Part of the Folk Process

Or What Do Half-Drunk Hungarian Peasants and French Day-Trippers Share with Homer?

river-rance-dinan-france-dscn1151
On the River Rance, Dinan, France

A few years ago we went on a week’s holiday in Dinan in Brittany where one day we took a short boat trip on the River Rance. The trip itself was quite unremarkable, but at some point our jolly skipper decided to lead us all in a song. Within seconds, to the utter delight of my children and myself, two dozen French tourists were heartily bellowing out Santy Anno, a song from the 2008 Jefferson Starship album Tree of Liberty. To our skipper and fellow tourists, however, this was  not a song from an American record but a traditional French song, liked by and known to all.


I’m not particularly into music history but I believe volumes have been written about the spread of folk songs, sailors’ shanties, etc. across the Atlantic and there is in fact nothing remarkable about the song being known both to the French and the Americans. Witnessing evidence for this first hand though was another thing altogether; especially because the kids experienced folk music – the way it’s meant to be – for the first time.

About Folk Music and Music Education

When I was a kid, I was taught folk music in school. In Hungary folk music is the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega of music education; in the land of Kodály and Bartók folk music is a sacred cow and the only way to teach music is by drawing from a “clean source” (ie. folk music).

Only from a 'clean source': children in a suburban folk dance club in Budapest
Only from a ‘clean source’: children in a run-of-the-mill suburban folk dance club in Budapest, Hungary

In Hungary toddlers are taught rhythm by clapping and tune by hand-signs, and every child, even if tone-deaf like myself, leaves primary school with the ability to sing on sight from a sheet. I acknowledge my debt to the Kodály method but I do remember how dreary we used to think folk music, degraded to a compulsory school subject. (On the other hand, in England music education consists of teaching children snatches of West End musicals, often singing lyrics that are highly inappropriate in mouths of under-10s. But perhaps it’s just me who cringes as 7-year-olds render songs from Jesus Christ Superstar at an infant school’s Nativity play.)

I’ve heard some great traditional songs on recordings. I’ve been to some great concerts listening to folk musicians who really knew what they were about. But I always came away with a feeling of having been somehow robbed: a crucial ingredient always gets lost. It’s music played by trained musicians and (barring its origins) it’s got nothing to do with us ‘folks’. Not like French holiday makers singing together on a boat just for the fun of it. Not like that evening in my aunt’s overcrowded kitchen, when I was about 8 or 9 and the family, three generations, gathered together for some forgotten occasion, and with the red wine and the talk flowing freely somebody started to sing. One by one the adults joined in, and my uncle brought out his zither. That was folk music: untrained voices, joining together, sharing something. Red faces, bright eyes, laughter, much banging on the table and half-sentences shouted over the twang of the zither, while the music and the singing got progressively worse as the evening wore on and the effects of the wine began to tell.

Homer and the Oral Tradition

I was thinking about this, about folk music, and about what a difference it makes to take part in it as opposed to merely studying it because of what I’ve been reading in The Mighty Dead – the book I’m about halfway through – about the oral tradition and how this may give us an insight into Homer.

Gusle player. Photo of Orjen via Wikipedia [CC-BY-SA 4.0]
Gusle player. Photo of Orjen via Wikipedia [CC-BY-SA 4.0]
This is about Milman Parry, that careless packer, the brilliant American scholar who went to Yugoslavia between the two world wars in search of the Homeric process. Parry saw Homer as a man embedded in a long standing tradition of singers retelling the same story, and with an assistant and a translator set out for the remote mountain villages to listen to the guslaris, singers of epic poems accompanying themselves on a gusle, a single-stringed violin. Parry and his companions collected 13 thousand songs and were astonished to find singers who could remember over ten thousand lines. Others followed in Parry’s footsteps: in the aftermath of World War II, a Connecticut professor by the name of James Notopoulos travelled to Crete and collected songs in the mountains of Sfakia. On the request of Notopoulos, one of the singers improvised a song on the spot about the famous kidnapping of General Kreipe, the German commander of Crete, in 1944 by the British. Almost nothing in the song as heard by Notopoulos corresponded to the actual facts; the singer utilised ancient formulas to improvise a story to his own liking.

Homer vs Academia

People try to read the Iliad today, or the Odyssey, and as often as not are confronted with convoluted language, forced into dactylic hexameters. In lauded scholarly editions the introduction is often longer than the epic itself and the mountain of notes at the back of the book is enough to scare away even the most eager readers. The famous Homeric epithets bore today’s readers to death, because after all how many times do you really need to hear that Achilles is swift-footed and does Apollo really need to be constantly called “god of the silver bow”, nice as the phrase might be?! But these phrases are aide-mémoires, ready-made building blocks to fit the dactylic hexameter. The Iliad and Odyssey were not meant to be read in solitary comfort on a sofa.

Homer, detail from a Greek vase in the British Museum
Homer. Detail from a Greek vase in the British Museum

There was a time in history, the time of Homer, presumably, as well as the centuries that went before and after, when the Iliad or the Odyssey were not merely an academic exercise. Unlike today, they were not just the territory of university professors indulging in self-serving discussions on the merits of each line or bickering over whether Homer was one man or more, killing the epic story in dry scholarly analyses. There was a time when the themes on which the Iliad and the Odyssey are developed were shared by ordinary people, when everybody knew the fundamentals of the stories. In the fifth and fourth century B.C., travelling storytellers, rhapsodes, performing the Iliad and the Odyssey were part of life in Greece. And so these stories were told and retold, sang by the rhapsodes, changed and shaped slightly differently in each telling. Not everyone can (re)tell a story well, much less make one up on the spot no matter how familiar with its elements, but everybody can listen, and a travelling storyteller can and will, if he wants to make a good living, adapt his story to his audience’s perceived likes and needs. And much like the interaction between the actors and the groundlings in Shakespeare’s Globe makes a play more alive, more memorable and wholly unique and unrepeatable, so this manner of performing made the Iliad and the Odyssey alive, memorable and unique.

Step back from the book and see in your mind the rhapsode in his travelling cloak, with his staff in hand, singing out to a crowd of random listeners in the bustling agora to earn his dinner. Imagine watching several of them perform in competitions, one after another, each desperately trying to trump the previous singer.

Homer, admirable in all respects…

(Aristotle: Poetics)

I don’t really care if Homer was one man or more. I don’t really care if there never was a man called Homer. What I do care about is the stories. The way they are taught in schools (when they’re taught at all) they seem dead and boring – nothing to do with us today. But these stories didn’t survive thousands of years by being bad. I happen to like the way the Iliad has been told by Homer, epithets and all. Not everybody does. But you don’t have to read Homer to enjoy the story of the Trojan War or the wanderings of Odysseus. They’ve been told and retold time and again, sometimes focusing on this episode, sometimes on that. Take the story and turn it into your own. Like with folk music, it’s all about being immersed in it. And then someday you might want to come to Homer for his take on the story.

Maybe that’s how we should introduce children to Homer: tell them the stories, give them a list of epithets and let them retell their favourite bits, making it up as they go along. Like that Budapest folk musician did above when he put the bow in the children’s hands. It’s all part of the folk process, after all.

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