In the last few years I've embraced calling myself a "modern bard."
This is both good marketing and largely true: I'm doing largely the same things ancient Greek bards and rhapsodes did and in the context of the same stories they told.
But I sometimes wonder (and it often comes up in discussion) about other modern performers who embody aspects of the ancient bard.
I usually list the following:
Rapper/emcee: exhibits the same virtuosity of language, meter, and improvisation
Jazz musician: manipulates a musical vocabulary over canonized forms (standards)
Standup comic: goes town to town, varies jokes by location, truth-teller to a drunk audience, variations of stock jokes/premises
I like these all a lot but my favorite comparison is Delta blues musician. I picture Robert Johnson (or any of his predecessors/contemporaries) trouping around the Juke Joint circuit, playing a different town each night, locally reinventing the canon of blues songs that were passed around orally, singing songs of human suffering and truth.
Even the lyrical structure of a 12 bar blues tune bears the practical hallmarks of oral composition... if you repeat your first line ("I went to the crossroad fell down on my knees") a second time, it gives you time and brainpower to think of the rhyming punchline ("Asked the Lord above 'have mercy, save poor Bob if you please'") so you can make up verse upon endless verse of new lyrics and variations.
I was lucky enough to visit the historical Crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi, on one of my Odyssey trips... but that's a story for another time.
For this run of five shows in five days, which kicked off at Valparaiso University on a Wednesday evening, I'm going to write about the nitty-gritty experience of being a modern bard... the day-to-day challenges of being on the road and performing each day... I've said a lot here about the wonderful aspects of it (literally: they often leave me full of wonder) but it's also grueling and can get pretty dark emotionally and physically.
Clearly all traveling musicians (and people who travel for business in general) will recognize a lot of what I'm going to describe. The last couple decades have also undoubtedly made certain aspects of travel easier: I remember when my dad used to travel for business in the 80's and 90's we'd have to wait for him to call at a particular time each night... no cell phones let alone texting!
But given that the story I tell is about a traveler and I'm emulating the original tellers of his tale in my experience, I feel as if I have a heightened awareness of and relationship to the traveling lifestyle.
So on this decidedly fall-like Wednesday afternoon I drove the short hour from Chicago to Valparaiso University in Indiana. Pulling into town a little early I found a Starbucks, got some coffee, and then made it to campus where I was able to easily locate the performance room to begin setting up.
My contact professor came to meet me as did a sign language interpreter, who would be signing my entire performance for a student: this was neat. She (the interpreter) asked me what I wanted my Storm and Fight instrumentals to "look like." I was baffled: I told her to use her judgement once she heard them.
The crowd filled in very nicely, the lights came down and away I went with the interpreter by my side. Still in shape from the previous week of shows in New York I felt very good about how I sang and the discussion following was excellent. A group of high school students came up to take selfies with me for extra credit. After the performance, a smaller group joined up in a classroom for a reception and further discussion.
And then just like that I was back into the rain for a somewhat harrowing (dark one lane highway) two and a half hour drive south to where I staying near Wabash College in Brownsburg, Indiana (about 30 minutes west of Indianapolis).
Losing the hour to the eastern time zone meant that I pulled into the driveway at my host's house at 10:30 or so. My host was Holly, a friend from my Madison days: she was in the Ph.D. program when I was an undergrad. She is actually a professor at Millsaps in Mississippi (at which I was performing when I visited the Crossroads) but is spending a year teaching at Wabash in conjunction with husband's job.
We spent some time having a drink and catching up and then I headed to bed at midnight local time with the alarm set for 6:30 and the second leg of my fall tour was underway.