Singing Mennonite : low German songs among the Mennonites of Southern Manitoba

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Klassen, Doreen,
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Mennonite folklore researchers assume that the Low German song tradition in a thing of the past. Many southern Manitoba Mennonites think that it has never existed. Likewise, Mennonite historians and novelists have invariably referred to Mennonites as singing in High German, Russian or English. Contrary to popular belief and traditional historical data, recent field research has shown not only that Low German song does indeed still exist, but that it is presently experiencing a renaissance among certain groups in southern Manitoba. In fact, not only does Low German song exist, it exists in genres other than 'mere' children's songs or rowdy street songs, the only categories in which some Mennonites expect to find Low German songs. Furthermore, interviews and library research have shown that Low German song has been part of Mennonite experience for at least two hundred years, almost half of their four hundred and fifty year history. These findings raise several questions. Firstly, what are the implications of singing in a language in which people presume they do not sing? Secondly, why is there substantial diversity of Low German song repertoire within a single ethno-religious group? And thirdly, what factors account for changes in lyric content, melodic sources and performance contexts over the past one and a half centuries?... The assumption that one does not sing in Low German, is clarified in the light of sociolinguistic research on 'diglossia', where findings on 'low status' languages imply that Low German songs are found primarily within a minority group among the Mennonites themselves. Secondly, the diversity of Low German song repertoire among Mennonites is understandable when we observe the degree of religious and socio-economic fragmentation among the Mennonites. Thirdly, the changing Low German song repertoire is representative of patterns of Mennonite resistance and accommodation to their Ukrainian, German, French and English-speaking neighbors in nineteenth century Russia, early twentieth century and post 1970 Manitoba... This study of Low German songs, therefore, is a study of music as socially symbolic behavior, reflecting the viewpoint of ethnomusicologists like John Blacking who see music as both a sonic and social phenomenon.