Performance and Performer: The Role of Tradition in Oral Epic Song

by Casey Dué

The following video clips are excerpted from two lectures given by Professor Albert B. Lord. The first was given at Harvard University in July of 1989 as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar for secondary school teachers, directed by Gregory Nagy. The second was given at Skidmore College in 1990. In these lectures Professor Lord illustrates two inseparable aspects of the creation of "oral literature," as exemplified by the ancient Greek epics the Iliad and Odyssey: (1) the role of tradition and (2) the moment of performance. Within this overarching theme he explores a number of other topics including the learning process of traditional singers, the effect of published song books on the South Slavic oral tradition, the comparison of a dictated song and one composed in a traditional performance, and the mythic origins of epic. The following clip, which is in fact the peroration to the Skidmore lecture, serves here as a dramatic introduction to the themes of the rest of the clips.

The Performer and the Performance
4.2 MB


Composition in Performance in Oral Traditional Literature

Part 1: The Traditional Setting
MOV, 33 MB

Part 2: The Moment of Performance
MOV, 11 MB

In these two clips Professor Lord discusses what he calls "the moment of performance." In the first, he focuses on the traditional setting in which the performance of traditional epic songs takes place. In order to illustrate this setting he describes the performances of the singers he himself witnessed as part of his fieldwork in the former Yugoslavia during the 1950's and 60's. At this time there was still a flourishing song culture to which Lord, following in the footsteps of his teacher Milman Parry, compares the Ancient Greek tradition. In the second clip Lord describes the moment of performance itself and the process of composition which takes place in performance. An excerpt from Lordís last book, The Singer Resumes the Tale, will set the stage nicely for viewing the clips:

Epics, ballads, prose tales, ritual and lyric songs, as genres, existed orally before writing was invented. We do not have a special word to designate them before they were manifested in writing, so we are left with the paradox of "oral literature." But if literature can be defined as "carefully constructed verbal expression," carefully structured oral verbal expression can surely qualify as literature. This is common sense. People did not wait until there was writing before they told stories and sang songs. Moreover, when these genres first appeared in writing, their metric base, their poetic and compositional devices, were already fully developed and none of them could have been invented by any one person at any one time. They are too complicated for that. Oral literature, then, consists of the songs and stories, and other sayings, that people have heard and listened to, sung and told, without any intervention of writing. The creator or transmitter did not write the song or the story but sang or told it; the receiver did not read the song or story but heard it. These stories and songs are, therefore, not only oral but also aural; they are not only told, they are also heard.

Beginning with oral traditional epic, I should like to focus on the "performance," at the moment of performing in a traditional setting and with a traditional audience. The word traditional is important in the phrase oral traditional epic (or literature), implying, as it does, a depth of meaning set into that literature, from its origin, by previous generations. Text and context are inseparable. Without a sympathetic knowledge of context, the text may be misunderstood. Yet it is not sufficient to study performance and contextuality without an understanding of the tradition underlying them.

I prefer the term listeners instead of "audience," because "audience" seems to imply a more formal type of event. I want to think of the place and times when a truly traditional singer ordinarily sings epic songs to traditional listeners in his community who ordinarily listen to his and others' singing of epic. They have listened to him before, and he has sung for them since he first began to sing; some of them are also singers and he has listened to them; they know him and his songs and vice versa; they like to listen to him and he likes to sing to them. They form a small and intimate group; they are the ideal "traditional" group.

The circumstances will be different to some extent in each traditional culture, but speaking for the one that I know best, that of the Slavic Balkans, I would find one of the most normal places for singing to be the house in a small village where neighbors gather for an evening and sit and talk and listen to a singer. Epics are sung also at weddings and to help celebrate the Slava, the family feast for its patron saint. Another informal setting is the coffeehouse in Moslem communities, where men gather, especially during Ramadan, and listen, after a day of fasting, to epic songs that may continue for a whole night. The singers and the listeners are all "insiders"; that is, they are part of the same tradition.

Perhaps these settings do not seem at first to fit the ancient Greek case. We learn in Homer of the singing of epic in the court of a king. One thinks of Demodocus in Alcinous's palace in Phaeacia or Phemius, who sang for the suitors in Ithaca. There is also Achilles, keeping apart in his tent before Troy, singing of the _klea andron_, "the famous deeds of heroes." Yet I see no reason why what I have said about traditional performer and traditional audience cannot apply just as well to the singer in a small king's court as to the singer in a neighborhood gathering. The kingdoms in ancient Greece were small, the number of listeners surely not very great.

Exceptions were occasions like the Ionian festival mentioned in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, at which the maidens "sing a strain telling of men and women of past days, and charm the tribes of men." The singer says then, of himself, words that have become famous:

Remember me in after time whenever any one of men on earth, a stranger who has seen and suffered much, comes here and asks of you: "Whom think ye girls is the sweetest signer that comes here, and in whom do you most delight?" Then answer, each and all, with one voice: "He is a blind man, and dwells in rocky Chios: his lays are evermore supreme." As for me, I will carry your renown as far as I roam over the earth to the well-placed cities of man, and they will believe also; for indeed this thing is true.

It is important that the traditional group was generally homogenous. The kings and princes and those who gathered in the court formed the community; the singers and their listeners shared knowledge and had the same sense of values. They shared stories and myths. In short, they shared the tradition.

Let me explain what I mean by "tradition" in respect to epic song. For any individual signer the tradition consists of all the performances of all the songs of all the singers he has ever heard. All the singers encompasses the worst, the best, and all in between. Homer was the best of the traditional singers of whom we know in ancient Greece. He was not outside the tradition or "making use of the tradition"; he was part of it, in it. A tradition is dynamic and ongoing. It lasts as long as there are singers and listeners.

The singing of epic songs is very ancient. It is clear that it began before writing was invented. The ancient Greek tradition was very highly developed by Homer's time. Though traditions start in the distant past and retain the strength of their roots, they are not of the past, until there are no longer any truly traditional singers and listeners. Traditions are subject to change: the reforming of old stories, the telling of new ones that may seem much like the old. A really living tradition has no need of "preservation" because it is always being preserved with every truly traditional performance by a truly traditional singer.

There are several categories of traditionality, that is, of elements that may persist over generations. I suggest five aspects of oral tradition, which I shall first enumerate, later returning to enlarge upon the second, third, and fifth categories, which call for special emphasis.

First, the practice of storytelling itself, be it in prose or verse, be it spoken, sung, or chanted, and of singing songs of various kinds, can be traditional. This means that for generations in a given community or culture people have found a time, a place, and an audience for such a practice. Telling or singing has long had a place in their social behavior patterns. Laments, for example, are sung or chanted as part of the rituals practiced at times of death, and this custom has been kept since time immemorial.

Second, the art of composing songs and stories is itself handed down from one generation of creator-transmitters to the next. This is a crucial category for distinguishing some oral traditional songs or stories from their later literary - that is, "written literary" - counterparts. The traditional process of composition and transmission of oral traditional poetry or prose varies from genre to genre and is treated in detail when we look more closely, for example, at lyric, nonnarrative songs in Chapter 2. In general, lines are constructed with the help of "formulas," and poems or stories, or songs, are made up of "themes."

Third, there is a category of traditional content of traditional literature. Here we find traditional story patterns, traditional generic secular and mythic narratives and traditional generic types of nonnarrative songs, such as lyric or ritual songs.

Fourth, there are the specific works, the specific oral traditional stories, songs, and short literary forms in all their variants. By that I mean the ballad of "Barbara Allen," the epic of "Marko Kraljevic and Musa the Highwayman," the tale of "The Three Princesses," and so forth. I do not believe that this category needs elaboration, but it is necessary to insist that it contain all variants, recorded or not, of each work, because we cannot point to any one of them as the "correct" or "original" text.

The fifth category of traditionality is oral traditional poetics. It may be that from the beginning, some stories and songs were simple, brief and ephemeral. They consisted of loosely structured, short-lived anecdotes and songs with a limited frame of reference. Yet it is certain that there came into being, as time went on, well-structured narratives and songs of wider reference and deeper meaning told or sung by skillful creator-storytellers or singers. In short, there emerged eventually an "oral literature" in the qualitative sense of the term. We can suppose that repetitions of sounds and patterns of words put together to be imitative and to have the power of magic came to set models of duplication and of balance and proportion which had an appeal to an innate human aesthetic sense. (The Singer Resumes the Tale, pp. 1-4)


The Musical Accompaniment
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In this clip Professor Lord demonstrates both the instrument with which South Slavic Singers accompanied their performances, the gusle, as well as the ten syllable line in which they composed their songs. At one point he actually sits down and gives a (brief) demonstration with an actual gusle. He also speculates about a possible linguistic connection between the word gusle and the word canto or song.


Learning the Language: The Training of a Singer
MOV, 11.2 MB

A most useful introduction to this clip can be found in the second chapter of The Singer of Tales. There (pp. 21-26) professor Lord describes the three step training process that oral traditional poets go through as they learn to sing tales before an audience and eventually become accomplished artists. According to Lord, the first stage is one of listening and absorbing. In the second stage the singer begins to sing and has to learn to fit his thoughts and their expression into a fairly rigid form. The second stage ends when the singer can sing one entire song before an audience. In the third stage an increase in repertory and a growth in competency takes place. It ends when the singer becomes an accomplished practitioner of the art, and can provide entertainment for several nights. In this same chapter Lord records the following account of the learning process of a singer from the Parry Collection of Oral Literature (Parry Text 1239):

"When I was a shepherd boy, they used to come for an evening to my house, or sometimes we would go to someone else's for the evening, somewhere in the village. Then a singer would pick up the gusle, and I would listen to the song. The next day when I was with the flock, I would put the song together, word for word,* without the gusle, but I would sing it from memory, word for word, just as the singer had sung it… Then I learned gradually to finger the instrument, and to fit the fingering to the words, and my fingers obeyed better and better… I didn't sing among the men until I had perfected the song, but only among the young fellows in my circle [druzina] not in front of my elders and betters." Seco here roughly distinguishes all three stages of learning; first, the period of listening and absorbing; then, the period of application; and finally, that of singing before a critical audience. (Singer of Tales, p. 21)

One of the most important metaphors that Lord uses for describing the learning process is that of learning a language. In his chapter on the formula Lord writes:

In studying the patterns and systems of oral narrative verse we are in reality observing the "grammar" of the poetry, a grammar superimposed, as it were, on the grammar of the language concerned. Or, to alter the image, we find a special grammar within the grammar of the language, necessitated by the versification. The formulas are phrases and clauses and sentences of this specialized poetic grammar. The speaker of this language, once he has mastered it, does not move any more mechanically within it than we do in ordinary speech.

When we speak a language, our native language, we do not repeat words and phrases that we have memorized consciously, but the words and sentences emerge from habitual usage. This is true of the singer of tales working in his specialized grammar. He does not "memorize" formulas, any more than we as children "memorize" language. He learns them by hearing them in other singers' songs, and by habitual usage they become part of his singing as well. Memorization is a conscious act of making one's own, and repeating, something that one regards as fixed and not one's own. The learning of an oral poetic language follows the same principles as the learning of language itself, not by the conscious schematization of elementary grammars but by the natural oral method.(Singer of Tales, pp. 35-36)

* As Lord shows (see especially pp. 27-28), although oral traditional singers claim to sing their songs word for word exactly as they first heard it, this is never the case.


Composition-in-Performance vs. Improvisation
MOV, 4.8 MB

In the question and answer period following the NEH lecture, Greg Nagy asks professor Lord about the often misused word "improvisation." When speaking about the composition of oral literature such as that of the South Slavic singers, it is important to distinguish between composition in performance and improvisation. As D. G. Miller has pointed out (Improvisation, Typology, Culture, and "The New Orthodoxy": How Oral is Homer?), the term improvisation carries with it several fallacious assumptions:

  1. "Oral poets do not plan."
  2. "Oral poetry is characterized by a 'loose,' unorganized structure."
  3. "An oral poet could not see the whole epic sequence in the beginning."

In his book entitled Homeric Questions Greg Nagy discusses the implications of these assumptions for the Homeric epics and all oral traditional literature: "Refusing to consider the possibility that there are principles of unity and organization at work in a living oral tradition is symptomatic of a lack of appreciation for oral tradition itself, with emphasis on the word tradition. There is a common pattern of thinking that serves to compensate for this lack: it is manifested in the assumption that the poet must have somehow broken free of oral tradition. This assumption entails an unquestioning elevation of a reconstructed single individual to the rank of a genius or at least of a transcendent author, who can then be given all or most of the credit for any observable principles of unity and organization. Unity and coherence may be the effect of something traditional, rather than the cause of something untraditional."

Milman Parry Collection © 2012