Author: Julia Ulehla
Publication details: PhD Thesis for the University of British Columbia
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, biologist/ethnomusicologist Vladimír Úlehla (1888-1947) transcribed hundreds of folk songs from Strážnice, his hometown in the rural region of Slovácko, which lies at the border of present-day Czech and Slovak Republics. For Úlehla, Slovácko songs were living organisms, intimately related to the landscape and carried through time by family clans. Some of his interlocutors were relatives. Others were relations forged by decades of friendship. Vladimír was my great-grandfather, and his monograph Živá píseň (Living Song, 1949) provided a means for me to enter into a musical-cultural heritage that was ruptured when my father escaped communist Czechoslovakia and entered North America as a refugee. Informed by song transcriptions, Vladimír’s ideas about living song, childhood experiences musicking with family members, and ethnographic fieldwork, this dissertation seeks to address the life of song, even when hybridity, rupture, and transplant figure into that inquiry. Through a networked, rhizomatic framework and mixed-methods approach, this research brings a number of theoretical, historical and methodological contexts to bear on addressing the living nature of song. Family oral history, interviews with musicians, and folk song poetics gesture towards a Slovácko cosmology that inscribes a world co-inhabited by humans, ancestral spirits, birds, trees, waters, mountains, and storms, all of which are conceived as animate and interrelated. Participant observation, my own research-creation and subsequent song-bartering (Bovin 1988) offer glimpses into the powerful role that songs play in connecting people with one another and with their ancestors. I describe how during fieldwork, the cultural hybridity of my performing body called many complex and painful histories into question and disrupted folk song’s alliance with cultural purity, which was especially provocative in an era of heightened xenophobia. Weaving together a consideration of the formal qualities of songs, their affectual, emotional power, and the historical/political contexts in which they appear, Slovácko songs emerge as agentive entities with which a human might collaborate in a variety of culturally-specific performance ecologies, thereby opening possibilities for ethical, anticolonial research practices and interpersonal encounters within a heterogeneous, multicultural society facing crises of social injustice, the COVID-19 pandemic, and impending climate catastrophe.