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Book Review

Norse Calypsos, et Cetera

 
Not to be mythed, a new song collection mixes whimsy with erudition.

The polymathic Nicholas D. Humez ’69—silversmith, author, banjoist, classical philologist, composer of operas and string quartets, poet, cartoonist, music critic, professor of mythology—has a new opus, a suite of tunes unlike anything else you’ll hear. It’s not that the music itself is unusual. Far from it: the 17 ditties on his Myth Songs, 16 of them composed by Humez (he adapted the seventeenth from a folk song), are by turns bouncy, plaintive, and moody, in the manner of folk music. They’re the kind of foot-tapping melodies one might hear on, say, Prairie Home Companion. The singular part of the just-released CD (available at www.mythsongs.com) is the lyrics. Each song recounts one of the world’s great myths, in a style simultaneously funny, erudite, and bracingly down-to-earth.

Greek mythology informs nine of the songs; the rest range through Norse, Egyptian, Sumerian/Babylonian, Canaanite, and Irish myths; one, The Triple Goddess, even expresses “Proto-Indo-European metamythology.” Regarding this cut, the CD’s brief liner notes observe that “Frazerian Ritualists get all dewy-eyed when anyone whispers ‘Maiden! Nymph! Crone!’ Archaeologists counter that there is evidence for ‘plenty of goddesses, but no single Goddess.’ You decide.”

Humez forges some odd couplings of text and music: Sleipnir, for example, may be the only recorded example of a Norse calypso. It is difficult to capture the astonishing effect of a lilting Caribbean beat under lyrics like:

Sometimes I would fight with the strength of mighty Thor:
I always believed I would fall in combat as Vikings do in war.
And all the boys sang:
“Odin, don’t make me ride,
don’t make me ride with you to Niflheim;
Odin, don’t make me ride on your horrible
horse with the eight legs.”

An enclosed booklet, which provides complete song lyrics, helpfully explains that “To ride the ‘eight-legged horse’ was an ironic euphemism among the Norse and others for being dead and carried by four pallbearers.”

Yes, listening to Myth Songs teaches you things; it’s a basic mythology course compressed onto a single CD. Indeed, the album began as a series of “didactic ditties” that Humez wrote and sang to his students of Western mythology at Montclair State University in New Jersey, where he has been an adjunct professor in the department of classics and general humanities since 1999. For the recording, Humez enlisted 10 accomplished musicians to accompany his solo vocals on instruments including violin, guitar, mandolin, harpsichord, piano, dulcimer, string bass, and Irish pennywhistle. The overall effect is something like The Clancy Brothers Play Joseph Campbell’s Greatest Hits.

Humez, whose books include Latin for People/Latina pro Populo, Alpha to Omega: The Life and Times of the Greek Alphabet, and A B C Et Cetera: The Life and Times of the Roman Alphabet (all with his brother, Alexander Humez), cites his sources, including Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths, Herodotus, Plutarch, Livy, and H.R. Ellis Davidson’s Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. But the composer finds unexpected nuances in the old tales. “Thirsty work, this killing of monsters,” he writes of Three Monster-Slayers in Search of a Single Malt, which narrates the exploits of Perseus, Bellerophon, and Theseus in the form of a drinking song. The liner notes warn that the penultimate rhyme of this song’s final verse “is a real groaner,” an ominous portent fulfilled when it describes the decapitation of the Minotaur:

Clatter-thump!—down to the floor falls its head
(Much as lead pipes do, bisected by hacksaws),
Then, steps retracing, sun’s light to regain,
Joins Ariadne, but dumps her on Naxos.

The Olympian Dozen (All Fourteen of ‘Em), set to a rollicking traditional Irish tune, unpacks the paradox of how 14 major Greek deities exist, though only 12 reside on Olympus. In the process, Humez offers a prequel that tells how patriarch Cronus ingested five of his immortal children, but their mother Rhea hid the sixth,

Little Zeus, who (much quicker),
when Cronus with liquor
Was drunk, an emetic did slip him,
and there
Made his dad for to chunder (the
 first Jovian thunder!)
And up came five siblings, no worse
for the wear.

The Oracles swings with a simple, catchy melody reminiscent of Tom Lehrer ’46, A.M. ’47, and gives advice on varied oracular pronouncements and their perils. In the case of Croesus, beset by Persians, for example:

So the king sent to the oracle
To ask it, “Win or lose?”
The oracle said, “Great victory,”
But it didn’t say just whose.

Myth Songs may soon find its way into classrooms, serenading students and, Humez hopes, inspiring both smiles and a love for the ancient stories. But one can also imagine a Westchester commuter slipping this disc into the Saab’s CD player and singing along with these whimsical retellings, just for the fun of it. And fun—from an artist who can distill a Sumerian/Babylonian myth to “Goddess gets guy, goddess does the katabasis, goddess loses guy”—is what it’s all about.

~Craig Lambert