The Bard Thing: A rant by Jehanne de Wodeford

The SCA loves to co-opt words. In an often misguided effort to sound medieval, or at least non-modern, a word with a specific meaning will be shoehorned around something it doesn't fit. Some of these are silly and pseudo-fantastikal or Just Not Right and guaranteed to make the user sound like he's done a stint in Bedlam. Do you know anyone who rides in a dragon? Really? I mean, the volume of digestive acid alone inside a creature large enough for one to ride inside....

Some co-opted words probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Bard, for example.

From Merriam Webster Online:  "bard"
Pronunciation: 'bärd
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Scottish Gaelic & Irish
1 a : a tribal poet-singer skilled in composing and reciting verses on heroes and their deeds b : a composer, singer, or declaimer of epic or heroic verse
2 : POET

There's also a Welsh variant in which it's spelled "bardd," and pronounced "barth." It also means a poet.

Now, you would think that a bard would be the sort of person who understands the power of words and the necessity of choosing one's words carefully to convey meaning with the greatest accuracy and impact. So why is it that the word "bard" in the SCA means every kind of performer under the sun except for belly dancers and drummers? And why, for that matter STOP at belly dancers and drummers as long as one is wielding a shoehorn on jugglers and fire eaters and recorder players?  

For some artists in the SCA, "bard" is a good fit. For me it is not, and bad fits give blisters. So here it is: Reasons why Jehanne de Wodeford is not a bard.

1. I'm not Scots, Irish or Welsh. OK, in real life I actually do come from a long, proud and distinguished line of Irish smart-asses on my mother's side. But my SCA persona is Norman and as such is highly insulted at being compared to those hill dwelling savages. My second SCA persona is Japanese and she thinks you're ALL hill dwelling savages. Even me when I'm not being her. 

2. I have never considered myself a poet. I loathe the idea of writing on demand and I don't particularly enjoy writing in period Western rhymed, metrical forms.* If forced, I can manage iambic pentameter couplets. My idea of Hell is to be forced to crank out praise poems and war songs for an entire year as somebody’s royal bard and watch the eyes of the populace glaze over as the herald says, "Now pay heed to the words of The Bard." You're thinking, "But that's my dream job!" Go for it. Be my guest.

    *My Japanese alter ego, Saionji no Hanae, is not a bard either. Japanese courtiers routinely write extemporaneous, non-rhymed, non-metrical poetry as it is considered a necessary social skill. Japan does not have an epic poetic form. The closest analogue to the Celtic model of the bard in Japan may be the biwa hoshi. As Saionji-hime is not a male, blind, biwa-playing, storytelling monk, she cannot possibly be a biwa hoshi - or a bard.

3. I am not Shakespeare. Nor am I Robert Burns (Bard of Ayrshire), William Cowper (Bard of Olney), William Wordsworth (Bard of Rydal Mount) or Alexander Pope (Bard of Twickenham). I'm pretty sure I'm not immortal either. Now put down the katana and go straighten your pleats.

4. Firewalking sounds painful and dangerous, and should stay in the Kalahari where it belongs. A lady does not firewalk. She goes visiting.

5. I will pass up a turn rather than break a mood. In fact, if I cannot find a tactful way to set up a segue and the audience’s mood warrants it, I might not perform at all. Some nights you just have to accept that all the crowd wants to do is sing “The Moose Song” and gracefully take your leave. If they wish to be courteous back, they may invite me to do something - but they do not have to.

6. I do not delude myself with the notion of the importance of bards in the SCA. 80% (this number may be considerably higher) of the SCA populace wouldn’t notice or care if vocal and instrumental performance went away tomorrow. Before you start screaming, stop and think about all the stuff in the SCA that you have no interest in and wouldn’t miss if it went away. If the majority population of the SCA-Bards Yahoo Group thinks that my corner of their niche (performance of period vocal and instrumental music) is elitist, boring and bent on spoiling their good time, what does that say for the SCA population at large?

7. I don’t care for Hostage Dinner Theater either. Feast hall performances work best as background music.  There is no reason that 100 people should sit silently through nonstop acts when they'd rather socialize with friends they don't get to see very often. 

8. I don’t own a Maglite and a 4” ring binder that leaks six inches worth of dog eared paper. I have to wonder why bards are the only performers in the history of the world who feel the need to drag their entire personal library in physical form on stage with them. I’m not talking about a discreet, bound journal containing original works, a new composition with still-wet ink or a choir book. I mean The Monolith. You’ve seen these ratty, overstuffed tomes which may or may not be festooned with ragged streamers. You may even have helped the owner of one play 52 Pickup when pages start falling.  I don't get it. I'll never get it. At least that means I don't have to carry it.

9. I appreciate the virtue of brevity, particularly when performing in another language. It may be sixteen verses long, you're getting three, tops, plus a little background.

10. I can't play a guitar.

11. I am an amateur musician who sings a bit. Let me sit in a corner of a feast hall and provide background music to your good fellowship. Let me roam the marketplace and make you smile, one-on-one. Do not, by all that is holy, expect me to stand up on a stage. It is not where I wish to be.

Bards Behaving Badly. There are a great many performers and composers in Our Society before whom I can only bow in awe. And then there are the ones who remind you that the only qualification you have to have in the SCA to be a bard is to call yourself one. The following are all true stories. 

1. There was the drunk who staggered into our camp to interrupt a quiet evening of chat around the fire, bellowed the only song he knew in at least three different keys, forgot half the words, then staggered away into the night muttering imprecations because we offered him water instead of beer.

2. There's the diva. It's all about the diva. It's always all about the diva. Who else would march into a camp, queue-jump in front of all the people who have been waiting their turn to perform, do four pieces in a row and then, having graced us with his superior talent, sweep back out into the night without listening to the other performers because he can't call it a successful night until he has hit another eighteen camps?

3. There's the thunder stealer. He becomes offended when he discovers you're teaching a class because it didn't occur to him to think of offering to teach a class. He harasses the Arts Minister into hunting you down so that he can offer to help you teach your class because you are clearly incapable of doing so without him. Instead of killing him where he stands for this grave insult, you politely suggest he demonstrate some of his instruments at the end of the period. Then when you grant him the five or ten minutes at the end of the period that you do not owe him in the first place, he tells your students that your subject doesn't matter.

4. There's the fellow who thinks it's really funny to stand outside the privies shouting "I know what you're doing in there" and singing rude songs. I invite him to try this at a public restroom - say at a Raiders home game.

5. I don't give unsolicited feedback. I not only don't give unsolicited feedback, I don't hunt someone down and give them unsolicited feedback.

6. I don't pass off other people's work as my own.

Copyright 2007 Lisa A. Joseph

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