The Analogy and its Challenges

This volume chronicles Halil Bajgorić's performance of The Wedding of Mustajbey's Son Bećirbey (ćenidba Bećirbega Mustajbegova) on June 13, 1935 in the small village of Dabrica in the Stolac region of Mostar in central Hercegovina. Stolac was one of six major centers of epic singing visited by Milman Parry, Albert Lord, and Nikola Vujnović as part of their initial fieldwork in 1933-35, during which period they recorded or wrote down a total of some 300 oral epic performances by 34 different singers, or guslari, from this region alone.(1) To this rich harvest Bajgorić contributed seven song-performances as well as a repertoire listing, a “proba”, and a conversation with Vujnović; Lord's later trip in 1950 added four more items to that personal collection.(2) Within the especially diverse Stolac area, which also yielded many examples of the shorter Christian songs, Bajgorić was identified as one of the local composer-performers of the much longer Moslem epics that in Parry’s mind furnished an excellent comparison for the ancient Greek Iliad and Odyssey. His and his comrades’ performances not seldom reached two to three thousand decasyllabic lines, and regularly include the kind of extended, elaborate descriptive passages we take as distinctively Homeric.

From this fundamental analogy between a living oral epic tradition and the manuscript remains of an archaic (oral-derived) epic tradition, first framed formally in the 1930's, a multidisciplinary field has taken root. Over some seventy years the so-called Parry-Lord or Oral-Formulaic Theory has spawned comparative investigations in more than 150 different language traditions.(3) The fact that today the original methodology has in many respects merged with other approaches to folklore and oral tradition, among them performance theory and ethnopoetics, has done little to diminish the central importance of the South Slavic oral epic tradition.

And yet a closer look at the historical evolution of studies in oral tradition reveals a surprising lack of genuine ballast for the analogy and the theory. The volumes that constitute Serbo-Croatian Heroic Songs (SCHS), the publication series of the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature at Harvard University, have been far the most significant and influential source for hard evidence of this longstanding and widespread tradition. Its initial anthology, which consists of material from the Novi Pazar center (1953-54; English translation, vol. 1; original-language texts, vol. 2), was followed in 1974 by the presentation of master-singer Avdo Medjedović's 12,311-line performance of The Wedding of Smailagić Meho (English translation, vol. 3; original-language text, vol. 4) and additional collections containing more performances by Medjedović (vol. 6) and nine songs by four guslari from the Bihać region (vol. 14), these last two in the original language only. Apart from these resources, scholars have had to fall back on classic anthologies of South Slavic epic from much earlier periods, often collected and edited under uncertain protocols.(4)

Two additional, cognate problems have beset comparatists who want to learn more from and about the South Slavic oral epic tradition. Very few of the published editions include English translations, thus disenfranchising all but specialists from consulting these precious witnesses in any meaningful way. Likewise, the available resources provide few, and in most cases, no avenues for understanding their contents as performances.(5) In a sense, the textual epitomization of field-recorded performances, while invaluable as an initial step in understanding how oral epic traditions work, has also meant the inevitable conversion of experience to artifact. Even with the best of intentions and the cleverest of strategies - such as multiple versions of the same song by the same and different singers - we find ourselves poring empirically over products rather than learning about the process that engendered them.

How this eEdition Works

The present eEdition, an experiment in edition and translation, relies not on comparing multiple versions but on restoring some of the many aspects of South Slavic oral epic tradition that are conventionally obscured or deleted during the reduction of performance to text.(6) Toward that end I have created nine interdependent, interactive sections or segments to house Bajgorić’s performance (rather than simply the extruded text of his poem).

For the sake of convenience, I use a series of abbreviations for these sections and for the performance as a whole at various points throughout this volume. Here is a key:

ŽBM The Wedding of Mustajbey's Son Bećirbey
(Ženidba Bećirbega Mustajbegova)
Portrait Portrait of the Singer
Synopsis Synopsis of the Story
Performance The Wedding of Mustajbey's Son Bećirbey as performed by Halil Bajgorić
Commentary Performance-based Commentary
NVR Nikola Vujnović's Resinging
AF Apparatus Fabulosus
Music The Role of Music
Performatives Performatives andPoetics

The first section, Portrait of the Singer, offers some background on Bajgorić’s life and times, a summary of his avowed repertoire and a list of his actual recorded performances, some comments from the guslar on how he learned to sing, the role of published songbooks, and the legendary figure of the “best of singers”, whom he called Hasan Ćoso. This information, culled from an extended conversation between Bajgorić and Nikola Vujnović, is included in order to give the reader a sense of context and of some of the core issues concerning performance, both from the singer’s perspective.

Since fluent audience members (and even book-bound scholars who have read and listened widely enough) have some knowledge of the characters, events, and situations that constitute the living epic tradition, and since most of us not directly involved with the poetic tradition lack this framing knowledge, the next section consists of a short Synopsis of the major action of The Wedding of Mustajbey’s Son Bećirbey (hereafter ŽBM). Of course, the experience of every audience member will always be unique, and we should never posit a monolithic index for reception. But this brief outline of the performance, crafted to expose recurring motifs and narrative patterns, will provide unindoctrinated readers some idea of how the story will unfold and some appreciation of the characteristic interplay of instance and potential. For example, a glance through this Synopsis will allow a reader new to South Slavic oral epic to understand how an expressive quality as basic as suspense takes on a distinctive resonance against the background of traditional expectation.

Next in the sequence comes the Performance: my transcription and translation of the verbal dimension of Bajgorić’s ŽBM, presented in facing columns for easy cross-reference. Although convention has taught us to make this item the centerpiece of any edition-translation, let me emphasize its inherent partiality (as a libretto rather than an experienced reality) and its dependence on the other eight sections of this site as well as - and especially - the sound-file available as an mp3 file. As for the original-language text, it is as accurate a transcription of the acoustic recording as I can manage; as such, it is intentionally a “transcription-in-the-raw”, complete with singer’s “errors”, supposedly “long” or “short” lines, and the wide range of excrescent consonants that the guslar inserts to avoid hiatus.(7) The translation makes no claim whatsoever to lyric quality, but aims instead at transparency and consistency (so that recurrent phrases and scenes can be better appreciated by the reader without South Slavic); significant departures from literal renderings are glossed as such in the Commentary. Hopefully, the translation conveys some of the quality of the epic performance.

A crucial part of the presentation is the following section, the Commentary. This digest contains exhaustive information on and thorough analyses of expressive strategies, rhythm and meter, and phraseology, as well as occasional explanations of cultural patterns, religious imagery, and material culture. Its primary role, however, is to serve as a line-by-line, sound-by-sound companion to the performative nature of the ŽBM. By using this section as a guide to understanding composition and reception, the reader should be able to get inside Bajgorić’s making of the performance, looking beyond the textual artifact to the generative processes behind it. Crucially, for example, the Commentary offers conclusive evidence of why we must revise the page-bound concept of a poetic line as ten typeset syllables to a performative amalgam of lexicon, rhythm, and music.(8) Additionally, this section provides a perspective on an individual singer’s idiolect, that personalized brand of the epic register or dialect that each singer uses to make his songs. As noted above, this web-based eEdition automatically links these glosses in the Commentary to the matching lines of the Performance. Simply click on the capital "C" to the right of the English translation.

The rationale for the next section, Nikola Vujnović’s Resinging, derives from an unexpected but highly instructive discrepancy that arose as I began to check the pre-existing transcription of the ŽBM against what I was hearing on the acoustic tapes made from the original aluminum records inscribed during fieldwork.(9) Since Vujnović was invited to Cambridge expressly to use his expertise to transcribe performances from the Parry Collection that he himself had helped to gather, and particularly since he brought to his work not just a native speaker’s but a singer’s ear, I began the checking process under the assumption that his interpretation of the acoustic records would be near-flawless. But within the first few lines it became apparent that such was not the case. For Vujnović had eliminated some sounds, added others, and occasionally substituted his own “hearings” for what Halil Bajgorić had actually sung. In other words - and here let me emphasize the fact that Vujnović was a guslar with only four grades of formal schooling - the transcriber was resinging the ŽBM. The purpose of this section, then, is to report as precisely as possible the discrepancies between the acoustic records and what Vujnović wrote down, with the further aim of illustrating how both guslari operate idiolectally - even when one of them is “singing on the page.”

In addition to glossing the special language of the ŽBM in the Commentary and Nikola Vujnović’s Resinging, any performance-centered edition must also confront the idiomatic properties of that register. That is, a responsible edition-translation must consider not only lexicon and morphology but also traditional semantics, the question of how and what the song means on its own traditional terms. For that reason I have included a section entitled the Apparatus Fabulosus, a story-based apparatus that locates and explains what the South Slavic oral epic singers have taught us to call “words” (reči). In their ethnopoetic terminology a “word” is not a typographical byte - a self-contained package of letters defined by white spaces at its boundaries - but a unit of utterance: a phrase, a line, a speech, a scene, even an entire epic story.(10) The Apparatus Fabulosus parses the ŽBM in terms of these units of utterance rather than the (irrelevant because non-traditional) words that constitute textual works, and then offers a kind of specialized epic dictionary that explains what the “words” mean. In order to assemble this idiomatic lexicon I have drawn upon other song-performances from the Stolac region by Mujo Kukuruzović, Ibro Bašić, and Salko Morić, collating recurrent units and determining what value-added meaning they bear across the spectrum of individual instances. Of course, the Apparatus Fabulosus must remain illustrative rather than “complete"; even if we expanded our sample of song-performances indefinitely, we could neither exhaust the tradition’s range of meaning nor force every act of reception into the same monolithic process. Nonetheless, this section points the way toward “reading” the ŽBM on its own terms, toward hearing Bajgorić’s (or any other guslar’s) song in its traditional idiomatic context.

Finally, and thanks to the scholarly talents and intellectual generosity of two colleagues, this edition-translation also contains sections on The Role of Music and Performatives and Poetics. H. Wakefield Foster, author of the chapter on music, is a professional oboist as well as a doctoral candidate in Classical Studies at the University of Missouri. In addition to presenting a history of related musicological inquiries and a transcription and analysis of Bajgorić’s vocal melody over the first 101 verse lines, he has discovered a cueing effect in the musical dimension of the performance. In other words, instead of the repetitive drone that the guslar’s music has often been characterized as, Foster shows that this aspect of Bajgorić’s performance has its own poetics, its own systematic expressive style. The chapter on performatives, contributed by R. Scott Garner, an assistant professor of Classics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, accomplishes at least two purposes. First, by looking closely at the excrescent consonants inserted by the guslar to smooth his articulation by bridging over sites of potential vowel hiatus, he describes the basic linguistic logic behind their usage and the singer’s choice of one particular sound over another. Second, Garner also examines the role of performatives in formulaic structure and aesthetic design. Taken together, these two sections help to expand our understanding of the ŽBM as a performance in significant ways; in short, they point beyond an extruded text toward a multidimensional oral event and experience.

One final note to the user of this eEdition. The experiment that this facility encourages will work best if you “read” as follows. Begin the process by filling in some of the background with the initial sections - Portrait of the Singer and the Synopsis - before turning to the dual-language presentation of the Performance. When you are ready to begin the actual story as Bajgorić told it, open the sound-file so that you can coordinate visual and acoustic signals, as well as simulate the audience’s experience in real time. From this point on, many possible avenues for use of the edition will open up, and individual readers can choose among them based on particular interests and specialties. Both the text and the streaming audio can be suspended at any time, of course, in order to examine the performance-based Commentary, the alternate pathways of Nikola Vujnović’s Resinging, or the idiomatic lexicon of the Apparatus Fabulosus. Musicians will doubtless want to open the section on Music as they listen to the streaming audio, and linguists may choose to examine the chapter on Performatives at any point, perhaps after having experienced how these bridging consonants actually sound and operate in action.

It is my aim to offer the reader (whether fluent in the original language or, much more likely, not) a pathway into the ŽBM that respects its identity as a performance and its immanent meaning in traditional context. If this eEdition reclaims some of the multidimensional expressive reality that we ritually sacrifice by enshrining experiences in books, then the project has achieved its goal.


  1. For histories and summaries of the Parry-Lord-Vujnović fieldwork, see SCHS 1: 3-20; Kay 1995: espec. 47-51 and 53-55; Foley 1988: 31-35 and 1999a: 39-45; and Mitchell and Nagy 2000.
  2. For more on Bajgorić’s 1935 performances, see the Portrait elsewhere in this volume. The term proba names a strategy employed by the investigators to test the stability of a particular song. Perhaps 25 to 40 lines into a given performance, they would ask the guslar to start over once or twice from the beginning, thus providing one or more alternate versions of the opening lines for analytical comparison. On the 1950 performances, see SCHS 1: 42.
  3. For a survey of activity through the early 1990’s, see Foley 1985 (updated and searchable e-version at
  4. For an expert perspective on earlier collections, see Bynum 1986.
  5. Again, the SCHS series is far the most useful and informative in this regard, providing notes and other contextual materials to accompany its contents. Still, there are many aspects of the performative reality of these songs that are not treated even in this excellent resource.
  6. On the history of editing oral performances, see espec. Fine 1984, Foley 1995b and 2004, and Honko 1998: 169-217 and 2000.
  7. I have made no attempt to encode the dog barking or chickens squawking in the background, but have attempted to include all of Bajgorić’s own vocal contribution.
  8. On redefining the South Slavic epic line as a performative entity, see Foley 2002: 32-34.
  9. I speak here of both the analogue magnetic tape made for my use by David E. Bynum in 1976 and the digital audio tape (DAT) generated by David Elmer in 1999. The latter copy captured some sounds that I could not hear on the analogue tape, and it is on the DAT that this edition-translation is primarily based. My thanks to both colleagues for their generous assistance.
  10. For more on the units identified as “words” by the Stolac guslari, see Foley 2002: 11-21.