by Lynn Whidden
It's comforting to know that in this era of agribusiness, where one plant may "process" a half million hogs annually, that there were, and still are, places in the world where people actually sing to animals. In fact, a dweller of the Pyrenee area in Europe described this endearing tradition to me quite recently (1994).
It's not surprising that Europeans would have such singing traditions. Eurasia has been blessed with animals which humans could domesticate: horses, sheep, goats (!?), cattle, swine, and even camels. This may seem an unremarkable fact, but contrast the great European civilisations with precontact North American societies. At the end of the last ice age some 12,000 years ago, the large mammals, such as mammoths, giant bears, sloths, and lions disappeared and the numerous smaller animals remaining were inimical to domestication. North American hunters exploited fully wild animal resources, indeed their hunting skills are legendary. The women were horticulturists, and whenever possible, grew the three sisters -- corn, beans and squash, but there was no supplementary energy supply to build great cities and engage in lengthy ceremonies.
Europe's fate was different. They had domesticable animals with which they could live, and look to for comfort as well as nourishment and labour. Humans sang to their animals in ongoing efforts to stimulate animal reproduction, and they had songs and sounds for more specific tasks. For example, folksong scholar, A. L. Lloyd, tells us that "... (a peasant) would grip his plough handle again, and urge on his oxen with a long-drawn melodious "yu-yu-yu" cry that, we are told, became a peasant dance cry, was adopted by towns dwellers more elevated in social rank, and made into the kind of wordless melisma of Gregorian chant called, onomatopoeically, ju-bilus." (1967: 92) Although the Christian Bible sets out laws for human use of animals, we can only infer the human-animal relationship and the use of song by the shepherd in biblical times. Many passages do tell us indirectly about the human-animal relationships: the most famous psalm begins, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me to still waters". The shepherd was seen as the supreme caregiver.
In general, the songs and flute music of the European shepherds tend to keep the animals from wandering off, but they also have calls for bringing and for moving the sheep. If the flock is restless a song calms them. It is no accident that A. L. Lloyd can write "...and it is notorious that music plays a peculiarly important part in the life of shepherds"(1967:84)
Shepherd songs, often in the form of pastoral movements, have pervaded the western music repertory. The melodies, which invoke nature, tend to have soft, level dynamics; smooth flowing melodies, rhythms and harmonies, and a predominance of flute (bird-like?) and other woodwind instruments. Think of Beethoven's "Pastoral" symphony, Berlioz' "Symphonie Fantastique" (third movement) and the many pastourelles of the middle ages, including one about "Robin and Marion". As a youth I used to play a piano piece by G. D. Wilson called "The Shepherd Boy". This short song has a graceful, calm quality with a lovely long sweeping melody. The sound of the shepherd's pipe is created on the piano by playing octaves and fifths and trilling in a high register. Ideally, every youngster would have opportunity to play shepherds' songs for they stimulate the imagination to evoke beauty and tranquillity.
While North American Natives did not have the good fortune to have animals that they could domesticate nearly all the northern hunters' songs were about, and for, animals. Until the last decade of the 1990's, each hunter had innumerable hunting songs that were part of his "tool" kit. They sang upon arising in anticipation of a good day's hunt and upon returning from the hunt. These joyous songs (even when the hunt went poorly) treat all the qualities of the animals -- their appearance, their personality, their activities -- and the hunter's relationship to them. Singing was thought to help the hunter to "see" the animals, to know where they would be found. Of course, absolute silence was required during the hunt, but when the kill was made, song was spontaneous and necessary. Songs honoured the dead animal and ensured their return to be hunted again. Hence, while wild animals did not permit themselves to be sung to, they were courted in song at nearly every stage of the hunt.
So when North American Indians finally did obtain a large domesticable animal, the horse, from the Spanish in the fifteenth century and later depending upon where they lived, they were ready with songs. In fact, there is some evidence of Indian influence on cowboy songs. And we do know, that cowboys sang to the herds. For example, folksong collectors, John and Alan Lomax, transcribed a song called, "Git along little Dogies" that was sung to orphan calves (1947:194).
Evidently the agribusiness people have discovered that taped music helps animals to relax and to grow, to lay eggs or whatever is required of them. While taped music may be pleasurable for animals, and supply us with cheaper pork it is depriving human beings of the opportunity to enjoy the sheer physical pleasure of singing; the mental thrill of creating songs to suit the occasion; and the emotional pleasure of communicating with animals. Let's continue singing to our animals!
A. L. Lloyd. Folk Song in England. New York: International Publishers, 1970.
American Folk Songs. John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, eds. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1947.