Academic journal article Western Folklore

Silence, Ellipsis, and Camouflage in the English-Scottish Popular Ballad

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Silence, Ellipsis, and Camouflage in the English-Scottish Popular Ballad

Article excerpt

CMW tacent, clamant

"While being silent, they shout" (Cicero)

One long-term consequence of the historic/geographic method in relation to ballads has been a tacit privileging of longer, more "complete" texts over shorter renditions or so-called fragments. We may have abandoned the old search for ur-texts and oikotypes, but we still work with major collections which describe particular versions of a ballad as "incomplete" (in Child's collection, for example, phrases like "version J omits this feature," and "version B clearly lacks two stanzas," and "A has a regrettable gap after 35" abound). The implication is that the shorter or more elliptical the version, the less sense we have of what the ballad narrative is about, or that ballad texts with only a few verses provide us an incomplete rendering of a putative story. Stanley Edgar Hyman referred to American versions of the English ballads as "inadequate narrative," (Hyman 1957:239) and D. K Wilgus (echoed more recently by William McCarthy) called attention to the "loss of narrative" in Child's leading ballad, "Riddle Wisely Expounded" (Wilgus 1958:163; McCarthy 1991:99). Perhaps such attitudes are a direct result of defining ballads only as texts which contain or "tell" coherent stories rather than as performances which trigger complex responses among the living members of a knowledgeable audience. Hugh Shields, however, has already shown that there are other dimensions of the ballad (in Ireland particularly) in which a lyrical statement functions as code for an implied narrative, or where a singer simply performs the denouement of a narrative already known to the listeners (Shields 1991:46, 48).

Nevertheless, even when performance has been our focus, we have been most satisfied by the presentation of a complete narrative in ballad or epic format. One thinks of the remarkable episode in which Milman Parry and Albert Lord asked a favorite epic singer (Avdo Medjedovic) to listen to another guslar perform an epic Medjedovic didn't know, one which turned out to last a mere 2294 lines. Almost immediately after hearing the performance, Medjedovic then reperformed the piece in 6313 lines. And sixteen years later, in poor health, sang it again for Lord with 3561 lines.

Certainly, the capacity for such masterful recomposition is stunning, and the lengthy, richly articulated texts are themselves testimony to the complex means by which such performances are achieved. Witnessing a full-blown epic come to life must be a striking experience. I heard part of an epic performed in Belgrade in the 1970s by a Yugoslavian diplomat who sat on his living room floor in a dark blue suit, white shirt and tie and played the gusle accompaniment with squawking gusto. Where he had learned it, I don't know, but he sang it as an example of what an epic sounded like, and after a while simply stopped. Maybe it was a hobby for him. In any case, it did not result in a fully achieved epic performance-even though it demonstrated a considerable feat of memory. I was disappointed at the time because the piece was incomplete and thus seemed inconsequential. But of course what was really lacking, as today's performance scholars would immediately point out, was the living cultural context in which any epic performance would have brought forth knowledgeable, probably emotional, responses from a group of people "in the know." Our context in Belgrade was a group of well-educated Serbs who were pleased that the world had recognized their epics, but who really thought that the songs themselves were a bit declasse and embarrassingly chauvinistic. I think none of us could have anticipated how some years later, Slobodan Milosevic would use the shared sentiments of those epics in a speech on the Kosovo battlefield to galvanize a powerful Serbian resurgence.

But let's look back at Medjedovic and his momentary tutor, Mumin Vlahovljak: Lord points out (1956:327) that "Mumin was a good singer and his song was a fine one. …

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