An Introduction to the Collection

The Milman Parry Collection is the largest single repository of South Slavic heroic song in the world. It comprises the following separate collections. All of these are currently housed in Widener Library, Room C.

  1. The texts and recordings of oral literature, including both epic and lyric songs, some stories, and conversations with singers and others, made by Professor Milman Parry of the Department of the Classics at Harvard University during the summer of 1933 and from June 1934 to September 1935, in Yugoslavia. Over 3,500 double-sided aluminum discs, with a playing time of ca. 4 min. each. Transcriptions of these songs are contained in ninety-five notebooks (14 cm. x 14 cm., 120 sides in each); dictated songs are contained in ca. 800 notebooks (14 cm. x 14 cm., 70 sides in each).
  2. The Albanian Collection of some one hundred dictated epic texts was made by Lord in the north Albanian mountains in the Fall of 1937. These texts are contained in twelve notebooks (14 cm. x 14 cm., 200 sides in each.)
  3. The Lord Collection consists of epic texts collected by him in Yugoslavia in the summers of 1950, 1951, and 1966. The last of these is little known, but contains Christian songs from the mountain ranges from Niß to Prijepolje. These songs are contained on thirty-five reel tapes (acetate).
  4. The Lord and Bynum Collection consists of texts collected by Lord and Bynum in Yugoslavia in the summers of 1962-1965 and 1967.

Genesis of the Collection

Milman Parry did not set out to establish one of the world’s preeminent collections of oral epics; that he did so was a by-product of his main purpose. By the early 1930s, he was carefully planning to set, as he himself wrote, “lore against literature” in a rational and scientific search for the mechanisms of oral poetry. Against the backdrop of competing theories about the Homeric and other great epics – the views of so-called “analysts” and “unitarians,” advocates of the Liedertheorie, and so on – Parry sought to immerse himself in a living tradition of oral song, an idea which had suggested itself to him already as a student under Antoine Meillet in Paris (1925-28). The specific “Homeric Problem” Parry hoped to solve had long dominated discussions of this ancient poetry: how had the author of the Iliad and Odyssey composed those two great poems at the very beginning of European literary tradition? What distinguished Parry from most other scholars who posed this question was the hypothesis he developed, namely, that these epics were not originally literary at all, but rather the products of an archaic Greek oral tradition that was older than any written literature in Europe. And what particularly set Parry apart from other researchers was his formulation of a test capable of moving the debate from the content of oral songs to the process by which such songs are produced by examining a living tradition of oral poetry and learning how it worked.

Already in Paris, Parry had met Mathias [Matija] Murko and been introduced to the world of the Serbo-Croatian epic, but the Balkans were not Parry’s first choice for this scientific literary experiment: he had hoped to conduct the project in the Soviet Union, but visa difficulties forced him to look elsewhere. Once he had settled on the South Slavic area, however, Parry began to design the means by which he could test his hypotheses in the still-vibrant tradition of oral epic in the Balkans. These matters he elegantly lays out in 1933 in his initial report on his work (“Project for a Study of Jugoslavian Popular Oral Poetry”):

My purpose in undertaking the study of this poetry was as follows. My Homeric studies have from the beginning shown me that Homeric poetry, and indeed all early Greek poetry, is oral, and so can be properly understood, criticized, and edited only when we have a complete knowledge of the processes of oral poetry; this is also true for other early poetries such as Anglo-Saxon, French, or Norse, to the extent they are oral. This knowledge of the processes of an oral poetry can be had up to a certain point by the study of the character of a style, e.g., of the Homeric poems; but a full knowledge can be had only by the accumulation from a living poetry of a body of experimental texts sought after in accordance with a fixed plan to show, for example: (a) to what extent an oral poet who composes a new poem is dependent upon the traditional poetry as a whole for his phraseology, his scheme of composition, and the thought of his poem; (b) to what extent a poem, original or traditional, is stable in successive recitations of a given singer; (c) how a poem is changed in a given locality over a number of years; (d) how it is changed in the course of its travels from one region to another; (e) in what ways a given poem travels from one region to another, and the extent to which the poetry travels; (f) the different sources of the material from which a given heroic cycle is created; (g) the factors that determine the creation, growth, and decline of the heroic cycle; (h) the relation of the events of an historical cycle to the actual events; and so on and so on.

As late as the mid-1930s, no one had collected songs of this sort in what might be regarded as a natural way, that is, without artificial breaks necessitated by the demands of the limited available recording technology. To this end, Parry had Sound Specialties Company of Waterbury, Connecticut prepare for him a recording device consisting of two turntables connected by a toggle switch. The careful back-and-forth alternation of the turntables allowed the normal time limit of several minutes of recording on a 12″ disk to be expanded virtually infinitely. Clumsy though such a device may seem by contemporary standards, it quite remarkably allowed the singers Parry met to continue their songs as fit their designs, and not the necessities of the sound-recording medium. Something much closer to epic in its natural environment with respect to such important facets of performance as length, rests, and the character of composition suddenly became available.

Following an initial study in the summer of 1933, Parry returned from June 1934 to September 1935 and was assisted by Albert Lord (his former student at Harvard), Nikola Vujnovià (a singer from Stolac, Hercegovina), Ibro Beça (also a guslar from Hercegovina), Hamdija Íakovià and Ibrahim Hrustanovià (“two young Moslems” who collected many of the women’s songs), Ilija Kutuzov (a Russian émigré teaching in the gymnasium in Dubrovnik, who moved to Belgrade in September 1934), and a number of typists. During their 15-month collecting trip, he and his team of assistants assembled more than 12,500 individual texts, mostly in written form, but also a great number through sound recordings on more than 3,500 individual 12″ aluminum discs. The number of heroic songs (junaçke pjesme) and women’s songs (áenske pjesme) is itself quite astonishing, but the sheer magnitude of their work can sometimes mask more important elements of what they accomplished. In line with Parry’s intention of not merely observing and recording oral tradition, he and his co-workers were careful about what they collected, as well as experimental in their approach to the materials. Thus, Parry writes with respect to his initial study, “I was able to obtain in the few weeks of the summer a number of the sorts of texts I sought, e.g. several recitations of the same poem by the same singer; recitation of the same poem from uncle and nephew; several recitations of the same poem from the same region and from neighboring regions; versions from uncontaminated traditions of certain of the more famous poems which have been printed in other versions over the period of a hundred years that the poetry has been noted; a poem composed immediately after the narration of an event; and so on.” Subsequent reports from Parry do not diminish in enthusiasm for the materials he was encountering and recording, but it is from the draft of a text intended for a popular audience written in 1937 by Parry’s youthful assistant, Albert Lord, that we form the liveliest impression of how events unfolded (the figures cited are to the accompanying photographs also included with the CD of included in the 40th anniversiary of Albert Lord’s book Singer of Tales due out in the spring of 2000):

The best method of finding singers was to visit a Turkish coffee house, and make inquiries there. This is the center for the peasant on market day, and the scene of entertainment during the evening of the month of Ramazan. We found such a place on a side street, dropped in, and ordered coffee. Lying on the bench not far from us was a Turk smoking a cigarette in an antique silver “cigarluk” (cigarette holder). He was a tall, lean and impressive person. (Fig 27) At a break in our conversation he joined in. He knew of singers. The best, he said, was a certain Avdo Medjédovitch, a peasant farmer who lived an hour way. How old is he? Sixty, sixty-five. Does he know how to read or write? Nézna, bráte! (No, brother!) And so we went for him and ordered coffee for our new friend, Bégan Lyútsa Nikshitch. Bégan was a find. The son of famous Captain Mehmed of Nikshitch who had led the Turks in the defense of that city, he had been chosen by King Nikola to be an adjutant in his court. (Fig. 28) While we were waiting for Avdo to arrive Bégan told of his life.

Finally Avdo came (Fig. 29), and he sang for us old Salih’s favorite of the taking of Bagdad in the days of Sultan Selim. We listened with increasing interest to this short homely farmer, whose throat was disfigured by a large goiter. He sat cross-legged on the bench, sawing the gusle, swaying in rhythm with the music. He sang very fast, sometimes deserting the melody, and while the bow went lightly back and forth over the string, he recited the verses at top speed. A crowd gathered. A card game, played by some of the modern young men of the town, noisily kept on, but was finally broken up.

The next few days were a revelation. Avdo’s songs were longer and finer than any we had heard before. He could prolong one for days, and some of them reached fifteen or sixteen thousand lines. Other singers came, but none could equal Avdo, our Yugoslav Homer.

Milman Parry died in an accident shortly after returning to the United States, on December 5, 1935, and the project of continuing his work fell on the shoulders of a youthful Albert Lord. One fact that had constantly caught the attention of Parry was that the finest singing seemed to come mainly from the Moslem districts, and even there, some of his best singers – such as Salih Ugljanin – were bilingual speakers of “Bosnian” and Albanian. As Parry notes in another report, “In Novi Pazar I found a moslem who had been raised in the area of Southern Serbia which is largely bilingual, who could sing the same song either in Serbian or Albanian, and accordingly I hope to obtain some definite evidence on the passage of songs between peoples of different languages.” Thus, as a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows, Lord returned two years later to the Balkans, and collected songs in northern Albania in 1937. Lord returned to Yugoslavia to make further recordings on a number of occasions, including in the 1960s, but it was perhaps especially his work there in 1950 and 1951, that Lord fulfilled Parry’s plan by re-recording from the same areas and from some of the same singers, including Avdo Meæedovià.

The cultural and humanistic (even humanitarian) import of the Collection is all the more timely today in view of the recent history of former Yugoslavia. The Curators are convinced that we cannot really understand the deep social problems of that region without coming to terms with the song cultures that in some ways have caused and in many other ways can now redeem those problems. To give one example, the Parry Collection owns audio and transcribed recordings of “bilingual singers” – who can sing the heroic songs of one culture in Albanian poetic language and the heroic songs of the antithetical “Bosnian” culture in Serbo-Croatian. Such documented instances of poetic “bilingualism,” we suggest, can serve as a point of entry for exploring common ground between seemingly irreconcilable world views.