Less than a century ago, Swedenâ€™s remote forests and mountain pastures swelled with womenâ€™s voices each summer. As dusk approached, the haunting calls of kulning echoed through the trees in short, cascading, lyricless phrases. Though often quite melodic, these werenâ€™t simply musical expressions. They were messages intended for a responsive audience: wayfaring cattle. Kulning was a surefire way to hurry the herds home at the end of the day.
According to Susanne Rosenberg, professor and head of the folk music department at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm and kulning expert, the vocal technique likely dates back to at least the medieval era. In the spring, farmers sent their livestock to a small fÃ¤bod, or remote, temporary settlement in the mountains, so cows and goats could graze freely. Women, young and old, accompanied the herds, living in relative isolation from late May until early October. Far from the village, they tended to the animals, knitted, crafted whisks and brooms, milked the cows, and made cheeseâ€”often working sixteen hour days. Life on the fÃ¤bod was arduous work, but it was freeing, too. â€œIt was only women, and they had all this free space to make a lot of noise,â€ says Jinton. â€œThey had their own paradise.â€
The herds grazed during the daytime, wandering far from the cottages, and thus needed to be called in each night. Women developed kulning to amplify the power of their voices across the mountainous landscape, resulting in an eerie cry loud enough to lure livestock from their grazing grounds.
One should always take caution when hanging out with someone kulning, as it canâ€™t be done quietly. Rosenberg, whoâ€™s researched the volume of kulning, says it can reach up to 125 decibelsâ€”which, she warns, is dangerously loud for someone standing next to the source. Comparable to the pitch and volume of a dramatic soprano singing forte, kulning can be heard by an errant cow over five kilometers away. This explains how the song might reach a distant herd, but what prompts animals to trot over remains a bit of a mystery. â€œThat we have to ask the cows!â€ says Rosenberg. â€œBut itâ€™s really no stranger than calling a dog.â€
Much like trained pets, cows feel loyalty to the humans who care for them. According to Rosenberg, it only takes one solid affinity between a cow and a woman to bring the whole herd home. â€œThereâ€™s always at least one cow that is the smart cow, in a herd,â€ she says. â€œSheâ€™s like the leader cow.â€ Once this particularly enlightened cow hears the call, Rosenberg suspects, she heads toward the source, encouraging the rest of the herd to follow suit.
To do this at such great volume requires learning the proper technique, which, it turns out, is a far cry from that of classical or popular singing. â€œItâ€™s more like calling,â€ says Rosenberg. â€œLike if you see somebody on the other end of the street, itâ€™s the way you would use your voice naturally to try to get their attention.â€ Kulning was taught orally. Young women learned from the old, imitating the songs of their elders and slowly adding individual flair and vocal ornamentation. Rosenberg, who now teaches kulning in a classroom setting, says the key to the call is improvisation. â€œYou have to have variation, because you never know how long youâ€™re going to be calling for.â€ In other words, you have to keep singing until the cows come home.
Cows, however, werenâ€™t the only ones on the receiving end of kulning. The call could ward off predators in the woods, and served as a form of communication between women who were otherwise isolated from one another. If a cow went missing, for instance, a woman on one farm might cry out using a particular melody to pass the message to those within earshot. Once the cow had been located, her far-off neighbor would convey the news back to her in song.
HT: Karen L. Myers.
Jesse Larner, at HuffPo, explains just why Peter Seeger sucked as a folk singer.
As someone on the left who loves folk music, I understand that I’m supposed to feel mystically uplifted by the dean of activist folkies. But for those very reasons — because I believe in a humanist political order, and because authentic folk music speaks to me — I never could stand Pete. I don’t question his dedication or his energy. It’s just that I think them unfortunate. His conception of “folk music” has done tremendous damage, and his politics have done tremendous damage, and these things are connected.
Seeger’s been very influential. Most Americans, when they think of “folk music,” think of the 50s and 60s “revival” of that form: the songs, and versions of songs, made popular by him, The Weavers, Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio. This is a mistake. The songs these people became famous for singing are pretty, denatured coffee-house comforts that have little to do with the life that informed the originals. …
For [the] bowdlerization of the folk tradition — deeply disrespectful to the people who created it, I may add — Pete the tireless popularizer of fake folk music bears much of the blame.
It’s worse than that, and here’s where the politics comes in. I’ve tried to describe the power of folk music, because it is important to understand that this power is not amplified when made explicit, when harnessed to an agenda. It is negated. Folk music is about life, and politics is only a small part of life. …
Who the hell was Pete? He came from a distinguished family of musicians and academics afflicted with self-conscious class-consciousness; his father, Charles Louis Seeger, although from an old Puritan patrician line, joined the radical Industrial Workers of the World in the 1930s, a form of ostentatiously slumming solidarity that predicted much about his son’s future. Pete was a professional musician from a young age, Harvard dropout, assistant to folk archivist Alan Lomax, and dedicated political activist. He knew everything about folk music, except what it is.
Read the whole thing.
The perfect Pete Seeger song:
Lots of hat tips to Iowahawk.
Illustration by Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886)
One of the people on the Fox Hunting email list this morning posted a link to this project Gutenberg edition of the Caldecott Picture Book illustrating the old comic song.
But it’s no fun without the music, so here’s Peter Bellamy singing it, too. 2:37 video
The Fox Jumps Over the Parson’s Gate is one of many examples of popular humor exploiting the irresistibility to man or beast, without respect to age, dignity, or sex, of the impulse to follow hounds after the fox.