The Performance of Homeric Epic

Homer and Appalachian Bluegrass

John Wright
Northwestern University
E-mail: jhwright@nwu.edu

The day after Abraham Lincoln delivered his Cooper Union address he went up to Phillips Exeter Academy to visit his son Robert, who was doing some makeup work there before going to Harvard. During the visit one of the other students at the prep school played a few tunes on the banjo to entertain the guests, after which Lincoln is reported to have turned to his solemn son and said, 'Robert, you ought to have one.'

He never did get one, which perhaps says something about Lincoln's abysmal relationship with his oldest son. But the whole story says interesting things about the banjo. In a few short years this invention of African slaves had ascended so far in the social scale as to be the instrument of choice of boys at one of the most exclusive prep schools in the United States. (For the record, the banjo player's name was Henry Cluskey.) And we know that it continued in this high regard -- as a parlor instrument for the middle classes -- for the next half century or so until, mysteriously, around 1910, it was dropped. Dropped by Blacks because it fed the stereotype; dropped by middle class whites for no apparent reason. Just about the only people to keep it over the next couple of generations, for reasons that they never articulated, were the inhabitants of the Appalachian Mountains.

I start with the banjo because, as with many other people of my background, it was the banjo that first got me involved with Appalachian music, then Appalachian songs, and finally Appalachian culture. I first heard the banjo on a phonograph record as a college undergraduate, and I became involved with playing it almost at once. As I was soon to learn, in a half century of relative musical isolation the people of Appalachia had cultivated the instrument to an extraordinary degree. They had worked out a system of some two dozen different tunings to overcome its intrinsic limitations and enable it to play a wide variety of melodies. A bewildering variety of right-hand techniques had evolved (and I'm forced to use a vague term like 'evolved' because the history of all this was of course totally undocumented).

Most interestingly, one particular style of banjo-playing had come into being which, though musical rather than verbal, matches more closely the perfect Parryite paradigm than anything else I have found in real life. It employs strict metrical formulas, which as a group exhibit the requisite scope and economy, which give every evidence of having been invented collectively over a period of time, and which expert practitioners can use to recreate old melodies or improvise new ones, if necessary, during the act of performance. It was created, developed, and transmitted without the aid of writing and without the aid of formal teaching or technical terminology. (A deficit I share, by the way, as my wife, who is learning to play the guitar, can attest--when I have to say things like 'Do the next deeper note after that' when I'm trying to help her make her way through a tune.) When this banjo style reached the ears of the outside world (right at the end of the Second World War), it was generally believed to be the creation of a single brilliant musician, a North Carolinian named Earl Scruggs. Though even then the question of personality did not really enter into it that much, and I don't think it is so strange that when I first heard the term 'Scruggs style banjo' I thought 'Scruggs' was some sort of common noun or adjective rather than the name of an individual.

Earl Scruggs had many epigonoi, who appeared within a very short time (a year or two after his first national broadcasts, actually: the history of this musical style is enormously telescoped compared to anything connected with the epic), and who employed what the audience if not the musicians would call 'Scruggs style banjo' on the professional stage. One of these was a young man from the southwestern tip of Virginia, who was special among the group in that his music, his vocal style, and his repertoire were already becoming known as the most old-fashioned, the most unadulterated, the most 'primitive' if you will, among professional country musicians. His name was Ralph Stanley, and later on he was going to loom very large in my life indeed.

I put away the banjo after my student days, the way one will with such things, and for the usual reasons--the demands of a profession and the demands of fatherhood. When I took it up again around fifteen years ago, almost by accident, I made two very interesting discoveries. First, the instrument was now, at last, documented, with a library full of instruction books and a monthly magazine devoted to note-for-note transcriptions of recorded banjo pieces, which would finally, I thought, answer some of the musical questions that had been tormenting me as an undergraduate. Second--and it is strange that this should have happened almost simultaneously--I discovered in working with this material that, much to my amazement, I could produce such transcriptions myself. Or at least I could for the recordings of Ralph Stanley, whose banjo pieces were the simplest of those of the major nationally known musicians. And while the magazine had regular monthly columns devoted to the music of the other nationally known banjo players, it had none for Ralph Stanley.

Of course I saw an opportunity. I wrote a transcription of a Stanley piece (from the only Stanley record I possessed at the time); I wrote a few hundred words (none of them based on first-hand knowledge) on Stanley to go with it; I submitted the package to the magazine. In a short time I discovered that I was a columnist; I also discovered, from the correspondence that started pouring in, that ex officio I was looked upon as an expert on Ralph Stanley by banjo players all over the country and in fact throughout the world. This was embarrassing as well as exhilarating, and it was immediately clear that what I needed was a crash course.

But not in the library.

I traveled and I talked. I put many thousands of miles on my car, and I slept in that car, and in trailers, and in the band bus. I visited backwoods music festival sites in half a dozen states. I talked with Ralph Stanley, of course, and I talked with a dozen other musicians. And promoters, sound engineers, fans, folklorists, and souvenir sellers. All this led eventually (and unexpectedly) to my book on Ralph Stanley, called Traveling the High Way Home, and it also led to a few observations about the music of Ralph Stanley and the world it came from and is aimed at that (with all the usual caveats) may be of use to students of the performance of Homeric epic. And that's what I will briefly present to you here.

First I should warn you that bluegrass is a pretty wide term, covering acoustic string band music that is produced from California to Colorado to Washington DC (just to hit some of the high spots) and even overseas (for some reason the Czech Republic and Japan are the two biggest foreign venues). I am not here to talk about bluegrass music in general, but of the music of Ralph Stanley and his mentors and followers, which is a very narrow slice of bluegrass music. (How narrow? A Ralph Stanley recording typically sells 5,000 copies in two years and then fades to a trickle after that. I'd like to talk this over with an economist, but still, I'm fairly well convinced that this represents about as small an audience as a performer can possibly have and still remain a full time professional.)

And now that I'm turning to Stanley's material, another warning. Everyone's heard of the ancient ballads that folklorists have collected in Appalachia. An Englishman named Cecil Sharp, for instance, visited the area (western North Carolina to be precise) around 1915 and was astonished, fascinated, and gratified to find that there were people there who knew far more of the really old material, and in a far less adulterated state, than the informants he'd been working with in the British Isles. But these old ballads for the most part have nothing to do with the artistic world of Appalachian bluegrass. They were much more suitable for private entertainment than public performance. And besides (unfortunately) they are just about gone.

Take for example the old ballad 'John Reilly,' which tells a tale of star-crossed lovers. A musician friend of mine who worked in Stanley's band, and who grew up in eastern Kentucky, was acquainted with 'John Reilly.' He has a childhood memory of an alcoholic neighbor who used to sing verse after verse of this ballad as he staggered his way up a nearby creek bed to home after one of his benders. But of all this my friend could remember only the melody and one fragmentary verse. I think this can stand as a paradigm of the current state of the old ballads in Appalachia, though if anyone can prove me wrong I'd love to be refuted.

The most characteristic bluegrass songs are not narrative (and this of course is one huge difference between this art and the epic) but a species of pastoral. That is, an artificial recreation of an imaginary picture of rural innocence. I've picked those adjectives 'artificial' and 'imaginary' deliberately. The repertory contains song after song -- relatively recent compositions, most of them, not traditional folk songs, though the genre is traditional -- celebrating (or lamenting the passing of) an idyllic childhood back in the hills (generally in a little cabin), surrounded and protected by a loving family. And it is true that the early song collectors spoke admiringly of the closeness of the families they visited, and remarked on how unusually child-centered they were. It is also true that social workers (and the negative stereotype) paint a totally opposite picture of malnutrition, disease, neglect, abuse, and incest. I would not dream of trying to mediate between these pictures, but I can say that all of the songs of this sort about which I have certain, first-hand knowledge were written by people who were orphans or who came from broken and/or severely dysfunctional families. They all represent wishful thinking. Perhaps therein lies their power.

At this point I can't resist tossing in parenthetically a story about an abortive attempt to write a Civil War song. The would-be author was the same musician friend from eastern Kentucky who remembered 'John Reilly.' He knew of a minor Civil War battle that had taken place in his county, and he went around talking to people, trying to gather any family traditions about this battle that might have been handed down. To his surprise--at least to his initial surprise--no one cooperated. He soon figured it out: they were suspicious and envious. In fact he could almost hear them muttering as he took his leave: 'That Charlie's going to get rich writing this song about the Civil War. Well I'm damned if he's going to get any help out of me.' Etc. So, no song.

Thus the material, the subjects, of traditional Appalachian bluegrass songs by and large do not form a parallel with Homeric poetry. But there some other elements that may suggest parallels. Here I want simply to outline some facts I know about Appalachian bluegrass. How useful these facts may be for the interpretation of Homeric poetry I will leave it up to other Homerists to decide.

First, formulas. The melodies of the songs I'm talking about tend to be very simple and highly formulaic. In fact I sometimes amuse myself by muttering the words of one song while a band on a stage is doing another; in some cases I could mutter the words of several songs in this way rather than just one. Unless there is something really unusual about a song a professional or even a good amateur bluegrass musician should be able to start playing an accompaniment to it as soon as he hears the opening phrases. I have worked with professionals who were ready to do a studio recording of a song that was new to them after we had played through it once.

The words to the songs are likewise highly formulaic. Here the student is handicapped by the lack of concordances, or even published lyrics for that matter, to say nothing of the wonderful computerized Homeric text that is now being completed by my colleagues Martin Mueller and Ahuvia Kahane under the name of the Chicago Homeric Project. But even as a student gropes around in the dark he can't help bumping into formulaic phrases all the time. If one line ends 'you know I love you still' you know there's going to be a 'cabin home on the hill' coming up pretty soon. Formulaic verbal phrases are at their most vivid and memorable in gospel songs: 'land of glory,' 'great white throne,' 'streets of gold,' and other biblical phrases. The more memorable and striking the phrase, it seems, the more likely it is to come from the tradition rather than from the immediate composer's invention or from 'real life.' One example: a song called 'White Dove,' perhaps the best known and certainly one of the greatest of the Stanley Brothers' songs. It mourns the death of parents (it almost goes without saying, by the way, that the Stanleys' parents were alive and well at the time Ralph's brother Carter wrote this song, though they had also, as I've mentioned, separated quite acrimoniously, in distinct contrast to the picture of happy family life presented in the song); it employs the phrase 'white dove' as a funerary image: 'white dove will mourn in sorrow, the willows will hang their head,' etc. I remember being quite thrilled when I first visited the Stanley home in southwest Virginia, which includes a small family cemetery, and found a dove carved on the headstone of Ralph Stanley's grandfather, Noah Smith. But my initial feelings of 'eureka!' later evaporated as I thought of what I knew of earlier mountain songs, including one about the death of a star-crossed lover which ends with the line, 'in the middle of my grave put a snow-white dove to show this world that I died for love.' It is much more likely that the dove on Noah Smith's headstone came from a song (and from ideas about the Holy Ghost and the brand of religion that's prevalent in the mountains, though that's a fascinating tangent I must avoid exploring at the moment) than that the white dove in the Stanleys' song came from a headstone.

I expected formulaic phrasing in the songs; all of us would. What took me by surprise was how prevalent it was in ordinary speech. I was in Ralph Stanley's motor home at one time--doing an interview in fact--when someone knocked at the door. Stanley whispered 'Come on in,' and grinned. This little performance was a shorthand reference to a joke that had been part of Stanley's stage act twenty years earlier. (For those who can't bear not to know, a man with laryngitis comes to his doctor's office and whispers, 'Is the doctor in?' and the nurse whispers back, 'No, come on in.') The more I got to know the performers the more it happened that phrase after phrase would have an ancestry. Jokes of course. But almost everything else said from the stage, from the opening 'Ladies and gentlemen, a great big howdy to you.' Everything said in public--and since I was sort of a reporter, this meant virtually everything said in my presence.

My book on Ralph's music included two chapters which amounted to autobiographical, first-person narratives (which I edited from interviews) by Ralph Stanley and by his fiddle player, Ray Cline. For these chapters, as for the rest, I wanted to pick out a memorable phrase--a quotation from the narrative--to serve as an epigraph. For Stanley it was, 'It's the hardest music in the world to play.' For Cline (who had been a coal miner as well as a musician) it was, 'I've lived a lot in my time.' After the book was published I learned that the first phrase had been used by the late Bill Monroe in an early interview in which he was describing bluegrass music. Cline's phrase was the title and main line in the chorus of what now is to me a ridiculously familiar traditional country song. Of course neither Stanley nor Cline were plagiarizing in any real sense. As has become increasingly (though slowly) clear to me, they come from a world in which when a thing is said right you do the obvious thing and continue to say it in exactly the same words. Or, to take it from another angle (and the following line is itself traditional), 'In the country, a joke goes a long way.'

Training. I have already spoken about the quickness and ability of professionals in this music. Their training of course takes place completely outside of the regular public educational system (where music of this sort is at best tolerated). It is usually based in the family, and formal instruction is minimal. For instruments, typically, an older relative will show a young person a couple of chords, for instance, on a guitar; the 'student' is then on his own, and his success depends on the degree of his obsession. This is how it happened with me, except that I was a college student and a dorm neighbor instead of a relative handled the two minutes of preliminary instruction. And I had a fascinating experience some years ago; I was sitting in Stanley's bus chatting with another musician when Stanley's young son came in with his guitar (which I knew he was just learning) and said, 'John, let's play 'Wildwood Flower.'' And I picked up Ralph's banjo and his son and I played that tune through for at least half an hour. The son, now a full time member of the band and Stanley's musical heir apparent, is also named Ralph--which brings irresistibly to mind Richmond Lattimore's suggestion that the Odyssey was composed by a son or nephew of Homer who was also called Homer. There are several well known blind musicians in the tradition, too: make of that what you will.

The singing, by the way, is almost invariably learned in church, first by osmosis and later by participation. The singing style is unique and special--I will call it the Old Regular Baptist style and leave it for now as another unexplored tangent--and for an outsider who comes to it late it is the hardest part of this music to learn. This can and has been done, but it requires the sort of effort that Illinois-born Sherrill Milnes had to put in to learn to sing Verdi. And unlike him, you have to do it on your own.

Performance conditions. The musical ancestors of traditional Appalachian bluegrass served practical needs of society and individuals: lullabies, dance accompaniment, church services, and so forth. Contemporary Appalachian bluegrass music, the music of Ralph Stanley and his fellow professionals, exists for itself alone. These days it is most often performed in large outdoor festivals, which from a local point of view occur once a year but for the musicians, who of course are doing a good deal of traveling, occur throughout the spring, summer, and fall. It would be pretty to think that these festivals are the direct descendants either of the large-scale fiddle contests that we know took place in Virginia as early as the time of Thomas Jefferson, or of the outdoor camp meetings that were a central part of revivalist religion since the beginning of the nineteenth century. But in fact the first bluegrass festival (held in 1965) was an artificial creation, the work in part of academics (including a fellow Swarthmore alumnus, the late Ralph Rinzler, who was ultimately responsible for getting me involved in this music in the first place); it was modeled on the Newport (Rhode Island) Folk Festival, which itself was modeled on the Newport Jazz Festival. So much for organic development.

But the festival idea caught on so quickly that we have to suspect that something like it would have happened even without this push from the outside. There are now bluegrass festivals all over the world, but for our purposes the ones of interest are held either in Appalachia itself-- eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, and so forth--or in those areas of the midwest to which Appalachians migrated in search of work after the Second World War. These latter tend to be some of the biggest and richest festivals in the business, since many of those migrants have, or are retired from, good union jobs. I've often wondered how many people at Ohio State are aware that there is an enormous bluegrass festival, with thousands and thousands of spectators, held every July just a few miles east of Columbus. Or another one, similarly, in August, just a stone's throw from the University of Michigan.

Once again, for what it's worth: the festivals are usually three days long, and performances last throughout these three days (long enough, of course, to recite the Iliad). Insofar as they serve anything other than purely aesthetic needs (and I've often felt that their audience is the least philistine of any I've come across, since there is absolutely no social or financial advantage to be had from loving this music--quite the contrary, in fact), they are an affirmation of community, right down to the traditional corn bread and soup bean suppers that are often featured by the vendors. That could be a parallel, and here's another: in southwestern Virginia I have been both an audience member and a performer in a large amphitheater that is used only three days out of the year and is otherwise allowed to sit idle. Running it involves problems that would not have occurred at the Theater of Dionysus; modern music requires speakers, and I remember once when the sound people had come to install their equipment they found that the 'permanent' wooden frames that were there to support their speaker towers had rotted away. (The little stage building--the skene?--had a tarpaper roof, so it survived the winter without too much difficulty.)

Writing. Cecil Sharp and other collectors discovered that many backwoods families had handwritten copies, known as 'ballets,' of the words of old songs that had been handed down for generations. As for the Stanleys, both Ralph and his brother graduated from high school in the mid- forties (an enormous accomplishment for that time and place, and one that speaks well both for the boys and for their mother, who was raising them alone), and Ralph served as a clerk in the Army during the early occupation of Germany. Though (except for the Bible) he is not what Oxonians would call a 'reading man,' he is perfectly literate (and, I can assure you, read every one of the 273 pages of the book I wrote about him with great care). When he composes a song he will write down the words for the moment, but for performance of course they are committed to memory. Writing is simply an aide-memoire. It has no effect on the traditional style of the lyrics. Music is not written at all, and technical musical terminology is minimal ('straight time' and 'waltz time,' for instance, are the only two-- verbal--time signatures). New tunes have to be heard to be learned.

A couple of examples of the limitations of writing: while Ralph Stanley is thoroughly articulate on the stage or with interviewers and can write fine and graceful song lyrics, now and then, perhaps unfortunately, he will feel called upon to write liner notes for a colleague's or protege's record album. Compared with either his songwriting or his speech his style in these cases is painfully awkward and a vivid reminder of the well known fact that formal written prose is the most sophisticated writing style there is. Ray Cline (for another example) had no education whatever; he is an entertaining and voluble speaker at all times, with a strong and articulate interest in local politics as well as in his music. But reading and writing have no part in his life. I once saw someone from a radio station give him a little slip of paper and ask him to read it into her tape recorder for a station break. Something like 'Howdy. I'm Curly Ray Cline and this is WVAL, Valparaiso, Indiana.' He couldn't do it. He could, if necessary, have read the written words, but translating them into speech was impossible.

In their early years the Stanley Brothers used writing as part of a unique method of 'collecting' extra material that might have been of interest to the Parrys. The two brothers and two of their band members would buy tickets to the performance of a rival group (held in a theater, in those pre-festival days). Each of them would have a pad of paper and each of them would have an assignment. As soon as a new song would begin, brother 1 would write the first line, brother 2 the second, sideman 1 the third, and sideman 2 the fourth. (It helps that the typical verse and the typical chorus are each four lines long.) The next day at noon the new song would be featured on the Stanley Brothers' radio program--as often as not before it had been recorded or even broadcast by the source band. As far as I know no one was ever killed as a result of this activity. But I've heard of some spectacular verbal fireworks.

The business of these musicians' going and taking 'what they thought they might require,' like Kipling's Homer, reminds me of one more story. Ray Cline--to give you the background--owned the rights to several rather well-known songs he never wrote; the rights had been given or sold to him and hence he was listed, in album credits, as the author. He was also notorious for claiming authorship, on his own album credits, of fiddle tunes that were clearly traditional (I don't know if this quite came down to claiming 'Turkey in the Straw' but it was close to that). Finally, he would often make up new songs using standard traditional material, but changing the name of the female character in the song to that of his wife, Verda. So 'Black-Eyed Susie' became 'Blue-Eyed Verdie' and so forth.

Following this paradigm, I myself took an old song (from a source I knew would be unfamiliar to Cline or Stanley) called 'Omie Let Your Bangs Hang Down' and remade it into 'Verdie Let Your Bangs Hang Down.' I sang it to Cline as we were sitting at a picnic table, tailgating, so to speak, at the time I first visited Ralph Stanley's southwest Virginia festival. I didn't realize it, but a fan who was there recorded the whole thing on her boom box and gave it to Cline. He decided he liked the song, and eventually asked me to sing it for his next record album, which I did, meanwhile insouciantly signing a form contract with the record producer stating, among other things, that 'Verdie Let Your Bangs Hang Down' was my 'sole, exclusive, and original work.' A while after Cline's album appeared I found another album, this one by an old-time musician whom I knew Cline and Stanley were familiar with. On it was a song called 'Sally Let Your Hair Hang Down.' As anyone who's ever heard any sort of story has long since guessed, when I put the album on I found that this was 'Verdie Let Your Bangs Hang Down,' note for note and practically word for word.

And he just looked at me with an absolute poker face and said, 'Yeah, that'll happen sometimes.'

John Wright
Northwestern University
E-mail: jhwright@nwu.edu

(John Wright has authored the recent edition of Plautus' Curculio, edited Essays on the Iliad: Selected Modern Criticism, and recently published Traveling the High Way Home: Ralph Stanley and the World of Traditional Bluegrass Music)