Songs of oral tradition in the Breton language
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General informations - Oral tradition

Songs of oral tradition (otherwise often known as folk, popular, traditional, etc ...) have often been supposed to have the following characteristics:

  • Composed by an unknown author or whose name has been forgotten, or by people (collective compositions, the work of a group ...) or by authors who cannot read or write ...
  • Passed on by word of mouth, from an undetermined time, without date, coming from the distant past ...
  • Typical of a repertoire passed on in a society known as "traditional" or "peasant" (based only on the fact that it is indeed among this social class that the collectors gathered it, but omitting to say that this class, and the craftsmen associated with it, represented almost the entire population, not so long ago).
  • Remarkable for a particular literary or popular style, ... and, even if we can suppose initially literary inspiration and composition , the famous "patina" imposed by oral transmission would have been responsible for making it a special object, compatible with the aesthetic criteria and language of the people.
  • Necessarily (or imperatively) known in multiple versions.

In fact, there is in all this as much truth as fiction, the facts and observation of practices being sufficient to bring to each presumed characteristic many counter-examples which can invalidate the supposed ‘norm’. Popular practices pay no attention to narrow theoretical definitions.
And so it is that during collecting sessions, both old and recent, one can find certain pieces of which the author is known, (by the singers themselves or by specialists), sometimes quite contemporary, composed by scholars or by ‘ordinary folk’ , with or without the famous ‘patina’ but which have become part of the popular repertoire and transmitted by the oral process.
Finally, the observation of the whole collected repertoire makes it possible to note that a large percentage of songs, unquestionably traditional, are known only by a single version (due to lack of collection or song fallen into disuse).
It must be admitted that practice shows us that the repertoire of oral tradition is:

  • composite;
  • the result of a dynamic process whereby a song first becomes popular, that is, accepted and taken over by a society, or at least a group of people who appropriate it, then traditional from the moment when the oral transmission is generalized inducing the phenomenon of folklorization of the song;
  • seen by that society as meaningful to its perception of facts or sentiments related as much as to its literary or musical aesthetic sense. The traditional process is first and foremost the act of a society.

The authors of the songs

The author is unknown for most of the songs.
However, it is interesting to note that many songs published in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries on broadsheets, or in books and magazines have become traditional. The names of the authors are then often revealed either by a signature, or by a mention in the body of the song, or by external sources. For these authors the following approximate social distribution can be seen: 30% of ecclesiastics, 50% of literate people or authors with some educational background, 14% of various professions (craftsmen, farmers, workers ...) with rudimentary educational experience, and 6% of beggars, illiterate or blind people...

It is difficult to say that this typology is the same for older songs, especially since the level of schooling evidently evolved during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On the other hand, certain songs specify, in the text, that they were written by a "cleric". Others show literary characteristics (traces of learned poetry with the use of the ancient technique of internal rhymes) which attest to the literary origin of their author. For some of them, we also find complete verses identical to ancient literary poems (12th -13th centuries) of the Celtic literature of the British Isles ... Others correspond to the version in Breton of traditional songs of the European or French-speaking repertoire.

It is also important to mention the continuity today of the process of creating new songs which then re-enter the oral tradition process. The collections made today find them integrated into the rest of the traditional repertoire. For example, the songs of Jo Godivès, of Baud, on the peasant problems of the 1960s and evoking leading figures like Alexis Gourvennec, or songs composed by Denez Abernot on the refusal of the nuclear power plant in Plogoff (1980-81) or on the seaweed farmers ...

Dating Questions

For the majority of songs, it is impossible to determine a date of creation. This is especially true for love songs or mockeries and other ‘small songs’. Feelings have no age! The chance discovery of a song in the papers of a notary, Yves le Patézour from Pleubian, revealed that it was reputed to be a "gouers nevez" (a new ballad) in 1652 when we find the same type of production in 19th century broadsheets.

However, the traditional song in Breton has specific characteristics that are not found, or less frequently, in French song. For example, there are many complaints (gwerzioù) that tell stories that are often tragic. These songs are characterized by a taste for precision in the names of people, place or date. Dialogues have an important place here. Sometimes it is possible to find the historical episode to which the song corresponds and the analysis (linguistic, literary or contextual) generally attests to the concomitance of the song with the facts. This is particularly true for the "gwerziou", which relate events mainly between the 15th and 18th centuries. The following songs may be cited as examples: Ar volter a-enep ar Saozon 15th century, Seziz Gwengamp 1489-1591, Pried Fontanella 1602, Loeizig Er Ravalleg 1732 ...

Moreover, certain songs, nowadays of seemingly common-place form and content, can also prove to be the recycling of narratives of great antiquity - even mythological - that are found according to different epochs and continents in the form of a tale, a hagiographic legend, an exemplum, or a myth. Remarkable for the plasticity of the narrative, which is capable of adapting to changes in civilizations, religions, languages and cultures, and mode of expression, but preserving the fundamental framework of the narrative ... for example, Breur Yann Girin.

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