Bartók, Parry & Lord: a flawed legacy
The opening pages of the classic and now rare 1951 volume by Béla Bartók (1881–1945) and Albert B. Lord (1912–91), Serbo-Croatian Folk Songs, contain a hagiographic description of Milman Parry (1902–35), whose work on oral poetry became a pillar of literary analysis in the West. Citing and slightly amplifying that official account, Parry was a "Homeric scholar at Harvard University, [who] had the inspired thought that if we wanted to form a picture of the great Homeric chants and how they were performed, we should observe the life of folksong where it has best survived to the present day, in the Balkan peninsula. The heroic epic songs of Yugoslavia, the so-called 'men's songs,' come nearest in that region to the type of tradition which was probably the foundation of the Homeric epics."
The "Parry legend" thus begins with falsities. Most of the Balkan texts that attracted his "Homeric" attention are probably no older than five or six centuries, while Spanish ballads and lyrics at least a century anterior to the Balkan corpus survive in Latin America, and various Asiatic epics are attested even earlier. But more important, no such texts have a demonstrable relationship with classical Greek literature.
Nevertheless, the accepted narrative in the Bartók-Lord book continues, "So Professor Parry made in the [1930s] prolonged collecting trips to Yugoslavia and with the assistance of Dr. Albert B. Lord gathered a vast collection of songs, especially in the jagged mountains of Bosnia, Hercegovina, Montenegro, and South Serbia." Here we find a more trivial embellishment, or mystification: Parry and Lord collected songs that were and remain commonly performed in lowland Bosnian, Montenegrin, and Serbian cities and towns no less than in highland villages. As is then noted in the Bartók-Lord biographical entry, "soon after his return to this country, Mr. Parry died, in a tragic accident. Research on the music of the collection was for a long time hampered by the unavailability of a real connoisseur of the folk music of eastern Europe. This need was remedied when the late Béla Bartók came to this country."
The claim that before Bartók's arrival America was bereft of expertise in Eastern European folk music is absurd. America had long welcomed great numbers of migrants from the Eastern Adriatic who knew about these songs—indeed, knew much more than Bartók or Parry—and who could have accurately accounted for them. But such individuals were invisible, in the ranks of foreign Catholic clergy, as well as of massive immigrant communities of factory workers, miners, mariners, fishermen, and others whose knowledge and opinion were not solicited by academics.
And now the truth: the whole legend about Homeric commonalities with South Slavic folksong is false. An obvious clue to something being wrong with Parry's theory and method is that Homer's epics have entered the house of world literature, while the Balkan songs collected by Parry are barely known except in the former Yugoslavia and Albania, where they are as familiar to common inhabitants as to scholars. Parry may well have been a Homerist, but there is no more a trace of Homer in the Balkan songs he collected than in the Icelandic Sagas. The songs are ubiquitous Bosnian Muslim and Albanian folk ballads and lyrics repeatedly heard and sung by everybody from schoolchildren to the poorest peasants.
Nor is the content of the songs "Homeric": they occasionally deal with the exploits of local heroes but seldom surpass the anecdotal. It is highly questionable to posit that Homeric performance, dating to at least half a millennium before the birth of Jesus, was lost among the Greeks and then exclusively transferred to and preserved by the Christian and Muslim Albanians, the antecedents of whose language may have coincided with the Homeric age, and also to Muslim Bosnians, who did not emerge in the region until the fourteenth century, speaking a language found in the area only after the fifth century AD. Parry believed that Homeric verse was merely a variety of a universal oral poetry, and for that reason he declared that "a true understanding of the Homeric poems could only come with a full understanding of the nature of oral poetry."
Parry based this conception on the presence of literary figures common in many forms of verse, including repetition and epithets, and thus reduced the unique literary achievement of Homer to an elementary form of poetic production. In a populist vein that anticipates modern "political correctness" and the leveling of hierarchies and standards, Parry sought to reduce an incomparable art we rightfully consider the epitome of the "classic," to an omnipresent and even contemporary genre. Lord acknowledged two lacunae in the Parry tale, which has itself become a kind of academic "epic:" "Parry himself did not live long enough after making his monumental collection to think out his theory in detail," and, before that, "the real impact of this revelation of Milman Parry has not yet been fully felt in Homeric scholarship, which has chosen to disdain oral epic."
But the classicists were right about Homer, Parry, and folk singing: as I can attest, the Bosnian and Albanian folk traditions are often hauntingly beautiful, but Homer they are not. None encompasses his Greek view of gods and human destinies, or his insights into human psychology, or his sustained lyricism. Furthermore, they are short enough to be easy to learn and perform, something that can hardly be said of the Iliad or the Odyssey. They are simply folk songs, while Homer deserves—notwithstanding the ravages of the universities—to be called a classic.
The "Homeric" songs were collected by Parry in the most remote and impoverished area of the former Yugoslavia—the Sandžak of Novi Pazar, divided since the beginning of the twentieth century by Serbia and Montenegro and inhabited by Slav Muslims and Albanians. The obscurity of the Sandžak, which persists today, may have contributed to the exotic excitement of Parry's "insight." But the songs he collected were not and are not today heard only in that distant locality; rather, they were and are known universally throughout the Bosnian and Albanian lands. They appear in popular printed song collections, are performed at both traditional and pop concerts, and are the topic of ordinary, uninflated academic works, which almost never mention Milman Parry or his "Homeric" fantasy.
It is flattering to Albanians and Bosnian Muslims, in their splendid cultural and geographical isolation—which continues, perhaps predictably, even after their involvement in the wars that occupied the attention of the globe in the 1990s—that anybody would imagine them to be living survivors of a most ancient and supremely classical European culture. This they may indeed be in strictly genetic terms, as descendants of the inhabitants of the Roman province of Illyria. But Milman Parry's "Homeric" insight into Balkan oral singing was purely intuitive; it rested on no evidence whatever.
The situation is rather as if a contemporary of Bartók visiting the United States were to ascribe pretentious, pseudo-ancient singularities to ballads about Jesse James, or "Oh! Susanna." Such exercises are popular in the postmodern academy and could easily be fabricated today—as even amateur American folklorists know, there are archaic British traces in Appalachian ballads. The twentieth-century rural ditty "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," was made crypto-Homeric by the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but nothing apart from a certain variety of American provincialism would read Homeric parallels into such a tune.
The early death of any promising scholar is usually mourned profoundly, and such cases seem, in retrospect, to have caused especially dramatic reactions in the 1930s. At Harvard, Parry remains an idealized figure. The university's website of the Milman Parry Collection is elaborate and worshipful. But the archive is neither unique nor particularly notable, except for the exaggerated awe surrounding it.
A major question to ask about the Bartók-Parry-Lord corpus is, why was it described as Serbo-Croatian? There is not the slightest Serbian, much less Croatian, content in nearly any the songs. They are only called Serbo-Croatian out of deference to a now discredited linguistic fancy. This phenomenon had to do with the emergence of a South Slavic literary language in the nineteenth century, based on a variant originally mainly spoken in eastern Hercegovina and historically identified with Serbs, then adopted by Croat Romantic intellectuals seeking to fortify the idea of a South Slav cultural identity. The language was long known as Serbo-Croatian, or in certain circles, Croato-Serbian; or as "Serbian or Croatian" (in Serbian textbooks) and "Croatian or Serbian" (in Croatian dictionaries). Bosnians, the original owners of the dialect, were overlooked, for many reasons. The language is now denoted by foreigners, in a politically correct but also a linguistically accurate way, as Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian (BCS), which has the virtue of somewhat reflecting its historical origins; or, among its native speakers, depending where one travels in the core of former Yugoslavia, as Bosniak (i.e. Muslim Bosnian), Croatian, or Serbian. Locals who wish to avoid giving offense to new acquaintances simply refer to it as "naš jezik" (our language), as do some savvy visitors.
The point of this complicated philological digression is simple: because a Serbo-Croatian language was assumed to exist, Western scholars convinced themselves there was also a single Serbo-Croatian culture. Nobody with the slightest capacity for observation or the least real knowledge of the former Yugoslavia could believe such a thing. The Croats are Catholics who had been ruled for centuries as a part of the Habsburg empire, while culturally aligned with neither German Vienna nor Magyar Budapest but rather with Italian Venice, in all its sophistication. The Serbs were everything the Croats were not. Serbs are Eastern Orthodox Christians who had no cultural compass except for the dominion imposed on them by the Turks during the fourteenth century, and, as a contrast, "Byzantine" nostalgia for Constantinople, then for Moscow. They had become official Ottoman collectors of the cizye, or Islamic head-tax, from their Orthodox community and occasionally attempted to impose the same levy on Slavic Catholics in the region, but failed. The Serbian intellectual class was, for much too long, almost entirely clerical and limited in its horizons; mostly, Serbs were peasants, herdsmen, and poor.
Distinctions between these two cultures are nowhere more visible than in their folk music. Croatian folk music ranges from a cappella lyrical singing in Dalmatia to ballads about local peasant rebels. Serbian folk music dwells on tragic incidents in Serbian history (such as the Ottoman victory at the battle of Kosovo in 1389) and related lachrymose topics, including assassinations and resulting blood-feuds. The difference in Croatian and Serbian music points directly to the problem of the legend of Milman Parry and his legacy; the songs he collected embody neither Croatian nor Serbian melodies nor these cultures' thematic motifs. Rather, they reproduce Albanian subjects —evocation of mythic heroes perhaps representing pagan legends, more than local political or historical figures—or are famous Bosnian Muslim popular songs, in which the protagonists bear exclusively Islamic names, such as Mohammed, Omar, Ali, Osman, and Fatima, and all the cultural references are to Muslim customs. While some of these elements are common to the Bosnian Muslim and Albanian cultures, they are typically absent from Croatian and Serbian milieux.
In seventy-five songs recorded by Parry, commented on by Lord, and transcribed by Bartók, one discovers with surprise that the popular Bosnian Muslim ballad "Ferman stiže od Stambola" ("The Order was Sent from Istanbul") is included as item twenty in the collection. This text describes the hanging of the Morić brothers, two Sarajevo "bandits" or rebels, who, although Muslim, are remembered as anti-Turkish heroes. During the Bosnian war of 1992–95, this song, also known as "Smrt Braće Morića" ("Death of the Morić Brothers"), became identified with the cause of Bosnian Muslim resistance, and it, along with variant texts, is now beloved as a Bosnian Muslim patriotic anthem. I have heard its assorted versions performed dozens of times. It is silly to think that "Smrt Braće Morića," a Bosnian Muslim ballad about Sarajevo rebels, could in any way be Serbian or Croatian in content or to imagine that it would be performed by Croatian or Serbian singers or before Croatian or Serbian audiences today. Croats and Serbs would encounter nothing recognizable with which to identify in it.
One is also amazed to find item fifty-one, titled in Bartók-Lord "Kad ja pođem na Bimbašu na vodu" ("When I went to Bembaša by the water"), which is the most famous of Bosnian Muslim songs, known to all Bosnians. Once again, there is simply no Croatian or Serbian content in this song, which in its most popular Bosnian Muslim version includes Turkish loan-words and apparent Islamic religious signifiers. The lyrics refer to a young man tempted by a beautiful girl while carrying a white sheep to Bembaša, a location in Sarajevo associated with the spiritual tradition of Sufism. The white sheep seems a reference to the animal sacrificed at the Muslim holiday of Kurban Bajram, which falls during the Islamic month of Hajj pilgrimage and commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son at God's order.
The Bartók-Lord collection contains many such examples, yet one finds no substantial reference to Bosnian Muslim culture as an autonomous identifier or to the presence of Islamic names, if nothing else, in these songs, and only formal references to Turkish culture in regard to musical modes. The Bartók-Lord volume includes bibliographic references to Croatian and Serbian works, but to nothing from Bosnian Muslim scholarship. Nobody should surrender to conspiracy theories in examining this matter, but it is difficult to ignore the apparent assimilation of Albanian and Islamic creativity to the politically and ideologically dominant Slavic and Christian standard. That was considered normatively "Yugoslav" in the educational and cultural environment, from primary schools to universities, of the former Yugoslavia, and among professional South Slavic scholars abroad. The impact of the Bartók-Parry-Lord canon on the Anglo-American approach to folk poetics was accompanied by a thorough "Slavization" in the established academic narrative.
The most curious aspect of this conundrum is the apparent obliviousness of Bartók to the reality of the texts, the nature of which he could be expected to recognize with little effort. Bartók was Hungarian, and the Magyars governed Bosnia, failed to completely subdue Croatia, and ruled over a considerable number of Serbs. Indeed, the present-day spoken and written standard in Serbia proper, adopted in defiance of the Croatian-inspired "Yugoslavist" version of BCS, is based on a form spoken in the former Hungarian territory of Vojvodina. How could Bartók not recognize the difference between Croatian or Serbian folk styles and Muslim ballads and lyrics? He seems only to have gone along with the sacred legend of Milman Parry. Of what, then, was he a "connoisseur"?
As for the Albanians, twenty-six years ago, on November 6, 1982, Albert B. Lord, who had become professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Harvard, appeared as co-chairman of a farsighted conference held at the City University of New York. The event was titled "The Question of Kosova: The Present Situation and Prospects for the Future," and Professor Lord served as chair of the morning session, on "Historical Considerations and Cultural Aspects." A paper by Professor Lord, titled "The Battle of Kosovo in Albanian and Serbocroatian Oral Epic Songs," was presented in the session he chaired. Therein, he acknowledged that many of the singers Parry and he had worked with in their combined efforts were bilingual Albanians whose performances were recorded in Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian. Lord also noted that Albanian versions of these songs had previously been collected by other scholars, and treated as Albanian translations of "classic" texts edited by a Serb educational figure, Vuk Stefanović Karadžić (1787–1864). But he further offered a surprising argument: that rather than the Serbian sources having preceded and been rendered into an Albanian idiom, the two traditions "emerged more or less independent of one another" and were fused into a third, "new, strong," and, I would add, a "syncretic" tradition by the bilingual Albanians in Sandžak.
A recent and important contribution to the correct location of the origins of certain songs in the Bartók-Parry-Lord canon is that of Professor Zymer Ujkan Neziri, of the Albanological Institute of Kosovo, in his volume Studies in Folklore, Vol. I, issued in a bilingual Albanian-English edition and dedicated to Parry and Lord. Neziri situates the songs, throughout their genesis, in the Albanian culture zone. He has also documented the tragic destinies of many Albanian folk singers whose performances were recorded by Albert Lord. Some were liquidated by the Albanian Communist regime; others were executed or imprisoned in Yugoslavia as Albanian nationalists.
Today, the Parry Collection at Harvard is a prosperous scholarly facility; but while the "Homeric" character of the epic singing recorded by Parry and Lord has become an established principle of contemporary Anglo-American and Slavic literary studies, no attempt is made in these milieux to establish an authentic Greek origin for the recorded texts. A conference on "Return of the Song: The Milman Parry Collection and its Reception in the World" was held at the University of Tuzla, in Bosnia and Hercegovina, in July 2008, under the auspices of Harvard's Center for Hellenic Studies. And although nearly forty papers were presented, covering individual texts as well as the use of computers in archival work and other matters, none brought up Homer.
The great Greek forerunner has turned out to be a specter in a decades-long spectacle of cultural incomprehension, American academic arrogance, and Balkan intrigue, to which Harvard has lent itself enthusiastically, and the correction of which now seems impossible. Is revision of the Bartók-Parry-Lord canon worth any effort? Bartók's status as a great composer cannot be compromised by such complex and obscure affairs. Perhaps with the expansion of new scholarship from ex-Communist or recently independent countries like Albania, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Kosovo, American academics will begin—pardon the cliché—to look a little closer before they leap. Of course, they should have learned this lesson in their treatment of Soviet Communism, radical Islam, and many other foreign controversies, but failed to do so.