2003-09-23: The Singer of Tales

The Singer of Tales (1960, 2nd ed 2000)

by Albert B. Lord (1912-1991); 2nd edition, ed by Stephen A. Mitchell (?) and Gregory Nagy (1942-)

This second edition includes a very useful introduction by the editors, and a fascinating CD-ROM containing audio tacks of Yugoslav singers, film clips, and text. I was so interested in the subject that I emailed the editors, and promptly received responses. Those messages constitute the rest of this report.


Date: Wed, 24 Sep 2003 10:02:52 -0400

From: Blackstone Mike <Mike.Blackstone@irs.gov>

Subject: Singer of Tales [not IRS-related]

To: ‘samitch@fas.harvard.edu’ <samitch@fas.harvard.edu>, ‘gnagy@fas.harvard.edu’ <gnagy@fas.harvard.edu>

Thank you for your recent edition of Albert Lord’s “The Singer of Tales”. Though I have long intended to search for the book, I probably would not have found it, if not for your new edition. Also, I particularly enjoyed the CD and your introduction.

My interest in the book is primarily the methods of oral composition, and how each performer creates something new with each performance while perpetuating a continuous tradition. This book clearly shows how that can be and has been done.

While reading, I wondered how Parry’s and Lord’s ideas might be manifested in more accessible forms. (I’m limited to the American tradition and English language.) It seems to me that one possibility, perhaps worth some student following up, occurs in radio narration of some sporting events. I think it might be interesting to examine recordings or transcripts of the best announcers of baseball, basketball or football games, to see whether and how the elements of formula, theme, and performance appear and are used to generate a narrative under the pressure of completing many short event-descriptions before the next event occurs, while maintaining a (more or less) coherent whole, without knowing the ultimate end.

Such performances don’t use music, but the games have intrinsic rhythms. (I exclude such games as soccer or hockey which, to me, seem to consist primarily of turnovers.) There is not a “standard” baseball game, on which performances are variations, but a great game includes certain predictable elements, easily expressed in repeated near-standard formulas. Basketball or football is perhaps not as epic as the subject matter of the poets of the oral traditions, but it certainly appeals to a large audience. There should be a large corpus to work from in any of these sports.

Maybe this notion is not suitable for Harvard, but feel free to pass it along to anyone you think might find it interesting. Even if it is wholly without academic merit, I think such a study might be amusing.

Again, thank you for making such an interesting and thought-provoking work available.

Mike Blackstone


From: Gregory Nagy [mailto:gnagy@fas.harvard.edu]

Sent: Wednesday, September 24, 2003 1:45 PM

To: Blackstone Mike; Stephen Mitchell

Cc: Stephen Mitchell; David Elmer

Subject: Re: Singer of Tales [not IRS-related]

Dear Mike (if I may),

thank you so much for your encouraging words. I’m cc-ing my colleages at the MPCOL. With best regards, Greg

Gregory Nagy

Department of Classics

2nd floor Boylston Hall

Harvard University

Cambridge, MA 02138

Dept. phone:(617) 495-4027

office phone: (617) 495-1941

mailing address

Director’s Office

Center for Hellenic Studies

3100 Whitehaven Street, N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20008

office phone (202) 745-4446

[[Executive assistant is Jennifer Reilly, (202) 745-4400]]

office FAX: 202-332-8688

Webpage: http://www.chs.harvard.edu


From: David Elmer [mailto:delmer@fas.harvard.edu]

Sent: Wednesday, September 24, 2003 2:02 PM

To: Gregory Nagy

Cc: Blackstone Mike; Stephen Mitchell; Peter McMurray

Subject: Re: Singer of Tales [not IRS-related]

Dear Mike,

I love your formulation of this–the idea of the sporting event as a pre-conditioned but open-ended narrative is wonderful! I’m taking the liberty of forwarding your comments to a student of mine, Peter McMurray, who is interested also in applications of oral tradition models to popular culture (particularly music). Thanks, David

On Wednesday, September 24, 2003, at 01:44 PM, Gregory Nagy wrote:

Dear Mike (if I may),

thank you so much for your encouraging words. I’m cc-ing my colleages at the MPCOL. With best regards, Greg


From: Stephen Mitchell [mailto:samitch@fas.harvard.edu]

Sent: Wednesday, September 24, 2003 2:27 PM

To: David Elmer; Gregory Nagy

Cc: Blackstone Mike; Peter McMurray

Subject: Re: Singer of Tales [not IRS-related]

Dear Mike,

Let me jump on board as well and agree that this would be a terrific project, especially, it seems to me, as one would have the opportunity to study explicitly the individual announcer’s acquisition of the language necessary for announcing. Interesting project for someone to take up.

Best wishes,


Stephen Mitchell

Professor of Scandinavian and Folklore

Harvard University, 12 Quincy Street

Cambridge, MA 02138

Tel. 617-495-4788

FAX 617-495-9507


Note that I sent the message from my IRS account to assure it got attention, but added [not IRS-related] to allay fear. It will be interesting to learn if anything ever comes from my idea.


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