The first line of The Odyssey, ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε μοῦσα πολύτροπον ὃς μάλα πολλὰ, is one of the most famous beginnings in literature but I have always been just as if not more intrigued by the lesser heralded third line: πολλῶν δ᾽ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω
"He (Odysseus) saw the cities and knew the mind (sic) of many men"
The idea of Odysseus as a seeker of experience and knowledge informs my lyrics and portrayal of his character. Some of the last words of my piece are “I just need to know,” a direct reference to this third line.
And as I've discovered, seeing cities and knowing minds is not only an aspect of Odysseus' character but also an experience of bards who sing his tale: My Odyssey-related travels have enabled me to see parts of our country that would likely have otherwise remained remote to me and have led to me developing an affinity for certain cities a little off the beaten path.
Cities like Jackson, Mississippi, home of Millsaps College, a small liberal arts school at which I was to perform as the last stop of my humidity-laden southeastern September tour. As I drove the seven hours from Tallahassee to Jackson through brief but intense waves of Gulf rain I thought about my first two visits to this southern capital city.
I first performed at Millsaps in 2011, one of my earlier Odyssey-related trips (in fact I think I mention it as such in my interview with Leo Sidran) and part of a spate of travel that year that was really some of my first exposure to the South. I was lucky to have a connection there in my friend Holly, who was a graduate student at Madison while I was an undergrad and a professor at Millsaps.
In 2011 during my visit Holly took me to an open jam at a blues bar and I jumped up on stage and played Mustang Sally with a bunch of grizzled blues musicians. My 2011 performance was in a lovely performing arts auditorium on campus.
In 2014, I drove down to Jackson from Memphis. Instead of taking Interstate 55, I rolled down Highway 61 in a rented white pick-up truck, watching the cotton tumble across the modest road known as the Blues Trail, and stopping in Clarksdale at the historic crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.
My show in 2014 was memorable: I was performing outside in the campus quad known as The Bowl and about a quarter of the way into my performance, the PA system blew. I marched down from the stage into the audience and finished the show singing unamplified into the southern nighttime air warm with stars and bats, surrounded by an audience hushed and leaning forward to hear me. It was a visceral, real performance like no other I’ve done, one as close to that of an Ancient Greek bard’s in atmosphere as one could hope to create in the 21st century.
Since that 2014 show I’ve notched something like 170 performances of my Odyssey. I’m a lot better at pretty much every aspect of the program and I was anxious to return to Jackson and Millsaps’ friendly Classics Department to demonstrate the progress I’ve made.
The day of the performance I hung out on campus, sat in on a Greek Myth class that was reading The Odyssey, and then hazarded a run in the midday heat and humidity. In the late afternoon I went back to campus for set up and soundcheck: my show was in the same auditorium in which I’d performed in 2011. In the intervening years, the space had been improved both physically and acoustically and I could hear everything perfectly.
Several hours later, a crowd gathered and I was off, working my way through my familiar roadmap of chords, melodies, and words, listening to myself but also intently to how the room sounded: this is as much a mental exercise as a physio-acoustic for me. My ears help me see the room and the picture I hear impacts how I approach my performance.
The last chord died down and I snapped out of my performer’s trance to applause. Discussion followed and one audience member even brought up my 2014 performance as a point of comparison.
I packed up and was quickly on the road and driving three hours up to Southaven, Mississippi, to stay for the night. My alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. and I was back on I-55 to Chicago with about 8 hours of driving to think about the cities I’d seen and minds I’d known on this eight day trip.
The dawn peeked on rural northeast Arkansas and bloomed fully on Missouri and I took it all in, a seeker who sings about a seeker, a traveler who trades in the tales of a traveler, a man on an odyssey for an ode to The Odyssey.