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Interview:
David Elmer

As the assistant curator for the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature, David Elmer coordinates "The Singer Continues the Song," a new challenge grant project funded through the Library Digital Initiative (LDI). The project takes its title from The Singer of Tales by Albert B. Lord. Lord, the late Milman Parry's assistant, was effectively the first curator of the Milman Parry Collection.

During an LDI Brown Bag Lunch in September, David Elmer elucidated the efforts of Parry and Lord—based on field work in the former Yugoslavia—to place Homeric texts in the context of the oral tradition while demonstrating that oral poetry is a fusion of composition and performance. Library Notes interviewed Elmer on October 30. He is currently at work on his PhD dissertation in Harvard's Department of Comparative Literature.

LN
Within Harvard's library community, most of us are generally aware of the Milman Parry Collection. Can you trace its history briefly?

DE
Milman Parry finished his doctorate at the Sorbonne in 1928, taught for a year in Iowa, and then he joined the junior faculty here at Harvard. He was on faculty here for 6 years until his death in 1935. His field work in Yugoslavia runs from the summer of 1933 until 1935. His Harvard career was only 6 years. He is remembered primarily for the work represented by this collection, which comes right at the end of that career—and the end of his life.

LN
Did Parry have field experience prior to 1933?

DE
No. His undergraduate studies and graduate studies were strictly as a classicist—and more specifically as a classicist interested in the texts of Homer. In his doctoral studies, he undertook to demonstrate observations that were already in the air among the classicists and Homerists of his day. Namely that the language of Homer is very systematized and formulaic in ways that one would expect from traditional oral poetry. Parry was the first to investigate the extent of this system. He felt that it was so pervasive in the Homeric poems that it had to be the result of several centuries of development.

At the Sorbonne, Parry had been studying under a great linguist of the day named Antoine Meillet. Meillet is known as the founder of the comparative method in historical linguistics, and it was Meillet who pointed out that this systematicity must be the result of an oral tradition. Meillet told Parry that what his dissertation was missing was an account of the way a tradition lives in its native setting. It was Antoine Meillet who suggested that Parry observe the mechanics of a living, breathing oral tradition rather than simply a text, which appears to have the marks of oral tradition upon it.

Meillet introduced Parry to a Prague scholar named Matija Murko, who had written extensively about the heroic epic tradition in the Balkans among the South Slavs. Murko convinced Parry to undertake fieldwork, though it wasn't until 1933 that Parry, with support from Harvard, carried out this purpose.

Parry asked several significant questions: How do texts circulate within a living oral tradition? How do they fit within the context of that tradition? He interviewed epic singers, asking about their material, their biographies, their geographic origins, and their subsequent travels. He not only documented the songs themselves but also the way that the performers of the songs felt about them, reacted to them, thought about them. That is what makes the collection so unique.

LN
Are there still epic singers? Or have the troubles in the former Yugoslavia interrupted this tradition?

DE
The tradition in the form in which Parry studied it has more or less died out. There is still a tradition of composing epic songs, but it is much more aligned with written composition.

LN
After Parry's death, his assistant, Albert B. Lord, continued the work that Parry began. Lord's book, The Singer of Tales, doesn't appear until 1960. What were Lord's activities in those intervening years?

DE
Lord was a very young man when Parry died, and he was left with sole responsibility for Parry's research materials. Everyone really knew that they were of tremendous significance, though they were in a very raw state. Throughout the later 1930s, Lord and his own assistants did the very essential work of transcribing the poems, cataloging the materials, and assembling them in a way that gave scholars access.

Lord undertook his own field expeditions. He continued Parry's initial work, but expanded it in ways that Parry could not have foreseen. He encountered bilingual singers who performed in Albanian as well as the language called Bosnian by the singers themselves, and Lord documented these two contiguous traditions to see what kinds of connections could be established. He went places that Parry had never visited, such as parts of Macedonia where the language was slightly different. There, he found an epic tradition that was linguistically closer to the Bulgarian sphere than the Serbo-Croatian. It was also contiguous with Greece.

Lord, throughout his career, really carried the comparative value of the collection in many directions. So as a comparatist, Lord did things that I won't say are different from what Parry had intended, but they are on a scale that perhaps Parry had not envisioned. In subsequent years, he completed The Singer of Tales. It's a fascinating book that was presented originally as Lord's PhD dissertation in the Department of Comparative Literature and published in the series, Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature.

LN
The Harvard University Press reissued The Singer of Tales in 2000. How does it hold up?

DE
It's often used as a text in folklore classes. And it is an excellent guide to reading texts in an ethnographically rigorous way.

LN
What technologies did Lord and Parry use actually to collect the songs?

DE
In the summer of 1933, when Parry first traveled to Yugoslavia, he didn't take any recording apparatus with him. While he was there, he did purchase a machine that recorded on wax cylinders, but without much success. The microphone was not able to bring out the voice of the singer against the sound of the instruments.

So in that first summer, he collected most of his texts by dictation. Fortunately, he had with him some very able assistants—including one who was an epic singer himself—and this is probably one of the keys to the success of the initial expedition.

When he returned in 1934, he brought with him an apparatus that he'd had custom-built in the United States. It consisted of two phonograph turntables that recorded onto specially prepared aluminum discs. The two turntables were connected through an amplifier to the microphone. Between the two turntables was a toggle switch that directed the microphone signal first to one turntable and then to the other. This was a way of getting around the major limitation of the phonograph—a 12-inch disc at that time included only about 4 minutes of audio. The epic songs extended from several hours to several days.

When Lord returned in the 50s—from 1950 to 1951—he revisited many of the locations in which he and Parry had collected in the 30s. This time, Lord used magnetic wire—generally known as wire recording. It had the advantage of being a much smaller apparatus. However, Lord's wire spools are much more fragile than Parry's aluminum discs.

LN
Does the collection still hold wax cylinders?

DE
Yes. And the aluminum disks and the wire recordings. We also have the early transcriptions of the recordings and direct dictations.

LN
What will your LDI project accomplish for the Parry Collection?

DE
There are several goals, but the first is increased access. The LDI project will allow us to provide open, coordinated, online access to both the written texts and the audio. This is extremely important: you can't really understand the structure of a sung epic poem without attending to the musical and other performative aspects of it.

LN
Does the LDI project address preservation?

DE
While this is an access project as opposed to a preservation project, it is shining a new light on the preservation issues facing the collection. We're digitizing 600 of our aluminum discs—600 out of 3,500—but in the process, we will assess the state of each disk and each paper sleeve. Disks will all be cleaned and some oxidation will be removed.

In general, the LDI project has given us a means to assess the state of materials and to think about the preservation activities we'd like to undertake over the next five to seven years. In general I'm happy to say that the materials in the collection are in a fairly good state.

LN
The project itself is sponsored by the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington.

DE
Yes. The Center for Hellenic studies is, of course, a part of the Harvard organization, and it is under the directorship of Professor Gregory Nagy, who is one of the two curators of this collection. Professor Nagy is a former student of Albert Lord's, studied here as a graduate student under Albert Lord, and in many ways has continued the legacy of comparative studies of oral epic here at Harvard. Professor Stephen Mitchell, who is the chairman of the department of the committee on folklore and mythology, is our second faculty curator. He was not a student of Lord's, but they met when Mitchell joined the faculty here in the early 80s. But the Parry-Lord influence in Professor Mitchell's work is also very much evident.

LN
What's your role vis vis the faculty curators?

DE
I'm really responsible for the day-to-day operation of the collection. I'm the person who interacts with researchers, who makes sure that materials are available. And managing the LDI project. I'm basically the contact person for the collection.

LN
You recently had an Albanian visitor whose interests illustrate the importance of increasing the access to the Parry collection.

DE
We had a visit from Dr. Zymer Neziri, an eminent folklorist from Pristina in Kosovo. Dr. Neziri, as a specialist in Albanian culture, has been politically unwelcome to the cultural authorities of Yugoslavia and of Serbia for quite a long time. He had not been able to obtain a passport for the last twenty years. Recently, under the international administration of Kosovo, he obtained a passport and his first trip outside of Kosovo was to Cambridge to take a look at our Albanian materials. He also paid a lot of attention to Lord's 1937 Albanian collection. Dr. Neziri discovered that Lord had written down what seems to be the longest Albanian epic on record.

It's very important for us to make this material available to scholars who are not necessarily able to make the kinds of trip that Dr. Neziri did. This is why I think that the LDI project is so extremely valuable.

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Last modified on Tuesday, November 19, 2002.