I lead a monthly community sing in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Newcomers to the circle are often looking around for the lyric sheets or songbooks. There aren’t any. I teach singing in the oral tradition, one line at a time, without paper or projections or writing of any kind.
Now and then, I heard someone say (often with an overtone of whining), “I neeeeeed the words; I’m a visual learner!” Well, yes. I understand that there are multiple intelligences and varied ways people learn best. And….no matter where your people came from, they relied on the oral tradition for just about everything.
Most of us in the modern world live in cultures so immersed in the written word that it’s hard for us to imagine how vitally important the voice is in an oral tradition culture. Long before the written word emerged, the collective memory of a people was kept alive through time primarily through the power of voice.
Each subsequent generation was responsible for carrying on the legends, mythology, history, genealogy, and social mores that defined a particular culture. This vast and detailed body of information had to be assimilated through a lengthy process of deep listening, vocal repetition, and correction that took many painstaking years to perfect.
One of the oldest cultures on earth – the Australian aboriginal people – offers a vivid example of a powerful oral tradition culture. Their song leaders memorized long and complex songs – the “songlines” – that passed in an unbroken line from generation to generation for 40,000 years. They relied on these songlines for many things in their society. Travelers who knew these songs were able to literally sing their way safely through the vast outback by following the songline. Embedded in the songlines was the physical geography of the land, including sources for food and water. They also related the spiritual stories and sacred sites reflected in each place. From a Western perspective it is difficult to comprehend just how essential these songs were to the spiritual, social, and physical survival of the people over such a long period of time.
In many of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions, the spoken word is still a source of great power. All of the sacred texts from the world’s great religions were passed along through the oral tradition long before they were written down. These texts are still memorized and recited from generation to generation, usually with precise vocal inflections and nuances. Sacred words and songs are employed to declare intentions, offer blessings, and mark transitions. At any given moment throughout human history, this world has been wrapped in the sacred sounds of many peoples.
By contrast, we live our modern lives in a barrage of trivial language. Open your ears in any public place and you’re likely to hear yammering televisions, public service announcements, droning background music, and the incessant blabbering of people on their cell phones. Our voices grow louder in order to penetrate the din and drone of machines all around us. In a given week, we say more words to more people in more ways than our ancestors could ever imagine. Talk has become very cheap indeed and our words, though plentiful, are often flimsy with meaning and inflection.
When you put down the paper and reclaim the oral tradition, you take your place at the end of a long line of ancestors who sang their songs, spoke their stories, struggled to stay alive, and prevailed so you could add your voice to the chorus of humanity.