Singing in the Shadow of Homer

Joe Goodkin

In the introduction to Memorial (2011), Alice Oswald describes her poem as “a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story.” She also writes “This version… takes away [the Iliad’s] narrative, as you might lift a roof off a church in order to remember what you’re worshiping.”

In 2018, when I committed myself to composing a retelling of the Iliad in original song, I found comfort in these words. They freed me from the text’s narrative and gave me permission to consider other of its aspects worthy of expression and translation. They also invited me to examine more closely this holy atmosphere of the Iliad that I worship.

I remember reading the Iliad for the first time in Greek as an undergraduate studying Classics at University of Wisconsin-Madison. My still-novice brain scanned the first few lines, marking out long and short syllables. The professor read it aloud, “ME-nin a-EI-de the-AH”, and I could feel the wave of the meter wash over me.[1] It seemed like the poetry was a living organism, not an artifact. I had the distinct impression of physical space around each syllable, each word, and each line. I felt like I was inside the text. 

The Homeric gods descend into battle (after a design of John Flaxman, 1792).

Even today, 25 years later, I can access the emotion of that experience, the feeling of my heart and head igniting with human connection. This feeling is, for me, the holy atmosphere of the Iliad. The thing I worship is its unflinching and brutally efficient portrayal of truth. Truth of humanity, truth of life, truth of love. 

And truth of war.

How does someone tell a true war story? How does someone tell a true war story if he or she has never experienced war or combat firsthand?

As I began to work on what would become a 17-song cycle of first-person songs called The Blues of Achilles, I went searching through other texts for the tools and vocabulary to render the Iliad truthfully.

Tim O’Brien wrote “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done.”[2] In Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), “The days [of war] stand like angels in blue and gold, incomprehensible, above the ring of annihilation.” In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), war “sound[s] like a dream”.

In Dispatches (1977), soldiers want the author Michael Herr to “Please tell [their story]… because they really did have the feeling that it wasn’t being told for them, that they were going through all of this and that somehow no one back in the world knew about it.” Herr concludes: “In war more than in other life you don’t really know what you’re doing most of the time, you’re just behaving.” In the anthology Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (1985), a soldier writes “I have never felt more human in my life, no more a part of a sea of fumbling mutants born of gods.”

US soldiers of the 4th Battalion (503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade) await a helicopter to evacuate their comrade, Long Khánh, Vietnam, 1967.

I wanted something more firsthand: I conducted interviews with a number of veterans who generously shared their experiences during and after war: a purple-heart Marine who fought in Korea, two Vietnam Army veterans, an Army Sergeant and Army Colonel who served in Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

I went back to the text of the Iliad and reread it (in translation) in the context of the worlds of war and words of warriors I’d absorbed. The epic was illuminated in ways I hadn’t been able to access before my research and interviews… It was no longer a big loud story but a multitude of small quiet stories stitched together on and around the battlefield.

I felt closer to the characters, closer to being able to tell their stories truthfully… but still without an emotional anchor and without a song that conveyed the holy atmosphere described by Alice Oswald, that feeling I had during my first encounter with the text.

Aftermath of the Canal Hotel suicide bombing, base of the United Nations Assistance Mission, Baghdad, Iraq, 19 August, 2003.

Then I was gifted a phone conversation with a Gold Star father whose soldier son was killed in an ambush in Iraq. He shared with me the intimate details of his loss, from “the knock on the door” in July of 2006, through his participation in communal grief rituals and memorials, to 2015 when he traveled to Iraq as part of a humanitarian mission and, with his own hands, gathered soil to bring home in the place of his son’s unrecoverable body.

This 21st-century Gold Star father’s grief echoed back through thousands of years to the Greek army camp on the beach within view of the citadel of Troy and that grief landed in the wracked body of King Priam, kneeling before Achilles, begging for the return of his son Hector’s body in Book 24 of the Iliad.

And the first song of The Blues of Achilles was written.

Hands of Grief (Priam to Achilles)

I’m before you on my knees
Kissing the hands of my grief
My son was cut down in the fighting
And your hands took him from me.

He was strong as a lion
With a full head of hair
Now it’s caked with dust and rottin’
But I still see him everywhere.

If he had listened to my warnings
Maybe he’d still be at my side.
He knew the risks but fought for glory
And when he fell part of me died.

I don’t have much more to give
To a world that’s bled me dry.
I don’t have much life to live
Or many tears left to cry.

So think of someone who you love
Who might someday be like me.
Grant mercy to my son’s body
And put it in my hands of grief
Put it in my hands of grief.

Now I had my way into the story through the grief of two fathers millennia apart in search of the same thing: their sons’ bodies and the resolution their recovery might advance.

But the other set of hands in Book 24, Achilles’ man-killing hands, was still a mystery. I saw pieces of him in my interviews and reading. I saw his valor and pride, his strength, his complexity, his savagery. His stubbornness and relationship with his fellow warriors.

But it wasn’t until I read Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam (1994) that I saw him as a grieving human no different from my Gold Star interviewee. And no different from Priam. Shay tells of Achilles’ “destruction by bereavement” over Patroclus’ death. He writes that “Homer uses the same word, the verb keimai, for Patroclus falling dead in battle as for Achilles falling beside his body in grief.”

With this revelation, I returned to the text and Book 18 in which Achilles learns of Patroclus’ death and falls to the ground in severe and immediate grief. 

And the Muse granted a second song.

Wrong from Right (Achilles Learns of Patroclus’ Death)

You were my brother in this war
You were my heart and so much more
We fought and ran and drank and breathed
This heavy air you’ll never leave.

When I heard that you were dead
I poured this dirt upon my head
And lay in ruin on the earth
And wondered what my life is worth.

I’ve got grief as deep as the love that we shared
I’ve got pain as dark as the night
When you fell in the dust, I fell with you
Now I can’t tell wrong from right
I can’t tell wrong from right.

Blood will never make us whole
But I’ll fight until its rivers flow
And soak the ground that made you a ghost
And kill the man who took your soul

I’ve got grief as deep as the love that we shared
I’ve got pain as dark as the night
When you fell in the dust, I fell with you
Now I can’t tell wrong from right
I can’t tell wrong from right
I can’t tell wrong from right.

The songs came faster now, sometimes two a day, and other characters asserted their voices alongside Achilles and Priam.

Woman of the War (Briseis’ Song):

They’ll Tell Your Story When You’re Gone (Thetis to Achilles):

When I got stuck, I went back to the text and without fail found an emotional universe waiting inside a line, sometimes a single word, informed by my interviews, my reading, and my listening.

The Goodbye Lullaby (Hector Says Goodbye to His Family):

Don’t You Be Afraid My Friend (Achilles to Patroclus):

The songs stacked up and the conceit of first-person storytelling spurred me on. I felt like an observer of my own work as lyrics poured out of me. Maybe this is what the Muse-inspired bards of Homer’s time felt like…?

What Kind of Love (Patroclus to Achilles):

My Love (Andromache Mourns Hector):

My Love for You (Agamemnon to Menelaus):

I became aware as I reached the latter part of the collection that I was writing primarily love songs. That many of the impulses that lead to the most horrific and brutal aspects of war come from a place of love. That (as Achilles sings in Wrong from Right) grief occurs proportional to love. My framing of the Iliad was, at its core, about love. 

Months later, after I finished writing all seventeen songs of The Blues of Achilles, I read “The Iliad or The Poem of Force” (1939) by Simone Weil and found that she agreed: “there is hardly any form of pure love known to humanity of which the Iliad does not treat.” 

Eddie James “Son” House, Jr.

The great American bluesman Son House (1902–88) often said that the Blues is grief that arises from love. Why did I decide to call my songs The Blues of Achilles? I can’t find any notes on it – the phrase appears on the very first page of my writing journal like Athena from the head of Zeus, as if these songs were always called The Blues of Achilles even before I brought them into the material world. Maybe it seemed appropriate to draw a contrast with Homer: the Iliad was about the Anger of Achilles and my work is about the Blues of Achilles. 

Maybe it was that the name Achilles in fact has the Blues in it, since it compounds achos (“grief”) and laos (“people”), which could easily become “The blues of the people” in idiomatic translation. Then there is the fact that the Blues as a genre was developed and presented in much the same way as Homeric Epic: an oral performance that made the leap into a medium of physical preservation (writing for Homer, sound recording for the Blues). 

It wasn’t until after I finished my Blues of Achilles songs that I read the book Big Road Blues, written in 1982 by David Evans, who (not by coincidence) studied Classics at Harvard under Albert Lord. He later applied the same principles that Albert Lord pioneered in The Singer of Tales (1960) to Delta Blues compositions.

My first burst of writing produced sixteen songs. After several modest partial workshop performances, I cut one of the sixteen songs (ironically, a song called The Blues of Achilles which was great in conception but incongruous in execution) and wrote two more bringing the total to seventeen.

I premiered the full Blues of Achilles song cycle as part of a program called Conversations with Homer at San Francisco State University on 2 March 2020 (anything else going on that month?). As I began to perform it regularly (first virtually during the pandemic and later in person), the songs and characters came to life in the vivid and true ways I hoped they would. My audiences met me halfway and engaged with vulnerability, humanity, and emotional investment.

I struggled with how to characterize the relationship of my songs with the text that inspired them: was The Blues of Achilles an adaptation of the Iliad? A version of? A conversation with? A translation of? I finally settled on calling it none of these: The Blues of Achilles is simply a(nother) true war story.

I gave Alice Oswald the first word and I’ll give her the last. I can’t improve upon her characterization of the process of taking on the Iliad: “I write through the Greek, not from it – aiming for translucence rather than translation. I think this method, as well as my reckless dismissal of seven-eighths of the poem, is compatible with the spirit of oral poetry.”

Joe Goodkin is a Chicago-based singer/songwriter who holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Classics from University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has performed his Odyssey, a retelling of Homer’s epic in 24 original songs, over 300 times in 43 US states, Canada, and Europe (Greece, Italy, and The Netherlands). He premiered his Iliad-based song cycle, The Blues of Achilles, in 2020; recordings were released on digital platforms last week, engineered by Steve Albini of Shellac, who has worked previously with Nirvana, The Pixies, PJ Harvey and the Dioscuri behind Achilles Last Stand, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. More about Joe can be found on his website, and on the two sites dedicated to his Iliad and Odyssey projects.

The artwork for The Blues of Achilles is the creation of Flaroh Illustration.


1 For more on the metre of Greek and Roman poetry, try this article, and for the sounds of these languages, try this one.
2 “How to tell a true war story” (1990).