• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Sometimes truth proves considerably stranger than fiction, and serendipity more instructive than carefully wrought analysis. What follows is one of those cases: a real-life event that illustrates firsthand the close correspondence between oral tradition and the Internet, between the oAgora and the eAgora. In other words, it amounts to a parable on the confluence of OT and IT (Internet Technology) that, remarkably enough, really happened.

The back-story: from performance to book

Let’s start with the OT background. In late 2004 a book entitled The Wedding of Mustajbey’s Son Bećirbey as Performed by Halil Bajgorić appeared as volume 283 in Folklore Fellows Communications, then the latest in a lengthy series of books that began about a century ago in 1910. As its title suggests, this brick-and-mortar publication features a South Slavic oral epic performance by the bard (or guslar) Halil Bajgorić, who despite not being able to read or write boasted a repertoire of some thirty oral epics. The performance in question was recorded on aluminum discs by Milman Parry and Albert Lord on June 13, 1935, in the small village of Dabrica in central Bosnia, and later converted to a digital audiotape by David Elmer in 2002.

Notice the culturally sanctioned trajectory from performance to book, fully in accord with the dominant ideology of the text. The audio “capture” of Bajgorić’s enactment modulates into a visual artifact, a voiceless cenotaph on the page. But of course there was a price: from oral tradition to aluminum records to digital tape to paper, the long journey into silence meant radical reduction at almost every stage. Presence gave way to echo, which in turn gave way to a documentary image of the echo. Culturally sanctioned or not, we’d have to admit that this trajectory traces a downward spiral of reality, with OT devolving from a living process to a static product. Bajgorić’s performance moved from its origin in the oAgora to another kind of existence in the tAgora.

Strategy # 1: Reading aids

My initial attempt at reversing this serial reduction involved providing the book-reader as much of what was lost as the printed medium would allow. Toward this end the paper edition features a variety of “reading aids.” In addition to a transcription of the original performance in South Slavic and an English translation, I added a biographical portrait of the singer Bajgorić and his craft, a performance-based commentary, a digest of traditional language and context, and a study of another singer’s remaking of the original song. Two colleagues, Wakefield Foster and R. Scott Garner, contributed analyses of musical aspects and performance variables, respectively. Via these strategies, then, dimensions of Bajgorić’s performance that had been lost during its journey from voice to paper were added back into the printed resource. All for the sake of creating a truer experience and, I hoped, a better audience.

But it was still a book. You still had to turn pages. You had to leaf through chapters and scurry back and forth to notes in order to knit these discrete, freestanding parts into some sort of facsimile unity. Ironically enough, the very act of using the composite paper edition underlined its built-in limitations as a vehicle for re-integration. You chose which page and part to read, and once you made that choice you automatically disengaged from everything else – at least until you exited one particular page or part in order to consult the next one. And of course the experience was still wholly and unremittingly visual. In short, while the composite edition promised and delivered more than a simple text, it just wasn’t enough. The performance was still only a book.

Strategy # 2: Online audio

So I next tried to look (and hear) beyond the confines of the multidimensional text. With the aim of bringing more of the original performance back to life, the next move was to make available an online audio file of the entire 1030-line performance preserved in the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature at Harvard University. A few months before the published book appeared, you could both read and listen to the epic as a multimedia experience online. More to the point, that audiovisual experience was easily accessible and free of charge to anyone anywhere in the world via that most democratic of all media: the worldwide web. OT was being “published” via IT.

Strategy # 3: The eEdition, a performance facsimile

So far, so good. But there was another step to take in order to resynchronize the event, to reassemble the textually dismembered performance. In other words, the challenge was to meld the edition’s segregated parts into a more integral, interactive whole. Once again, an IT strategy came to the rescue, this time with the invention of the eEdition.

What is an eEdition and how does it compare to the kind of edition we’re used to making and using? In addition to the full transcription, translation, and audio at the website, I aimed to create a prototype electronic version of the performance. Designed to foster audience reception, the eEdition contains each of the parts that make up the composite paper edition, but with a major difference – you never have to turn a page to use them. Consider the implications for reader-listeners: instead of remaining exiled from the performance arena, an inevitable casualty of the spatialized format of the book, the reader-listener can tap into an experience. Here’s how it works.

Open the home page and you immediately encounter not simply the transcription and translation, but a set of interpretive tools. Click first on “Performance” to set the interactive process in motion. Now click on the links within the translation – as many as you like and in whatever order you wish – and a traditional glossary of specialized meanings will appear in a small box located just to the right of the translation. Click on the “C” at the end of most lines to consult the relevant commentary, which will pop up in the same small box. With the sound-file playing concurrently (click to activate the mp3 file), the reader-listener need never exit the multimedia experience of the performance. To a degree that freestanding books can never emulate, this facility reassembles and resynchronizes the event of performance and puts you “on the same page” as the original audience.

Taken as a whole, then, the eEdition integrates the sound, story, meaning, and context of the performance. It converts an item back into an experience and offers the reader-listener a chance to join the original singer’s audience as an eParticipant – albeit in facsimile. OT is reconstituted, and with much increased fidelity, by IT. The oldest medium is reincarnated in the newest.

Keeping IT (and OT) in the family

But our “OT-and-IT Vignette” doesn’t end there. You’ve heard the back-story; here comes the serendipity.

One day, quite out of the ether, I received an e-mail from a certain Ćamil Bajgorić, who pronounced himself interested in reading The Wedding of Mustajbey’s Son Bećirbey. It seems he’d discovered an online reference to the eEdition while surfing, and was contacting me because the URL wasn’t working. (The problem was straightforward enough, as I quickly wrote back; he’d simply caught us at a point of transition between servers.)

Now as a rule, broken links are a dependable source of embarrassment, but in this instance the reported malfunction turned out to be a stroke of good luck. Think about it: if the URL had functioned smoothly and invisibly, Mr. Bajgorić could have silently accessed the eEdition without my knowledge, used it in whatever way and for whatever purpose he had in mind, and exited without much of a trace. I’d never have become aware of his interest, and I’d have no story to tell. And that, as will be explained in a moment, would have been a shame.

Why? Because Ćamil went on to mention that the guslar (or epic singer) Halil Bajgorić, the performer of the epic he wanted to read and hear, was none other than his own grandfather! He wanted to read and hearthe story, of course, but part of his motivation was also, shall we say, genealogical. With the kin-connection to spur us on, we rapidly finished migrating the eEdition to the new server and restored the link so that the singer’s grandson (and you, if you so choose) could experience his grandfather’s performance in multimedia. Thanks to the eAgora, OT remains virtually available via IT.

The OT-IT link embodied

Thinking back over this extraordinary sequence of events in the weeks that followed, I was struck by the fact that Halil’s epic and Ćamil’s request mimed the fundamental connection in the Pathways Project. The real-life episode synced OT and IT in a memorable way because it bridged oral tradition and the Internet, and did so booklessly.

Halil, himself preliterate, composed his epic without the cognitive prosthesis of the page, and Ćamil sought to attend that performance via the virtual reality of the Internet. The composite paper edition – the culturally sanctioned vehicle – never figured in the interface between grandfather and grandson (at least until I sent Ćamil a copy of the book!). Moreover, by reintegrating various dimensions of the song-performance into a single form reflective of the original event, the eEdition allowed the grandson a far more genuine experience of his grandfather’s performance than a conventional paper edition could ever manage.

Halil and Ćamil Bajgorić lived in vastly different worlds. One was a preliterate farm laborer from a tiny village in Bosnia whose sole technology of communication was oral tradition. The other is a book- and computer-literate resident of Michigan interested in learning more about his familial and ethnic identity. Although their life experiences were starkly disparate (and although they apparently never met “ftf,” as the jargon has it), each in his own way became a navigator of pathways. And in the final analysis it was precisely their parallel modes of navigation that brought them together, long after discontinuities in space and time seemed to preclude any sort of meeting.

OT as IT made that connection.