The ranz des vaches or Kühreihen is a herdsman's song without any accompaniment. The alpine cowherds used to sing it in order to call the cattle from the pasture when it was time for them to be milked in the stables. It has the same function as alphorn tunes used to have. And, just as using the alpine horn for this purpose was dying out after 1800, so was using the voice to call them.
The ranz des vaches consists of three elements: the often repeated word loba, which is the celtic meaning for cow; the enumeration of the cows' names; and improvised verses, in which the singing herdsman considers his life. Often he is praising the beauty of an alpine life, its freedom in the mountains, but sometimes he is complaining about the miserable situation of a poor farmhand.
The tradition of calling the cattle by this special song was documented already in the 16th century. Educated tourists took note of the ranz des vaches in the 18th century as for example Count Leopold zu Stolberg, who transcribed the Appenzeller Kühreihen in 1794, while travelling through Switzerland together with Johann Wolfgang Goethe.
In 1805 the first collection of eight ranz des vaches appeared under the title "Acht Schweizer Kühreihen". This small edition was reedited and enlarged in 1812, 1818 and 1826.
Why was this rough herdsman's song sought after by cultivated people? Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in his 1768 Dictionnaire de la musique that it was forbidden to sing a ranz des vaches near Swiss soldiers in foreign services, because they became homesick and risked to die. This legend caused the interest in a song which was probably not very nice to listen to.
In 1921 a young music teacher, Joseph Bovet, arranged the traditional ranz des vaches of Gruyère to a men's choir song. It became famous and has the value of the secret "national" hymn of the French-speaking Swiss. This melody is the heart of each fête des vignerons (wine-growers' festival), which is celebrated every 25 years in Vevey, Canton Vaud.