I’ve been rereading The Odyssey in full for the first time in several years, a book each day. It’s been amazing to see how my perspective on a story I know so well has changed.
It’s my first full reading of the poem since I started taking a more active interest in veterans and veterans’ affairs and understanding The Odyssey as a soldier song. Like many things in life, this development came about through an equal mix of chance and magic.
In 2014 I started volunteering with an organization called Guitars for Vets which arranges free guitar lessons at VA hospitals to help mitigate the effects of PTSD, depression, and mood-related isolation. Once a week at the Jesse Brown VA in Chicago I teach private lessons to two veterans as part of a ten week course and then hold an alumni jam session for all who have completed the ten week course. Each veteran who “graduates” gets a free guitar as a graduation gift.
It had been amazing to watch music work its magic on both an individual and group level, and equally as amazing to connect with veterans across several generations and hear their stories.
I got involved with Guitars for Vets as a way to honor my grandfather (a proud WWII veteran), use music to ease suffering, and also to challenge myself to separate my conception of the military from the individual human soldiers who serve.
So what does this have to do with Austin, Texas, and The Odyssey?
As chance would have it, right about the time I began to volunteer with Guitars for Vets I was also undertaking my first large-scale marketing campaign for The Odyssey, researching and emailing nearly every college-level Classics program in the country in search of performance opportunities. By chance, a professor named Tom Palaima at UT-Austin responded to my cold email almost immediately and expressed interest in bringing me to UT. The following April of 2015, I arrived in Austin as Tom’s guest to perform for his Classical Myth class.
Tom made his mark on Classical scholarship writing about Mycenae and Linear B (a proto-Greek language) but his broader interests include war, human behavior, and violence, and how ancient sources can and should inform our modern understandings of each. In his myth class, he framed the Homeric poems as “soldier songs,” and that characterization stuck with me. We had generous conversations while I was visiting and afterwards, sharing relevant material of both a classical and musical nature.
Tom was kind enough to invite me back to perform for his myth class again this year, and I spent a whirlwind 18 hours on the ground in Austin this Thursday doing just that before jumping on a plane headed for Seattle and my next shows.
Tom has long been part of a growing effort to engage the public around classical source material as a way to spark critical conversation about war and veterans. Across the country, veterans read The Iliad in book groups and use it as a way to discuss combat, trauma, and a host of other issues. Books like Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America have connected the stories of ancient soldiers and warfare with those of the last century, and our involvement in multiple wars in the last two decades has only increased the relevance and the demand for such thinking.
While you can’t read The Iliad without being confronted by the bare existential horrors of war, The Odyssey is a little trickier. It takes place, after all, 10 year after the end of the Trojan War. It is what the Greeks would have a called a “nostos,” meaning “homecoming,” and every hero of the Trojan War would have had his own particular nostos, his own homecoming story.
Similarly, every one of our soldiers, and indeed every soldier that has ever fought in a war, has his or her own nostos. Some of them involve a 10 year journey home on the sea. Some involve a 10 hour flight across that very same sea. But all of them face the task of reintegrating themselves into their home life, just as Odysseus had to do. And every spouse, child, parent, and friend of every veteran is also impacted in some way by this absence and return, just as were Penelope, Telemachus, Antikleia and Laertes (Odysseus’ mother and father).
Take for instance, this bit of magic that happened at one of my performances for a high school audience several years ago.
During our discussion after I sang, a girl of about 16 raised her hand and volunteered that she had been particularly moved by the song in which I portray Telemachus (who was an infant when Odysseus left for Troy) meeting and recognizing his father for the first time upon Odysseus’ return home.
I asked her what about the song she found relevant and she said that it captured what she felt at the age of 5 when her father was deployed to Iraq for a tour of duty. She remembered that when he returned, she felt she had to reintroduce herself to him because she had changed so much in his absence.
So one soldier song leads to another and to another and soon you begin to understand that if you listen, you can hear them everywhere, stretching from Homer’s poems to the voices of our current wars, and on and on and on into the static of future conflicts that seem all but inevitable.