The Epic Singers

Professor of South Slavic languages and literatures and of comparative literature at Harvard , ALBERT BATES LORDhas made eight extended visits to Yugoslavia during the past twenty years in search of the more famous epic songs and singers. He is curator of the Milman Parry collection in the Harvard College Library.

IN THE 1930s a young assistant professor of classics at Harvard University, Milman Parry, combed the mountains and valleys of Yugoslavia in search of epic songs. Several districts of that country were then, and are still, famous beyond the reaches of their own boundaries for their narrative songs, which tell of deeds of heroes of the past, both distant and recent, and are sung by the men, most often to the accompaniment of a one-stringed bowed musical instrument called the gusla. These songs are not only of the same genre as the Homeric poems, but some of them have the same basic story material as the Iliad and the Odyssey. Yet it was not primarily this that attracted Professor Parry’s interest. To him it was of first importance that the Yugoslav narrative poems were traditional and oral.

The Parry collection contains about 3500 twelve-inch aluminum phonograph records and more than 12,000 individual texts of songs or recorded conversations, including about 1000 epics (the remainder are lyric). The longest of these epics is over 13,000 lines, and the next in length over 12,000 lines. Many are from 2000 to 5000 lines long. There are numerous cases of the same song from different singers, as well as from the same singer at different intervals of time. There are other instances where the entire repertory of a singer was recorded. Certain songs that had themes similar to those of the Homeric poems Parry concentrated on and recorded as often as he found them, or whenever he came upon a version that it seemed might have interesting variations.

While the Yugoslav oral poets of our day come from all walks of life — peasants, laborers, priests, and teachers — there were in the past bards who could be called court minstrels. During the centuries-long Turkish rule there were Turkish nobles who for periods of time would keep good singers in their homes to entertain their guests, particularly at festival times. It is also possible that, even though the Serbian courts before the Turkish invasion were strongly influenced by the Orthodox clergy, who were characteristically opposed to minstrelsy, there may have been court singers in medieval Christian Serbia.

The Yugoslav singers were not so talented as Homer, and the Slavic songs are indeed inferior from a literary point of view to the Homeric poems. However, it is sometimes unjustly objected that the Yugoslav singers are not creative aoidoi, as was Homer, but rather rhapsodoi — that is, reciters of other people’s songs. Now, while it seems to me perfectly correct to think of the rhapsodes as reciting songs that have already been composed, I should like to call into question the interpretation of aoidos. It seems to me that aoidos means simply a living, working, active, traditional oral poet; it is the normal word for “the singer.” The key is clearly in the concept of the fixed text; the rhapsode deals in a text, the aoidos in a story. The oral poet tells and retells stories; he does not follow a nonexistent petrified text.

Much has been made by critics and scholars of the length and structure of the Homeric poems, and it is true that the Homeric poems are longer than the average Yugoslav poems, even in those regions where comparatively long poems are found. A tradition with long songs argues for a period when an audience would gather for a considerable time to be entertained or instructed by the bards. Experiments in Yugoslavia proved that Yugoslav bards are capable of producing songs as long as the Iliad and the Odyssey. That the tradition does not ordinarily do so means merely that there is normally no occasion on which a long song would be performed.

The Yugoslav singer of talent makes a song long ordinarily by elaboration of what already is in the song, not by the addition of anything new. A catalogue is lengthened by addition of new figures, or by greater description of each figure; the description of horse or hero is amplified by giving greater detail; speeches are repeated by messengers. All these means of lengthening have a point beyond which an audience will rebel, and the singer who goes beyond that point loses his audience.

Or a song may be lengthened by the addition of one narrative song to another. For example, when the hero returns after long captivity to find his wife about to be married again, there frequently follows a sequel which relates how the hero goes back to the place in which he was captive in order to release the prisoners he left behind or to deliver a promised ransom. That this sequel is sometimes omitted is good proof that the story stands intact without it.

A third way in which the Yugoslav tradition has built complex songs is by the imposition of one song pattern on another. The Song of Baghdad, the first story published in the Parry collection, begins with the theme of the hero called to war just before bringing home his bride. This should lead to a long war, captivity, release, return, and marriage or remarriage. And so it does — at least all those elements are present in the song; but presently we see that another story has become enmeshed with the theme of captivity and return. This is the story of the hero who may have been removed for a period of time but who is called upon when needed as a champion. In The Song of Baghdad, the hero of the first pattern is Derdelez Alija, and that of the second is the figure Budimlija Mujo, the hero who has been unjustly outlawed. These two patterns have been woven together by having the outlaw join Alija as standard-bearer. The Homeric poems present us with these same methods and devices of narration and composition.

It has been clear in our Yugoslav experience that the dictation of songs under optimum circumstances with the best of singers adds to the length. And I submit that some of the length of the Homeric songs comes from the circumstances of their having been written down from dictation.

THE Yugoslav singers have showed us how the Greek singers and Homer must have created their masterpieces. That is enough. The service of south Slavic epic poets in showing us this art has been epochal, and when the fogs of polemic and of controversy have cleared, I feel confident that the Homeric question will have been solved, thanks to the guidance of living traditional poets.

In 1934-1935 Parry and I had collected material in all of the republics of Yugoslavia except Slovenia, where epic poetry is not found. In Macedonia we had worked especially on the central plain south of Prilep and in the vicinity of Skoplje. In southern Serbia our base had been at Novi Pazar; in Montenegro it was at Kolasin, where the Christian tradition was still evident, and at Bijelo Polje on the eastern border, where the best of our Muslim singers made his home. We worked from two centers in Herzegovina, at Stolac and Gacko; and the northern Bosnian tradition was explored at Bihać. Some of the Dalmatian region north of Dubrovnik was also visited for the purpose of recording epics.

I returned in 1950 and 1951 in order to revisit the places in which we had previously found the tradition to be most alive: Novi Pazar, Bijelo Polje, Kolasin, and also, briefly, Stolac and Gacko. At this time I made a more careful survey of Macedonia, a region that presents special problems for the student of epic, because its narratives are more frequently sung in a ballad style. Only rarely now is the singing here accompanied by a musical instrument, and women as well as men sing the narrative songs.

Recently I came back from several weeks in Yugoslavia, some of which were spent in the field collecting and studying the tradition in southern Serbia and Montenegro. More songs have now been added to our collection from these districts, stemming in part from singers with whom we had previously worked, even as far back as 1934. The tradition seems in certain Muslim quarters to be still strong, and it is still comparatively pure, an oral tradition uncontaminated by written influence. This is less true of the Christian singing, which is still being cultivated — and I use the term advisedly, since the songs are being learned by rote from books, even, as in the case of one young singer with whom I talked, from the third-grade school reader. A cult is consciously being preserved, and the classical printed texts are sung and performed. Other, newer songs, written by known authors, are memorized and performed in the same manner.

In the regions where this practice occurs, the true oral tradition is indeed dying, although there is still much singing. But in some places there are still young men learning the songs in the old way from their elders, and I was able to hear from the lips of the second and even the third generation the same tales we had heard octogenarians tell in the thirties. The chain of oral inheritance can be examined in these instances link by link.