Epic Singers and Oral Tradition

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4. Avdo Međedović, Guslar*

Demodocus, I praise you beyond all mortal men, whether your teacher was the muse, the child of Zeus, or was Apollo.

—Homer, Odyssey 8.487-488

During the first half of his life Avdo was a Turkish subject; for up to the First World War Bijelo Polje belonged to the Sandžak of Novi Pazar in the Turkish Empire. Here he was born and here he lived and died. His father and grandfather were butchers in the town, and in his mid-teens Avdo began to learn their trade. After some two years of apprenticeship he went into the army as “a still beardless youth,” and when he returned seven years later his father did not recognize him.

In the army he spent three years in Kriva Palanka on the Bulgarian border. For another year he fought with Šemsi Pasha in Albania, and then after six months in Kumanovo near Skopje in Macedonia he was sent to a school for noncommissioned officers in Salonica, where, according to his own account, he “rotted for a year and emerged a sergeant.” He then passed another year in Kriva Palanka drilling others in the tactics he had learned under “Alamani” (German) officers in Salonica, after which he was on guard duty for six months at a post on the Bulgarian frontier “under the skies, high in the mountains,” When he returned to headquarters his discharge came.

It is characteristic of Avdo that the only time that he was disciplined in the army was after he struck an “Anatolian” with the butt of his rifle for cursing the faith (din). Ordinarily a peaceful man, he was stirred deeply by the religious laxity of the Anatolian Turks, whom he called “unbelievers.” He was himself devout and conservative, a person of lofty principles, yet unostentatious. All this is reflected in his poems.

Although Avdo learned to speak and understand Turkish in the army, he was never able to read or write any language. In those days there were only Turkish language schools, and his father had never sent him to them. During his lifetime he saw the growth of literacy in younger generations and shared both the feeling of inferiority and the pride of accomplishment of those illiterates who had led successful lives. It was “stupid” he thought, in retrospect, that he had never learned to read and write; and yet, in spite of that, he had been a good tradesman because he was honest. He had the respect and confidence of his fellow merchants. One of the greatest shocks of his life had come when the son to whom he had given over his business and all his capital, so that Avdo himself might retire peacefully to the farm, had squandered everything in riotous living. There was bitter disillusionment in his voice as he told of it. He had been brought up to honor and obey his father and to believe that “as a man sows, so shall he reap.” Having been a good son, he felt that he deserved to have a good son. {58|59}

In Avdo’s song, “The Wedding of Meho, Son of Smail,” there is a deep personal ring in the words of young Mehmed when asked whether the old men are better than the young. “Opinions are divided,” he said, “but mine shall ever be that the old men are better than the young.” His questioner replied: “Bravo, my dear son! If God grants, you will be an honor to us.” Avdo was singing of a past age, the ideals of which were his own, tried and not found wanting in the acid of his own experience.

After serving in the army Avdo returned to his trade with his father, but later he was called up again as a border guard, this time on the Montenegrin frontier, where he stayed for a year and a half. He was wounded in the Balkan wars; his right arm was broken by a bullet. With some epic exaggeration he told of how the doctor in Bijelo Polje could not stop the blood for four days and finally had to put him on a horse and send him with two soldiers to Senica. Here the doctor did not dare even to inspect his wound but sent him on to Novi Pazar. Four doctors looked him over, saw the danger, and sent him to Mitrovica, where twelve doctors consulted together about his case and then sent him post haste by train to Salonica. There he lay in the hospital forty-five days. One bullet was extracted, but another remained in his arm for the rest of his life.

Two years after returning from the army he was married, when, according to his reckoning, he was twenty-nine years old. It was at this time that he acquired the little farm in Obrov. His friends had praised a girl in that village to him, and he married her, as the custom was, without ever setting eyes on her or she on him. He lived through the terror of the First World War and somehow managed to keep his butcher shop. His descriptions of the lot of the Moslems in Bijelo Polje during the few months immediately following the downfall of Turkey are graphic. Until the new law and government were set up, for a period of about three months, the Moslems were plundered and killed by their former Christian subjects, the raja. Avdo was among those who survived; his family had never been rich, they had never been “aghas.”

He watched the world around him torn to shreds once more by the Second World War. During these later years of his life he had the satisfaction that as father and patriarch he felt was his right. One son had disappointed him, but two other sons stayed by him and cared for him. He had daughters-in-law to help his wife and a grandson to dandle on his knee. He was a quiet family man in a disturbed and brutal world. The high moral tone of his songs is genuine. His pride in tales of the {59|60} glories of the Turkish Empire in the days of Sulejman, when it was at its height and when “Bosnia was its lock and its golden key,” was poignantly sincere without ever being militant or chauvinistic. That empire was dead, and Avdo knew it, because he had been there to hear its death rattle. But it had once been great in spite of the corruption of the imperial nobility surrounding the sultan. To Avdo its greatness was in the moral fiber and loyal dedication of the Bosnian heroes of the past even more than in the strength of their arms. These characteristics of Avdo’s poems, as well as a truly amazing sensitivity for the feelings of other human beings, spring from within the singer himself. Avdo believed with conviction in the tradition that he exemplified.

Milman Parry of Harvard University’s Department of Classics collected epic songs from Avdo during the months of July and August 1935. Avdo had a repertory of fifty-eight epics; Parry recorded nine of these on phonograph discs and Nikola Vujnović, Parry’s assistant, wrote down four others from Avdo’s dictation.


  • “The Death of Mustajbey of the Lika” (Parry Text no. 6807, Rec. nos. 5146-5180, June 28, 1935, 2,436 lines).
  • “Hrnjica Mujo Avenges the Death of Mustajbey of the Lika” (Text no. 6810, Rec. nos. 5181-5278, June 29-30, 1935, 6,290 lines).
  • “The Wedding of Vlahinjić Alija” (Text no. 12,375, Rec. nos. 5459-5552, July 14-15, 1935, 6,042 lines; there is also a dictated version of this song from Avdo, Text no. 6841, July 16, 24, 25, 1935, 5,883 lines. Both texts were published in Međedović, 1980.).
  • “The Heroism of Đerđelez Alija” (Text no. 12,379, Rec. nos. 5595-5635, July 15-16, 1935, 2,624 lines).
  • “Osmanbey Delibegović and Pavičević Luka” (Texts nos. 12,389 and 12,441, Rec. nos. 5712-5817, 6471-6561, July 17-20, August 1-3, 1935, 13,331 lines; text published, Međedović, 1980).
  • “Sultan Selim Captures Kandija” (Text no. 12,447, Rec. nos. 6677- 6763, August 4, 5, 8, 1935, 5,919 lines).
  • “The Illness of Emperor Dušan in Prizren” (Text no. 12,463, Rec. nos. 6848-6857, August 8, 1935, 645 lines).
  • “The Captivity of Kara Omeragha” (Text no. 12,465, Rec. nos. 6888-6906, August 9, 1935, 1,302 lines).
  • “Bećiragić Meho” (Text no. 12,471, Rec. nos. 7015-7108, August 10- 11, 1935, 6,313 lines). {60|61}


  • “The Arrival of the Vizier in Travnik” (Text no. 6802, June 29-30, July 4-5. 1935. 7,621 lines).
  • “The Wedding of Meho, Son of Smail” (Text no. 6840, July 5-12, 1935, 12,311 lines; text published Međedović, 1974b, translation published Međedović, 1974a).
  • “Gavran Harambaša and Sirdar Mujo” (Text no. 12,427, July 26, 1935, 4,088 lines).
  • “The Captivity of Tale of Orašac in Ozim” (Text no. 12,428, July 30, 1935, 3,738 lines, unfinished).

The mere bulk of these epic songs is astonishing: 637 record sides, or 319 twelve-inch phonograph discs recorded on both sides; 44,902 lines sung on discs, and 33,653 lines written from dictation. His longest song on records contains 13,331 lines and fills 199 record sides, or 100 twelve-inch discs recorded on both sides. If one reckons five minutes of singing on one side of a record, then this song represents more than sixteen hours of singing time. The total singing time for all the recorded material listed here is approximately fifty-three hours.

To these songs must be added the conversations with Avdo that were recorded on discs. These conversations cover 180 twelve-inch records recorded on both sides. In other words, the total recorded songs and conversations from this single singer fill 499 discs on both sides, or nearly one-seventh of the 3,584 twelve-inch records in the entire Parry Collection from the 1930s. The conversations contain the story of his life, a lengthy discussion of the singers from whom he learned his songs, and a running commentary from questions prepared beforehand by Parry to two of his texts, “The Arrival of the Vizier in Travnik” and “The Wedding of Meho, Son of Smail.”

It was my privilege to return to Bijelo Polje in 1950 and 1951, where I had been with Parry as a student in 1935, and to find Avdo still ready, in spite of poor health, to sing and recite epic songs. At that time I recorded on wire the following texts, partly sung, partly recited:

  • “Osmanbey Delilbegović and Pavičević Luka” (Lord Text no. 33; 23, 24, May 26, 1950, 6,119 lines).
  • “The Wedding of Meho, Son of Smail” (Lord Text no. 35; May 23, 1950, 8,488 lines).
  • “Bećiragić Meho” (Lord Text no. 202, August 16, 1951, 3,561 lines). {61|62}

These additional 18,168 lines bring the total lines of epic from Avdo Međedović to 96,723.

The statistics alone are an indication of the value that Milman Parry placed on Avdo as a singer and tell at a glance one of the reasons for this high regard. Avdo could sing songs of about the length of Homer’s Odyssey. An illiterate butcher in a small town of the central Balkans was equaling Homer’s feat, at least in regard to length of song. Parry had actually seen and heard two long epics produced in a tradition of oral epic.

Avdo’s singing of this or any other song was always longer than anyone else’s performance, because he belonged in a tradition of singers who habitually “ornamented” their songs by richness of description, and because he had himself always had a fondness for this “ornamentation.” His technique, and that of his fellows, was expansion from within by the addition of detail and by fullness of narrative. Catalogues are extended and also amplified by description of men and horses; journeys are described in detail; assemblies abound in speeches.

Avdo culled his “ornaments,” as he himself called them, from all the singers whom he heard. But he did not stop there. He admitted that he thought up some of them himself; and this is true. He told me once that he “saw in his mind every piece of trapping that he put on a horse. ” He visualized the scene or the action, and from that mental image formed a verbal reflection in his song. Avdo’s songs are living proof that the best of oral epic singers are original poets working within the tradition in the {62|63} traditional manner. These texts provide priceless evidence for the theorists in comparative epic studies.

It is impossible here to do more than hint at illustrating this singer’s technique of amplification. The opening scene of “The Wedding of Meho, Son of Smail” is an assembly of the lords of the Turkish Border in the city of Kanidža. In Krauss’s published version this assembly occupies 141 lines; Avdo’s text has 1,053 lines. The essence of the assembly is that all the lords are merry except young Meho. The head of the assembly asks him why he is sad, and he replies that he alone of all of them has nothing of which to boast. He has been pampered by his father and uncle and not allowed to engage in raids across the border. He will desert to the enemy, he declares. The lords then decide that they will send him to Budapest, there to be invested by the vizier with the position of authority which his uncle has held up to this moment. The uncle is old and agrees that the time has come to give over his authority to his nephew. The lords prepare a petition to the vizier, deliver it to Meho, and the assembly is dissolved. All this is in the songbook version published by Krauss.

Avdo gains length by adding much description such as the following:

As you cast your eyes about the gathering to see which hero is the best, one stands out above them all, even Mehmed, the young son of Smailaga. What a countenance has this falcon! He is a youth of not yet twenty years, and one would say and swear by Allah and the Rosary that the radiance from his two cheeks is like sunshine and that from his brow like unto the light of the moon. The black queue that covered his white neck was like a raven that had perched there. He was the only child his mother had borne; she had cared lovingly for his queue and bound his locks over his forehead, and her son’s thick dark locks curled around his fez. His mother had strung them with pearls, which completely covered the strands. His eyes were black as a falcon’s, his teeth fine as a demon’s. His forehead was like a good-luck charm, his eyebrows thick as leeches. His eyelashes were so long that they covered his two cheeks even as swallows’ wings. Beard had he none, nor yet moustache. One would say that he was a fair mountain spirit. The boy’s raiment was of Venetian stuff; his blouse of choice silk embroidered with gold. There was, indeed, more gold than silken fabric. His doublet was neither woven nor forged, but was hand embroidered with pure gold. The seams of his cloak were covered with richly embroidered gold, and golden branches were twined around his right sleeve. The young man’s arm was as thick as any other fine hero’s slender waist. The youth’s breeches were of white Venetian velvet, embroidered with pure {63|64} gold, with braided snakes on the thighs. The whole glistened like the moon. He wore two Tripolitan sashes about his waist and over them the belt of arms of Venetian gold. In the belt were two small Venetian pistols which fire without flint, all plated with gold. Their sights were of precious stones, and the handles were inlaid with pearl. His Persian sword with hilt of yellow ducats was at his left side in its scabbard inlaid with pearls. Its blade was deadly steel. As the sword lay thrown across the youth’s thighs one would say a serpent was sleeping there. A golden breastplate embraced the young hero, two-pieced, reaching to his white neck. Each half of the breastplate contained an even half pound of gold, and on them both was the same inscription. That breastplate had been sent by the sultan to the alajbey, Smail the Pilgrim, and to his true son; for that house had held the alajbeyship for full forty-seven years by charter of Sulejman the Magnificent, by his imperial charter and appointment.

Avdo also adds new action to the assembly, action that indicates that not only is the singer’s eye observing the scene but that his mind and sensitivity to heroic feelings penetrate within the hearts of the men depicted on this animated tapestry. For example, the head of the assembly, Hasan pasha Tiro, notices that the young man is sad, and the pasha is disturbed.

He could not bear to see the young man’s sadness, nor could he ask the lad before all the beys to speak out the cause of his sorrow. So Hasan pasha leaped to his feet and called Cifrić Hasanaga: “Come here with me a moment, Hasanaga, that I may have a word with you!” Hasanaga went to Hasan pasha and sat beside him. Then Hasan pasha whispered to Hasanaga: “Hasanaga, golden plume, my heart breaks within my breast to see your brother’s son, Mehmedaga, son of Smail the Pilgrim. All the rest are merry. He alone is sad. You go and sit beside him. Do not question him immediately, lest he notice that I called you to me for that purpose and be angry at me. “

Then Hasanaga obeyed the pasha and took his seat beside Meho, the son of Smail the Pilgrim. The cursed cups flew around, and the aghas drank; for they had no cares, and no one noticed that that hero was unhappy. Since he has all he wants, why should the young man be sad? A half hour passed. Then Cifrić Hasanaga leaped to his feet. “O pasha, and all you beys, have patience a moment!” They all stopped and looked at the agha. Cifrić Hasanaga knelt and then asked his brother’s son Mehmed: “My Mehmed, honor of our house! Why do you sit there so sad in the company of the imperial Hasan pasha Tiro and the fifty warriors of the sultan?” {64|65}

This little play between the pasha and Meho’s uncle is original with Avdo; I have found it nowhere else. And it is a stroke of real genius. Only a poet who lived what he was telling would have thought of it. Avdo was the kind of person who would have done just what the pasha did. Such additions do much more, of course, then add length to the song; they make the characters in the story, in this case a usually stiff and stereotyped chief of the assembly, feeling, breathing human beings. Such touches are Homeric.

Another technique that Avdo uses very effectively in gaining length, breadth, and depth of song is the time-honored “flashback.” We have seen something of it in the comment on the breastplate of Meho that had been sent by the sultan to Smail and to his son. Avdo develops this theme later in the long speech of Meho’s uncle to the youth after the boy has said that he will run away to the enemy.

When you were born, your head rested on a pillowed couch, your brow fell upon gold, and your locks were strewn with pearls. My dear son, when you were born from the pearly lap of your mother, in every city up and down the Border, in Bosnia, Hercegovina, and Hungary, cannon roared and beys and aghas held festive gatherings in honor of your father Smail and me, your uncle. . . . They sent word to the sultan, and the sultan sent a firman to your father and to me, your uncle: “I congratulate you both on the birth of your son! May his life be long and honorable, and may the alajbeyship fall to him as it did to his father and to his uncle Hasan!” Nor, my son, did we pick a name for you at random, but we gave you the name of imperial Mehdija, Mehdija, the imperial pontiff. That you might live longer, we brought in three women besides your mother to nurse you, in order that you might receive more nourishment, grow more in a short time and attain greater strength. We could scarcely wait for you to grow up, so four nurses gave you suck, first your mother and then the other three.

Day followed day, and after four years had passed, my son, you had grown well, in God’s faith, and were as large as any other lad of eight years. Then we began your schooling and brought the imam to your feet. We could not bear to send you away from home to school, and the imam taught you at our own house. You studied until you were eight years old, my son, and if you had studied yet another year, you would have been a hafiz. Then we took you from school.

When you were twelve, another firman came from Stambol asking me and your father, Smailaga, “Smailaga, how is the boy? Will he be like his father and his uncle Hasan?” And we boasted about you to the sultan: “O {65|66} sovereign, most humble greetings! It is likely that the boy will be good; he will not fall much short of us.”

When your thirteenth year dawned, my son, the imperial chamberlain came from the halls of Sultan Sulejman, bringing an Egyptian chestnut horse for you, one that had been bought from the Shah of Egypt. Golden-winged, its mane reached to its hoofs. Then a two-year-old, it was like a horse of seven. The trappings were fashioned in Afghanistan especially for the chestnut steed when it grew up. The saddle was decorated with coral; the upper portion was woven of pure gold …

It is now nineteen years, my dear son, since that day when you were born, and this is the ninth year since the chestnut steed with its trappings came to you as a gift … We hid the horse from you and made a special stall for him in the side of the stable. There is no other horse with him. Two servants are in the stable and four torches burn the whole night long beside your horse. They exercise him within the stable. They groom him four times every twenty-four hours; not as any other horse is groomed, but with a scarf of silk. You should see how well-nourished the horse is, even though he has seen neither sun nor moon, my dear son, for nine years …

Among the clothes which have come for you is a breastplate covered with pearls; its silk is from Damascus … And a Persian sword was sent, which had been forged especially for you, my son, of fiery Persian steel tempered in angry poison, which cuts fierce armor. Its scabbard is decorated with pearls and its hilt with diamonds. When it was finished, they sent the sword to Mecca by an Arab messenger, who delivered it to the sheikh of the Kaaba. The sheikh inscribed it with a passage from the Sacred Book and then blessed it. No ill can befall him who wields it. The common ranks will flee in terror before him. In Mecca, with the imperial blessing, they named the sword “The Persian Pilgrim,” because it was made for you in Persia and taken on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Woe to him who stands in its way! On its hilt are three imperial seals and the two seals of the sheikh of Mecca, my son.

Upon the fur cap which was sent to you, my son, there are twelve plumes. Neither your father nor I has such a cap; how then would any other, except you to whom the sultan presented it! …

I have quoted at some length not only to illustrate Avdo’s use of a Homeric type of flashback, but also to emphasize the various attributes {66|67} which he has given his hero, young Mehmed. They are not bestowed upon him in any other version of this song that I have found; they seem to me to be Avdo’s gift to Meho. Not, of course, that Avdo invented the precocious childhood, the magic horse, the wonder-working sword, and the protective breastplate and cap. These are perhaps in their essences inheritances from Slavic tradition, later reinforced by Byzantine and Ottoman influences. The glitter and elegance remind one of Byzantium and the Sublime Porte. They can be found in the songs of other poets, although Avdo, it must be admitted, describes them more fully than I have seen elsewhere.

Avdo belonged to a tradition that had been in the hands of fine singers for many generations. Without such a tradition behind and around him he could not have had the materials of song. He learned his art from skilled men; first and of most lasting importance from his father. Avdo’s father had been deeply influenced by a singer of his generation whose reputation seems to have been prodigious, Ćor Huso Husein of Kolašin. We know something of this singer not only from Avdo, who heard about him from his father, but also from other singers in Bijelo Polje and Novi Pazar who learned songs from Ćor Huso. From the material in the Parry Collection we shall some day be able to reconstruct part of his repertory, at least; and probably also his handling of specific themes. His most distinctive characteristic as a singer was his ability to “ornament” a song. Of this we are told by all who knew him. Avdo was a worthy student of the school of Ćor Huso. {67|68}

With Avdo the song, the story itself and the telling of it, was paramount. He had exceptional powers of endurance, but his voice was not especially good. He was hoarse, and the goiter on the left side of his neck could not have helped. Nor was his playing of the gusle in any way of virtuoso quality. He told Parry that he learned the songs first and then the musical accompaniment. His singing ran ahead of his fingers on the instrument; thoughts and words rushed to his mind for expression, and there were times when he simply ran the bow slowly back and forth over the strings while he poured forth the tale in what seemed to be prose of lightning-like rapidity but was actually verse. He was not a musician, but a poet and singer of tales.

Parry in 1935 made trial of Avdo’s ability to learn a song that he had never heard before. Among the singers from whom Parry collected while Avdo was dictating or resting was Mumin Vlahovljak of Plevlje. Parry arranged that Avdo was present and listening while Mumin sang “Bećiragić Meho,” a song that Parry had adroitly determined was unknown to Avdo. Mumin was a good singer and his song was a fine one, running to 2,294 lines. When it was over, Parry turned to Avdo and asked him if he could now sing the same song, perhaps even sing it better than Mumin, who accepted the contest good-naturedly and sat by in his turn to listen. Avdo, indeed, addressed himself in his song to his “colleague” (kolega) Muminaga. And the pupil’s version of the tale reached to 6,313 lines, nearly three times the length of his “original,” on the first singing!

Avdo used the same technique of expansion from within in ornamenting “Bećiragić Meho” that he used in “Smailagić Meho.” This song also opens with an assembly of the lords of the Border. Bećiragić Meho leaves the assembly at line 1,320 in Mumin’s version, at line 3,977 in Avdo’s. There are similarities between the gathering at the beginning of “Smailagić Meho” and that which begins “Bećiragić Meho.” In the midst of the lords in both instances is a young man who is unhappy. But the head of the assembly in “Bećiragić Meho,” Mustajbey of the Lika, unlike Hasan pasha Tiro, is a proud and overbearing man; and Bećiragić Meho himself is at the foot of the assembly, poor, despised. As we should expect, Avdo’s telling is distinguished by richness of description and by such similes as, referring to the unhappy Meho, “His heart was wilted like a rose in the hands of a rude bachelor.” But when a messenger arrives with a letter for Meho and Meho has to announce his own presence, because Mustajbey is ashamed to acknowledge him, Meho {68|69} lashes out at the head of the assembly in moral indignation; and Avdo “ornaments” the theme of Meho’s reproach far beyond Mumin’s telling of it. Avdo has Meho remind Mustajbey that he has riches and power now, but everything comes in time; time builds towers and time destroys them. Meho said that he, too, had once been of a well-to-do family, but time and destiny had deprived him of all. Avdo’s earnestness, his philosophizing and moralizing, have a personal note. As we said earlier, Avdo had seen the Turkish Empire fall; and just before our arrival in Bijelo Polje, his own house had been burned to the ground. His ornamentation is not mere prettiness, nor trite sayings, but words of wisdom from personal experience.

Avdo has made two minor changes in the action of the song up to this ‘point that are worth noting as characteristic of his artistry. His sense of the dramatic has caused him to withhold Bećiragić Meho’s identity—even though, of course, the audience is perfectly aware from the start who the unidentified young man is—until Meho himself rises to reproach Mustajbey. Even more interesting, however, is the way in which Avdo has prepared us for Mustajbey’s attitude. In Mumin’s version the messenger arrives, inquires if he is in Udbina, asks to have Mustajbey pointed out to him, does obeisance to the bey and then speaks. Avdo’s handling of the arrival of the messenger is somewhat different. The messenger is seen from afar; Mustajbey sends his standard-bearers to meet him; they bring him before the aghas and beys and he asks if he is in Kanidža (Avdo has changed the place). Mustajbey, rather than Halil in Mumin’s version, answers, and the messenger, noting that Mustajbey is the most honored man in the assembly, asks his name and rank. Mustajbey replies with his name and a list of all the places over which he rules. The messenger then does obeisance and speaks, beginning with flattery of Mustajbey, praising his fame. This is typical ornamentation on Avdo’s part, and yet it emphasizes Mustajbey’s vainglory.

These are but samples of Avdo’s methods in changing and expanding the songs that he has heard. He does not, one should stress, gain length by adding one song to another. His long songs provide no solace to the theorists who have held that long epics are made of shorter ballads strung together. Avdo’s technique is similar to Homer’s. It is true that some singers, when pressed to sing a long song, add one song to another and mix and combine songs in various ways. This is, however, a process that good singers look down upon and do not practice. {69|70}

Avdo in 1935, when he was already sixty years of age, maintained that he had been at the height of his powers when he was in his forties. We have seen a glimpse of the quality of this talented singer in his sixties and can only guess at his excellence twenty years earlier. We should do well not to minimize the extraordinary feat that he performed when he was in his eighties. For at least ten years he had sung very little. He was weak and ill in 1950 and 1951, and, alas, the circumstances of collecting were far from ideal. I had very little time, and working with a singer like Avdo requires leisure. Yet, even under adverse conditions, he sang and recited two long songs totaling more than 14,000 lines in about a week’s time! When he finished the song of “Osmanbey Delibegović and Pavičević Luka,” he apologized that it was shorter; he had cut down some of the description of the army. He was indeed unwell, and we took him to the doctor, who was very kind. Six thousand lines is still a sizable song. And the 8,000 and more lines of his “Smailagić Meho” in 1950 was a prodigious undertaking which few, if any, younger men could have accomplished.

His description of young Meho was shorter than that quoted earlier, but the flashback to the birth of Meho, his precocious childhood, and the gifts of the sultan, the horse, helmet, breastplate, and pilgrim sword were not forgotten. They were not in the same place in the song, however. Avdo now put them into the mouth of Meho’s father after the boy had returned with his uncle to their home to inform Smail of what had happened. As Smail is about to send Meho to his mother to prepare for the journey to Budapest, Smail tells him about the horse and weapons and clothes which have been kept for him. It is a fitting place for the theme.

Perhaps the most astonishing of Avdo’s accomplishments was the reciting of the song of “Bećiragić Meho” (not to be confused with Smailagić Meho) in 1951. I have already described the circumstance under which he learned and first sang this song in 1935. He assured me that he had not sung it since that time, nor had he heard it in the intervening years. Sixteen years and five days exactly had passed. There is some confusion toward the beginning of the 1951 text; one can feel Avdo probing his memory. He was straining to prove himself; but most of all, I believe, he sang it for Milman Parry and Nikola Vujnović, in memory of a peaceful, sunny day so many years before. Before reciting the tale he recalled how Parry had asked him to sing the song; how he had asked to be excused, because he did not wish to take honor away {70|71} from Mumin. Avdo knew that his song would be longer and more ornate. “The professor said, ‘whatever is not a sin is not shameful,’ so I found Mumin, and embraced him and took his hand ‘You will not be hurt, because my song will be much, much longer?’ ‘No, Avdo, I beg you as my son—he was older than I—I will not be hurt.’ And the professor listened, like this professor, and Mumin sat there, and I sang. ” Then Avdo remembered and added “Muminaga and the professor told me that he had learned that song from Ćor Husein [Ćor Huso]; and Ćor Husein was an excellent singer in these parts.”

From the past the song was unwound and the tale emerged. Its essence, however, was from a time long before Avdo and Mumin and Ćor Huso; for more than half of this song takes place in the assembly with which it opens, as Bećiragić Meho tells of his wanderings and adventures, his trials and sufferings which have brought him to his present sorry state. To those who have ears to hear, Homer is singing of Odysseus in the court of Alcinous, recounting his wanderings and the misfortunes which had brought him to the shores of Phaeacia.

On May 21, 1939, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Nikola Vujnović completed his review of his transcription from the records of the words of Avdo’s song “Sultan Selim Captures Kandija.” He wrote this note at the bottom of the page: “Onda kad ne bude Avda među živima, neće se naći niko ko bi bio ovakav za pjevanje“; “When Avdo is no longer among the living, there will be no one like him in singing.” He has left behind him, however, songs that will be remembered in days to come. {71|72}


[ back ] * Published in the Journal of American Folklore 69 (1956), 320-330. Reprinted by permission of the American Anthropological Association. Not for further reproduction.

[ back ] 1. Međedović, 1974a, 1974b, and 1980.

[ back ] 2. The information concerning Avdo’s life comes from the following recorded conversations in the Milman Parry Collection, Text nos. 12,436 and 12,443, Widener Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. These conversations are also a source for our knowledge of the singers from whom he learned his songs. For more on Avdo see David E. Bynum’s translation of conversations concerning “The Singer’s Life and Times” in Međedović, 1974a, 37-78; the original texts were published in Međedović, 1974b, 1-54.

[ back ] 3. For details of the reading of the poem to Avdo see the text of the conversation with Hivzo Džafić who did the reading (Međedović, 1974b, 51-54; English translation in Međedović, 1974a, 76-78).

[ back ] 4. Međedović, 1974a, 81-82, 1974b, lines 177-250; 1974a, 83, 1974b, lines 292-332; 1974a, 89-91, 1974b, lines 727-881.

[ back ] 5. See Mavrogordato, 1956. Avdo’s song of Smailagić Meho should be carefully studied in its relationship to medieval Greek epic in general and to Digenis Akritas in particular.