The ballad tradition that once embraced most of Europe is alive and well today in a place you might not think to look for it—the rural northeast corner of Brazil. Since the nineteenth century, works of the region’s folk poets and artists have been published in chapbooks known as folhetos or literatura de cordel. These small, crudely printed “string booklets” are so called because they are clipped to strings and displayed for sale at fairs or markets. The poems cover all sorts of popular topics from politics, religion, and folklore to love, death, and betrayal. Another common feature are black and white woodcut illustrations (xilogravuras).
In recent years, cordel literature has attracted attention from middle-class urban audiences in Brazil as well as scholars around the world who recognize it as a distinctive art form and an important influence on twentieth-century Brazilian culture. As scholar Candace Slater writes in her book Stories on a String, this genre provides “a document of actual historical events and, even more, of people’s often ambivalent attitudes towards the forces shaping their lives. While the average erudite edition in Brazil is generally no more than two thousand copies, many folhetos go through ten or twenty thousand; sometimes ‘best sellers’ and sensational news stories top the one hundred thousand mark.”
“The ‘string,’” Slater continues, “is also meant to refer to the shoestring on which most poets live. It hints at the ‘stringing together’ of bits and pieces of dissimilar material that results in a folheto. The term cordel also brings to mind the long if elusive tradition, extending back to the Middle Ages, on which these stories draw. Finally, few things are as homely—or as useful or strong—as ordinary cord.”
Special Collections recently received a generous donation of about sixty folhetos from the 1980s and ‘90s. They will be added to the Rare Book Collection, which contains many examples twentieth-century small press work.