March 28, 2019 - Orality and Literacy Conference, Austin, Texas

I’m sitting outside a UT-Austin conference room listening to the end of a lecture that’s part of the 13th Biennial Orality and Literacy in the Ancient World Conference. I’m waiting to go in and perform my Odyssey for a roomful of academics from around the world, many of whom are considered the absolute experts in Homer, oral poetry, and oral performance.

I’m nervous.

And I never get nervous for an Odyssey performance.

Almost 300 shows in, I’ve been in every possible type of venue in front of every size and type of audience and feeling just about every way a performer can feel.

I’ve sung for an audience of 8 and an audience of 800.

I’ve led discussions with audiences of middle school students, Ivy League students, graduate students, professors, and the general public.

I’ve survived technical equipment failures, physical vocal failures, illness, broken strings, audience interruptions…

I’ve done three performances in one day.

I’ve performed outdoors, indoors, in acoustically perfect rooms, in acoustically atrocious rooms, even sitting on a table…

But almost 300 shows into this adventure, I’m not sure I’ve ever had a day quite like the late-March Thursday I had at University of Texas-Austin.

Let me back up and explain.

I’ve been to Austin two times previously at the invitation of Professor Tom Palaima, who has been an enthusiastic supporter of my Odyssey since I sent him a cold email in 2014.  I wrote about my 2017 visit HERE. Tom has been instrumental in the development of my interest in and understanding of veterans issues, both ancient and modern.

This visit was initially supposed to involve no Odyssey performance at all: Tom wanted me to come and perform some songs for a class he teaches on Bob Dylan’s music and then also talk to a class he teaches on War and Violence, which does quite a bit of work on the Iliad.  When we first discussed the visit last year I had completed exactly zero songs of my Iliad project.  I was mired in reading source-material, conducting interviews, and really struggling to get my head around how I wanted to adapt Homer’s war epic.  

But after an early 2019 epiphany led to me writing 16 Iliad-based songs in January and then in February a “script” of sorts to contextualize the songs, I decided to use this class appearance to try out these new Iliad songs for the first time.  

Then, just a couple weeks before the trip, I was talking with Professor Justin Arft at University of Tennessee-Knoxville about my upcoming Odyssey performance there (in April) and he mentioned he would be in Austin at the same time I was for a conference on… Orality and Literacy in the Ancient World, a subject in which Homer figures prominently.

What were the chances?

Justin went to bat for me as did Tom with the conference organizer (another Classic professor at Texas, Deborah Beck), and she graciously agreed to schedule me to perform on Thursday at the end of the conference sessions, after I was done with Tom’s classes.

So Wednesday I flew down to Austin. I had lunch with an old friend from middle and hig -school and then Tom and I went out to a great old-school Austin dive bar to see some excellent local music.

Thursday we were up bright and early and by 9:00 I was on campus in a seminar room with two excellent Austin-based musicians (Guy Forsyth and Giulia Millanta) drinking coffee and swapping tour stories.

At 9:30 we began playing songs and leading a discussion with about 20 students and faculty. I played Don’t Think Twice, Guy played Masters of War, I played Up to Me, Giulia played Simple Twist of Fate, I played Not Dark Yet. It was wonderful. The students were wonderful and even though I had never performed those three songs, I felt great about how my versions came off, in particular Up to Me, which is an epic in its own way.

After a couple of hours to have lunch and rest, Tom’s War and Violence class convened in a small classroom with an oval table. Seven honors students gathered and after giving a bit of background on my work with the Odyssey and my new investigation of the Iliad, I started playing the songs I wrote in January, my lyrics resting on the table in front of me.

Only one other human (my wife) had heard these songs prior and I was brimming with nervous excitement over sharing this new work with Tom and his students.

It went great: I set up and played each song and then we discussed it.  I got through nine of the sixteen songs: they were well-received and the students and Tom gave me invaluable feedback and encouragement.

The class wrapped and we hustled over to the building in which the conference was being held and there I found myself, nervously awaiting my chance to perform my Odyssey for a roomful of scholars in the context of a conference dedicated to the study of the very thing I was to perform.

After a full day of talking and singing, my voice was already pretty much cashed and I set up my power point and looked out at the several dozen academics who comprised my audience.

I gave a short introduction and away I went.  

I could feel my voice at the ends of its capabilities, raw and worn.  I channeled it towards the characters in the Odyssey and pushed it to particularly vulnerable places.  

As often happens, I suddenly found myself at the end of the song, listening to my final harmonics decay.

The room broke into sustained and warm applause.

The discussion that followed was gracious, intense, challenging and as gratifying as any I’ve had. The attendees connected what I do to some of the very things they’d spent the day considering: composition, re-performance, and repetition.

I packed my guitar up and Tom and I went for dinner.

By the time my head hit the pillow it was nearly midnight.

I drifted off to sleep with my brain flitting from scene to scene of the day’s performances, each one a sweet moment of inspiration and human connection, the sum of decades of work on and commitment to a craft and a field and a business. 

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