Researches and fans of Brazilian chapbooks (Literatura de Cordel) have now the great option to get information about this popular genre of Brazilian culture on the web. The US Library of Congress, through its office in Rio de Janeiro, has provided a digital collection on the subject – the Brazil Cordel Literature Web Archive at www.loc.gov. There are more than 12,000 pieces with some chapbooks dating from the 30’s. The Office has also acquired CD’s and DVD’s to capture the work of “repentistas” (improvisational singers).
The collection was begun in the 70’s by scholar Sol Biderman and continues to grow in the present through the collecting efforts of staff in the The Library of Congress Office, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This extensive collection has been little-explored and under-used for understanding grassroots perceptions of Brazilian history, politics, religion, humor, folklore, romance, and popular culture. Literatura de cordel are descended from European chapbook traditions. They are usually made from a single sheet of paper folded into an 8-page or 16-page leaflet (folheto), decorated with a woodcut on the cover (and more recently with photographs, lithographs, collages, and other cover art).
Hung by vendors from a string (cordel) in the marketplace (the source of the name literatura de cordel), the chapbooks feature poetry commenting on current events, politics, bizarre news stories, lives of the saints and holy or supernatural phenomena, folk heroes and bandits, sex and romance, obituaries and elegies. Many of these are lyrics intended to be sung to the tune of the reader’s choice. Some are issued as a means of educating people about HIV, safety, vaccines and other health issues. The publication of chapbooks took hold in the northern and northeastern states of Brazil (Pernambuco, Ceará, Alagoas, Paraíba, Piauí, and Bahia), and they reflect the cultural diversity of these states and comment on issues of poverty, violence, destruction of the rainforest, and everyday concerns.
The origins of chapbooks can be traced to the medieval poetry of Europe, which was transmitted orally throughout the continent by troubadors and minstrels. Gradually, as written communications spread, this oral tradition was set to music and came to be reproduced in handwritten chapbooks, often with a woodblock print as cover illustration. Brought to Brazil by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, this type of folk poetry and song pamphlet took root particularly in the northeast, where African and indigenous influences came to be incorporated. Soon the chapbooks took on the function of a popular journal for getting news.
The Rio Office and the Hispanic Division in Washington have worked with AFC over the past 40 years to develop this core collection into one of the largest in the world, comprising more than 12,000 items. The Rio Office adds 300 to 600 chapbooks annually, acquiring them while on field trips to the northeastern and northern states of Brazil, through book fairs, and in visits to authors (cordelistas) and cordel associations.