One of the most fascinating books I’ve read in recent years is Orality and Literacy by Walter J Ong, a study of purely oral cultures and the changes in consciousness and culture that occur with the advent of writing, and later print and electronic communication. At one point we are asked to imagine Homer, the ancient Greek blind itinerant poet and harp player, being called on at a gathering to recite the story of the Trojan war. Everyone has had a few glasses of wine. Homer doesn’t sing it the same way every time. He tailors the story for his audience. He starts in the middle, with an exciting scene to draw the audience in, and then flashes back to flesh out the narrative, giving the story an episodic quality. He draws on a vocabulary of stock phrases, altering them as needed to fit his purposes. The audience is enthralled. Reading about Homer and his fellow bards, it occurred to me that western culture was essentially founded by a bunch of touring musicians. The question remains however: did Homer sell merchandise? Since ancient concert tunics are unlikely to survive at archaeological sites, we can only speculate about this question.

Throughout most of human history, culture has been entirely oral. Writing is a fairly recent development, and most human languages that have existed have had no written form. Purely oral cultures operate quite differently than literate ones. Since the human mind is the only way information can be preserved, people in these societies develop tremendous powers of memory. People in oral cultures tend to be more socially oriented, concrete thinkers, averse to abstraction. They tend to use oral language in a creative, combative way, like a game. Because it aids memory, narrative is of crucial importance, as are the exploits of larger than life heroic figures. Other important information, like genealogies, gets embedded in these narratives. Think of the endless series of begats in the Old Testament. Not everyone thought that the invention of writing was a great idea, and the conversion to literacy in Greece took hundreds of years. One of the earliest criticisms of writing was that humans would lose their prodigious powers of memory, something that did in fact happen.

Music of course is a great aid to memory, so traveling musicians and storytellers become crucial repositories of cultural knowledge in oral cultures. Musicians had a role in oral societies that they mostly no longer have in modern societies, as preservers of cultural history and tradition, as teachers. This expanded social role does survive in some modern societies, among the griots of Mali, for example. In oral cultures certain formulaic lines get passed around the community of storytellers, with the creativity coming from how the individual weaves these standard lines into an original composition. Think of the delta blues, a modern form of music arising from a predominantly oral culture, where many lines appear in song after song, with the creativity arising from the original interpretation of these stock phrases by the singer. The idea of copyright, or ownership of a work, is completely foreign to oral cultures, indeed it appears only with the advent of print. In oral societies, all knowledge is communal.

I think it is unlikely that musicians will ever return to their role as repositories of cultural knowledge in our modern, electronic age. However despite the existence of recording, electronic music, and the internet, music still draws heavily on oral practices. There is still nothing like the excitement of a great live performance. When we gather around live musicians and truly listen to the stories that they tell, we are still in some way like those ancient people gathered around Homer, listening to him sing of great heroes and terrible battles. We are engaging in a tradition as old as humanity itself.