Colorful figures roamed old Ireland and Wales. They appeared at the festivals. They strummed their harps and sang stories of heroes and kings. The people called these singers “bards.”

Everyone, high-born and low, listened to their songs and remembered their stories. They revered the best singers and listened to them in rapt attention. Why? Was it just to divert themselves, to find respite in fantasy from their work-a-day world? Certainly, they found the epics entertaining, a clever conceit amused them as haunting melody enchanted. But they were also learning, remembering.

The bards helped everyone recall their origins as a tribe and as a people. They sang of legendary founders, of powerful rulers. In singing their songs they reminded people of those virtues held sacred by their ancestors: courage in warriors, wisdom in rulers, faith in one and all.

In listening, people remembered their place in the grand play of things, measured themselves against their heroes, renewed their vision. They listened, they “took a lesson.”

Bards did not appear solely in ancient Ireland and Wales. Their lines run through time and territories from well before Homer to sometime after Walt Whitman. In times gone by, perhaps every people had its bards. This speaks of a universal need for remembrance and renewal of vision.

Certain bards stand above the others; their voices reach beyond the boundaries of their nations. Shakespeare sings to the whole of Western civilization, some would argue to all of humanity. Through the tangle of English history and legend he reveals passions, struggles and powers that resound in every soul. Dostoevsky speaks to the same civilization as does Shakespeare, but he speaks to it about the moment when it faces the threat of its own demise. We listen, we take a lesson.

Where are the bards today? Few poets even strive for the mantle. Poets today largely speak to one another, or they speak to their critics. A bard speaks to the whole culture. You already know where this thought is heading: not poets, but television replaces the bards today. Yet television doesn’t speak the way the bards spoke. The bards placed people into the fabric of their history and traditions; television tears people out of tradition and nails them to the present moment. The bards reminded people why they live together, showing them by heroic exemplars the best and worst ways to do so. Television speaks to the masses to create an audience. The bards spoke to listeners to create a people.

Television acts like a bard, yet it has the opposite effect. It’s the Anti-bard.

Is it possible, then, to wield the tools of the Anti-bard toward the ends of the traditional bard? That would mean using camcorders, images and sound in the way the bards used harps and words: to evoke, to reveal the depths, to remind. That would mean struggling against the medium’s innate preference for the superficial, the fleeting. Some would argue that this simply can’t be done. They would say it works against the grain of the medium. They’d say that because of the ravages of the Anti-bard, the people wouldn’t appreciate truly bardic video anyway.

Will any videomaker take their bet? Will anyone with a camcorder reach for the laurel crown? The first step would be to listen to the bards and “take a lesson.”

Stephen Muratore is Videomaker‘s Editor in Chief.

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