Humans have been singing their stories since before the first tales were written. The people of antiquity had one way to carry on the stories and epic that defined them: song. In order to remember long tales such as the Iliad, Beowulf, or The Epic of Gilgamesh, the tales were sung from one generation to the next. The oral tradition of storytelling in song is alive and breathing in the works of Deborah Stokol. A modern day bard, she takes on a musical rendition of the first great epic in “Gilgamesh”.
The track is very sparse, with only an acoustic guitar, a few piano chords, and Stokol’s voice. The song has this moderate canter, with the vocals shifting between quick phrases and slower, breathier lines. The way she sings feels made for a stage, as though she’s speaking and singing directly to the individual listener. Gentle acoustic sounds fill out the piece, bouncing and drifting about the soundscape. It’s a wide, plucky, sound that gives the piece a folk sound. It’s reminiscent of some of the softer string work from Falconeer. Lyrically, “Gilgamesh” is a joy to listen to. The canter and pace of the chorus is energetic and soft. There’s a spoken word quality to it, which stands out amongst many other songs of its genre. Stokol sings as the voice of Enkidu speaking to Gilgamesh. As a creation of the gods, Enkidu tells his friend about the nature of his creators and helps him reconcile with death as a concept. While the references to the original work are few in the piece, “Gilgamesh” seeks rather to touch on some of the ideas and themes of the epic: friendship, love, and death.
There’s a lot of magic in storytelling. It’s a thing we pass on, our stories and names and art. The music we write, the paintings we paint, all of it lives on past our creators and tells the future civilization who we were. In the songs of bards like Stokol, the dead live on. “Gilgamesh” captures the essence of the epic, and serves to show that the oral tradition still lives on.
What stories can we expect to hear from you in the future?
Oh, I am so excited to share a lot of new music, hopefully soon! I am working on the sister album to my recent album release, Bard (the one “Gilgamesh” is on and that puts my music to and about works of literary, sacred text, and those of the oral tradition, especially by and about Bards while acting as a bard, myself). This one is fully written and more than half recorded, and it focuses on women from myth and legend. I can’t wait for folks to hear it. It’s also my first time putting out music on and for bowl back mandolin, an instrument I got from Crete last March (2021) after a lifetime’s wanting one. She’s made out of four, different woods, spruce, pear, almond, and ebony, and her name is Artemisia Belin because spruce is sacred to Greek goddess Artemis, and her brother, Apollo, plays the harp. Belin is like Belen, the star and house of bread, but with the “lin” of Mandolin in its name.
Two of the songs, one about Jo March from Little Women, a longtime favorite (especially Winona’s interpretation!) and herbalists, green witches from different stories, will be on the bowl back. I also just tuned the piano I play, so I can record an EP of jazz waltzes I’ve written (and their harp versions), some folk guitar covers (including from Disney’s Robin Hood and Medieval Scotland!), and the piano album I have half recorded. I don’t know if this is surprising, but I also love 1980s-style synths and electronica, so I have a synth album I’m working on too. But the two things coming up soonest, like the next few weeks, are the mandolin waltz about herbalists from folklore and a guitar piece I wrote to a famous speech from Macbeth. I’m hoping to release the sister album I mentioned this spring or early summer.
Are there any historical stories or tales that you would want to make longer form content for? Something like a concept album for a particularly long story?
Oh my goodness, yes. I am obsessed with time and its passage because, like so many others, I never feel like there is enough of it to make all of the things I want to, but I am doing my best in that front. I have a collection of poetry I have written and am editing, and I want to publish that as well as do an album in which I read a few of the works with my music score behind it (something I heard as a child with Pablo Neruda’s poetry and Luis E. Bacalov’s music in The Postman / Il Postino, a poignant film and gorgeous soundtrack). I’m lucky I like my namesake, Deborah, the only female judge and prophet(ess) from The Bible / Hebrew Scriptures / The Book of Judges, and I’ve always wanted to write a song, if not an album or musical, about her. I love the Odyssey and the Arthurian Legends and would love to do a full album about each in addition to an album dedicated just to epic or narrative poetry — like the Icelandic sagas, the Divine Comedy, the Shahnameh, etc. It would be so cool to do a song for each tarot card. The to-do list is long.
What stories do you find most important to preserve and pass on in song?
That is both really easy and really difficult to answer fairly. There are those I love because I love them, those I believe have societal importance, those I have been taught to value, and those I think could be important but don’t know enough about. But at the heart of the thing, any story that tells truths about human experience and existence, our joys and sorrows, our lives and death, how we build our worlds, are important, and every culture around the globe, and every time period offers those stories.
But as for ones I hope stay alive forever in our consciousness — and think they will because of the existential truths they share, the archetypes they offer, and their way into the collective unconscious — the Iliad and the Odyssey, The Bible, Shakespeare’s plays, writing by Maimonedes, the Vedas, poetry by Rumi, Hafez, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the writings of Virgil, Dante, Milton, Borges, and folklore the world over. I think all good stories lend themselves to song, which probably makes sense since sharing them via song around a fire marks one of the oldest ways of transmitting information, history and legend. So if it says something meaningful about humanity, it can make a good song.
And with regard to the above, the lens, focal point, and emphasis on specific characters can and often should change, but the stories should stay. On a personal level, I think it’s important to keep Homer’s, the Bible’s, folkloric, and Shakespearean tradition alive, even if and when we question it. But I don’t think I am alone in that. Some of those ancient texts above do really say something universal, so they make for good songs too. But there are so many others I am not mentioning and so many others I do not know. So essentially, I think the most important stories to pass down in song are the ones that get at the core things we all deal with: life, death, love, adventure, fear, wonder, humor, power, nature, homecoming.
What was the inspiration for you to begin telling these stories and writing your music?
I have always loved music, magic, fairy tales and fantasy, and the role of the storyteller in those worlds. I am not a huge fan of postmodernity, but I do enjoy things that are meta, and that’s a pretty meta concept — stories about storytellers, songs about musicians. I learned how to read, write, and play piano at the same time and at the same age that I watched Disney’s Robin Hood and The Sword and the Stone and that The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast came out, and all of that just caught me. It all became this inextricable lump of things I associated with each other — and with my delight in them — and that never really stopped. I started writing my own music a few years later, and I read Anne of Green Gables and Little Women and saw the movies, and this whole magical world of stories and songs and storytelling, itself, and girls who tell stories further opened up for me.
My sister and I both draw, and we would narrate our drawings while we played together as kids; the park wasn’t a park but a “medieval forest.” Magic and music and words were just always in the fore, and we were lucky to have supportive and loving parents who said, “that’s cool. Embrace the music and words.” When I was 11, I started reading fantasy more consistently, especially books like The Song of the Lioness and The Hero and the Crown, The Mists of Avalon and The Dark is Rising…bards were so often salient characters in these books.
Since I loved those worlds — at least their fictional versions — and the mythos therein, and I already played and wrote music, myself, I wanted to become a bard too. I started writing melodies to any poems or songs I saw in these books, and that never stopped either. I kept doing it these years as a high school English teacher, especially for texts we studied and ones originally from the bardic tradition, as playing those texts live in their original media not only brought me joy but served as another entry point to engage students in the works. But I love it all for its own sake. It doesn’t have to have an extra purpose —- though it does. It has intrinsic value for me and always has.
With the ability to store our music and stories and art forever via digital means, do you feel that oral storytelling has lost something?
At first glance, it would seem like “yes,” but I think, ultimately, “no.” I love that we can digitally archive things, and it’s both useful and scary and all those things, but there’s such a morass of material, that sometimes that wealth of knowledge and information makes it harder to actually sift and find anything. There is something to be said for knowing the person who tells you the story, from hearing the story first hand. I think that while we have these electronic means of keeping data and other such things, I really question whether the good part of that — like music — is “forever.” I know your “digital footprint is forever,” and “everything is cached,” but the good side of that would be, say, a musical catalogue, and I can’t help but be skeptical that that will stay. I just imagine it all disappearing from one day to the next, sad as that would be.
But for however long there are people, there will be stories and oral storytelling. People naturally gravitate towards it. Think of how special it feels to hear music performed live and of how many people missed playing and hearing that in lockdown. Or think of campfires — or of having people over in your home and sharing anecdotes over a meal. It doesn’t get more ancient than that — “come break bread with me! Come to my hearth! Let’s drink some libations, exchange tales of our exploits!” — and most folks really like that and miss it when it’s not there (again, cue lockdown). Then again, a lot of artists got their coolest, most earnest ideas in the solitude of lockdown, which is also pretty ancient, at least in the winter, and everyone’s been enjoying hearing and seeing the results of that isolation-borne-creativity. Or when you’re hunkered down, what’s more satisfying than a good story in the dark to give you light and keep you warm?
And the funny thing is that digital forms emulate the oral storytelling experience — Spotify shares songs about stories; Netflix has shows about time periods when oral storytelling would have been commonplace and sometimes the only way to pass things down (e.g., Vikings). So it’s always going to be around. The Moth, for example, has a big following. Sofarsounds is fun, and those intimate concerts are, in fundamental ways, like the bardic performances of old, with small groups of people gathered in a home to hear a musician play and sing and talk. I think oral storytelling may have changed in some forms, but what it’s lost in some ways, it’s gained in others — reach, for example.
I will say that when people hear stories and songs like this played live, they tend to have a pleasantly surprised expression, and they say, “oh, I didn’t even know I had missed that kind of experience, but now that I’ve had it again, it feels good.” So I think it’s around as long as people are.