Some of us, like Einstein, discover early in life the thing we were put here on earth to do. Some of us never discover it. To Richard Dyer-Bennet the discovery came at age 66, after nearly 40 years of fame as a folk singer and music scholar.
He is declaiming the Odyssey and the Iliad of Homer, recording them through a federal grant. There will be 48 records. He doesn't expect to be done before he is 75.
Already a major concert agency -- which has handled his ballad singing dates since the 1940s -- is after him to tour with his new work, but he wants to wait and see how the recordings do first.
"A friend led me to the Robert Fitzgerald translation in '72," he said, shortly before his premiere reading here last night at the Library of Congress, "but I never thought of performing it until '77, when we needed to fill out a concert program at Stony Brook (State University of New York) where I teach. I memorized some excerpts, and I wasn't sure if I had the right touch. But when I finished, I knew. I told myself, 'By God, I've got to the whole thing.'"
He visted Fitzgerald at Harvard, sat down in the scholars poet's office without explaining his mission in advance. The great classicist, a diffident man, offered tea but kept eyeing a huge stack of papers he had to correct.
Saying no more, Dyer-Bennet launched into a flaming lyric passage from the poem. He stopped. In the astonished silence, he said:
"I have two questions. First, do I have the right felling for this? Have I caught it?"
"Oh yes," whispered Fitgerald.
What he had done, in fact, was to bring Homer to life again as a poet for the ear, a poet to be spoken and shouted and sung, the poet whose fresh clarity and grace Fitzgerald had recovered for us in what has been called "surely the best and truest Odyssey in the English language."
The second question was whether Fitzgerald would let him record the work. The answer was Yes, of course, I suppose I'd always hoped that someday someone . . .
The singer needed a grant to give him five years of freedom, for he is not rich. He simply went to the National Endowment for the Humanities, declaimed some lines for a roomful of executives, and in the hush that followed he knew he had got his grant.
Dyer-Bennet was part of that incredible 1940 season at New York's Village Vanguard, which also launches Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Josh White and Leadbelly. With his unusually high lyric tenor and his profound repertoire of ballads, he was hailed as a medieval troubador transplanted into the 20th century. Often he lectured audiences on the musical history of his songs. He toured the country every year until about 1968. Then he seemed to disappear.
What he had done, in his mid-30s, was to abandon his career and retain his voice.
"I've always been an athlete, and I know the feeling of not having to be cautions, of making an effort all-out. But I wasn't getting this from my voice. I wasn't using the whole instrument."
The famous voice teacher Cornelius L. Reid set him to singing vowels below middle C. Gradually, he added a half-octave to his lower voice, and gave it a new power so that it rings with authority when he wants it to -- an authority absolutely vital for the mighty roar of Odysseus.
"It's as though all I've ever done," he said, "was in preparation for this work."
Even his musicology is useful. He plans to sing certain passages: the Sirens' song, of course, and a grace note here and there, as when Odysseus strung the great bow that no one else could bend, "and plucked it, so the taut gut vibrating hummed and sang a swallow's note . . ." The last six words are sung in a melody that Dyer-Benet derived from an appropriate Attic-scale.
He's had three harps made specially for him, finds none quite right, has commissioned a fourth, which he hopes will have the lightness and forthright tone he needs.
"if I were a younger man I'd memorize the whole thing, but as it is I'll probably use something projected on the wall when I'm recording."
Last night's performance, nearly an hour and a half's worth of poetry, was from memory.
"The thing is," he said, "you have to do more than memorize it. You must know it so well that it must seem natural, just coming out of you as though they were your own words and you just someone with a gift of gab."
He broke easily into the opening of the Fitzgerald Odyssey: "Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story . . ." It was no recitation. Yet it clearly wasn't ordinary speech. It had a life of its own.
Sometimes the thought of what he is about to do awes him. He has to remind himself that Fitzgerald spent nearly a quarter century translating the work of another man, making it his own just as Homer himself made the ancient myths and legends his own, just as Shakespeare transmuted musty old chronicles and half-remembered gossip.
He doesn't think he'll weary of the 462-page poem. "I suspect that at 75 I'll still be finding new things in it, that my rending of it will be just that much wiser and clearer and richer."
When he mentioned this notion to Fitzgerald, who has become a great friend and who attended the performance here last night, Fitzgerald replied that doubtless the same thing "happened to your predecessor."
With a tiny shock, Dyer-Bennet realized that the man was referring to Homer.