“The Oral Tradition”
by Kate Zebrowski
Having an Irish mother, as a very small child I was taken in by the sound of words hitched one to another to create a story or a song. I particularly love the spoken, as well as the written word, because of the way it changes from person to person. With each different voice, the pronunciation of syllables and cadences will vary. A story told from one person to another can sound the same but have a different meaning. The ancient sound of the ballads created by bards always makes me pause and listen.
As recently as the 19th century great poets like Whitman were sometimes referred to as bards, yet the history of this kind of poetry is far older. In the Celtic cultures, bards were professional storytellers, verse makers, music composers, oral historians, and genealogists who could be employed to commemorate a battle or one’s ancestors. On the other hand, bards known for their satire also evinced the power of words to ruin a reputation. Bards might even be seen as priests or seers. However, the real purveyors of the oral tradition, to me, are the families throughout the world who told stories from generation to generation. Yes, I have always loved the written word, but I have an especially deep reverence and awe of the spoken. That I was able to grow up among stories told and sung is a gift I always cherish.
I have a great admiration for people like the 19th century American Scholar Francis James Child who collected ballads from Ireland and the British Isles. How amazing is it that we still have stories like “The Ballad of Mattie Grove” dating back to at least 1613, when the title then was “Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard”? This traditional ballad/song/story has had many variations over the centuries as it was passed on from singer to singer. The noble man has at least a dozen different names, including Lord Arlen, Lord Donald, and Lord Bernard. Sometimes the story begins at church; sometimes at a ball. Sometimes he receives a warning and sometimes he doesn’t. The basic story is always the same. A noble woman invites Mattie to come stay with her while her husband is away; the nobleman comes back unexpectedly and finds them together. In the story, as the characters express exasperation at the rules they must follow in society, the hearer feels the anticipation of the confrontation. Mattie, who’s then trapped, has no choice but to try to fight back; and, finally, we hear the woman’s strong anguish when Mattie is slain. A story that so powerfully conveys the pain of humanity oppressed by unjust conventions and destroyed by violence and anger survives, endures not only in the words themselves but in the act of telling. It always amazes me that the same story can be told in so many different ways. My favorite version of Mattie Groves can be heard on YouTube performed by Joan Baez.
The stories of Robin Hood actually go back to about the 15th century; but, unfortunately, I learned Robin, who was most likely not one person but several assorted men, did rob from the rich but did not give to the poor – he kept it all to himself! To get the story of a real outlaw who helped the poor, you have to go to the 1930s, when my favorite modern-day balladeer, Woody Guthrie, wrote a song about Pretty Boy Floyd, known to rob the rich, then help the poor farmers in Oklahoma. You can hear this ballad performed on YouTube by Woody, his son Arlo, or Pete Seeger. I have used Woody Guthrie for inspiration in a few on my poems, particularly one called “Requiem for My Brothers” in the Gone Stealin’ Collection.” The image I create is of him riding on the roof of a train, trying to cover his guitar but then taking it out and playing because music is: “beyond the reach of a thief and beyond the warping of the rain.”
There is also a line in one of my poems about my great aunts who came over from Brittany in The Immigrant Collection. I describe one straightforwardly as small and petite. The other, when I knew her was way too old to be pregnant, but her body had lost its youthful shape after birthing nine children. Inspired by old ballads, especially a line from “Careless Love” (“once I wore my apron low and now my apron strings won’t pin.”), I described how those pregnancies had reshaped her body: “her apron did not hang so low behind her waist.” For me, then, the spoken word has always presented a kind of layered meaning to bring to my writing.
As much as I love to read and write, all my life the creative urge has been spurred on by traditional ballads, the power of words spoken, and the universal sharing of information, warnings, and every emotion from fear to joy to relief in the telling of a good story.
Catherine Zebrowski has had two chapbooks of poetry published inspired by her Irish Heritage Immigrant and Gone Stealin’ available through lulu.com. Her novels, Sleepwalking Backwards (2017) and Through a Bakery Window (2021)were published by TouchPoint Press and are available on Amazon. She is currently working on another novel and a poetry collection. Visit her web site at Catherine Zebrowski Writer.