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

With this issue Oral Tradition presents seven vistas onto the communicative spaces that the traditional verbal arts command and scholarly approaches to them; a septet of reports about the seemingly inexhaustible wealth and variety of humanity’s traditional verbal arts. These essays reflect the high standards of scholarship that John Miles Foley established for the journal and represent part of the diversity and scope of the phenomena that are the bailiwick of Oral Tradition.

Michael Marmur opens the conversation with a study of quotation—a universal human behavior and powerful metonymic device—as it is manifested in the longue duré of Jewish voices negotiating the present, with its demands and requirements. From this sometimes precarious perch, individuals and institutions quote—Janus-like—with one eye (or ear, in this case) to the past and the other toward the future continuing a three-way conversation about tradition that necessarily regards its own continuity. Thus triangulated by its temporal coordinates, quotation reveals itself to be rhapsodic, constitutive, and conservative—containing dissension within the confines of a traditional discourse.

The warp and woof woven into quotation is reprised by Fleming Andersen’s study of two distinct versions of a ballad collected on the same day from two women singers in a weavers village in South West Scotland. Marshaling a structural-formulaic approach to the analysis of the ballads, the essay dramatically illustrates the extent of an individual singer’s creative control over the tradition’s compositional dynamics: each singer weaves a version that makes the ballad her own.

Continuing in the Scots’ realm, with one eye on the old flyting poems and the other on North American Hip Hop battle rap, Caitlin Flynn and Christy Mitchell compare common themes and techniques manifest in these contest poetries. Shared rhetorical techniques, characteristic circumstances, and prominent personalities in contemporary Hip Hop poetic polemics, offer footing for insights into the motives and objectives of the Scots’ invective contests. Hip Hop emcees and flyting poets verbally destroy an opponent’s pretension to possessing superior poetic skill and acumen with a primary purpose in mind: to acquire more elite social standing. This fruitful comparison invites extension to additional comparanda such as the Old Provenzal partimen, the Old Portuguese cantiga d’escarnho, or the scabrous 15th-century Spanish invective poems collected in the Cancionero de Baena.

Shifting to another facet of the rich vein of traditional poetics, Melissa Borgia offers an essay studying generational changes in story repertoire and storytelling among the Seneca residing in the Allegany Territory before and after construction of the Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River in 1963. The dam flooded one-third of their territory, including the gravesite of their spiritual leader, and rent the fabric of close knit family enclaves. The Kinzua catastrophe manifests in Seneca storytelling. Tales about supernatural beings and events figure prominently in the tradition whether in the moralizing “life lessons” older residents remember from earlier generations or gravitating towards the cautionary tales or therapeutic vehicles for resolving the symbolic despair their dispossession entailed. The stories are threads sewn into the living cloth of Seneca culture.

Lila Grace Canevaro pinpoints common themes and techniques in two exemplars of sapiential discourse produced by societies distant by a millennium and twenty-five hundred miles: Hesiod’s Works and Days and the eddic Hávamál. Drawing on the deep well of traditional wisdom poetry, and poised at the advent of writing, which became the vehicle for their transmission, both works foreground cardinal elements of early agrarian societies. The collectanea of precepts, maxims, and mythologies embody striking parallels in composition, content, transmission, and scholarly reception. Wisdom is a tricky business. Riddles hide meaning but their virtue is to sharpen the listener’s interpretive acumen. Constants in both exemplars of the wisdom genre include concerns with balance and measure together with reciprocity and self-sufficiency. Canevaro concludes that interaction between tradition and innovation account for structural features shared by Works and Days and Hávamál. Whereas the gnomic and mythological features that are common to both works issued from oral traditions that predate writing, the shift to writing for their transmission negotiates a transfer of power...

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