Folklore and mythology have always had a way of passing through generations. From oral history to Gutenberg’s press, an intrinsic part of being human comes from the way that we communicate meaning. In Northeast Brazil, crudely printed pamphlets known as cordel literature were the facilitators of the stories passed from generation to generation, from people to people.
Surrounded by a similar sort of mystique as Tijuana bibles, Brazil’s ‘cordel literature’ were pamphlets held up on display along pieces of string - corda in Portuguese - that had a variety of content, from practical instructions all the way to poems illustrated by woodcut blocks.
A part of their charm came from the sale itself. Aside from being hung up on the aforementioned rope, they were flogged by charismatic vendors, reciting the poetic contents in an animated and performative manner. The very same type of people you would expect to buy a bunch of tulips from at a London flower market.
At the height of popularity in the 1920s and 30s, it wasn't until the late 1980s that the Academia Brasileira de Literatura de Cordel was founded, a way to collect all of the sources and practitioners of the form as a means of continuing the unique tradition or, at least, having some level of an archive constructed from the preservation of this folk art form.
This is, in part, a nostalgic memorialisation of a pre-digital era. In simpler times, self-expression required a degree of street-wise savvy if it were to be heard amongst the crowds. Advertising and marketing without bells and whistles. Blending this salt-of-the-earth perspective with a propensity for ancient tales, poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade found the ‘cordel literature’ to be “one of the purest manifestations of the inventive spirit,” where critical, cultural and down-to-earth thinking came together.
Accompanied by expressive artworks from the time, in-keeping with the trends of the era, the texts were often anti-establishment in theme, taking a stance against subsequent governments and extolling the hardships of life in certain parts of the country. Stories of outlaws and bandits became popular rallying calls for salespeople, infusing the real and the myth to the extent where ‘cordel literature’ pamphlets and books became a part of it, offering alternative sources of news that never toed any particular political line.
Roughly put together, the little books became symbols of hope for the deeply impoverished regions of Brazil, where word travelled fast through the arid hinterlands, by horse and carriage with a pile of books in the back. Heroes were made of the men and women who banded together to fight the corrupt police, their heroics read under lamplight and around campfires, accompanied by music as a means for these important tales of hope, courage and ingenuity to move through generations.
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