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March 2023
Vol. 22, No. 6

Featured Stories

What Is a Troubadour?

by Kent Johnson & Raul SandelinOctober 2011

As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the San Diego Troubadour, it is only fitting that we dwell upon the paper’s name and ask, “What does the word Troubadour really mean?” We probably all have a vague conception of the troubadour as some guy who stands up alone in front of a mic and sings songs. But, there must be some history behind that, right?

When Lyle and Ellen Duplessie chose the paper’s name back in 2001, they undoubtedly must have thought of the Troubadour in Los Angeles, the long-fabled club that showcased, first, the folk revival of the 1950s then the Laurel Canyon set in the late-’60s before morphing into a cutting edge rock club by the mid-1970s. But, as world-famous as the LA Troubadour has become, it is important to remember that its name too is derivative. (It started out as a carbon copy of the London Troubadour that opened three years earlier in 1954.)

It is significant that the 1950s folk revivalists adopted the imagery and mystique of the troubadour because the word in its modern, 20th-century usage seems to date back to the first wave of consciously “folk” singers, such as Woody Guthrie, who emerged out of the politics and hardship of the 1930s. The word “troubadour” was not invented during the Great Depression to be sure. But, the word was resurrected to describe a certain type of Depression-era singer: one who performed his own songs, often politically motivated songs, while travelling with the large bodies of migrant Americans desperately searching for work.

The politically left-wing troubadour of the 1930s thus replaced the other lone singer-songwriter of American music, the minstrel, who often engaged in reactionary politics, especially when white minstrels performed the racist parody called blackface, wearing black makeup and mocking African-Americans with crude stereotypes and caricatures.

However, the original troubadours date back even further than the Dust Bowl, to the12th and 13th centuries to be exact. The word troubadour dates from the French verb trobar, which means alternately to explore, to invent, and to disturb. The English word troop is also an offshoot. To apply a modern translation, we might say that the troubadour was a trailblazer, someone who explored new territory, composed new songs, and poked fun at the establishment. The musical addendum is certainly logical since the French word trobar ultimately derives from the Greek and Arabic words for melody and singing.

As one follows the development of the word troubadour, one begins to understand that a troubadour-like figure, a traveling singer-songwriter-poet has existed in many countries in different forms, perhaps as far back as Homer. In France, there was an early tradition of wandering musicians who composed their own songs and were known as joglars, a term derived from the word joculatores. These joglars (precursors of modern jugglers) were circus-type performers who were mostly Romans who settled in Gaul and amused the common people by day and the aristocrats at night after their banquets. Later, with the rise of the actual troubadour, these joglars would provide a lower tier to the troubadour’s upper tier: The troubadours were the best of the best. The joglars became their more vulgar disciples.

However, despite the rich etymological roots of the word troubadour, the troubadour itself seems to have appeared out of nowhere. Its origins are remarkable because they seem to have burst forth as an already developed form with no antecedents. Its nature is also remarkable because its fortunes are so closely linked to the fortunes of its homeland in the south of France, known as Occitania. It is there in Southern France that our tradition of the troubadour truly begins.

The man credited with the genesis of the troubadour is Guilem de Peitien (1071-1126), ninth duke of Aquitaine and seventh count of Poitiers, who was one of the most powerful feudal lords of his day. He was the inspiration for most later singer-poets who were to follow in the troubadour tradition. Perhaps, Guilem (English: William) was to the troubadour what Elvis was to rock and roll. He was the first troubadour to achieve national fame. And, compared to his contemporaries, William was able to combine the highest compositional techniques of stanza and rhyme with the vernacular language and subject matter of the day. Part sublime, part popular, William was able to express the loftiest, refined ideas in a way that all classes could understand, much like William Shakespeare was able to do on a different stage several centuries later.

The troubadours were by their nature itinerant performers. They could come from either noble families or common stock, but neither would have an effect on their reputation. But they were connected to aristocrats and they used joglars to circulate their poetry. But a good joglar could actually rise to the position of troubadour, whereas a troubadour who wasn’t so good could fall to the position of joglar. So the troubadour, although having a status of dignity, was dependent on his patron’s bounty and needed to constantly hone his skills.

The troubadour ranks included all kinds and sorts of men, monks, churchmen, and even women or female troubadours called trobairitz. The most famous female was Beatrice, the Countess of Die. Some troubadours were established as court poets under a patron lord but most were wandering, traveling musicians who desired a change of scenery and eventually traveled far and wide throughout the known world of Western and Eastern Europe and all around the Mediterranean Sea area.

From this original era, over 1,000 troubadour songs have survived to this day and over 300 still have their musical settings. These are recorded in 35 manuscripts known as chansoniers.

Though love was often the main theme, social and political questions also found their way into the troubadour’s stanzas. Troubadours routinely satirized political and religious opponents, preached crusades, sang funeral laments, and supported princes and nobles involved in struggles. Troubadour poetry dealt with war, politics, personal satire, and other subjects.

Yet, the predominant theme to which the troubadour returned was love. And because of the worship of the Virgin Mary in a Catholic country such as France, the reverence bestowed on the virgin was extended to womanhood in general. At first troubadour love songs were mostly intellectual instead of emotional, written for a patron’s lady and void of the troubadour’s own feelings. But, this changed during the Crusades because women were left behind to fend for themselves while the Lords and nobility went out on campaign. The absence of husbands and sons could be as long as ten years if these men returned at all. There is poignant evidence that illustrates the emotional effect that the crusading men’s absence had on women. In this environment, the troubadour’s songs often sang about the ideal, often unattainable lady who belonged to someone else. Instead of writing songs for his patron, the troubadour was writing about his own feelings for the lord’s wife who was left alone at home.

Eventually, the troubadour would be immortalized and, unfortunately, in his immortality, he would also be corrupted. At one time, there were nearly 500 known troubadours in France. By the time of the plagues in the 14th century, there were none. But, the figure of the troubadour was incorporated into opera, literature, theater, and, ironically, song. The troubadour became the medieval ages’ quintessential bad boy, the anti-hero who everyone wanted to be, but who ultimately lost in the end. It would take six centuries for the medieval troubadour to resurface. Now, the troubadour was a homeless Okie escaping his hometown dust, a Jewish kid from Minnesota shuffling into a Bleeker Street hoot, a Mexican-American goddess singing “Barbara Allen” on the Staten Island ferry.

The troubadour who died in 1350 was reborn in the name of class struggle, civil rights, and social justice. Now, the concept was simple: All you needed was three chords and the truth. But, that truth was still a song. Woody Gutherie wrote over a 1000 of them. Bob Dylan wrote around 450. Joan Baez wrote many while also resurrecting many of the lost and forgotten folk songs from around the world.

So, what is a troubadour? A rootless wanderer who writes and sings his own songs independent of other musicians or musical groupings. The troubadour is a hopeless romantic who longs for things he cannot have and longs for them in song. The troubadour is always a bit mischievous, not content with establishment politics and quick to disturb the status quo. So, it is quite accurate that our paper should call itself the San Diego Troubadour because that’s what we all are: explorers, songwriters, mischief makers. Gregory Page, Tom Brosseau, Jose Sinatra, Steve Poltz, Lisa Sanders, Mary Dolan, Steve White, Robin Henkel, Shawn Rohlf, Adam Gimbel, Dan Connor, Joe Rathburn, Derek Duplessie, Jeff Berkley, and Calman Hart are just a few of the troubadours in this wonderful music mecca of San Diego County. But, there are countless others who make this a city of troubadours. May we all wander, sing, and cause trouble for another 10 years!

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