Tuesday, July 17, 2012

TUBE OF SONG: The Complete and Utter History of Music on YT (Pt. 3)

Isn’t it odd that the musical dichotomy we know now as Mainstream vs. Indie was established during the High Middle Ages? Back then it was called “Sacred vs. Secular.” The music we saw in the last post was all sanctioned by the Catholic Church, whose dominance over music and musicians was sort of like Universal Music Group’s dominance of music and musicians 700 years later.

Cue a bunch of plucky indie outsiders traipsing all over the south of France, accompanied by jugglers and singers, strumming their lutes and lyres on secular (i.e., “not churchy”) songs, based on old romantic poetry. They wooed peasant girls and bored castlefraus alike with tales of chivalry, ribaldry and Courtney Love….excuse us, “courtly love,” which is the medieval version of “hooking up” that often drew complaints from the Church itself. Their music was based on existing sacred musical forms but, like some Middle Ages version of bluegrass music, it was sped up and used the vernacular of the common people. Understandably, these constantly touring folkies were popular and got to play at all the wealthiest estates, even inspiring other regional secular music movements in Spain, Greece, Italy, Germany and Portugal. Nowadays they’d be call “freeloaders” or “hoboes” or “get-out-of-town-if you know whats good for yous” but back then, right before The Black Death wiped most of them out, they were hailed as The Troubadours. These wandering nymphs even broke up into their own sub-genres: the canso (love song), the sirventes (political song) and the tenso (a “debate” song between two or more singers).

One of the oldest known troubadours was Piere d'Alvernhe, who was even shouted out by name in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The oldest troubadour whose work survives is Guilhem IX, the Duke of Aquitaine:

Bernart de Ventadorn, possibly the son of a castle baker, developed and formalized the canso, a sort of three-part folk song that became the basis for the troubadour style of courtly-love lyrics:

Giraut de Bornelh, who was from a lower-class family, became the master of alba, a plaintive form of lament for lost love or life:

But it wasn't all serfs and commoners who became influential in the Troubadour style. Bertran de Born was a baron who wrote sirvientes:

In Northern France, a more aristocratic style of the troubadours' secular song was being developed under a different name, Les Trouveres. One of the most famous was Adam De La Halle:

What’s more, there were a good number of female troubadours (called “Trobairitz”), often countesses or wives of noblemen, who specialized in even more categories, such as the planh (funeral lament), the salut d’ amor (love letter), the alba (dawn songs) and balada (dance songs). The most famous of the females – the Lady Gaga of the Trobairitz, if you will – was Contessa Beatritz de Dia, and her song "A chantar m'er de so qu'eu no volria" is the only canso from a female troubadour that survives to this day:

Unfortunately, the Church had to step in and end all of this fun with the Albigensian Crusades, which Pope Innocent II (not his real name) launched to eliminate heresy in France. The side effect was that a lot of the Troubadours got their timepieces cleaned. But just walk into any open mike night at any boho coffee grotto in any city and you will see the tradition as alive as it was when modern Troubs like Robert Johnson, Son House, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Emmylou Harris, Odetta, James Taylor and Bruce Springsteen took it to America.

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