Embroidered with Gold, Strung with Pearls: The Traditional Ballads of Bosnian Women

  Vidan, Aida. 2003. Embroidered with Gold, Strung with Pearls: The Traditional Ballads of Bosnian Women. Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature 1. Cambridge, MA: Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_VidanA.Embroidered_with_Gold_Strung_with_Pearls.2003.


In 1935 Professor Milman Parry, of the Department of Classics, Harvard University, as part of his wider survey of oral literature, was engaged in recording epic poetry in Gacko, on the border between Herzegovina and Montenegro in the former Yugoslavia. He took advantage of the abundant tradition of “women’s songs” in that area and recorded a great number of them, along with the heroic epics or “men’s songs.” He was able to add to the recorded disks in his collection more than 250 of these “women’s songs” and in addition some 11,000 texts of them taken down by dictation, of which the greatest number came from Gacko. The “women’s songs,” which consist of lyric songs and of ballads, although also performed by men, are so called in order to distinguish them from the “men’s songs,” the long heroic narratives, that is, the epics, performed only by men.
The pathbreaking study of the songs in the Parry Collection, both the lyric songs and the epics, was made in the early 1940s by Béla Bartók, the renowned ethnomusicologist and composer. His work on the lyric songs reached published form in the volume Serbo-Croatian Folk Songs, Texts and Transcriptions of Seventy-five Folk Songs from the Milman Parry Collection and a Morphology of Serbo-Croatian Folk Melodies by Béla Bartók and Albert B. Lord (Columbia University Press, 1951). Bartók in analyzing the music of the songs was deeply impressed by the high quality of the recordings, the equipment for which was especially designed for the Parry Collection. Parry’s recording machine had two turntables which made it possible to record an entire song, regardless of its length, without interruption, an unprecedented achievement in field of collecting.
Albert Lord, Parry’s assistant in the field and for many years the curator of the Parry Collection in Widener Library, translated the songs and commented on their texts in Serbo-Croatian Folk Songs. In the course of his tenure as curator, Lord published several books on the epic poems, notably The Singer of Tales, Epic Singers and Oral Tradition, and The Singer Resumes the Tale, also a long series of articles pertaining to the Collection.
The present study, Aida Vidan’s Embroidered with Gold, Strung with Pearls: The Traditional Ballads of Bosnian Women, adds a new and vital dimension to our knowledge of the Southslavic ballads by concentrating on the women performers of the songs and the interpretation of their texts. In contrast to the songs treated in the Bartók-Lord volume, understandably chosen on the basis of their musical qualities, the forty songs selected by Vidan for analysis illustrate special kinds of verbal texts and reveal certain interrelationships among the performers. It is to be expected that the singers of “women’s songs,” living in the relatively small area of the environs of Gacko, would have heard each other’s songs many times and would inevitably have been influenced by them. Several of the singers, furthermore, were related by birth or marriage, as their names suggest.
Vidan endeavors to learn as much as possible about the lives and traits of a carefully selected small group of singers. An important means of obtaining this information is the series of interviews with the singers conducted by Parry’s assistant and scribe, Nikola Vujnovi. The devising of such conversations by Parry was one of his most innovative methods of collecting, resulting from his discussions with colleagues in anthropology in advance of his expedition to the Balkans in 1934-1935. The present author does well to include Nikola’s conversations with singers and their relatives, for they provide vivid testimony concerning the singers and their songs.
Aida Vidan is a native of Croatia. Thus her knowledge of the Serbo-Croatian idiom of the songs is a great asset in expounding and translating the materials in her book. Especially captivating is her enthusiasm for her task. Witness to her energy is the excellent bibliography she has assembled and studied. She has, for example, thoughtfully introduced her readers to the possibility of recondite mythological influences upon the songs she discusses. Looming above all considerations, however, is the timeliness of her subject, a tribute to the riches that the traditions of the Balkans have had to offer us, but now endangered and fast disappearing amidst war and tragic chaos.

— Mary Louise Lord
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999