My contribution to this Festschrift for Professor John Miles Foley has its origin in an experimental course on comparative oral traditions titled “The Singers of Tales” that I have taught three times in quite different formats, once at Vanderbilt University and twice at Saint Olaf College. I began envisioning this course at the 1992 NEH Summer Seminar on Comparative Oral Traditions administered by Professor Foley in his capacity as the director of the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition at the University of Missouri. The seminar was one of the most pleasant, productive, and pivotal experiences of my academic career, largely because of the warm collegiality of my eleven colleagues and the generous mentoring of Professor Foley, and it continues to this day to have an effect on both my teaching and research. In the most recent incarnation of “The Singers of Tales” I decided, at great risk to my reputation as a traditional teacher and scholar, that the form of the course should match its content—that is, that the entire course should be conducted whenever possible without the aid of reading and writing.
Almost all the material that we were studying in this course was composed, performed, and in many cases transmitted without the use of writing and reading, in an “illiterate” or, perhaps I should say, “preliterate” period of history. Each successive time that I have taught this course, I have discovered that my students relate better and better to this orally generated material. This generation of students seems to be on the verge of ushering in a new “post-literate” period of history: they are engaged by the aural pleasures of music and speech and the visual pleasures of icons, and thanks to their exposure to newer methods of technologizing the word, their concept of a text is of something much more fluid than the silent, two-dimensional, black-on-white, typographical words that so tyrannized students of previous generations.
There is a certain perverseness, is there not, in expecting our students to enjoy traditional Zuni narrative poetry or traditional Appalachian folktales by sitting alone, in a quiet recess of the library and under a fluorescent light, reading a text speedily and silently, without even moving their mouths? Hence, in the most recent version of this course I determined that textbooks, written quizzes, exams, and final papers would be replaced whenever possible by public readings (even very long readings of the Odyssey and Beowulf), by shorter musical performances (with Homeric lyres, South Slavic gusles, Southern fiddles and banjos), and by oral presentations (of final research projects). The results were gratifying: students were personally engaged in these often difficult and exotic narratives, their individual and team research projects were outstanding, the class as a whole developed into a close-knit, interactive community, and, best of all, I did not have to read any examination essays or term papers. I enthusiastically recommend it.
We began the course, naturally, with Homer’s Odyssey, and one of the first methodological obstacles that arose on the first day was the question of the relationship between the glossy, compact, rectilinear texts that the students had recently purchased from the shelves of the college bookstore and the oral performances with musical accompaniment of epic verse by a Greek bard on (let us say) the island of Chios in (let us say) the late eighth century BCE. What vestiges of the historical oral performance do these modern texts preserve? How does one textualize an oral performance? How does one take a non-spatial utterance in time and record it as a spatial and timeless and silent sequence of symbols? It happened that on that first day of class a student who was understandably trying to save some money pulled out of his backpack a tattered copy of a prose version of the Odyssey that his mother had used when a student at Saint Olaf College some thirty years earlier. I was startled and overreacted. I begged him not to open it, appealing to the class with as much passion as I could muster to purchase the stichic verse version that I had ordered through the bookstore, arguing that written prose is...