Milman Parry Collection

The Milman Parry Collection

The Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature is the largest single repository of South Slavic heroic song in the world. It comprises the following separate collections. All of these are currently housed in Harvard University’s Widener Library, Room C:

1. The texts and recordings of oral literature, including epic, lyric songs, and ballads, some stories, and conversations with singers and others, made by Professor Milman Parry of the Department of the Classics at Harvard University during the summer of 1933 and from June 1934 to September 1935, in Yugoslavia. Over 3,500 double-sided aluminum discs, with a playing time of ca. 4 min. each. Transcriptions of these songs are contained in ninety-five notebooks (14 cm. x 14 cm., 120sides in each); dictated songs are contained in ca. 800 notebooks (14 cm. x 14 cm., 70 sides in each).

2. The Albanian Collection of some one hundred dictated epic texts was made by Lord in the north Albanian mountains in the Fall of 1937. These texts are contained in eleven notebooks (14 cm. x 14 cm., 200 sides in each.)

3. The Lord Collection consists of epic texts collected by him in Yugoslavia in the summers of 1950, 1951, and 1966. The last of these is little known, but contains Christian songs from the mountain ranges from Niß to Prijepolje. These songs are contained on thirty-five reel tapes (acetate).

4. The Lord and Bynum Collection consists of texts collected by Lord and Bynum in Yugoslavia in the summers of 1962-1965 and 1967.

The cultural and humanistic (even humanitarian) import of the Collection is all the more timely today in view of the recent history of the former Yugoslavia. The Curators are convinced that we cannot really understand the deep social problems of that region without coming to terms with the song cultures that in some ways have caused and in many other ways can now redeem those problems. To give one example, the Parry Collection owns audio and transcribed recordings of “bilingual singers” – who can sing the heroic songs of one culture in Albanian poetic language and the heroic songs of the antithetical “Bosnian” culture in Serbo-Croatian. Such documented instances of poetic “bilingualism,” we suggest, can serve as a point of entry for exploring common ground between seemingly irreconcilable world views.

The curators of the collection have applied for a Library Digital Initiative grant to digitize the entire collection. The digitization of materials in the Collection will have great benefit for researchers working in the fields of Classics, Folklore and Mythology, Comparative Literature and Slavic. It will also represent an invaluable teaching aid. The proposed project involves the digitization of both sound recordings and handwritten texts contained in the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature in Widener Library. As noted above the Collection comprises several large collections of Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, and Albanian songs, among other traditions, but by far the largest and most famous of these collections is that by Milman Parry and Albert Lord (1933-1935) in the former Yugoslavia. Parry and Lord were interested in the live performances of oral epic and made recordings on ca. 3,500 12″ aluminum disks. These recordings were later transcribed in ninety-five notebooks. The first part of the project calls for the digitization of these sound recordings and their handwritten transcriptions. Besides the recorded songs, the 1933-1935 collection also contains songs that were taken down in Bosnia, Macedonia, Hercegovina, Croatia and so on by the traditional method of dictation in some 800 notebooks.

Digitized versions of these songs will be tagged to records in an already existing electronic database compiled by Matthew Kay (also published in hardcopy as part of the series The Milman Parry Studies in Oral Tradition, which researchers can use to search by singer, song, region, etc. Digitization will help make this invaluable collection, described by Béla Bartók as “a most important collection, unique of its kind” (The New York Times, June 28, 1942.), available to scholars worldwide through the Milman Parry Collection website, which is currently being developed. In addition to the 1933-35 collection, the curators intend to digitize texts belonging to two smaller collections, the Albanian Collection (1937) and the Lord Collection (1950-51).

David Elmer is the project manager for the LDI grant, and assistant curator of the Milman Parry Collection. Long term maintenance of the collection will be supported by the Ilex Foundation. The project converges with the 40th anniversary second edition of the original publication of Albert Lord’s Singer of Tales (Harvard University Press, 2000), which contains the definitive history of this world-famous collection and has become a universal teaching tool. This edition includes a CD containing the sound recordings of all the materials cited by Lord, as well as translations and transcriptions of the texts, and other materials from the Parry Collection.

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