New Audiences for Oral Traditions

by John Miles Foley

Oral tradition is humankind’s most ancient thought-technology and still per capita its most pervasive.1 Modern studies in folklore encompass a vast and multidisciplinary field that takes as its subject not only verbal art but also all aspects of traditional custom and ritual, performing arts and material culture. The Center for Studies in Oral Tradition at the University of Missouri (CSOT) has a mission to foster communication among scholars and students from a broad spectrum of individual fields who, because of disciplinary boundaries, have no other opportunity to exchange information about their research on oral traditions. Rather than serving primarily as a repository, or as a sponsoring organization, like UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage 2 section, we try to build bridges between and among segregated silos of research activity, enabling information and ideas to flow in new directions and moving the composite field forward by creating unprecedented linkages among people and institutions. Founded in 1986, the CSOT has promoted cross-disciplinary exchange for two decades through its program of publications, visiting scholars, lectures and seminars. Recently, it has begun to morph into a virtual, Internet-based center (, building and sharing online digital tools uniquely capable of supporting the analysis and representation of oral traditions by leveraging humankind’s newest medium to better understand its oldest.3

In the early 1980s, fully two decades past the publication of Albert Lord’s landmark comparative study of oral epic poetry, The Singer of Tales, few scholars were yet aware of potentially illuminating work in adjacent (never mind far-removed) areas. Questions as basic as the effect of literacy on oral poets’ ability to compose traditionally lacked dependable answers, either because of a monolithic notion of literacy as a uniform and universal stage in human cultural evolution (now, thankfully, largely debunked) or because few scholars knew much about the wonderful variety of analogues and parallels available to them—just beyond their particular disciplinary horizons. Keeping our noses to a single, well-worn grindstone of choice, we tended to reason tautologically, generalizing outward from a single instance—often only one poetic genre in only one poetic tradition—and attempting to tease out global hypotheses on very precarious bases. In the literary sphere, the equivalent exercise might involve using the Shakespearean sonnet as a model to describe not just all sonnets but all known poetry and not just in English but in the rest of the world’s languages as well. That first phase of studies in oral tradition presented a built-in “Babel problem” of the first order.

It was in an attempt to help formulate a more realistic view of oral tradition, which of course dwarfs all of literature in content, diversity and function, that the CSOT was established. Its initial mandate was challenging: to create a forum where the anthropologist could talk shop with the specialist in Mayan storytelling, where the medievalist studying the oral roots of Beowulf could compare notes with the fieldworker collecting Judeo-Hispanic ballads in Louisiana, where the Africanist studying the Son-Jara Epic in Mali could discuss the nature of performance with a team of scholars recording the Tulu Siri Epic in southern India. There had to be a place for ancient oral traditions, which we can know only through manuscript remains, as well as for the myriad living traditions we can experience today. There had to be opportunities for Native Americanists and African Americanists, as well as specialists on Siberian shamanism, Guatemalan folktales, Chinese tanci stories, Basque contest poetry, Palestinian women’s songs and any other cultural expressions that employed the word- and thought-technology of oral tradition. Only if the discussion included everyone with a stake in the potential exchange, regardless of training or discipline, could the overall comparative field begin to take account of the deeply human diversity of its subject.

The first step was to create a multidisciplinary journal, Oral Tradition, devoted exclusively to unwritten verbal art and related forms. Essays summarizing the history of research in several particularly active fields were recruited from prominent scholars in order to provide a solid foundation for comparison. Among those areas featured in such state-of-the-art digests were Biblical studies, Hispanic studies, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Australian Aboriginal traditions, Celtic, Welsh, Old English, Middle English and Middle High German. Over the twenty-one years of the journal’s existence, we have also published entire themed issues on African, Arabic, Chinese, Native American, South Slavic, Hispanic, Hebrew, South Pacific and South Asian traditions, as well as collections on the art of performance, epic poetry along the Silk Roads and the work of Walter J. Ong. Most recently, we asked more than eighty specialists in various fields to answer two questions: “What is oral tradition in your area of expertise?” and “What do you see as the next few exciting challenges in your area?” Their 500-word answers—a kind of telegraphic digest of ideas and issues currently swirling around and through the composite field of studies in oral tradition—constitute our eighteenth annual volume.

For most of its existence, however, Oral Tradition has prided itself on presenting non-themed issues with miscellaneous contents, that is, with diverse gatherings of authors from disparate traditions whose work could never before have appeared in a single forum. A brief sampling of these miscellanies would include articles on traditions as various as Japanese storytelling, American jazz, Ndebele and Xhosa praise-poetry from South Africa, the Bible (both Old and New Testaments), horserace-calling in New Zealand, modern and medieval Spanish genres, Somali poetry, Chinese and Mexican drama, Javanese and Hungarian dance, rap and hip hop, various Native American genres, Coptic hymns, Basque bertsolaritza, Italian lullabies, the Thousand and One Nights, Mayan folktales and oral epics from Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Altai, the Philippines, Finland, Estonia, Balochistan, Rajisthan, Tulunadu, Persia, Romania, medieval England and France, and ancient Greece.4 The guiding editorial principle behind Oral Tradition has been to mirror the plenitude and heterogeneity of the world’s traditions, from the ancient world to the present day, in order to help create a multidisciplinary, comparative arena for research and exchange.

To complement the journal, we also created several forums for longer, more detailed discussions in the form of three book series. Cumulatively, the Albert Bates Lord Studies in Oral Tradition (Garland), Voices in Performance and Text (Indiana University Press) and Poetics of Orality and Literacy (University of Notre Dame Press) have issued a total of twenty-two volumes to date, with several more now in press.5 Topics have included Turkic oral epic from central Asia, Spanish and Kaqchikel folktales, Germanic myth, Hispanic balladry, African trickster tales and a translation of Marcel Jousse’s early and influential monograph entitled The Oral Style. Forthcoming books will examine modern Arabic poetry, northern European lyric, cultural memory, correspondences between oral poetry and architecture, and other subjects.

Several additional initiatives at the CSOT have promoted the coherent development of studies in oral tradition in apposite ways. An annual lecture series, named after Milman Parry and Albert Lord, two founders of the field, has featured twenty-one speakers to date, specialists in a wide variety of oral traditions who have offered quite different theoretical perspectives on research.6 Visiting scholars have also enriched our work at the Center, and we are grateful to such colleagues as Chao Gejin (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences), Sioned Davies (University of Cardiff, Wales) and Bertie Neethling (University of Western Cape, South Africa) for their contributions. Likewise, a series of six postdoctoral seminars sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities on the topic of “The Oral Tradition in Literature” has brought to campus a total of seventy-two colleagues from a plethora of different backgrounds to spend eight weeks discussing the evolution of our shared field. On the bibliographical side, an annotated listing of more than 2,000 books and articles on more than 100 traditions, with primary emphasis on the approach known as the “oral-formulaic theory,” is now available online.7

With the emergence of the Internet, opportunities for forging new kinds of linkages have presented themselves, and the CSOT is in the process of harnessing the new media to further its core mission. Central to this effort is the belief—consonant, we believe, with the advent of digital representation and the virtual community it enables—that knowledge and ideas should be shared as universally and as freely as possible. In other words, both the CSOT and its recently established sibling, the Center for eResearch,8 seek to remove customary barriers to communication, whether those barriers be geographical, financial or proprietary. Just as the open-source movement in software creation and development is ushering in a new “business model” that stimulates progress by allowing unfettered access not only to programs but the code that underlies their shiny surfaces, so the Internet and digital tools can make the sharing of research much more democratic and inclusive than it has been in the past.

Recently, the challenge of the new media (which is also an unprecedented opportunity) has loomed larger and has affected our work at the CSOT in a fundamental way. Every week for the past five years or so I have received e-mail and letters from non-Western scholars asking to receive copies of articles or whole issues of Oral Tradition, materials that they had not been able to consult, either for financial reasons or because they or their institutions are not included in Western distribution networks for printed materials. Ironically, these same scholars are often surrounded by a wealth of living oral traditions, so that they especially deserve access to the forum that the journal provides—both to listen to other voices and, even more importantly, to contribute their own ideas and observations to the ongoing discourse. Naturally, it wasn’t feasible to try to fulfill all of these requests, and I and my staff at the CSOT grew more and more frustrated at being unable to deliver on a core responsibility associated with our institution’s mission.

However, on September 19, 2006, Oral Tradition migrated to the Internet as a free online journal, available without charge to anyone with a Web connection and a browser, in the form of fully downloadable and searchable PDF (Adobe Acrobat) files. Both the current issue (21, 1) and four years of back issues (volumes 1, 18, 19 and 20) were posted on the site at its launch. By the time this article appears two or three more annual volumes will have joined them. We are committed to making the entire twenty-one years of Oral Tradition available gratis within a year. In this way we hope to encourage everyone interested in the world’s oral traditions to take advantage of the substantial resources that have accumulated during the two decades of this forum’s existence and also to contribute to the discussion so that others may profit from learning about their research. So far the reception of eOT, as we call the online edition of the journal, has far exceeded our expectations. Within a week of the launch about 5,000 non-identical visitors had consulted its contents, with a total of almost 30,000 page-views. Part of this engagement appears to be due to the immediate posting of volume 18, which, as described above, amounts to a comparative sampling of current studies in oral tradition across dozens of areas and disciplines. Plans are also underway to open up several electronic discussion groups around topics that emerge in the coming years, as well as to create a virtual archive of audio, video and other materials that can be accessed by all.

Even earlier, the CSOT had harnessed hypertext and Web media to supplement the book and the page and to help explain and illustrate oral tradition in new ways. One of these strategies is the eCompanion, an electronic appendage meant to be used not as an alternative but rather as a partner to print media. Our first effort was in connection with my 2002 book, How to Read an Oral Poem, a kind of primer on oral traditions and methods for understanding them. This eCompanion contains photographic, textual, audio and video support; among its contents are mp3 files of magical charms and an epic from the former Yugoslavia, as well as an mpeg video of a slam poetry performance in New York City. Starting in 2004, we extended the same strategy to supplement articles appearing in Oral Tradition, posting digitized materials such as Irish folk tunes, jazz improvisations, a video of Javanese dance, illustrations and poems associated with Japanese and Chinese drama and so forth. At first we simply provided the Web addresses for the eCompanions in notes to the printed articles. From this point forward, however, the URLs will be embedded in the online PDF files, so that the online text and digitized supplement can be consulted as a seamless whole.

In 2004 the CSOT also published its inaugural eEdition, a hypertext edition of a South Slavic oral epic poem freely available at This performance, by the singer or guslar Halil Bajgoric´ of the Stolac region in Bosnia, consists of a 1,030-line version of The Wedding of Mustajbey’s Son Bec´irbey, recorded in 1935 by the American scholars Milman Parry and Albert Lord. In contrast to the book edition,9 the eEdition presents not only an original-language transcription and English translation, but a full audio (mp3) companion plus hypertext links that allow the contents of the story-based glossary and the commentary to appear in a box on the same virtual page as the text and translation. A “reader” can thus start up the audio, navigate to the virtual home page and click on links in the sequenced lines of the translation that provide added information. In other words, there is no need to leave the story in order to access this apposite information, no need to exit the tale in order to consult the notes or an appendix; the digital medium makes everything immediately available—within a click—on the “same page.” What the eEdition does, in effect, is to reverse the usual process of edition-making; instead of dividing the performance into constituent parts that are then separately housed in a book, it “resynchronizes the performance”—words, music, glossary and commentary—by digitally re-creating at least a facsimile of its original unity. Instead of segregating, it integrates the various dimensions of the composite performance. Such eEditions have the potential to make us better “readers” of oral traditions because we become a better, more faithful audience.10

An anecdote will illustrate the kind of experience that eEditions make possible. In 2003 I received an e-mail from a certain C´amil Bajgoric´, living in Michigan, who had discovered a trial version of our online eEdition via a Google search. He wrote to say that he was unable to connect to it using the address given and was wondering how he could access the site. I replied that he had caught us in transition to our new server and promised that we would fix the link as soon as possible. He wrote back a few weeks later, grateful that he was now able to read and listen to this performance by his grandfather Halil, whom he had not seen for decades. In other words, the grandson was able to resynchronize his grandfather’s performance entirely without the cultural standby of the book: he found the song online and what he accessed online was a much fuller form—and apparently a much more rewarding experience—than any book-based edition, no matter how carefully and thoroughly done, could ever provide.

These new initiatives at the CSOT, all of which use electronic resources to study and represent oral tradition, are outgrowths of a single fundamental theorem that guides our recent work: namely, that oral tradition and the Internet actually operate in very similar ways. Exploring and illustrating this thesis is the focus of the Pathways Project,11 a multimedia facility presently under construction. The Project consists of a book in progress, Pathways of the Mind: Oral Tradition and the Internet, embedded in a suite of electronic appendages: eCompanions, eEditions, an updatable data-base and an RSS feed. This last feature will insure that all parts of the Project will remain updatable long after the fact of the published book, by allowing users of the Project to subscribe to the site and automatically be notified of all changes as they occur. The core similarities between humankind’s oldest and newest media include their basic dynamics—navigating through a network of pathways rather than creating static items—and their open-access, rule-governed arenas for performance. In effect, the Project makes the argument that digital and Internet-based tools for studying and representing oral traditions are based on the natural fit between these two historically disparate but functionally congruent thought-technologies. OT resembles IT much more than either technology resembles the book.

Let me invite all readers of this essay to visit our various sites, created pro bono for the whole multidisciplinary field. We need to hear from everyone, no matter your background or perspective, if we are to further develop an initiative that involves hundreds of traditions and untold thousands of people. We look forward to hearing what you have to say about our shared and highly diverse world of oral traditions.


1 This essay is a version of a lecture presented to the Finnish Literature Society in Helsinki, Finland, in October 2006. The Society’s Folklore Archives, which emphasize unwritten, pre-modern regional traditions, is now converting its enormous holdings of oral poetry to a digital format, under the direction of Lauri Harvilahi. When complete, this process will chart a trajectory from on-site fieldwork to virtual publication, from paperless oral traditions to paperless electronic data-bases, effectively from the oral to the digital world.
2 See
3 I take this opportunity to thank Jamie Stephens, IT manager at the CSOT and Center for eResearch, for his invaluable partnership in all of the digital and Internet-related research undertaken at the two centers. I am also grateful to the comitatus of graduate students from the departments of English, Classical Studies and Religious Studies at Missouri, as well as Professor John Zemke of Romance Languages, all of whom have contributed to the CSOT and especially to Oral Tradition.
4 For a master-index of the contents of Oral Tradition from 1986 forward, see
5 For a complete listing of all three series, see Although it is not a part of any of these series, I would also mention the collective volume entitled Teaching Oral Traditions (New York: Modern Language Association, 1998), which features thirty-seven essays on fields and various methodological approaches, together with a substantial bibliography and a collection of course syllabi on oral traditions from various colleges and universities across the United States.
6 A listing of Lord-Parry Lecturers is available at
7 See This is, of course, only one approach to studies in oral tradition, current through the early 1990s, which effectively merged with other approaches in later scholarship. For more on these developments, see John Miles Foley, How to Read an Oral Poem (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002).
8 See
9 The Wedding of Mustajbey’s Son Bec´irbey as Performed by Halil Bajgoric´, ed. by John Miles Foley, Folklore Fellows Communications, vol. 283 (Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2004), awarded the biennial prize for a Distinguished Scholarly Edition by the Modern Language Association, 2005.
10 The next step for the “Guslar Project,” as we have named this eEdition initiative, is to expand the data-base to contain multiple epic performances by the same and different singers, and thus to create an opportunity to “read” not just through one performance, but across the larger oral epic tradition.
11 See

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2007, Volume 24, Number 1