The other singers

The less active representatives of the runo song tradition


Keywords: runo song, folk singer, representation, intersubjectivity

This article discusses the terminology and representations concerning the older Estonian oral song tradition specialists in Estonian folkloristic literature from the late 19th century to the second half of the 20th century. The folk singers’ relationships with their family, community, and folklorists from the perspective of diachronic and synchronic intersubjectivity is also considered.

At the heart of the documentation and study of runo songs (regilaulud) are folk singers who actively embody the song culture. They are specialists who, in addition to having knowledge of the lyrics, tunes and performing practices, also have a need to perform in public, learn from other (older) singers, and share their skills with the next generations.

At the height of the documentation of folklore at the turn of the 19th and 20th ­centuries, runo songs had receded to the periphery of cultural life and lost their importance in musical self-expression. So, too, the runo singer became the embodiment of the margins of society – someone old and poor. As folklore studies developed, the representation of the folk singer gained agency – the singer was not only a reservoir of knowledge or a repeater of rituals, but also a specialist in communication. In the 1960s, a wedding singer – an improviser who actively used poetic means – took over as the collective image of a folk singer.

However, the song tradition is also carried on by people of a different nature, who know a lot of songs and the context in which they are used, but do not wish to perform in public. In this article, I focused on the inactive, modest singers. The main subjects of this article are the folk singers recorded in the 1960s, during the last great wave of runo song documentation.

All those studied were „of singers’ blood”: their immediate family were well-known singers. In order to become proficient in performing the runo songs, they had to have grown up in a close relationship with their grandmother. It was the modest singers, in particular, who continued to express themselves by means of the runo songs in the form of autocommunication. The relationship of the modest singers with the collectors of folklore may even have been more positive than that of the active ones; they developed a closer bond with the collectors, were more patient and more accommodating.


Liina Saarlo (b. 1974), PhD, Estonian Folklore Archives of the Estonian Literary Museum, Senior Researcher (Vanemuise 42, 51003 Tartu), liina.saarlo@folklore.ee