Jingfang, my Beijing base propelled me towards ritual in the countryside more inevitably than might have been the case if I had been studying in Shanghai. Rural ritual is plentiful throughout south Jiangsu too, but somehow there is more to encourage one to tarry in cosmopolitan Shanghai without venturing out to the villages and townships.

Zhang Zhengming, 2001: left, with Zhou Hao at the Xuhui club;
right, with his wife—their 1952 wedding photo in the background.

On a visit in 2001 I spent a week in Shanghai, with the wonderful Zhang Zhengming 张徵明 (b.1925) guiding me to a different club every afternoon. It was good to see the renowned erhu master Zhou Hao, then 77, taking part keenly in the amateur groups, naturally modifying his polished style to the ambience; later in a one-to-one session he gave me a fine demonstration of the difference between “folk” and “conservatoire” styles.


I was happy to be able to invite a group led by Zhang Zhengming to the 2005 Amsterdam China festival, as I scurried around hosting the Hua family shawm band and the Li family Daoists from Yanggao.

Again, there’s a continuum: official staged presentations are part of the whole fabric of silk-and-bamboo. This playlist from Jan Chmelarčík includes his videos from the amateur clubs in 2006 and 2007, showing a variety of contexts and styles:

The silk-and-bamboo scene plays a major role in Ruard Absaroka’s thesis Hidden musicians and public musicking in Shanghai, very much informed by anthropological theory.

The wider context: the Anthology
It’s so easy to find activity in central Shanghai that one might not be tempted to explore the suburbs and further afield. But by the 1980s, research was also expanding significantly with the great Anthology:

  • Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ, Shanghai juan 中国民族民间器乐曲, 上海卷 (1993),

edited by the knowledgeable Li Minxiong.

Local collectors documented the wider region in the suburbs of Shanghai, with its twelve municipalities and ten counties. Apart from transcriptions, the collectors also described folk activity, with useful textual introductions as well as biographies and introductions to major groups.

Again it’s worth noting the overall Anthology coverage for Shanghai. After an opening section on solo music (pp.19–234) devoted mainly to pipa solos, there are three main rubrics: sizhu (235–930), chuida (932–1268), and “religious music” (1273–1594). There follow brief biographies and accounts of folk groups (1595–1638, illustrated descriptions of instruments (1639–58), and lengthy appendices, mainly gongche scores (1661–2087).

It may seem impressive that even by 2001 over thirty sizhu groups were still meeting amidst the glossy modernity of central Shanghai. But for the whole region, Li Minxiong gives a figure of 428 groups (!) since the early 20th century; as he explains in his introduction (JC pp.241–63), over two hundred were active on the eve of Liberation.

Following the May Fourth movement of 1919, many groups adopted the term “national music” in their titles. Indeed, such groups were the precursors of the whole “conservatoire style” that later came to represent the official image of Chinese music. The Anthology describes celebrated groups from the Republican era.


Top: Xiadiao music ensemble; middle: Qingping gathering, 1934; below: Datong music association (note music stands!). Source: Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Shanghai juan.


Juntian gathering, 1917, Source: Qi Kun, Jiangnan sizhu.

After the 1949 Liberation, master musicians from the “old society” lent continuity, such as Jin Zuli, Sun Yude, Li Tingsong, Wei Zhongle, Chen Yonglu, and Lin Shicheng (for more, see Anthology, pp.1595–1722). At the same time they were responsible for certain innovations resulting from adapting the style to the concert platform. Commercial recordings were already quite common, but the carefully prescribed arrangements of Lu Chunling’s quartet with Ma Shenglong, Zhou Hao, and Zhou Hui became influential. Here’s a cassette (remember them?) of them from 1982, after the hiatus of the Cultural Revolution:


As collectivization and campaigns escalated, some folk groups had difficulty maintaining activity; but, as everywhere, the liberalizations following the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s brought a revival. In 1980 over seven hundred performers took part in a grand performance at the Shanghai conservatoire, with groups coming from Shanghai, Suzhou, Wuxi, Nanjing, and Hangzhou. But as Shanghai was transformed again, amateur clubs have somehow remained active.

Related genres
But apart from the public image of sizhu, the Anthology valuably introduces bands in the surrounding suburban regions, often serving life-cycle and calendrical rituals—in Nanhui, Fengxian, Chuansha, Jiading, Shanghai county, Baoshan, Qingpu, Songjiang, Jinshan, and Chongming island.


Undated Anthology photos: above and below: chuida bands, Chongming; middle: the Tianshan national music association.

So this involves expanding our explorations in terms of both geography and genre. While sizhu is the main theme, the plot thickens when we include related instrumental genres hardly broached by foreign scholars based in metropolitan Shanghai: the “pure tones bands” (qingyin ban 清音班) and the former tangming 堂名 groups (see also n.3 below).

Moreover, the latter are also related to the occupational “blowing and beating” bands (chuidaban 吹打班) based on shawms and percussion—another main rubric of the Anthology (see introduction, pp.932–45). Among 184 such bands for which collectors found evidence, Li Minxiong gives sketches of rural groups in Chuansha, Baoshan, Qingpu, and Jiading, all with several generations of transmission. This section also contains material on local ritual, including weddings, funerals, and longevity celebrations (qingshou 庆寿), as well as calendrical and religious rituals.

A fine case-study: Nanhui
Qi Kun 齐琨, with a firm background in music anthropology, has produced some fine ethnographic work, notably her book on the qingyin 清音 groups of Nanhui county in the southeastern suburbs [2] —itself an extensive area, with 26 districts (amalgamated in 2001 into 14 townships) and 347 villages:

  • Lishidi chanshi: Shanghai Nanhui sizhuyue qingyinde chuancheng yu bianqian yanjiu 历史地阐释: 上海南汇丝竹乐清音的传承与变迁研究 (2007).

Starting from around 1850 when such groups became common in Nanhui, she uses local gazetteers, interviews with senior performers, and fieldnotes from attendance at rituals and secular performances. She often cites the Nanhui draft for the Anthology, which looks to be among the more detailed local contributions to the Shanghai volumes.

She introduces various related genres in Nanhui, including Daoist groups [3] and their former “household kin” (menjuan 门眷) catchment-area system, occupational chuida bands, Buddhist groups, opera, and the Pudong style of pipa plucked lute.

Qi Kun musters impressive material on bands and activity in the late Qing and the Republican era (itself a period of significant change), with sections on temple fairs, weddings, and funerals.

After the Communist victory of 1949, state-sanctioned performances of Jiangnan sizhu on stage became more common alongside traditional contexts, but as always I’m keen to learn more about folk activity during the decades of Maoism, the crucial transitional period from the “old society” to the consumer culture of the reform era (cf. Yulin).

The Anthology notes in passing some basic elements in the decline of many groups over the period as a result of the state’s pervasive social remoulding, such as migration, army service, collectivization, and campaigns against superstition. But ever alert to change, Qi Kun has a detailed chapter on the Maoist era in Nanhui. She illustrates the severe reduction of the diverse local social contexts that were the basis for expressive culture before Liberation—the rich network of temple fairs, weddings and funerals. Many qingyin performers were absorbed into a scene now based on entertainment rather than ceremonial; as elsewhere, many fine folk musicians were recruited to the new state-funded opera troupes and amateur “art-work troupes”. Qi Kun notes the place of qingyin in state-sponsored events like political meetings and sending off army recruits.

However, there was a certain continuity, and amateur qingyin activity persisted. Qi Kun gives instances from nine districts. She notes the more-or-less undisturbed observance of life-cycle rituals in the early 1950s, with lengthy processions; some groups even persisted performing for these contexts into the early 1960s.

The fortunes of musicians depended largely on their “class status”, but irrespective of this many were reduced to poverty. But there were ironies—as one performer commented:

People like Wen Zhengxiu who served as Daoist priests weren’t persecuted. Almost all of those Daoists smoked opium, so they had virtually no possessions at home, they could never become wealthy. So after Liberation they were classed as poor peasants. Instead it was honest people like us, who had toiled over several generations to accumulate family property, who were targets of punishment.

Such people now became the core of many qingyin groups.

Amidst the traumas of the Cultural Revolution, Qi Kun goes on to describe the maintenance of the qingyin style (if not its former context) in the Mao Zedong Thought propaganda troupes. Some troupes even used the traditional sizhu repertoire, like Xingjie, to accompany political processions.

And even now a certain amount of furtive recreational activity continued (again, cf. Yulin)—behind closed doors, some troupe members even sometimes dared invite former “landlords” and “rich peasants” to play the traditional repertoire along with them. Performers recall both the cruelty and the nuances of the period. Many of the troupe members became core elements in the revival of tradition from the late 1970s—for which, of course, the main factor was the amazing resurgence of ritual practice. Indeed, a modest revival was already under way before the overthrow of the Gang of Four in 1976.

qingyin JC

Qingyin bands in Fengxian, Jiading, and Baoshan. Source: Anthology.

In Chapter 4 Qi Kun takes the story on into the consumer age. After detailing the gradual revival (cf. my own notes on that of the Li family Daoists in Shanxi), she surveys a scene that is still more diverse than that before 1949, with recreational groups (now under semi-official leadership, with some even adopting the title “folk music band” minyuedui 民乐队!) now able to meet regularly, overlapping with occupational bands performing for customary observances. She gives a fine diary of the varied public activities of the Zhuqiao qingyin band from 1994 to 2003, as well as detailed notes on a 2002 wedding and on the grandest of ten funerals that she attended in 2004. Indeed, while such groups traditionally performed for weddings, their participation in funerals is a recent innovation.


Still, even with the revival, fewer performers are active than before 1949. Qi Kun also illustrates changes in ritual practice over the period with graphic tables. Here she compares figures for qingyin bands active around Nanhui in 1937–49 and in 2004, by district:

QK 326

For all periods, Qi Kun constantly notes the interaction of social, economic, political, and musical change—if only Chinese musicology would learn from such an approach, rather than banging on about heritage and living fossils!


Wall advertisement for the Tongxin qingyin band, Nanhui c2004. Source: Qi Kun, Jiangnan sizhu (2009).

The advertisement above reads:

Exclusive service for wedding and funerals: destroy superstition and be frugal—stylish and trendy.

I don’t know if this was a disingenuous response to a temporary campaign, but the social mood of the time was not exactly keen on destroying superstition or enacting frugality. Discuss

And suburban regions like Nanhui are anything but a rural backwater: they are inextricably tied to the global economic market of Shanghai. But exploring the environs always reveals a diverse picture.

That’s quite enough for one sitting—but zooming out still further, the instrumental volumes of the Anthology for Jiangsu province give an impression of such bands throughout the province:

  • Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ, Jiangsu juan 中国民族民间器乐曲, 江苏卷 (1998).

Again its main rubrics are chuida, sizhu, and “religious music”.

And just south lies Zhejiang province… Aiyaa.

* * *

Shanghai silk-and-bamboo makes a comfortable repertoire that is too easily reified and detached from the wider society. Much as I have enjoyed visiting the Shanghai teahouses, there’s so much more to study, not only in the suburbs but all around south Jiangsu, where entertainment genres are always subsidiary to ritual! And the cast of ritual performers, here as elsewhere, is still more varied: Daoist ritual specialists, spirit mediums (very important in local society), devotional sectarian groups, and so on.

Like Beijing, Tianjin, Chongqing, and other municipalities, Shanghai is a vast region, the riches of whose expressive culture can hardly be encapsulated by simple labels. As usual, we have to look beyond the reified canons of idealized, “representative” “genres” (the Zhihua temple, the “eight great suites” of Shanxi, the Uyghur twelve muqam, and so on) and plunge into the complex world of changing local social activities.


[1] Among considerable research on xuanjuan, see e.g. articles in Dayin 大音 vols. 3, 4 and 5; Zhongguo quyi zhi, Jiangsu juan 中国曲艺志, 江苏卷; Qian Tiemin 钱铁民 (on Wuxi) in Zhongguo minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Huadong juan 中国民间仪式音乐研究, 华东卷 (2007) vol.1. In English, see Mark Bender, “A description of ‘jiangjing’ (telling scriptures) services in Jingjiang, China”, Asian folklore studies 60 (2001), and ongoing work from Rostislav Berezkin.

[2] Qi Kun also has related articles in Zhongguo minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Huadong juan (with film footage on the DVD), and the Dayin series.

[3] For Daoist ritual in Nanhui, see Zhu Jianming 朱建明 and Tan Jingde 谈敬德, Shanghai Nanhui xian Zhengyi pai daotan yu Dongyue miao keyiben huibian 上海南汇县正一派道坛与东岳庙科仪本汇编 (2006); in Jiading and Chuansha counties, Zhu Jianming, Tan Jingde, and Chen Zhengsheng 陈正生, Shanghai jiaoqu daojiao jiqi yinyue yanjiu 上海郊区道教及其音乐研究 (2001; for the tangming groups, note pp.29–48); and in Shanghai county, Zhu Jianming, Shanghai xian Shengtang daoyuan jiqi taiping gongjiao kaocha jishi 上海县圣堂道院及其公醮考察纪实 (1993).

Lives in Stalin’s Russia


Hand-in-hand with my focus on ritual and expressive culture, I have long been concerned to document life-stories—of ordinary people, artists, and scholars, both in China (cf. my detailed work on the Gaoluo villagers and the Li family Daoists) and Europe.

Under the Iron curtain tag I’ve broached life-stories under state socialism in the GDR (here and here), Czechoslovakia, and the Ukraine (blind minstrels, and the famine)—and tribulations under the Soviet regime were the context for this post on ethnic minorities there. But now, reading

  • Orlando Figes, The whisperers: private lives in Stalin’s Russia (2007)

makes an accessible single-volume study to begin shedding light on my ignorance of ordinary lives in the Soviet Union. Apart from the importance of the topic in itself, I muse (as ever) on the similarities and differences with Maoist—and post-Maoist—China.

Many books describe the externals of the Terror—the arrests and trials, enslavements and killings of the Gulag—but The whisperers is the first to explore in depth its influence on personal and family life.

The oral history of family memory makes a counterweight to the official narrative. Figes interrogates the issues in interpreting such sources. His website, following on from his oral history project, is a treasury of related material. For significant caveats on the book, see here (with further links).

As the regime sought to erase the distinction between public and private life, Figes describes both the effectiveness of the Soviet indoctrination of children and the internal conflict with messages they gleaned from their families. The system taught dissimulation, producing duplicity and lifelong fear. As a survival strategy, people learned to wear a mask, going into “internal emigration”, leading double lives; they had to adjust to the system merely in order to survive. They learned not to talk: “whisperers” were both those who whispered out of fear of being overheard, and those who informed.

Figes details the effects of successive waves of repression, before, during, and after the Stalin regime from 1928 to 1953, interweaving many family histories throughout the book. The case of its central figure Konstantin Simonov, who “embodied all the moral conflicts and dilemmas of his generation”, though revealing in its complexity, is exceptional in his high profile as cultural cadre. The index, and the website, can be used to follow the stories of individual families throughout the book. The cast includes both cadres and the catch-all of “kulaks”, but seems more urban than rural—whereas China was more predominantly rural as late as the 1970s. Even early images of “kulaks” being expelled, and photos from the Gulag (however manufactured), suggest that China was still more backward—and repressed—in the 1950s than Russia in the 1920s.

Exiles gulag Siberia 1933 101Exiles in a “special settlement” in western Siberia, 1933.

For Maoist China too, diverse sources can be assembled to modify and counter the official narrative, including memoirs, family photos and documents, local archives, and so on—note Sebastian Veg, Popular memories of the Mao eraMemoirs and biographical accounts have proliferated since the liberalizations of the 1980s. In film, recent projects such as laogai documentaries and Wu Wenguang’s Caochangdi Work Station are impressive. Also revealing are fictional portrayals—not just laogai novelists like Zhang Xianliang and Yan Lianke, but films such as The blue kite that suggest the everyday tribulations of ordinary families. But while there may be a comparable wealth of material for China, it’s hard to envisage such an accessible, personal, wide-ranging and diachronic account as The whisperers.

Illuminating his sources perceptively, Figes identifies clear periods in people’s fates under the Soviet regime. The repression took place over a longer period than that of Maoism, and may seem to have been even more terrifying. The Gulag—among the extensive literature on which, see e.g. Anne Applebaum, Gulag (2003)—looms larger in the public (and private) image of the USSR than the laogai system in China, although the latter has also become the subject of brave research. Executions, and the all-pervading NKVD, also seem to play a more common role in Soviet history.

Below I can only list some of the main themes of the book, rather than citing the many personal life-stories that illustrate them—which is actually its outstanding strength.

* * *

Figes opens with Children of 1917, on the early years of the revolution, and the beginnings of state indoctrination and the war on religion. In 1926 the peasantry represented 82% of the Soviet population—cf. China, where the rural population peaked at 84% in 1963. But urban populations grew rapidly. Families were dislocated; millions of children were abandoned, having to fend for themselves. Figes describes life at the camps. Some “kulaks” managed to flee from the camps, living on the run.

Young people renounced their relatives, for various motives.

As millions of people left their homes, changed their jobs, or moved around the country, it was relatively easy to change or reinvent one’s social class. People learned to fashion for themselves a class identity that would help them advance. They became clever at concealing or disguising impure social origins, and at dressing up their own biographies to make them seem more “proletarian”.

But they were haunted by the constant threat of exposure—many concealed their secrets right until the 1990s.

In The great break (1928–32) Figes describes the temporary relaxation in the assault against religion between 1924 and 1928:

On 2 August 1930, the villagers of Obukhovo celebrated Ilin Day, an old religious holiday to mark the end of the high summer when Russian peasants held a feast and said their prayers for a good harvest. After a service in the church, the villagers assembled at the Golovins, the biggest family in Obukhovo, where they were given home-made pies and beer inside the house while their children played outside. As evening approached, the village dance (gulian’e) began. Led by a band of balalaika players and accordionists, two separate rows of boys and girls, dressed in festive cottons, set off from the house, singing as they danced down the village street.

Thereafter, while clandestine belief may have persisted, I find rather few clues to any public religious (or even customary) activity—by contrast with Maoist China, where it kept resurfacing despite constant campaigns. Am I wrong to see local Chinese populations as more resilient in maintaining their expressive culture under Maoism? Still in Obukhovo:

That year the holiday was overshadowed by violent arguments. The villagers were bitterly divided about whether they should form a collective farm (kolkhoz), as they had been ordered by the Soviet government. […] There were terrifying tales of soldiers forcing peasants into the kolkhoz, of mass arrests and deportations, of houses being burned and people killed, and of peasants fleeing from their villages and slaughtering their cattle to avoid collectivization.

Kulaks exiled 1930s 89“Kulaks” exiled from the village of Udachne, Khryshyne (Ukraine), early 1930s.

As Figes explains:

During just the first two months of 1930, half the Soviet peasantry (about 60 million people in over 100,000 villages) was herded into the collective farms. […] Peasants who spoke out against collectivization were beaten, tortured, threatened, and harassed, until they agreed to join the collective farm. Many were expelled as “kulaks” from their homes and driven out of the village. The herding of the peasants into the collective farms was accompanied by a violent assault against the Church, the focal point of the old way of life of the village, which was regarded by the Bolsheviks as a source of potential opposition to collectivization. Thousands of priests were arrested and churches were looted and destroyed, forcing millions of believers to maintain their faith in the secrecy of their own homes. […]
There was surprisingly little peasant opposition to the persecution of the “kulaks”. […] The majority of the peasantry reacted to the sudden disappearance of their fellow villagers with passive resignation born of fear.

Golovins 1940s 78Yevdokiia and Nikolai with their son Aleksei Golovin (1940s).

In Obukhovo the Golovins were deported on 4th May 1930:

I recall the faces of the people standing there. They were our friends and neighbours—the people I had grown up with. No-one approached us. No-one said farewell. They stood there silently, like soldiers in a line. They were afraid.


There was widespread resistance to collectivization, even though most villagers acquiesced in the repression of “kulaks”. In 1929–30, the police registered 44,779 “serious disturbances”. Communists and rural activists were killed in their hundreds, and thousands more attacked. There were peasant demonstrations and riots, assaults against Soviet institutions, acts of arson and attacks on kolkhoz property, protests against closures of churches.

Figes unpacks the motives of those responsible for enforcing the brutal war against the peasantry.

Under The pursuit of happiness (1932–36), while observing brief concessions to consumer culture (promoting perfume, cosmetics, fun), he evokes urban projects like the construction of the Moscow metro from 1932, using peasant immigrants and Gulag prisoners:

The splendour of these proletarian palaces, which stood in such stark contrast to the cramped and squalid private spaces in which the majority of people lived, played an important moral role (not unlike the role played by the Church in earlier states).

But popular unrest continued. The rise of a new bureaucratic elite also caused discontent:

In 1932, a manager at Transmashtekh, a vast industrial conglomerate, wrote to the Soviet President Mikhail Kalinin:

The problem with Soviet power is the fact that it gives rise to the vilest type of official—one that scrupulously carries out the general designs of the supreme authority… This official never tells the truth, because he doesn’t want to distress the leadership. He gloats about famine and pestilence in the district or ward controlled by his rival. He won’t lift a finger to help his neighbour… All I see around me is loathsome politicizing, dirty tricks, and people being destroyed for slips of the tongue. There’s no end to the denunciations. You can’t spit without hitting some revolting denouncer or liar. What have we come to? It’s impossible to breathe. The less gifted a bastard, the meaner his slander. Of course the purge of your Party is none of my business, but I think that as a result of it, decent elements still remaining will be cleaned out.

Figes notes the “hierarchy of poverty”. And meanwhile the lives of women failed to improve:

For women nothing changed in the 1930s—they worked long hours at a factory and then did a second shift at home, cooking, cleaning, caring for the children on average for five hours every night—whereas men were liberated from most of their traditional domestic duties (chopping wood, carrying water, preparing the stove) by the modernization of workers’ housing, which increased the provision of running water, gas, and electricity, leaving them more time for cultural pursuits and politics.

Trotsky had trenchant views on sexual politics:

One of the dramatic chapters in the great book of the Soviets will be the tale of the disintegration and breaking up of those Soviet families where the husband as a Party member, trade unionist, military commander or administrator, grew and developed and acquired new tastes in life, and the wife, crushed by the family, remained on the old level. The road of the two generations of Soviet bureaucracy is sown thick with the tragedies of wives rejected and left behind. The same phenomenon is now to be observed in the new generation. The greatest of all crudities and cruelties are to be met perhaps in the very heights of the bureaucracy, where a very large percentage are parvenus of little culture, who consider that everything is permitted to them. Archives and memoirs will some day expose downright crimes in relation to wives, and to women in general, on the part of those evangelists of family morals and the compulsory “joys of motherhood”, who are, owing to their position, immune from prosecution.

Figes documents the constrained domestic spaces of urban dwellers, and the tensions caused by lack of privacy, with some fine room plans.

Above, left: Khaneyevsky household, Moscow; right: Reifshnieders’ room, Moscow.
Below, left: Nikitin and Turkin apartments, Perm; right: Bushuev “corner” room, Perm.

In later years many people felt a rose-tinted nostalgia for the pre-war years, when

Everybody helped one another, and there were no arguments. No-one was stingy with their money—they spent their wages as soon as they were paid. It was fun to live then. Not like after the war, when people kept their money to themselves, and closed their doors.

But, as in China (where many peasants felt an equally perplexing nostalgia for the commune system), there’s ample evidence for the contrary view of communal life:

It was a different feeling of repression from arrest, imprisonment, and exile, which I’ve also experienced, but in some ways it was worse. In exile one preserved a sense of one’s self, but the repression I felt in the communal apartment was the repression of my inner freedom and individuality. I felt this repression, this need for self-control, every time I went into the kitchen, where I was always scrutinized by the little crowd that gathered there. It was impossible to be oneself.

Still, millions of people were taught to believe that

hard work today would be rewarded tomorrow, when the “good life” would be enjoyed by all.

Though the mid-1930s have been regarded as the calm before the storm,

for millions of people whose families were scattered in the Gulag’s labour camps and colonies, these years were as bad as any other.

Kondratiev 1938 226Nikolai Kondratiev’s last letter to his daughter, 1938.

In The great fear (1937–38), Figes explains that the Terror was not a routine wave of mass arrest, but a calculated policy of mass murder. Among the complex reasons prompting Stalin’s purge was the imminent threat of war. Not just the direct “offenders” but also their kin were hunted down. The motives of the informers, often themselves under extreme pressure, were also complex.

In 1938, the NKVD chief Yezhov was deposed. “The real reason for Yezhov’s fall was Stalin’s growing sense that mass arrests were no longer a workable strategy. At the rate the arrests were going, it would not be long before the entire Soviet population was in jail.” Under his successor Beria the purge was scaled down.

Fear brought out the worst in people. Yet there was also acts of extraordinary kindness by colleagues, friends, and neighbours, sometimes even strangers, who took enormous risks to help the families of “enemies of the people”. […]
The disappearance of a father and a husband placed enormous strain on families. Wives renounced husbands who had been arrested, not necessarily because they thought their spouses might be “enemies of the people”, although they may have had that thought, but because it made survival easier and gave protection to their families (many husbands for this reason advised wives to renounce them). […] It took extraordinary resilience, and not a little bravery, for women to resist these pressures and stand by their husbands.

There is scant consolation in Remnants of terror (1938–41) on the eve of the German invasion. Figes praises the untold acts of heroism of grandmothers striving to keep together the scattered remains of repressed families.

Lebeva 1940 322Elena Lebedeva with her granddaughters, Natalia (left) and Elena Konstantinova,
Ak-Bulak, 1940.

But many children ended up in orphanages, roamed the streets begging, joined street gangs, or were themselves sent to children’s labour colonies.

Meanwhile, in a Nazi–Soviet pact that alarmed faithful Communists, both Germany and the Red Army invaded Poland, and the USSR pressurized the Baltic states to accept pacts of “defence and mutual assistance”, extending the reach of their reign of terror.

The theme of Wait for me (1941–45) is the social consequences of the sudden German invasion of the USSR in 1941. Apart from its global significance, it was also crucial for the maintenance of the Soviet regime. Stalin now had no choice but to call for unity, setting aside class struggle and ideology. Many saw that the whole climate of the Terror had played a major role in the USSR’s initial inability to resist the invasion; criticism became open (some even welcomed the prospect of a German victory), and arrests continued.

But the desperate need for self-defence did indeed foster a spirit of national unity. The horrors of war against a brutal external enemy helped people forget, for now, the misery of their situation during “peacetime”. Patriotic morale even produced a new merging of the public sphere and the intimate world of personal relationships.

As the tide turned, the Red Army chased the Germans back. Convinced by the courageous determination of the Soviet forces, Figes seeks to explain it. Terror and coercion played a role, but

Appeals to the patriotism of the Soviet people were more successful. The vast majority of Soviet soldiers were peasant sons; their loyalty was not to Stalin or the Party, which had brought ruin to the countryside, but to their homes and families, to their own vision of the “motherland”.

The image of Mother Russia was promoted; controls over religion were temporarily relaxed. Hatred of the enemy was also an important element. But most significant, Figes suggests, was the cult of personal sacrifice:

As Simonov remarked, the people were prepared for the privations of the war—the sharp decline in living standards, the breaking up of families, the disruption of ordinary life—because they had already been through much the same in the name of the Five Year Plans.


Contrary to the Soviet myth of wartime national unity, Soviet society was more fractured during the war than at any previous time since the Civil War. Ethnic divisions had been exacerbated by the Soviet state, which scapegoated certain national minorities, such as the Crimean Tatars, the Chechens, and the Volga Germans, and exiled them to regions where they were not welcomed by the local populace. Anti-Semitism, which had been largely dormant in Soviet society before the war, now became widespread. It flourished especially in areas occupied by Hitler’s troops, where a large section of the Soviet population was directly influenced by the Nazis’ racist propaganda, but similar ideas were imported to places as remote as Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and Siberia by Soviet soldiers and evacuees from the western regions near the front.

Even so, people united for the defence of their local communities. And soldiers found camaraderie:

Veterans recall the intimacy of these wartime friendships with idealism and nostalgia. They claim that people then had “bigger hearts” and “acted from the soul”, and that they themselves were somehow “better human beings”, as if the comradeship of the small collective unit was a cleaner sphere of ethical relationships and principles than the Communist system, with all its compromises and contingencies. They often talk as if they found in the collectivism of these groups of fellow soldiers a type of “family” that was missing from the lives before the war (and would be missing afterwards).

Zinaida 1942 357Left: Zinaida Bushueva with her brothers, 1936.
Right: Zinaida (centre) in ALZhIR, 1942. A rare private photograph of Gulag prisoners, it was taken to send to relatives. The three women were photographed together to reduce the costs.

During the war the exploitation of the Gulag labour force intensified—in 1942 one in four Gulag workers died.

As Pasternak would write in the epilogue of Doctor Zhivago (1957), “When the war broke out, its menace of real death, were a blessing compared to the inhuman power of the lie, a relief because it broke the spell of the dead letter.” The relief was palpable. People were allowed to act in ways that would have been unthinkable before the war. By necessity, they were thrown back on their own initiative—they spoke to one another and helped each other without thinking of the political dangers to themselves, and from this spontaneous activity a new sense of nationhood emerged. The war years, for this reason, would come to be recalled with nostalgia.

The years 1941 to 1943 were described as a period of “spontaneous de-Stalinization”. People were empowered to think critically; a new freedom of expression even included political debate. The revival of religious activity continued through to 1948. Still, over the whole period cultural and religious life at a distance from urban centres remains somewhat obscure.

All this marked the beginning of a fundamental change of values. Towards the end of the war, as the Red Army entered Europe, their encounter with conditions there—clearly superior even amidst its desperately ravaged state, to which indeed they contributed further—also allowed them to question Soviet propaganda. And like the British, their experiences gave them ideals of building a better society—in their case, dismantling the collective farms, establishing democracy and religious freedoms. “Party leaders were understandably anxious about the return of all these men with their reformist ideas.” Such liberal notions were anyway spreading among civilians, not least as a result of the alliance with Britain and the USA.

As Ilia Ehrenburg wrote,

Everybody expected that once victory had been won, people would know real happiness. We realized, of course, that the country had been devastated, impoverished, that we would have to work hard, and we did not have fantasies about mountains of gold. But we believed that victory would bring justice, that human dignity would triumph.

Their hopes were soon dashed.

The ending of the war coincided with the first mass release of prisoners from the Gulag. […] Families began to piece themselves together again. Women took the lead in this recovery, sometimes travelling across the country in search of husbands and children. There were tight restrictions on where former prisoners could live. Most of them were banned from residing in the major towns. So families who wanted to be together often had to move to remote corners of the Soviet Union. Sometimes the only place they could find to settle was in the Gulag zone.

But the Gulag population actually expanded in the years after the war, with forced labour making a significant element in the economy.

People were damaged; fear, and silence, still reigned. All this also makes even more remarkable the widespread telling of political jokes, throughout the whole period.

The post-war period is the subject of Ordinary Stalinists (1945–53).

No other country suffered more from the Second World War than the Soviet Union. According to the most reliable estimates, 26 million Soviet citizens lost their lives (two-thirds of them civilians) […] and 4 million disappeared between 1941 and 1945. […] The demographic consequences of the war were catastrophic. Soviet agriculture never really recovered from this demographic loss. The kolkhoz became a place for women, children, and old men.

The material devastation was grievous too. Another famine occurred from 1946 to 1948. The brief improvement in the supply of consumer goods before the war was a distant memory. With people no longer afraid to express their discontent, strikes and demonstrations broke out. But as the new threat posed by the Cold War developed, Stalin moved promptly to purge the army and Party leadership, and to rule out any idea of political reform. Censorship was tightened; the new wave of dissent had to continue underground.

Left: Inna Gaister (aged 13) with her sisters Valeriia (3) and Natalia (8), Moscow, 1939. The photograph was taken to send to their mother in the Akmolinsk labour camp (ALZhIR).
Right: Inna Gaister (centre) with two friends at Moscow University, 1947.

But a new type of middle class now emerged, better educated and less ideological in outlook—though they had to conform, at least outwardly, to the demands of the regime, perfecting the art of wearing masks. Figes gives more stories of informants. Valentina Kropotina made her whole career by informing. With her “kulak” background,

I was basically a street-child, dressed in rags, barefoot… All my childhood memories are dominated by the feeling of hunger… I was afraid of hunger, and even more, of poverty. And I was corrupted by this fear.

She felt no remorse for what she did. Still,

The “little terror” of the post-war years was very different from the Great Terror of 1937–8. It took place, not against the backdrop of apocalypse, when frightened people agreed to betrayals and denunciations in the desperate struggle to save their lives and families, but against the background of a relatively mundane and stable existence, when fear no longer deprived people of their moral sensibility.

Anti-Semitism, always latent, escalated along with the “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign. When Stalin died in 1953, even some victims of the Terror felt genuine sorrow, but

The mourning ceremonies in Krasnodar were more like a holiday. They put on a mournful face, but there was a sparkle in their eyes, the hint of a smile beneath their greeting, that made it clear that they were pleased.

Even so, there was still no release from fear—indeed, people were anxious for the future. Beria played a role in allaying such fears, though he was soon executed in a Kremlin coup organized by Kruschev. Hopes were high among Gulag inmates; new demonstrations broke out, which helped bring about the abolition of the system. About 40% of the Gulag population were released in an amnesty on 27th March 1953—though they returned to their families physically and mentally broken. The climate in the Soviet Union also led to the serious demonstrations that erupted in the GDR.

The story continues in Return (1953–56).

The family emerged from the years of terror as the one stable institution in a society where virtually all the mainstays of human existence—the neighbourhood community, the village and the church—had been weakened or destroyed. For many people the family represented the only relationship they could trust, the only place they felt a sense of belonging, and they went to extraordinary lengths to reunite with relatives.

But former prisoners found it hard to build relationships, to find jobs and places to live. They still had to confront those who had betrayed them, although they also understood the extreme pressures that had led them to do so. The process of rehabilitation was laborious. And millions never returned from the camps.

Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 made a decisive break, the beginnings of the reformist thaw. Still, Stalin, rather than the whole system, was the scapegoat. But it also had consequences for the countries of east Europe, notably with the Hungarian uprising that year.

And just as the worst was over in the USSR, China systematically repeated its deadly mistakes. Dikötter outlines many of the same features of life under Maoism, but his treatment is less personal.

As Figes describes in the final chapter, Memory (1956–2006), even after 1956, the vast majority of ordinary people were still too cowed and frightened by the memory of the Stalinist regime to speak out openly. The thaw ended when Brezhnev replaced Kruschev in 1964; as dissidents were persecuted, people again suppressed their traumatic memories. Stoicism and passivity became enduring social norms.

But nostalgia for the war persisted, even overriding other assessments of the system. Viacheslav Kondratiev recalled:

For our generation the war was the most important event in our lives, the most important. This is what we think today. So we are not prepared to belittle in any way the great achievement of our people in those terrifying, difficult, and unforgettable years. The memory of our fallen soldiers is too sacred, our patriotic feelings are too pure and deep for that.

Eventually more candid memories of the war surfaced, such as the 1975 film A soldier went. A whole Gulag literature emerged.

Unlike the victims of the Nazi war against the Jews, for whom there could be no redeeming narrative, the victims of Stalinist repression had two main collective narratives in which to place their own life-stories and find some sort of meaning for their ordeals: the survival narrative, as told in the memoir literature of former Gulag prisoners, in which their suffering was transcended by the human spirit of the survivor; and the Soviet narrative, in which that suffering was redeemed by the Communist ideal, the winning of the Great Patriotic War, or the achievements of the Soviet Union.

Figes reflects on the startling paradox in the later myth of Norilsk,

a large industrial city built and populated by Gulag prisoners, whose civic pride is rooted in their own slave labour for the Stalinist regime,

as well as the popular nostalgia for Stalin (and again we might compare the Chinese nostalgia for Mao—see also here), which

reflects the uncertainty of their lives as pensioners, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991; the rising prices that put many good beyond their means; the destruction of their savings by inflation; and the rampant criminality that frightened old people in their homes.


nostalgia notwithstanding, the ruinous legacies of the Stalinist regime continued to be felt by the descendants of Stalin’s victims many decades after the dictator’s death. It was not only a question of lost relationships, damaged lives and families, but of traumas passed from one generation to the next. […]
Even in the last years of the Soviet regime, in the liberal climate of glasnost, the vast majority of Soviet families did not talk about their histories, or pass down stories of repression to their children. […] Fifteen years after the collapse of the regime, there are still people in the provinces who are afraid to talk about their past, even to their own children.

Again, the Chinese parallel is interesting: whereas the Soviet “liberation” occurred after over seventy years of repression, in China “reform and opening” not only happened earlier, following the collapse of Maoism in the late 1970s, but came after a mere thirty years of state repression. Both Russia and China suffered grievously under invasion and warfare; and for both, the hard-earned victory came to form a cornerstone of the national image. But whereas in China the war set the scene for the Communist takeover and the people finally “standing up”, in Russia it made an interlude within a system in which repression was already deeply entrenched; it seemed to offer hopes for reform, which were soon thwarted. In China too the lid on popular expression of trauma remained quite tightly sealed, though as Sebastian Veg notes, “after a period of post-traumatic outpour, followed by commodified nostalgia, popular memory in recent years has shown signs of moving towards more critical discussions.” But both Chinese and Russian regimes continue to devise new forms of repression.

* * *

In my post on Bloodlands (n.2) I mentioned attempts to compare death tolls under Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—in ascending order, it seems. As Timothy Snyder wrote,

it turns out that, with the exception of the war years, a very large majority of people who entered the Gulag left alive. Judging from the Soviet records we now have, the number of people who died in the Gulag between 1933 and 1945, while both Stalin and Hitler were in power, was on the order of a million, perhaps a bit more. The total figure for the entire Stalinist period is likely between two million and three million. The Great Terror and other shooting actions killed no more than a million people, probably a bit fewer. The largest human catastrophe of Stalinism was the famine of 1930–1933, in which more than five million people died.

But appalling are the death tolls, they are far from the whole story. Now that I read Figes’s account, it seems callous and irrelevant to dwell on such statistics.

With my classical, mystical background, it took me a long time to appreciate the importance of all this—and it may still elude younger people in the UK, Russia, and China. But having long focused on the life-stories of Chinese ritual specialists and their patrons, I continue to find such accounts an illuminating perspective on modern history, for China and elsewhere.

Italian cinema: a golden age


Giulietta Masina—left, La strada; right, Notti di Cabiria.

To follow folk musicking in Italy, I’m reminded again of formative film experiences from my misspent youth.

Like fiction, feature films can often suggest perspectives that more forensic academic treatments fail to evoke (cf. the GDR and China). In the post-war period, as Europe—including the east—struggled to recover, in Italy a vast migration took place from the poor south to the industrial north. Meanwhile China was in the grip of collectivization and famine.

A dominant theme of early neo-realist films was deprivation. The moving Ladri di biciclette (Vittorio De Sica, 1948) is a reminder how effective it can be to cast amateur actors:

I recalled La strada (Federico Fellini, 1954) when the Li family Daoists performed at a circus in Paris during their 2017 French tour. While Nino Rota’s score is effective, Petrushka, with its trumpet solo and drum interludes, might have made a suitable soundtrack too.

A tribute to Giulietta Masina is in order. Her persona has been likened to Charlie Chaplin, and her role in La strada as an innocent itinerant street performer is most beguiling—despite the stereotype of the “gamine” “elfin waif” (quite different from that of Audrey Hepburn). And her role as Fellini’s “muse” is another trope unpacked by feminists:

The image of the Muse as loved object who inspires the male artist, whilst she herself remains silent, is deeply engrained in contemporary culture, despite the best efforts of feminist critics to expose the implications of such imagery: man creates, woman inspires; man is the maker, woman the vehicle of male fantasy, an object created by the male imagination, incapable of any kind of agency herself. In short, this image of the Muse denies woman’s active participation in artistic creation and silences female creativity. [1]

Masina is also wonderful in Notti di Cabiria (1957)—despite again being exploited by callous men. Here’s the moving final scene:

The making of Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960) is the subject of a 2017 book. The stellar cast includes not only Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, but early roles for Nico and the divine Anouk Aimée, always captivating (cf. here). As England progressed from adversity to the drabness of the 1950s, the image of Rome rapidly became fashionable. Whereas Fellini doubtless meant La dolce vita as a critique of the vacuity of the glamorous lifestyle, “over the years, the inverted commas and irony have dropped away”, leaving only “Vespas! Bikinis! Grappa!”.


Anouk Aimée with Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni.

Long before I began to experience Italy at first hand, films like these made a deep impression, which keeps growing.


[1] Penny Murray, “Reclaiming the Muse”, in Vanda Zajko and Miriam Leonard, Laughing with Medusa: classical myth and feminist thought (2008).



Italy: folk musicking


Italy map

With our common image of Italy dominated by elite culture, it may seem to make a less obvious fieldsite for folk traditions than east Europe. But as I observed in my jottings from Lisbon (and in my posts on flamenco in Spain, starting here), there’s far more to musicking than opera houses and symphony orchestras. Even the court musical cultures of Italy were regional—there was no “Italy” until 1860, and regional consciousness still persists. As in China, where the “conservatoire style” dominates the media, the image of the iceberg is useful.

Local folk traditions are a major part of people’s social experience today, as throughout earlier history—alongside more elite productions such as the painting and sculpture, art music and opera that dominate our image of Italian culture (for early modern Europe, see here). Some regions show little or no influence from art music, others more. But we should adjust from our image of Barbara Strozzi and Artemisia Gentileschi [PC gone mad—Ed.] [What you gonna do about it? SJ], Verdi and Monteverdi, La Scala, and so on.

In Italy—whose population of around 60 million is comparable with a single province of China!—we find the usual interplay between general surveys “gazing at flowers from horseback” and detailed studies of one particular community. As ever, we may start with The New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, and The Garland encyclopedia of world music. Alessio Surian’s article for The Rough Guide to world music pays attention to the more recent roots scene, and Italy features regularly in Songlines.

I’ve already outlined some issues in the taxonomy of expressive culture in China (e.g. here). In her Grove article on Italian folk music, Tullia Magrini essayed a broad classification by style and structure rather than by region or context:

  • Narrative-singing (ballad, broadside ballad, storia, Sicilian orbi, and so on)
  • Lyrical singing
  • Others: including children’s songs and lullabies, work songs, polyphonic songs for entertainment (cf. Voices of the world).

After reverting to context in her penultimate category:

  • Ritual music—always among the most interesting rubrics, including life-cycle and calendrical rituals (the latter including carnival and Passion).

she concluded by outlining

  • dances and instruments—the latter including not only piffero and ciaramella shawms (for shawms in China, see here) with bagpipe (zampogna, müsapiva) and the distinctive Sardinian launeddas, but also northern violin traditions.

* * *

The fascist era discouraged meaningful study of folk traditions, so serious research began in the 1950s, as society continued to change. Gramsci’s contrast between subaltern and hegemonic cultures inspired the ground-breaking collaborations of Diego Carpitella with Ernesto De Martino and Alan Lomax.

Carpitella’s work with De Martino features in my post on taranta, which includes both their footage of taranta in Salento (1959) and funeral laments in Basilicata (1952).


Meanwhile—just as Chinese fieldworkers were busy documenting their own regional traditions—Carpitella was also working with Alan Lomax (who said the 1950s were boring?!). Their 1954–56 audio recordings were published in 1958 as Folk music and song of Italy, and reissued (basic notes here). Many tracks on the playlist are remarkable—such as Alla campagnola, a polyphonic love song sung by women of Ferroletto in Calabria while working in the fields, with both harmonies and unison cadential pitches taking one by surprise:

And here’s a bagpipe saltarello from Citta Realle in Lazio:

The album covers the north too, such as this dance song from Val di Resia in Friuli:

For a review of more albums in the Lomax collection, see here. Italy was among the fields where he developed his ambitious Cantometrics project, exploring the links between styles of singing and social structures (see also Voices of the world).

The pioneering work of Lomax and Carpitella inspired many impressive series of audio recordings on labels like Folkways, Dischi del sole, Albatros, I suoni (Fonit Cetra), and Ethnica. Meanwhile Carpitella edited the important journal Culture musicali (and I’m keen to read his analysis of The Rite of Spring!).

Following in their footsteps, among luminaries in Italian ethnomusicology were Roberto Leydi and Tullia Magrini, under whom such studies took root in Bologna. And as a welcome change from all those gondolas, Venice has become a lively centre for the promotion of folk cultures of Italy and further afield, with the Fondazione Cini, and ethnomusicologists Giovanni Giuriati and Giovanni de Zorzi (for an instance of the latter’s explorations, see here).

Despite all the “cultural homogenization” epitomized by the vacuous inanities of Burlesque-only TV, RAI has played a role in promoting regional cultures.

The south
The Mediterranean south has remained poor—Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, as well as Campania, all have deep local traditions (see also here and here).

Again, Lomax and Carpitella made some fine recordings in Campania:

And apart from Sardinia (which I introduced here), Sicily is a rich field, introduced in early work by Giulio Fara and much studied since.

Central Italy and the north
The poor south, attractive by virtue of its “otherness”, attracts a wealth of documentation; but the more affluent north also has significant pockets of folk activity. Roberto Leydi and others erased the old bias that considered the northern regions “corrupted” by economic and social development.

Fieldworkers have found distinctive traditions around Lazio, Abruzzo, Tuscany, Umbria, Le Marche, and Emilia. Tullia Magrini made a special study of the Maggio drammatico (cf. Morris dancing in England!). Note also her edited volume Music and gender: perspectives from the Mediterranean (2003).

All along the northern border of Italy, local traditions have been documented around Piedmont, Liguria, Lombardy, Veneto, Trentino, and Friuli. Again, we can consult the recordings of Lomax and Carpitella, with this 1972 LP from Piedmont, Emilia, and Lombardy:

In Ponte Caffaro, Brescia, fiddle bands accompany carnival:

The films of Renato Morelli are also impressive—see this trailer for Voci alte, on the festival of Premana in Lombardy.

In the 1990s, as another perk of my touring life, during interludes from playing Mozart opera in Parma and Ferrara I visited cultural offices for a taste of their work documenting local folk traditions—somewhat evoking my exploratory visits to their counterparts in China. While doing gigs in Genova I also found trallalero choirs:

In the northeast, traditions are related to Slavic culture, with dances accompanied by violins or the piva bagpipe. Here’s a 1983 clip from Val di Resia in Friuli:

Collectors have also worked with emigrant communities (cf. Accordion crimes). Alan Lomax and Carla Bianco issued a fascinating album of their 1963–64 recordings in New York and Chicago (playlist here, notes here), with a sequel recorded by his daughter Anna in New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island (playlist here)—from the latter, here’s a duet with piffero and ciaramella:

This may not immediately spring to mind when thinking of the soundscape of 60s’ New York.

And having long been a land of emigration, and internal migration (from rural south to industrial north), Italy is now also a vexed site for immigration, which will further enrich the picture.

While I’m not venturing into the roots scene here, it seems obligatory to cite Fabrizio De André’s wildly popular Crêuza de mä (1984), sung in Genovese dialect (here with Italian subtitles):

* * *

All the energy in making audio recordings was admirable, helping us focus on the remarkable variety of regional soundscapes: both vocal and instrumental tracks are stunning. But it tended to entrench an image of disembodied, reified sound documents; the later shift towards visual anthropology places a greater stress on musicking in society. At LEAV in Milan Nicola Scaldaferri leads splendid collaborative projects, such as Musica Lucana and the Maggio in Accettura. And here’s a trailer for Rossella Scillacci’s fine 2007 ethnographic film Pratica e maestria on the zampogna in Basilicata:

* * *

Here, as often, I can only “gaze at flowers from horseback”, but all this is a reminder that as in China, England, and everywhere, popular regional traditions persist alongside more elite cultures, changing along with society and encouraging us to revise a narrow concept of “culture”.

Ethnography at home: Morris dancing

female dancers

Esperance dancers. Source: EFDSS, via

Why bother traipsing halfway around the world, I hear you ask, when our very own Sceptered Isle offers such potential for pursuing the local ethnography of seasonal ritual?

Our folk culture may be a rich and ever-evolving topic, but Morris dancing has long been a national joke. Here I’ve churlishly suggested it as a suitably disturbing English riposte to the magnificent All-Black haka. I suddenly understand why some Chinese people may initially be reluctant to engage with their folk culture (see e.g. here and here).

Morris dancing comes round every so often as a drôle topic for media coverage—this article by A.A. Gill may not impress academics, but it’s brilliant, evocative, and strangely respectful writing.

I’m reminded of the topic again by a recent BBC4 programme, engagingly titled For folk’s sake.

One could almost mistake the May procession, with its bowery palanquin,
for a rain ritual in Shaanbei.

Now, I take a keen interest in calendrical rituals—indeed, as Easter week approaches, Bach is in store, and it’s a busy season for ritual in China too. But I’m not alone in tending to consign Morris dancing, with its incongruous juxtaposition of hankies, bells, and silly hats with beards and beer, to a long list of embarrassing genteel eccentricities of the English, along with The Archers. But like any social activity performed by Real People it deserves serious study, in the context of social change in England since the Industrial Revolution, and even a preliminary exploration is fascinating. [1]

The wiki entry makes a useful starting point. Whatever the etymological connection between Morris and Moorish, it does seem, Like Life (cf. Stewart Lee), to have come from abroad. It’s part of a group of genres that includes mummers’ plays, sword and stick dances, and so on.

Gender and class
Though there is evidence of female Morris dancers as early as the 16th century, male groups predominated. I’d like to learn more about the 19th-century decline; anyway, by the early 20th century the women who soon became the driving force of Morris learned from surviving male performers. From wiki:

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Lancashire tradition was taken up by sides associated with mills and nonconformist chapels, usually composed of young girls. These lasted until the First World War, after which many mutated into “jazz dancers” [note the cryptic quotes].

Mary NealAfter severe losses in World War One (when some entire village sides were killed) the female dominance increased, with women now teaching men.

In 1895 Mary Neal (1860–1944; website here; see also Lucy Neal’s project and this nice article) founded the Espérance Club, a dressmaking co-operative and club to enrich the lives of young working-class girls in London:

No words can express the passionate longing which I have to bring some of the beautiful things of life within easy reach of the girls who earn their living by the sweat of their brow… If these Clubs are up to the ideal which we have in view, they will be living schools for working women, who will be instrumental in the near future, in altering the conditions of the class they represent.

Cecil Sharp (1859–1924) first experienced Morris at Headington Quarry in 1899. Mary Neal began working with him in 1905, but their outlooks conflicted, and she soon joined the WSPU (for the Espérance’s modern reincarnation, see here). Vic Gammon encapsulates the conflict in his review of Georgina Boyes’s The imagined village culture:

Mary Neal, middle-class reformer, socialist, and suffragette who sees the possibility of reviving folk dance among working-class girls in north London, is defeated by Cecil Sharp, professional musician, Fabian, and misogynist who spread the activity of folk dancing among the young genteel, making vernacular arts fit bourgeois aesthetics.

These clips from 1912 feature the sisters Maud and Helen Karpeles, co-founders of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, as well as Cecil Sharp, and George Butterworth, who died in the Battle of the Somme:

But as in the world of work, male groups soon came to dominate again. The all-male Morris Ring was founded by six revival sides in 1934. And between the wars, for John Eliot Gardiner’s father Rolf “mysticism, misogyny, and Morris dancing formed a coherent whole in which nostalgia was a spur to action”. Whether he would have approved of The Haunted Pencil, with his AfD comrades, I couldn’t possibly comment.

Meanwhile Stella Gibbons and Elisabeth Lutyens took a more cynical view of genteel “folky-wolky” representations of English folk culture (note also Em creeps in with a pie).

Following World War Two, and particularly in the 1960s, there was an explosion of new dance teams, with some women’s or mixed sides. A heated debate emerged over the propriety and even legitimacy of women dancing the Morris; and mainly on the left, critics disputed the method of Sharp’s work as they pondered the perilous concept of “tradition” (as they do). But as in most walks of life, despite bastions of male conservatism, the creative participation of women is again becoming a major driving force, as you can see in this fine article by Elizabeth Kinder.

Boss Morris

Click here for a short clip from Berkhamstead in 1950, with pipe and tabor sadly mute. And this was filmed in Thaxted (“hub of the universe”), c1958—just as collectivization was leading to calamitous famine in China:

All this may seem quaint at any period, but all the more so in the Swinging Sixties. For folk’s sake shows glimpses of a 1966 festival at Thaxted—just as revolution (not least the Cultural Revolution) was in the air, alongside jazz, soul, the Beatles… The Saddleworth rushcart festival features in For folk’s sake—here’s a clip from 2014:

And as with folk traditions in China and worldwide, Morris survives alongside newer genres like punk (for punk in Beijing, see here).


Source: David Holm, Art and ideology in revolutionary China (1991).

Indeed, a survey of the many English villages with teams somewhat resembles our documentation of ritual groups in particular counties of China—or the rich local dance traditions like yangge (among several genres using handkerchiefs and sticks!), Boat on Dry Land, Bamboo Horses, and so on, with their common ritual connections—covered at length in the provincial volumes of the Anthology for dance:

  • Zhongguo minjian wudao jicheng 中国民间舞蹈集成,

with over 30,000 pages there alone, besides all the related material in the volumes for folk-song, narrative-singing, opera, and instrumental music.

Among the main regional Morris traditions are Cotswold, Northwest, Border, and Plough Monday groups in Yorkshire and the east Midlands (all the sides have instructive websites)—and as in China, their styles are often distinctive to individual villages. Four teams claim a continuous tradition predating the revival: Abingdon, Bampton, Headington Quarry, and Chipping Campden. In the 1930s at the important centre of Thaxted, the sinologist Joseph Needham championed Molly dancing.

Only now do I recall that my granddad took me to watch mummers in Wiltshire (at Colerne? Marshfield?). Indeed, his home village of Potterne still has a group. It’s a very blurred childhood memory, by which I seem to have been underwhelmed; but did it sow a seed?


The Britannia Coco-nut [2] Dancers of Bacup (“Nutters”; see e.g. this article) have a venerable history that inevitably attracts controversy (no less inevitably, one of the transmitters is called Dick Shufflebottom, who celebrated fifty years of service in 2006). A.A. Gill’s description of the Nutters is classic:

They are small, nervous men. And so they might be, for they are wearing white cotton night bonnets of the sort sported by Victorian maids, decorated with sparse ribbons. Then black polo-neck sweaters, like the Milk Tray man, with a white sash, black knee-breeches, white stockings and black clogs. As if this weren’t enough, someone at some point has said: “What this outfit really needs is a red-and-white-hooped miniskirt.” “Are you sure?” the dancers must have replied. And he was. But it doesn’t finish there. They have black faces, out of which their little bright eyes shine anxiously. On their hands are strapped single castanets. A single castanet is the definition of uselessness. The corresponding castanet is worn on the knee. To say you couldn’t make up the Coco-nutters would be to deny the evidence of your astonished eyes.

The dance begins with each Nutter cocking a hand to his ear to listen to something we human folk can’t catch. They then wag a finger at each other, and they’re off, stamping and circling, occasionally holding bent wands covered with red, white, and blue rosettes that they weave into simple patterns. It’s not pretty and it’s not clever. It is, simply, awe-inspiringly, astonishingly other. Morris men from southern troupes come and watch in slack-jawed silence. Nothing in the civilised world is quite as elementally bizarre and awkwardly compelling as the Coco-nutters of Bacup. What are they for? What were they thinking of? Why do they do these strange, misbegotten, dark little incantations? It’s said that they might have originally been Barbary corsairs who worked in Cornish tin mines and travelled to Lancashire, and that the dance is about listening underground, a sign language of miners. And then there’s all the usual guff about harvest and spring and fecundity, but that doesn’t begin to describe the strangeness of this troupe from the nether folk world.

Do watch the Nutters on YouTube.

Again as in China, the Morris vocabulary is suggestive, with teams, sides, squires, bagmen, fools, beasts. At least England hasn’t yet fallen for the Intangible Cultural Heritage flapdoodle (we have our pride). Still, even without it, contentious arguments about “authenticity” continue to fester. And even now there’s still considerable opposition to admitting women. FFS.

I might be tempted to make the music share the blame. Of course, it is what it is, irrespective of the impertinent tastes of outsiders; but it often seems to endow the proceedings with a twee comfy feel that conflicts with the edgy (“pagan”?!) atmosphere of the dance itself. Once mainly accompanied by pipe and tabor, fiddles and melodeons became more common. The gritty new sounds of great musos like Jon Boden don’t seem so relevant to most Morris sides—though again, see Elizabeth Kinder’s article. I’d love to hear a Bulgarian version—accompanied with suitably complex metres by zurna and davul, relatives of early English pipe and tabor.

For the BBC2 documentary Tribes, predators and me, it was a cute idea to show footage of Morris dancing to tribespeople (click here).

* * *

Of course I’m merely dabbling here. But is this the kind of thing that urban educated Chinese people think I’m doing in their country?

In a way, it is: cultures change, in China as in England. The brief of the ethnographer is the same: to document the whole history, down to today, of local traditions amidst ongoing challenges to community cohesion through social and political change. We both have blind spots about our own cultures, further muddied by patriotic posturing and our reactions against it. It’s not that I can’t see the “value” of Morris, just that I’ve inherited negative associations. While plenty of English writers have debunked the myth of an unspoilt Victorian Merrie England, in China the “living fossils” nostalgia, referring to a Golden Age of much greater antiquity that bears even less relation to rural life there, is still touted by heritage pundits. For the awful cliché of “international cultural exchange”, see here.

And whereas in China I’m keenly aware of major dates in the rural calendar when temple fairs may be held, I’m not alone in being completely estranged from the seasonal rhythms of English life; only Bach cantatas manage to educate me.

This may be a particular issue for the English. In Hungary the táncház revival has become popular; and it would seem natural enough for an American studying old-time music in Appalachia to find continuity when working on China.

The world of Morris and English folk-song culture, like that of Newcastle punks, is no more “home” to me than are the rituals of the Fujian countryside for an educated Chinese from Beijing. But whereas local ritual in China still seems to me an intrinsic component of local life, Morris dancing has long seemed a quaint byway in my whole experience of England. Of course, when pressed, I can quite see this is wrong. OK Guys, I’ll take my culture seriously if you take yours…

Anyway, just think, as you board a rickety bus to a poor Hunan village in search of household Daoist rituals, you could be sitting in a sunny Oxfordshire pub courtyard nursing your pint as you take notes on the magnificent ritual spectacle unfolding before you—complete with its “feudal superstitious colourings” 封建迷信色彩.


See also my haiku on Morris dancing. For a roundup of posts on the English at home and abroad, see here; and for more on Heritage movements, here.


[1] Useful background includes the research of Vic Gammon; Georgina Boyes, The imagined village culture: culture, ideology and the English folk revival (1993/2010); Trish Winter and Simon Keegan-Phipps, Performing Englishness: identity and politics in a contemporary folk resurgence (2013); numerous publications from the English Folk Dance and Song Society, e.g. here; Theresa Buckland, ” ‘Th’owd pagan dance’: ritual, enchantment, and an enduring intellectual paradigm” (2002). On class, gender, and national identity, see also this (cf. Stewart Lee!). For innovative performance-based studies of clog dancing, see the work of Caroline Radcliffe. For an accessible introduction to the English folk scene, see The Rough Guide to world music: Europe, Asia, and Pacific, “England: folk, roots”, and regular features in Songlines and fRoots.

For further refs. on the wider context, see Helen Myers, “Great Britain”, in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (The New Grove handbooks in music, 1993), pp.129–48. Among many fine compilations of British folk music, note the extensive Topic Records series The voice of the people (here on Spotify).

[2] Pedants’ corner (or is it Pedant’s corner?): the form “coconut” seems more common (as on their own website)—I can’t find a ruling on the hyphen, but it seems suitably eccentric (but was it eccentric then? That’s the perennial question!).

Two recent themes

Two images from the 1950s.

Recently I wrote a mini-series of posts on the fortune of expressive culture through the first fifteen years of the PRC, and the intrepid scholars who documented it—worth reading along with my tribute to the great Yang Yinliu:

This happens to be an important period for the relationship of politics and culture—the Maoist decades are a crucial bridge from the “old society” to the current reform era—but that’s not the only reason for studying it. One always seeks to gain a picture of change over the lifetimes of informants; if we had visited in the 1880s, or indeed the 880s, we would also have asked them how their social and cultural life had before the cataclysms of the Taiping uprising and the An Lushan rebellion respectively. While I’m critical of reified studies that are limited to the “salvage” of an idealized past, a diachronic approach is always valuable.

* * *

I followed up that series with Great Female Singers Week (cf. A playlist of songs):

Again, these are part of larger series, in this case on gender (for a roundup, see here), jazz, and Mediterranean culture—to which you’ll find links in the above posts.

Expressive culture (both popular and elite) always makes a revealing prism through which to view social change—whether for China, Puglia, New York, or Vienna.

Billie Holiday

So far I’ve struggled to resist devoting this site entirely to Billie Holiday, just rationing myself to her captivating 1957 TV Fine and mellow and a few tracks in other posts. Of course she is one of the stars of my Playlist of songs (indeed, everyone’s). *

But to follow Barbara Hannigan singing a Berg-tinged Embraceable you, I just had to go back to Billie singing it—both 1944 and 1957 versions here:

Among my all-time top songs of hers, You’re my thrill is strangely neglected, as she herself lamented. Again, apart from the extraordinary nuances of her voice, intoxicating and intoxicated (surely this is her ode to heroin), note the chromatic melody and disoncerting leaps (I’ve extolled the magic of the major 7th, and now I feel a paean to the minor 7th coming on) and the brilliant noir orchestration—smoochy strings, wind arabesques, languid swaggering brass interlude:

You’re my thrill
You do something to me
You send chills right through me
When I look at you
’cause you’re my thrill

You’re my thrill
How my pulse increases
I just go to pieces
When I look at you
’cause you’re my thrill

Nothing seems to matter
Here’s my heart on a silver platter

Where’s my will?
Why this strange desire
That keeps mounting higher?
When I look at you
I can’t keep still
You’re my thrill…

It was also natural that Chet Baker, not to be outdone in the shooting-up department, should perform the song:

Generally Chet’s singing has an intensity that matches that of Billie, but for this song I’d always choose her (not that we have to choose).

In Lover man the orchestration again complements Billie’s vocals:

Meanwhile in 1944, far from the turmoil of Europe (just as ethnologist Germain Tillion was composing Le verfügbar aux enfers for her fellow Ravensbrück inmates), a young Miles Davis was combing the New York streets for Charlie Parker, as he describes in one of the great passages of jazz writing.

Billie’s Don’t explain is amazing too. The lyrics, meekly tolerating infidelity, may now seem as dubious as Stand by your man (and dodgy lyrics are by no means the prerogative of popular music), but as always Billie somehow transforms the song:

And whereas she looks radiant in the 1957 TV broadcast, here’s her harrowing live performance of Don’t explain the following year, with more pain than joy:

To learn more about how all this works, apart from the innumerable books on Billie, I keep learning from Berliner’s Thinking in jazz.


* I learn to my chagrin that I’m not the first to discover either Billie or Aretha—but perhaps I can claim credit for the first recording of Dona Rosa.