This is my story, this is my song

I’ve been back from Greece for a month now. I long to be swimming in the Aegean, smelling salt rather than chlorine on my skin, looking down at little fish in the currents instead of at painted lane-markers as I make my laps in the pool at the Y. I miss the sound of the Greek language and the ping of delight when I comprehend something in the waves of conversation around me. But what I may miss most of all is the music.

Now, that may strike you as funny because while I can hardly import a Greek community, let alone the Aegean Sea, surely I can just pop in a cd or log on to hear all my favorite Greek tunes. What I miss, though, is not so much the recorded Greek music as the live music you hear all the time emanating from tavernas and cafes, sung by ordinary people.

Signs that a good time was had by all: paper napkins are customary now, in lieu of smashed plates. At Pension Archondissa, Thasos.
Signs that a good time was had by all: paper napkins are customary now, in lieu of smashed plates. At Pension Archondissa, Thasos.
You never know when someone will show up with a drum. Best always to be ready to dance. -- Thessaloniki.
You never know when someone will show up with a drum. Best always to be ready to dance. — Thessaloniki.

Those of you who are Greek or who know Greece will find my most-longed-for song a conventional choice: “Sto Perigiali” (“On the Secret Seashore”) by Mikis Theodorakis, composed to the poem “Arnisi” (“Denial” or “Resistance”) by Nobel laureate George Seferis. (“On the secret seashore” is its first line.) From the first yearning strains of the bouzouki the music is so affecting you don’t need to understand Greek to be pulled in. Here’s a video with Theodorakis himself conducting and Manolis Mitsias singing. Have a listen:

I have a deep and personal love for this next version with tenor Mario Frangoulis. He’s so visibly charmed and moved by the audience and essentially lets them sing the song. It’s also from a concert at the Kallimarmaro Stadium, aka the 1896 Olympic stadium, behind which lies the Athens Centre and my home on Stilponos Street when I’m teaching abroad in Athens. In one lovely moment in the video the camera pans over the crowd to show Mt. Lykavittos in the background.

In my first semester of studying Modern Greek our professor Soterios assigned us Seferis’s “Arnisi” and the word junkie in me thrilled to translate γλυφό as “brackish.”

Here’s the English—not my own but a good translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard:

Denial

On the secret seashore

white like a pigeon

we thirsted at noon

but the water was brackish.

On the golden sand

we wrote her name;

but the sea-breeze blew

and the writing vanished.

With what spirit, what heart

what desire and passion

we lived our life: a mistake!

So we changed our life.

As you can see, the poem itself is a mysterious little piece, reminiscent of T. S. Eliot and Rilke. My diggings into the literary criticism on Seferis turn up little in the way of interpretation, other than that this was a very personal lyric, written in 1931 after a breakup with his first great love. Theodorakis swooped in with that heart-tugging, nostalgia-inducing music in 1961, which was banned, along with many of Seferis’ poems, when a military junta took over Greece in 1967. As the story goes, when the song was played at Seferis’ funeral in 1971 it transformed into a protest song, a song of the nation, which it has remained. The song version, with its repetition of the last two lines of every stanza, emphasizes a collective loss: “we thirsted at noon but the water was brackish; but the sea-breeze blew and the writing vanished; we lived our life a mistake! So we changed our life.”

(Yes, sharp-eyed poet friends and other grammar nerds, I deleted the colon in “we lived our life: a mistake!” Seferis never liked that Theodorakis eliminated his caesura and therefore changed his meaning. If you listen to Seferis reciting it, you hear his powerful emphasis of “lathos!” (“mistake!”) [There used to be a really cool bar in Nafplio called Lathos…])

Where you most want to hear this song is in a Greek taverna. The band plays the first few chords, or they waft over the stereo speakers, and the singing rises from the tables.

With friends at Archondissa, Thasos. You really must go there.
With friends at Archondissa, Thasos. You really must go there.

What I long for and complain about when I return to Minnesota is that you don’t hear people singing in restaurants. Maybe they’ll tap their feet a little, or when they’re really drunk, mumble-sing along to the chorus of “Hey Jude”; maybe they’re coaxed by the band to join in and do so from various feelings of obligation or desire. But when was the last time you saw and heard people sitting around a table on, say, a Sunday afternoon, unselfconsciously singing, letting the song stir them?

It’s times like these I envy my Mississippi relatives’ utter ease in breaking into song. I was raised between the South and Midwest, and though I’m more Midwestern in my reserved nature and desire for a year with four seasons, I yearn to sing without abandon songs so culturally rooted they feel a part of you: “This is my story, this is my song.”

One of the saddest lines in English drama is this, from Caryl Churchill’s Fen: “My mother always wanted to be a singer. That’s why she never sang.”

So let us sing.

How about another listen to “Sto Perigiali,” this time with a slideshow accompaniment of old black & white photographs of Greece? Nothing like that to get the nostalgia flowing.

What are the songs you love to sing? The ones that feel deeply rooted in you?