Latvian Folksongs – Dainas
Latvian folksongs – or dainas – are the poetic expression of Latvian daily life over the centuries, encapsulated into succinct melodic phrases, or song-poems. They not only form part of the cultural heritage of Latvia but are also classed as symbols of Latvian identity. In the written form, dainas are most frequently two to four lines long, and may end with a refrain, such as “līgo” or “rotā” or “ramram tai radi ridi rīdi” or something similar.
The content of the dainas is diverse. Many are associated with the hard peasant life experienced by countryfolk; village life where the ordinary people worked as manual labourers on farms and as servants. The burden of this life was eased by singing. For this reason, many dainas are on exactly this topic – how singing uplifts the soul and provides the strength to carry on.
There is a huge number of songs that have pre-Christian symbolism – some of which is difficult to decipher. Though the mythological subjects have been long identified by folklorists as nature deities, the actual full meaning of much of the symbolism can only be guessed by our modern minds. The natural phenomena that ancient Latvians worshipped and the Sun cult which culminates during Midsummer are all lyrically brought to life in these songs. This is not hero worship, rather an expression of the natural order of things, where humans and personified natural forces lead symbiotic, harmonious lives with people expected to contribute their part and honour the deities, who in turn will bless them and their families.
The traditions of the ancient Latvians, as well as those of more recent generations can also be found within these folksongs – from birth, through to youth, marriage, married life, ultimately ending with death – the rituals that marked milestones in life can all be found here. Without the oral tradition that helped pass these songs down from generation to generation, much would have been lost of the wisdom – and the lifestyle – of previous generations.
The historical era depicted in the dainas is also very difficult to pinpoint exactly. Sometimes, particular words and phrases or certain objects mentioned can help one to sleuth and narrow down the century, sometimes even the decade (if a particular event or object is mentioned), but most frequently the exact age of a text is almost impossible to determine. The dainas in their current form are a “snapshot” of an ever-evolving, constantly changing oral heritage, where each individual singer (or teicēja) may – most often unwittingly – add to or change the text.
The dainas were most extensively collected and documented from all over Latvia by Krišjānis Barons at the turn of the 20th century. He wrote down the dainas, which ultimately amounted to six volumes, titled “Latvju dainas“, published between 1894 and 1915, containing around 300,000 texts. To aid the collation of the texts in a systematic manner, Barons created a wooden cabinet with 70 compartments to catalogue the dainas. In 2001, this cabinet was included in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. The source material that was sent in to Barons by thousands of informants from all around Latvia consists of over 350,000 small hand-written bits of paper, only 3×11 cm in size, complete with Barons’ annotations and editing notes. This cabinet is now located in the National Library of Latvia in Rīga. There is also a searchable virtual online repository of dainas at dainuskapis.lv.
Krišjānis Barons’ aim was not only to collect and systematise the dainas – the ultimate purpose was to help unite Latvians during the period of National Awakening in the late 19th century, together with other influential poets and writers of that era. For this reason, he is highly revered for his role in Latvian nation-building; one of the main streets in Rīga – Krišjāņa Barona Street – has been named after him, his is the only human face to have ever appeared on a Latvian lats banknote and he has been lovingly called by the Latvian people as Barontēvs (Father Barons) and also Dainu tēvs (Father of the dainas).
Director of the Institute of Literature, Folklore and Art of the University of Latvia professor Dace Bula telling about the Cabinet of Folksongs in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. UNESCO LNK, 2011.
Ex-President of the Republic of Latvia Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga and researcher of the Institute of Literature, Folklore and Art of the University of Latvia Aldis Pūtelis telling about Latvian folksongs. UNESCO LNK, 2011.
Bēru rotaļa ap mironi [skaņuplate]. ([193-]). Performed by singers of Nīca. Latvija: Bellacord Electro. National Library of Latvia, the Audiovisual Digital collection "Latvia's Historical Sound Recordings".
Kāzu dziesma braucot [skaņuplate]. ([193-]). Performed by singers of Rucava. Latvija: Bellacord Electro. National Library of Latvia, the Audiovisual Digital collection "Latvia's Historical Sound Recordings".
Ko dziedāšu ko runāšu [skaņuplate]. (). Performed by Alsunga parish singers. Latvija: Bellacord Electro. National Library of Latvia, the Audiovisual Digital collection "Latvia's Historical Sound Recordings".
Krustap - dziesma [skaņuplate]. ([193-]). Performed by singers of Rucava. Latvija: Bellacord Electro. National Library of Latvia, Audiovisual Digital Collection "Latvia's Historical Sound Recordings".
Krišjāņa Barona "Latvju dainu" substantīvu rādītājs: [brochure]. ([199?]). [Rīga]. (in Latvian)
Izglītības ministrijas Pieminekļu valde. Latviešu folkloras krātuve. (1926). Instrukcija tautas tradīciju krājējiem: I. tautas dziesmas. ([Rīga]). (in Latvian)
Dace Bula on Latvian dainas in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Dace Bula on Latvian dainas in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008.
Paškevica, Beata. (2015). LNB Letonikas un Baltijas centra vadošās pētnieces Dr. phil. Beatas Paškevicas priekšlasījums „Tēvu tēvi laipas meta, bērnu bērni laipotāji. Latviešu tautasdziesmas J.G. Herdera konvolūtos Berlīnes Valsts bibliotēkā”. Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas video arhīvs.