One of my favorite things about The Odyssey is the text's explicit comparison of Odysseus to a bard.
In Book 11, King Alcinous says of Odysseus "You have told your tale with the skill of a bard."
In Book 17, the swineherd Eumaeus describes the still-disguised Odysseus to Penelope thusly: "It was just as when men gaze at a bard/Who sings to them songs learned from the gods/Bittersweet songs, and they could listen forever/That's how he charmed me when he sat in my house."
And most famously in Book 21 at arguably to most gripping and important moment in the poem: "Like a musician stretching a string/Over a new peg on his lyre, and making/The twisted sheep-gut fast at either end/Odysseus strung the great bow."
We also have some implicit comparisons: Odysseus takes over the task of storyteller for four books (9 through 12) and intermittently throughout the poem as he weaves tales of varying veracity. His existence, going town to town and telling stories at each stop would have certainly resonated with an ancient bard: perhaps there was something a little bit more personal in a bard's telling of Odysseus' story? Something in Odysseus' words and experience that could also be the bard's?
From the first time I read it, I was intrigued that an ancient text could be so sophisticated as to seem aware of its subject and vice versa.
My interest in the play between Odysseus and the bard has only been heightened as I've lived the life of a modern bard and by extension a life that mirrors certain aspects of the character of Odysseus. In particular I've found there's a weird sense of self, an almost alienation, that is borne from the impermanence of travel.
Because of this, I wonder: is the comparison of Odysseus to a bard transitive? As Odysseus has some of the traits associated with bards should we also infer that the lives of bards had certain traits associated with Odysseus? How can the emotional experience I have as a touring musician help me understand what the character of Odysseus might be feeling as I tell his story?
The two most common questions I get when I tell people I'm a touring musician are:
1) Does your wife come with?
2) What do you do all day?
Both of these (generally asked without malice intended) imply that touring is something between a vacation and a part time job.
Let me tell you: it's not. It's essentially a 24 hour a day job full of (even under the best of circumstances) physical and emotional demands and continual challenges.
Don't get me wrong: it's an incredible job and my Odyssey affords me a touring lifestyle of a much higher quality than almost any independent musician (and a whole bunch of signed artists too). But it is still hard, demanding work sometimes to the point of disorientation.
Take, for instance, the day I spent at Wabash College for an evening performance one Thursday in early November.
I got to my accommodations (my friend's Holly and her husband's house) the night before at 10:30 after a performance at Valparaiso, which I wrote about HERE.
After a 6:30 wake up, I got myself together and we left a little after 8:00 for the 45 minute drive to Wabash's campus. Upon arrival, I met the Classics Department chair Bronwen to discuss the day.
From 9:45 to 11:00 I was a guest of Bronwen's Freshman Tutorial class, 13 students who were reading The Odyssey. I judged their recitation assignment (the first two lines of the poem in Greek), I performed the first 6 songs of my piece as a "preview," and then I lead a long and good discussion about book 21.
From 11:30 to 12:30 I had a lunch and discussion with a number of students who had an interest in the Classics.
At 1:00 I headed to the performance space for set up and sound check.
From 2:00 to 3:00 I did a podcast interview (which you can hear HERE).
At 3:00 Holly and I went back to her house where I was going to rest for an hour but instead I had to complete an email interview for a forthcoming show and respond to some booking emails (these shows don't book themselves after all).
At 6:00 we were back in the car on our way to campus again.
At 7:30 (finally) the actual show began.
After the show at 9:00 I had dinner with 3 students who were currently reading The Odyssey in Greek with Bronwen and at 11:00 we finally arrived back home for the night.
So that's what I did all day.
A couple of things: this was a day that didn't even include any travel, which is generally burdensome. At least I got to wake up and go to sleep in the same bed (which wasn't even a hotel bed!), a rarity.
The show itself, the thing I'm out there to do: a small part of the day. Very small. But it was great. The performance space was beautiful, the sound great, and the audience fantastic. A Classics professor offered up a lovely thought that my songs are actually like Greek lyric poetry in how they reckon with their epic source of inspiration and I quietly filed that notion away for future thought.
I tried to drift towards sleep around midnight but there was no rest for my brain. Having had a successful day and performance at Wabash, my thoughts turned towards the next leg of the journey: I had to drive to Cincinnati for a late afternoon show. I wanted to get some exercise in at some point (a run) but it looked like it was going to be too cold in the morning for the workout clothes I'd packed. The email interview I'd done for my Sunday show in Lansing: why was it so late in the game? How did my voice feel? I still had three shows to do in three days. I was behind on some booking follow ups for both The Odyssey and my other music. All these logistics swimming in my head masked some of the emotional exhaustion I was feeling: I'd given myself fully to every aspect of the day, it had all gone great, but I felt a bit like a shell of person as I lay there in the dark.
Finally I got to sleep around 12:30.
Back to where I started this post: Odysseus and the bard.
How much of the bardic experience is baked into the journeys of Odysseus? Traveling the world, telling stories, moving on.
The phrase "I'm on my way" pops up four times in my performance of The Odyssey, three times attributed to Odysseus.
When I sing those words I do so from the perspective of Odysseus, traveller in the story, but also from the perspective of Bard, traveller in the world.
My alarm goes off at 6:30 am on Friday and I sit up, ready to again be On My Way to the next town.