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  • Editor’s Column
  • John Zemke, Editor, Oral Tradition

We at the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition are pleased to offer our latest issue of Oral Tradition for consideration: seven essays reporting on a miscellany of verbal traditions from Europe, Australia, Uganda, the Peruvian Andes, Southeast Asia, and the archaic Greek world. It opens smartly with a study by Tom Pettitt that reveals processes of memorization, performance, and oral transmission in the life of “The Suffolk Tragedy,” a nineteenth-century English ballad. Confronting the broadside text against reflexes circulating in oral tradition—two collected in England (1906 and 1972), four in New South Wales, Australia, versions sung by Sally Sloane (1957 and 1976) and by Carrie Milliner (1995)—and with a version that Milliner reconstructed from a fragment found in an aunt’s songbook, Pettitt draws insights into the tradition’s propensity “to capture the absolute narrative (and dramatic) core of the ballad […] implying nearly all the rest of the narrative.”

The next pair of essays address the socializing function of oral traditions in contemporary Uganda. Lara Rosenoff Gauvin draws on years of intensive fieldwork in Uganda and the writings of Okot p’Bitek (1931–1982) to portray the keen sense of desolation felt by Acoli youth victimized by two decades of war between the Ugandan government and the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army. Author and scholar, Okot p’Bitek regarded Acoli oral traditions as the vehicle for cultural knowledge that the individual requires in order to situate the self properly in society. Today, Acoli youth find themselves estranged from their tradition’s cultural norms and practices (tekwaro), deprived of the oral tradition of odoko dano, “the socialization process of creating a real human being.”

Valeda Dent Goodman and Geoff Goodman report their continuing research into the roles played by libraries in rural villages of Uganda and Africa. They study a set of adult reports about stories that primary caregivers tell to young children with an eye to discovering “what socializing concepts are present” and “the role that stories play within the parent/child communication framework.” The authors observe that storytelling as a socialization practice differs across cultures, highlighting a child’s misbehavior or catalyzing the teller’s re-imagination of her own childhood.

Reporting on the traditional Masha festival practice of songs improvised by pairs of singers in a Peruvian highland village, Charles Pigott adopts an ethnopoetic analytical model to interpret the songs’ construction of unity and difference. Pigott’s analysis reveals a complex of complementary opposites informing the festival’s activities. Quechua, a polysynthetic and agglutinating language, makes available to the singers a repertoire of affixes and suffixes for expressing semantic nuances that “interact in the creation of meaning.” A dynamic interplay between complementarity and opposition that is reflective of contradictions and oppositions that act reciprocally in Andean cosmology to serially produce new syntheses inform the song texts. The Masha songs are one expression of the ethical as “a function of the pragmatic” so that an individual’s participation in the festival is seen as a moral and social duty as well as a personal decision.

Qu Yongxian studies the song culture of the Dai, a people who are spread across southern China, northeast Thailand, northwest Vietnam, northeast Burma and Northern Laos. She contrasts the epic traditions and songs current among a Dai cultural group that practices Theravada Buddhism and employs a multi-secular writing system for the transmission of its epic poems with that of a second group that practices an indigenous animist religion and transmits its epic poems solely through oral tradition. The two groups share a poetic technique the “waist-feet rhyme.” Leading to the conclusion that the Dai groups share a similar poetic tradition, Qu Yongxian fashions a thorough portrait of the several Dai subgroups, recounts the etiological myth of their dispersal, characterizes the Dai script styles, manuscript production and storage techniques, and identifies Buddhist and Indian influence, such as Buddhist Jataka stories among the Theravada Buddhist Dai, that are completely unknown among the indigenous animists.

New technologies for interacting with traditional narratives and songs are highlighted by Coppélie Cocq’s study of the transposition of traditional Sami language into internet sites designed...

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