The Singer of Tales

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Chapter 6. Writing and Oral Tradition

The art of narrative song was perfected, and I use the word advisedly, long before the advent of writing. It had no need of stylus or brush to become a complete artistic and literary medium. Even its geniuses were not straining their bonds, longing to be freed from its captivity, eager for the liberation by writing. When writing was introduced, epic singers, again even the most brilliant among them, did not realize its “possibilities” and did not rush to avail themselves of it. Perhaps they were wiser than we, because one cannot write song. One cannot lead Proteus captive; to bind him is to destroy him.

But writing, with all its mystery, came to the singers’ people, and eventually someone approached the singer and asked him to tell the song so that he could write down the words. In a way this was just one more performance for the singer, one more in a long series. Yet it was the strangest performance he had ever given. There was no music and no song, nothing to keep him to the regular beat except the echo of previous singings and the habit they had formed in his mind. Without these accompaniments it was not easy to put the words together as he usually did. The tempo of composing the song was different, too. Ordinarily the singer could move forward rapidly from idea to idea, from theme to theme. But now he had to stop very often for the scribe to write down what he was saying, after every line or even after part of a line. This was difficult, because his mind was far ahead. But he accustomed himself to this new process at last, and finally the song was finished.

A written text was thus made of the words of song. It was a record of a special performance, a command performance under unusual circumstances. Such has been the experience of many singers in many lands, from the first recorded text, I believe, to present times. And what has been said of other performances can be said of it; for though it is written, it is oral. The singer who dictated it was its “author,” and it reflected a single moment in the tradition. It was unique.

Yet, unwittingly perhaps, a fixed text was established. Proteus was photographed, and no matter under what other forms he might appear in {124|125} the future, this would become the shape that was changed; this would be the “original.” Of course, the singer was not affected at all. He continued, as did his confrères, to compose and sing as he always had and as they always had. The tradition went on. Nor was his audience affected. They thought in his terms, in the terms of multiformity. But there was another world, of those who could read and write, of those who came to think of the written text not as the recording of a moment of the tradition but as the song. This was to become the difference between the oral way of thought and the written way.

Before the advent of electrical recording machines, written texts of actual performance—not from dictation—were possible only in a very limited number of cases. Wherever the singing was done by two people and the second man repeated exactly what the first man sang there was time for someone writing rapidly to set down the line during the repetition, especially if the tempo of singing was slow and the verse not over long. This is the manner of singing in parts of northern Albania and Yugoslav Macedonia. Because of the slow tempo, such a manner is not conducive of long epic songs—it is too leisurely to sustain narrative interest. I have heard such singing in Albania (in 1937) and Macedonia (in 1950 and 1951), and have seen this method of writing down a text applied successfully in eastern Macedonia by Professor Rusić of Skoplje. Sometimes one singer repeats the line exactly and no assistant in the singing is called in, but this is merely a variation of a manner of singing that originally depended on two men. If the line is very long or the singing very rapid, it is difficult, if not impossible, to write down a song by this method. Wherever the assistant does not repeat the line exactly but repeats the idea in different words or adds another idea, as is the case in Finland, [1] this method is obviously impossible. It is restricted to very few special cases.

If the singer of oral epic always sang a song in exactly the same words, it would be possible, of course, to ask him to repeat the performance a number of times and thus to fill in on the second or third singing what was lost in notating the first singing. But bards never repeat a song exactly, as we have seen. This method, although it has been used often, never results in a text that truly represents any real performance. It produces a composite text even when a singer’s song is fairly stable, as we know it may be with shorter epics. In a truly oral tradition of song there is no guarantee that even the apparently most stable “runs” will always be word-for-word the same in performance.

There are two methods of writing down a text from actual performance which I have not heard of being used, but which might be employed with some degree of success. One of these is to use shorthand. The resulting text might not have the exact niceties of odd forms or phonetic peculiarities that a more accurate method would provide, but a word-for-word text could be gotten in this way. Another method would be to have a battery {125|126} of two or more scribes taking down alternate lines or every third line, depending on the number of scribes employed. There is no evidence to my knowledge that this means has been used at any time in the past. The idea of obtaining an accurate text of a given performance is comparatively recent, because heretofore the concept of a fixed text somewhere in the background tended to minimize the importance of any single given performance. Actually there is very little chance, if any, for the reasons given above, that our written texts at any time were taken down during performance. It is normal to expect that, on the other hand, the singer was asked to dictate his song without singing, pausing after each verse to give the scribe time to write. Since this is the case, we should do well to consider how this special type of performance by dictation affects the text.

From the recited texts from Novi Pazar published in Parry and Lord, II, [2] we can obtain some idea of the singer’s difficulties in making normal verses when he is deprived of singing. These texts were recorded on phonograph discs but the singer was unable to sing to instrumental accompaniment because of the ban on singing during the period of mourning following the assassination of King Alexander I in Marseilles in early October of 1934. Parry was allowed to collect only by recitation without song. A mixture of prose and verse, parts of verses interspersed with parts of prose sentences and vice versa, are the result. This is true especially at the beginning of the song, but even when the singer has accustomed himself to reciting, the number of lines that are irregular or poorly formed rhythmically and formulaically still remains high.