In November 1960, the New York Times reported on the looming revolution in Northeastern Brazil, describing how Marxist social movement leaders were organizing peasants. Reporter Tad Szulc claimed that “singers and violeiros—the traveling troubadors of the Northeast who act as human newspapers”—were spreading leader Francisco Julião's manifestos to the largely illiterate rural population and its “miserable, drought-plagued hamlets.” The human newspapers allegedly sung about agrarian reform as a form of liberation, comparing the process of revolution in Brazil with that of Cuba. Szulc wrote:
[The] nomad singers who once sang of the loves and the hatreds of the proud people here, now sing of land reform and of political themes. There is this refrain: The sugar that we sell to capitalist America/ If it serves to sweeten the milk of a Franco Spain/ For sure it will serve for the wine of the Socialist world./ What harm is there in a ship/ Carrying our common Brazilian coffee/ And selling it to a China/ Where there is no Chiang Kai-shek?
Although the poem suffers from a clumsy translation, it is most interesting that the New York Times
quoted literatura de cordel
(chapbook poetry) to demonstrate the severity of the communist threat in Northeastern Brazil, suggesting that violeiros were Marxist agents indoctrinating the rural poor with their anti-American songs. Szulc's portrayal contrasts with commonly held assumptions about literatura de cordel
as “quaint” regional folklore, and violeiros as blind poets who performed silly stories in marginalized rural communities. In the late nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, literatura de cordel
was a source of both entertainment and news for the largely illiterate rural population in the Northeast. It is a textual genre often performed or improvised by singers (repentistas, cantadores
, or violeiros
), which has led scholars to define it as folk-popular culture since it is both a written and oral expression of the people.