Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Street Performers as Modern Bards

Spoon Man, by Karen Clawson
Before Western society had plays for actors, concerts for musicians, museums for historians or slam sessions for poets, we used bards to maintain our oral and written traditions.  They juggled multiple roles simultaneously, transitioning from teacher to entertainer, as circumstances dictated.  Their unique ability to recall a seemingly endless string of stories and songs at will led some to believe they possessed supernatural powers; however, most bards simply relied upon a good memory to accurately store and share their vast repertoire.  Many utilized meter, rhyme and other, similar techniques as tools to ease memorization and improve recollection.  Today, the English language still naturally lends itself to iambic pentameter.

If longevity is any indication of success, Homer is arguably the quintessential bard, despite no direct evidence to support or even estimate his formal birth or death dates.  Ancient Greeks and Romans considered his teachings essential to a well-rounded education.  He was an authority on literature and ethics.  While our literary and ethical scope has since expanded, Homer remains the primary educational source for Greek myth and religion.  Knowledge is lost with the rise and fall of civilizations.  Literacy itself has been taken away and regained by populations.  Entire languages and religions have died, taking with them countless tales, as new government brought new cultures.  So how do stories survive?  How is it possible that Latin as a spoken language succumbed to the fall of the Roman Empire, yet Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey endure to the present day?

Ancient Greece and Rome recited the Iliad and Odyssey to educate their children.  The Trojan War made an excellent allegory.  Future government and military leaders learned to emulate its heroes:  use caution before trusting an enemy of war; nothing in life is free; protect your country, its culture, women and children.  Future wives and mothers learned to emulate its heroines:  use caution before trusting a strange man; be stoic; remain faithful.  As languages and cultures evolved, Homer’s lessons were adapted to remain relevant.  Like his life, we have no firm evidence to support the occurrence of the Trojan War.  Its stories have become relics; the Iliad and Odyssey serve as the archetypal examples of Greco-Roman morals and priorities.

Western society has long since developed theaters, concert halls, museums and auditoriums.  There are a multitude of outlets for the modern historian, poet or performing artist of any persuasion, leaving the bard to adapt his societal role yet again.  While these professions still embrace the bard’s nostalgic spirit, I believe none have retained its mystical qualities as well as the street performer (pictured above).  Their characteristic transience sets them apart from other modern bards.  Street performers also continue to rely on memory alone to store and recall their vast repertoire of stories, unlike most musicians, artists, poets and historians.

When you pass a tap dancer on the corner, do you notice the soup can lids under his sneakers?  Take a moment to appreciate his ingenuity, adaptability and personal technique.  When you pass a “living statue,” note what poses are struck.  Whether whimsical or stoic, political or historical; the positions chosen speak to the interests of the individual.  The next time you pass a musician, drumming on overturned buckets and pavement, stop to watch and listen.  Notice how he treats the bottom of his bucket like a foot pedal, shifting it up and down to alter the sound.  Is he classically trained or self-taught?  Are his beats familiar or original compositions?  Whether communicating through music, dances, songs, art or other forms of entertainment, street performers are giving their audience a starkly honest glimpse into their lives.


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