Most ninth-graders in the U.S. read The Odyssey for English class. Not that many sing it, though.
Since 2001, Joe Goodkin has traveled the U.S. performing his retelling of The Odyssey. “These poems were meant to be felt, not studied, and I think my work can add that element back into how we encounter them today,” he says.
Last week, he premiered his new work: an American Blues re-telling of The Iliad.
The Duke Classical Studies Department hosted Goodkin to perform this piece on Friday, October 22nd in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens (The weather being lovely, he remarked: “Thank you, Zeus. I must have performed the right number of hecatombs”).
The Blues of Achilles re-tells The Iliad from eleven different perspectives. “This is what I envisioned these songs being,” Goodkin confessed to his audience. “Us doing exactly what they did 3,000 years ago— sitting around, listening to stories of the Trojan War.”
He’s referring to the fact that epic poems were written to be sung as performances rather than read as stories (Although if you’re like me and your only prior knowledge of the Trojan War came from Madeline Miller, you might be confused). Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad lose some of their musicality when translated into English and read off of a page, but Goodkin aims to re-invigorate those stories.
Goodkin’s work is a form of artistic research used to better understand Greek culture. He gives the example of The Singer of Tales, a book about the importance of oral tradition as a form of research. Written in 1960 by Harvard professor Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales focuses on illiterate oral poets of former Yugoslavia and compares their methods to Homeric epic. Cool, right? While it seems a bit far-fetched, Goodkin is actually doing something similar.
“While I don’t expect my work to be as important or scholarly as that book,” Goodkin notes, “I think [my work] can be a way for modern audiences to treat the epic poems as experiences rather than just artifacts.”
Homer’s works were integral to Greek life and values. Storytelling, to the Greeks, was the main form of broad communication and cultural unity. Modern organizations like the International Storytelling Center recognize the importance of oral literature and its effect on our cultural understanding.
We tell stories all day every day (heck, you’re even reading one right now!); Goodkin, and other storytellers, use this link to connect with their audience and convey an understanding of other cultures and viewpoints. Goodkin’s The Blues of Achilles reflects many attributes of the original, as well. For one, the chronology of the story is reversed. “I wanted my audience to have the same sort of idea a Greek audience would have about the end of the story. You have different things in play when the audience knows the end of the story. Even thinking about time in The Iliad, it’s very elastic and funky. So I wanted to recreate some of that disorientation,” he explained.
The Blues of Achilles is a blues composition— and blues music, like epic poems, is a culture-specific art form. In explaining his interpretations, Goodkin said: “I thought, ‘If Homer’s Iliad is “The Wrath of Achilles”, I have to interpret that line in a different way, like a poet would.’” (Author’s note: Remind you of anything?) “For one, ‘blues’ is in his name— áchos laós means the grief of the people.”
In re-telling these epics, Goodkin is not only bringing another perspective to the classics scene, but connecting it to American culture. “Blues music is our oral tradition. It was composed and came to be as an art form largely the same way the Greek epic did, by these bards-slash-singer-songwriters,” he explains.
Homer retellings, interpretations, and translations differ across time and perspective, but they all intend to revive the poems for their audience. Whether or not we see the connections to our lives, these myths originated many archetypes we are familiar with (Just ask Meg Ryan). In the end, Greek myths are all human stories about tragedy, war, love, loss, and morality, and they are as relevant today as they were 3,000 years ago.
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Post by Olivia Ares, Class 2025