Old Ballads; Oral History

Milman Parry was a Harvard professor. In the 1930s he traveled through Yugoslavia, collecting ballads and folk songs. As a result of his research into these particular forms of oral history, he developed the idea that Homer’s poems have a formulaic structure that shows they were originally oral compositions.

This is one of the stories he collected.

"[There are] two lovers kept apart by a meddling mother who doesn’t want her son to marry beneath him. He is forced to marry someone else, and, in keeping with local custom, the couple is locked into a bedroom on their wedding night. Instead of consummating the marriage, however, the young man sings to the new bride and explains that she will never replace his true love. At the conclusion of the song, the young man dies on the spot.
"The bride, though upset, cannot leave the room until morning. When the mother enters the room in triumph, she sees instead that her son has died. In place of a celebration the bereft mother prepares a funeral procession, which passes by the window of the young man’s true love. Her heart breaks apart at the sight, and she dies instantly. The two are buried in adjacent graves, from which two trees sprout and grow intertwined."

Very tragic, very romantic. It’s supposed to be a true story, but actually it’s not although it’s based on remembered events.

When Parry investigated the story he discovered that an old woman in the next village was one of the tragic young lovers. She was still alive, and furthermore, the villagers of her generation knew she was still alive and also knew she was the woman who died in the song.

I’ve mentioned this story before. Most recently in Daughter of Time (Apr. 21, 2020). We read this story in college. Probably for European Ethnology, although I could be wrong about that.

The story, partly true and partly fiction, holds an important cautionary lesson for genealogists about the evolution of oral history: there is a tendency over time for stories to improve.

Details fall away. The plot changes in subtle ways to make the story “better.” And the personality of the storyteller might also affect the story. Some people are better at “improving” stories than others.

In my opinion family traditions and oral history are always worth investigating, even when they are unlikely to be true or unlikely to add anything. There is no story about family history so silly or absurd that I won’t spend some time investigating, even if not a lot.

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