The Singer of Tales

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Chapter 5. Songs and the Song

As long as one thought of the oral poet as a singer who carried in his head a song in more or less the exact form in which he had learned it from another singer, as long as one used for investigation ballads and comparatively short epics, the question of what an oral song is could not arise. It was, we assumed, essentially like any other poem; its text was more or less fixed. But when we look more closely at the process of oral composition and come to appreciate more fully the creative role of the individual singer in carrying forward the tradition, we must begin to query our concept of a song.

Any particular song is different in the mouth of each of its singers. If we consider it in the thought of a single singer during the years in which he sings it, we find that it is different at different stages in his career. Its clearness of outline will depend upon how many times he sings it; whether it is an established part of his repertory or merely a song which he sings occasionally. The length of the song is also important, because a short song will naturally tend to become more stable the more it is sung,

In some respects the larger themes and the song are alike. Their outward form and their specific content are ever changing. Yet there is a basic idea or combination of ideas that is fairly stable. We can say, then, that a song is the story about a given hero, but its expressed forms are multiple, and each of these expressed forms or tellings of the story is itself a separate song, in its own right, authentic and valid as a song unto itself. We must distinguish then two concepts of song in oral poetry. One is the general idea of the story, which we use when we speak in larger terms, for example, of the song of the wedding of Smailagić Meho, which actually includes all singings of it. The other concept of song is that of a particular performance or text, such as Avdo Međedović’s song, “The Wedding of Smailagić Meho,” dictated during the month of July, 1935.

Our real difficulty arises from the fact that, unlike the oral poet, we are not accustomed to thinking in terms of fluidity. We find it difficult to grasp something that is multiform. It seems to us necessary to construct an ideal text or to seek an original, and we remain dissatisfied with an ever-changing phenomenon. I believe that once we know the facts of oral composition we must cease trying to find an original of any traditional song. From one point of view each performance is an original. From another point of view it is impossible to retrace the work of generations of singers to that moment when some singer first sang a particular song.

Indeed, we should be fully aware that even had we this “original,” let us say, of the wedding of Smailagić Meho, we would not have the original of {100|101} the basic story, that is, the song of the young man who goes forth into the world to win his spurs. We would have only the application of this story to the hero Meho. Each performance is the specific song, and at the same time it is the generic song. The song we are listening to is “the song”; for each performance is more than a performance; it is a re-creation. Following this line of thinking, we might term a singer’s first singing of a song as a creation of the song in his experience. Both synchronically and historically there would be numerous creations and re-creations of the song. This concept of the relationship between “songs” (performances of the same specific or generic song) is closer to the truth than the concept of an “original” and “variants.” In a sense each performance is “an” original, if not “the” original.

The truth of the matter is that our concept of “the original,” of “the song,” simply makes no sense in oral tradition. To us it seems so basic, so logical, since we are brought up in a society in which writing has fixed the norm of a stable first creation in art, that we feel there must be an “original” for everything. The first singing in oral tradition does not coincide with this concept of the “original.” We might as well be prepared to face the fact that we are in a different world of thought, the patterns of which do not always fit our cherished terms. In oral tradition the idea of an original is illogical.

It follows, then, that we cannot correctly speak of a “variant,” since there is no “original” to be varied! Yet songs are related to one another in varying degrees; not, however, in the relationship of variant to original, in spite of the recourse so often made to an erroneous concept of “oral transmission”; for “oral transmission,” “oral composition,” “oral creation,” and “oral performance” are all one and the same thing. Our greatest error is to attempt to make “scientifically” rigid a phenomenon that is fluid.

But if we are pursuing a will-o’-the-wisp when we seek an original, we are deluded by a mirage when we try to construct an ideal form of any given song. If we take all the extant texts of the song of Smailagić Meho and from them extract all the common elements, we have constructed something that never existed in reality or even in the mind of any of the singers of that song. We have simply then the common elements in this restricted number of texts, nothing more, nothing less.

It seems to me highly significant that the words “author” and “original” have either no meaning at all in oral tradition or a meaning quite different from the one usually assigned to them. The anonymity of folk epic is a fiction, because the singer has a name. We have created for ourselves in regard to both these terms problems that are not of any major importance.

It should be clear from the foregoing that the author of an oral epic, that is, the text of a performance, is the performer, the singer before us. Given normal eyesight on the part of the spectator, he is not multiple, but single. The. author of any of our texts, unless an editor has tampered with it, is the man who dictated, sang, chanted, or otherwise gave expression to {101|102} it. A performance is unique; it is a creation, not a reproduction, and it can therefore have only one author.

Actually, only the man with writing seems to worry about this, just as only he looks for the nonexistent, illogical, and irrelevant “original.” Singers deny that they are the creators of the song. They learned it from other singers. We know now that both are right, each according to his meaning of “song.” To attempt to find the first singer of a song is as futile as to try to discover the first singing. And yet, just as the first singing could not be called the “original,” so the first man to sing a song cannot be considered its “author,” because of the peculiar relationship, already discussed, between his singing and all subsequent singings. From that point of view a song has no “author” but a multiplicity of authors, each singing being a creation, each singing having its own single “author.” This is, however, a very different concept of multiple authorship from that, or more properly those, in general use among Homerists.

Change and stability—these are the two elements of the traditional process that we must seek to comprehend. What is it that changes and why and how? What remains stable and why? In order to answer these questions, we should consider three groups of thematic analyses of songs, reports, as it were, on three groups of experiments. The first contains experiments on transmission of a song from one singer to another, the second illustrates the differences in a single singer’s performances of a given song at brief intervals of time, and the third shows what happens to a song in a singer’s repertory over a longer period, namely sixteen or seventeen years.

These changes in detail in Ugljanin’s singing of the wedding of Relja {102|103} of Pazar are minor, and perhaps of no great significance; but the changes that Međedović made in Vlahovljak’s song of Bećiragić Meho attract our attention (Parry 12471, 12468; thematic analysis in Appendix I). The most striking difference between the two is, of course, the degree and quality of expansion in Avdo’s performance, from 2294 lines to 6313 lines, nearly three times the length of Mumin’s song. Naturally such expansion involves the addition of many details, and we have already seen in the previous chapter the kind of changes that are normal in transmission on the level of the individual theme. The learner usually employs his own form of any given theme rather than the form that he has heard from the other singer. Sometimes the singer who is learning has to restrain himself from doing this, that is, from following his own theme rather than another’s. If he did not take care, he would fall into self-contradiction later. Avdo is trapped in this way briefly, and not very significantly, at the beginning of theme 5 (see Appendix I). According to his habit, when a letter is delivered, the recipient opens it and reads it and the head of the assembly asks about the letter. This Avdo causes to happen in our story, forgetting that the messenger is waiting for a reward; momentarily Avdo is carried on by habit and for a few lines neglects the theme of paying the messenger, a really important theme in this song, a distinctive part of it. Later Avdo has to repeat the theme of reading the letter, thus causing a minor inconsistency.

There was something also in the story of Meho’s capture of Nikola Vodogazović (theme 7) that surprised Avdo. He tells us that he was surprised; that is to say, he underlines the fact that Meho went to Janok, not in disguise, but in the clothes of a Turkish border warrior. Avdo emphasizes this at the time of telling, and even makes it the lever for introducing the repetition of this part of the tale-within-a-tale when Meho stands before the vizier in Budim. Avdo underlines this lack of disguise, because expeditions to Janok are generally for rescue, not for capture, and they are accomplished in disguise. The tavern maid usually recognizes the hero as a blood brother by tokens of some kind, and aids in the rescue. Everything in Avdo’s experience of the tradition at this point indicates that the hero should be in disguise, and Avdo must restrain himself from disguising him. He indicates his problem and his feeling about it; yet he follows his model.

Indeed, after the story-within-a-story, Avdo is still worried about the question of disguise; he still feels that he must “correct” Mumin’s telling. When assistance is offered to Meho from others in the assembly (theme 8), Mumin is content with Meho’s wearing the clothes and riding the horse of his uncle, or of Halil, or of Bećir; when one wears another’s clothes, one is that man for the moment and is thus disguised. Avdo did not accept this method, and on Meho’s second journey to Janok, Avdo is determined that he will be in disguise. The disguise is proper now, anyway, because he is going on a rescue mission, not one of capture. Therefore, in Avdo’s singing, {103|104} when Meho’s uncle offers help to the youth, he states specifically that Meho must this time disguise himself and his horse. In the case of Halil’s оffеr, Halil says merely that his sister will dress Meho as she does him when he goes on such raids. Later the dress is specified as that of a Viennese standard-bearer (theme 9).

Disguise must eventually involve recognition. The sense of “disguise” which must at one time have belonged to the borrowed horse and armor as we find it in Mumin’s song has disappeared; so that when Meho in Halil’s clothes and riding Halil’s famous strawberry roan goes to Jela’s tavern in Janok, she immediately recognizes him. There is no need for a recognition scene. In fact, all feel that Meho is not in disguise. But Avdo has restored to the theme a consciousness of disguise by adding a second disguising, the clothing and armor of the enemy country, in addition to borrowed horse and armor. The consequent recognition by Jela, the tavern maid, is not by elaborate signs; Meho simply tells her who he is. Yet one of the elements of recognition, one of those artifacts that constitute stage properties for such scenes, the musical instrument, together with a song, is present in Avdo’s tale. Oddly enough the instrument is in the hands of the maid, not of the hero; the significant fact is that both it and the song are present at this moment in the tale. They were not in Avdo’s model but have been added by him to the song as he heard it.

Another kind of change illustrated in this same experiment with Mumin and Avdo is concerned with a shift in the order of events. We have seen that Mumin listed three оffеrs of assistance from members of the assembly; one from each of the following: uncle Ahmet, Halil, and Bećir, son of Mustajbey. Avdo lists only the first two. What is involved here is the boundary between themes. In Mumin’s story the theme of assembly can be said to end at line 1320, when Meho departed for Kladuša. The scene in Kladuša follows, after which the story shifts back again to Udbina, Bećir, and Mustajbey; the shift is skillfully accomplished by having Meho pass through Udbina as he leaves for Janok, and by describing the aghas as watching him depart. The theme of assembly could also be said not to end until after the conversation between Bećir and his father; it might be thought of rather as being interrupted by the scene in Kladuša. Such a framing is one of the common methods of indicating concurrent actions. Avdo’s technique is somewhat different at this point. With him the assembly theme does not end when Meho departs for Kladuša but continues through the conversation between Bećir and Mustajbey and the summoning of the Border. Then the scene is transferred to Kladuša, whence the hero departs directly for Janok without going by way of Udbina, or at least without any mention of that town.

A similar change is found toward the end of the song (theme 13). In this case, however, it is Avdo who interrupts the final scene before the great battle (the scene in which Meho leaves Jela and goes to join Anđelica at {104|105} the crossroads) by returning to Udbina and to the Turks preparing to go to the assistance of Meho. Mumin had included the raising of the border army at the end of the conversation of Bećir with his father, Mustajbey (theme 10), but its scope was not so great as that of Avdo.

We have seen in this song changes stemming from addition of details and description, expansion by ornamentation, changes in action (such as those concerned with the disguise) that seem to stem from the tension of essentials preserving certain conglomerates or configurations of themes, changes in the order of appearance of the dramatis personae, shifting of themes from one place to another, forming new balances and patterns. Yet the story has remained essentially the same; the changes have not been of the kind that distort the· tale. If anything, they have enhanced it.

In the two experiments so far discussed the “pupil” sang immediately after hearing the song from the “teacher.” We have the exact text of both performances. In other instances in the Parry material, the “pupil’s” text was taken down or recorded some period, usually many years, after the learning, and in only one case do we have, by chance, the exact text from which the learning was done. This is the case of Avdo Međedović and the twelve thousand-line dictated text of “The Wedding of Smailagić Meho” (Parry 6840). This remarkable song merits special comment. Expansion by ornamentation is obvious in this case throughout the song; the first theme, of which we have written in the previous chapter, illustrates this ornamentation extremely well. We have already observed that the description or the hero is not purely decoration, but is rather especially meaningful. Here Meho is the hero born of old age, the darling of family and empire, owner of special gifts, horse, sword, armor, and clothing. Avdo has emphasized, indeed brought into significant prominence, these characteristics of Meho by his expansion of this part of the theme.

There is one change that may have been brought about simply by Avdo’s own personal sensitivity to human relations in a heroic society. In the song book the question as to why Meho is sad was posed by the uncle without any prompting by the head of the assembly. Avdo represents the leader as calling the uncle and suggesting that he interrogate the youth, with the caution that it not be done immediately but only after a short period, lest the boy be embarrassed.

As in “Béciragić Meho,” so in “Smailagić Meho,” there are several cases of a change in the order of events. Thus, in the song book Meho talks first with the maiden in the coach at the Glina, hears her story, and then he and Osman fight with the guards. In Avdo’s telling, Meho and Osman first fight with the guards and then Meho talks with Fata and hears her story. Moreover, Avdo has Fata ask for Meho’s identity, and then has Meho ask Fata for her hand in marriage. She replies that her mother has told her she was destined for him anyway. There is none of this in the song book version, not at this point in the tale at any rate. In the song book, Meho {105|106} asks Fata’s mother for her daughter’s hand when he first meets her in Budim bewailing the fate of her husband and child. He offers to give her good news of Fata, if she will give her to him. Avdo’s version of the meeting between Meho and Fata’s mother is somewhat more dramatic—even melodramatic! The mother is about to leap from the window to her death in the courtyard when Meho shouts to her that her daughter has returned with him.

Avdo has also added a detail that is worth noting, because he makes use of it again later in the story, namely the letter that Osman found on the body of the captain of the guard who was taking Fata by coach to General Petar. A letter or some sign proving betrayal is a not uncommon theme (cf. the cross falling from the turban of the pontiff in the story of the capture of Bagdad, I, p. 85). In this case the letter is used later when Meho and Osman are back with Smail in Kanidža to prove that they are not lying about the vizier’s treachery.

Surely one of Avdo’s most attractive qualities as a singer of tales—and he has many—is his sense of heroic ethic. In his elaboration of the theme of Meho’s departure from Budim, he shows Meho presented by Fata’s mother with two proposals, each of which has something to recommend it. First, Fata’s mother suggests that he take Fata back with him immediately lest the vizier capture her during his absence. This is sensible, but he refuses on grounds that he does not wish the vizier to think him afraid. The second suggestion is that he stay with Fata a month to enjoy her love lest he be killed in the battle that is sure to come. This suggestion was taken from the song book, which merely stated, however, that Meho refused to stay overnight. This too Meho refuses as dishonorable.

Less attractive to us as expansion, but typical of epic, especially of dictated oral epic, is the extended catalogue. Avdo pulls out all the stops! Those who have maintained that the catalogue of ships in the Iliad must be a historical document of considerable accuracy and antiquity should pay close attention, I believe, to the “accuracy” with which Avdo has reproduced the song book! Had his sense of historicity been at all strong, he would at least have tried to follow the book with care. The book and his friend who could read were available, and he most certainly could have had this part memorized “cold.” Obviously this did not concern him. His catalogue here is essentially the same catalogue as in his other songs! Note that the list of chieftains who arrive in response to the invitations contains names of some individuals who were not mentioned in the invitations themselves.

Avdo has felt it necessary to relate the final battle, or battles, at considerable length, giving special care to the attack on Budim. It is noteworthy that he has rejected the facts even of the song book story here. Avdo rejects Mustajbey as the captor of the vizier and as the new pasha. Moreover, after the battle has been described, Avdo has chosen to draw together with completeness many of the threads of the story otherwise left hanging. The {106|107} sultan is informed of what has happened, new administrators and rulers are appointed, Fata’s father and others are brought back from exile, and the wedding is finally held. The song book version left it to be taken for granted that all these details would have been worked out; Avdo has simply told in full what the other left to the imagination.

Making the imagination articulate is one of Homer’s secrets also, and the following passage from Avdo’s song, presented here as further illustration of his technique of expansion and elaboration, is reminiscent of Telemachus’ journey in the Odyssey and not unhomeric in quality. On the second night of their journey to Budim, Meho and Osman stop at Knez Vujadin’s house.

The corresponding section in the song book, Smailagić Meho, Mostar, 1925, tells of the stop at the house of Toroman Vuk and covers eleven lines (194–204):

They drove on their battle steeds and travelled that second day. They made their lodging far off in the small village of Veselica with the Vlah, Toroman Vuk, There they will spend the second night, and they will be lodged graciously, and graciously received, and graciously served. Then in the morning they will arise early. They pressed forward through the border country.

Here is Avdo’s account:

They flew over the green plain even as a star in summer across the sky. They passed villages and crossed mountains. They travelled a whole day until nightfall, and they covered as much of Bosnia as they had planned to that day. They had come to the dwelling of Knez Vujadin. The Knez was at home with his wife and his two sons. They were looking from the window when the two imperial dragons came in sight, all glittering with gold and glorious in their plumes. The horses beneath them were in full panoply. Both heroes were like unto imperial pashas, and much better riders were they. Their array was much better than a pasha’s or even a vizier’s, or even, indeed, a great imperial general’s. The Knez’s two sons flew to the window and pressed their foreheads against it. When they saw, they wondered, and they cried out to their father: “O father, here is a wonderful sight that we have never seen before! Here are two heroes on two golden horses! They must be either pashas or viziers.”

When the Knez looked and saw the son of Smail the Pilgrim with his plumed cap and the feather of an alajbey on it, and beneath him his winged horse, and when he saw the standard-bearer, that mighty hero, on his fine steed, then did Vujadin feel distressed, for here was the son of the Pilgrim in person. He recognized him because of Osman and his white horse, for all the Border knew Osman, and all the Kingdoms too. Then said Vujadin to his sons: “Run quickly to open the courtyard gate; open both portals wide before the two imperial dragons! Give them greeting and stand at attention, as if they were pashas or viziers, for to you they are indeed pashas and viziers. Tonight you shall neither sleep nor sit in their presence, but you must cross your arms upon your breast and speak no word, but serve these heroes in silence. Show that you honor them highly, both for my sake and for the prestige of your house, that in the years when I am no more you may bring it good repute!”

The Knez’s two sons watched, and then they ran even as two mountain wolves and opened the courtyard gate. The two heroes drove in their horses. They said: “Good evening!” and the youths in the courtyard replied, and bowed low before them. Then they embraced the youths. Old Vujadin came flying from the house to the bottom of {107|108} the stairs. He shouted greeting to the heroes and took them by their lordly hands. His two sons seized the horses by the bridle and walked them up and down. Then Lady Vujadin took the two spears from the saddlehorn and carried them to the upper chamber of the house to the master’s room, where but few guests are admitted. That room was kept for such heroes as these. It was strewn with Venetian cloth, and round about were silk couches and fine pillows covered with white silk and embroidered in the center with gold. They parted the curtained doorway of the room and entered. Then came his two dear daughters-in-law, like unto two white mountain spirits. They took the men’s boots and socks and the swords from their waists. When the two youths were seated, they gazed at the ornaments in the room, at the cushions on the couch, all silk and embroidered with gold. In the middle of the room was a table spread with Venetian cloth and on it a metal platter heaped with all sorts of food; and on the table were coffee-urns with golden handles, and cups of crystal. Next to this was a mother-of-pearl table with a six-winged cask holding forty stone, two pitchers adorned with mother-of-pearl, and four three-liter glasses covered with a silk napkin. Around the table were four chairs…

[Glasses are filled, and talk begins. Vujadin says to Meho:]

“What is happening on the Austrian border? How are the lords of the Border? Do you still lead raiding bands over the hills, raiding bands and larger armies? Do you reach even as far as the Austrian Empire, broadening the borders of Sulejman’s kingdom? Have the young men become better than their elders? What think you, Mehmed; are the old men better than the young?” And Mehmed answered: “Thoughts differ, but mine shall ever be that the old men are the better.”…

In the meantime the boys had brought back the tired horses from their walk, had taken off the golden saddles and the girths and all the trappings. They sponged the horses and dried their manes with a cloth. Then they covered them with blankets, gave them barley, and waited for the beasts to eat it. They put hay in the mangers, closed the door of the stable, and went into the house to continue to do service. Their hats they left on the pegs, and they stood bareheaded before Mehmed and his standard-bearer Osman…

Finally the couches were spread for steep, and the youths settled comfortably. All night the boys watched over their lords, lest, tired from drink, they should be disturbed and seek either wine or water.

When dawn broke, Osman called to Mehmed: “O Mehmed, we have slept too long.” Vujadin and his sons tried as best they could to persuade their guests to stay longer, but it was of no avail. The Knez’s sons prepared the horses. Meantime the youths were ready and descended to the courtyard. The maidens brought their spears, the boys led out their horses, and the youths mounted. The night had passed and now the day-star shone and dawn unfolded its wings.

Mehmed put his hand into his pocket and gave each of the maidens five gold pieces. But the Knez’s children would not accept them: “No, Mehmed, you shall not pay for your lodgings. This is not an inn or a tavern, but a dwelling for men of breeding.” But Mehmed would not listen: “This is not pay, my children, but a gift of love. Let the girls buy combs and powder!”

Then he rode to the courtyard gate, and behind him Osman on his white stallion, even as a star across a clear sky. Dawn spread its wings and soon the two youths were riding by the cool Klim near Budim, four hours away.

Avdo has gone to great lengths to elaborate this theme and the theme of the other overnight stop on Meho’s journey. There is some evidence to indicate that singers do not ornament unimportant points in their stories. {108|109} Halting places on journeys, scenes of hospitality, both here and in Homer, may deserve the emphasis given them neither because they are realistic pictures of heroic life nor because they are artistically useful in showing passage of time, but because the archetypal journey in epic was of a ceremonial nature and its stages were marked by significant events and meaningful encounters. Perhaps in such changes Avdo is following a tribal and traditional sense of what is important, although he himself would merely claim that he knew how to “ornament” a song.

Certainly not all singers would make the changes that Avdo has. In the Parry Collection there are songs from singers who learned them from printed texts. Their songs, however, are very close to the printed versions, and one realizes that the singer was attempting consciously to memorize or at least to follow closely what was printed. Singers like Avdo, in whom the feeling of the traditional is still strong, make no attempt to memorize, as we know, even when a song is read to them, but singers imbued with the idea that the written text is the proper one strive to keep to it even verbally if possible. With them the tradition is dead or dying. It could be truly said, I believe, that the only way in which they can compensate for their lack of awareness of the tradition, that awareness that we are beginning to see as deeply conservative, religiously maintaining the meaning of a song, is to memorize or attempt to memorize. The true representative of the tradition has other methods of learning, unfamiliar to the nontraditional.

One might expect that when a son learns from his father, whom he hears at an early age and frequently during the most formative years, the song will not vary much if at all in the process of transmission. Although we do not have any texts from direct experiment of son and father at the period of learning, we do have texts at a later period, when the son is grown up and has become a singer in his own right. A study of these texts seems to indicate that the changes in transmission that we found characteristic of the experiments with Ugljanin and Međedović, both mature singers learning from mature singers, are present here as well. Two examples from Kolašin in Montenegro will illustrate these changes.

We have the song of “Čevljanin Rade and the Captain of Spuž” from Antonije Ćetković (Parry 6718), the seventy-year-old father, and also from Milan Ćetković (Parry 6714), the son, aged twenty-two. Both were literate. The year of recording was 1935. The son’s song is shorter than the father’s, 249 lines as compared to 445 lines. The father ornaments more than the son does. We note this from the very beginning as we read the two songs parallel to one another.

Antonije Milan