Author: Christopher C. King
Reviewed by: Glenn P. Hendrix, Chair, Arnall Golden Gregory LLP
I’m a fan of the Oxford American magazine’s annual music issue, which comes with a complimentary music CD featuring all manner of Southern artists. The 2016 edition, titled “Visions of the Blues,” included a haunting violin instrumental with no apparent Southern connection—Epirotiko Mirologi, by Alexis Zoumbas, a Greek immigrant who recorded it in New York in 1926. In the accompanying write-up, Christopher King—a music historian and pre-World War II 78 rpm record collector—told of the “cosmic connection” he heard between Epirotiko and Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, a 1927 recording by Texas bluesman Blind Willie Johnson. In King’s words, both have “an unfathomable aura and power, a musical aperture to the past teeming with dark energy.”
I was struck by Epirotiko, and when I learned this year that Christopher King had written a book about Epirus, the mountainous and somewhat isolated region in the far northwestern corner of Greece (bordering Albania) from which Alexis Zoumbas hailed, I quickly got a copy.
I wasn’t disappointed. Lament From Epirus is, in various parts, travelogue, history and a tale of personal obsession—the latter including both King’s compulsive search for rare recordings and his fascination with the elemental function of music.
King’s central thesis is that music does not serve merely to entertain and that there “was a time when music functioned both mystically and practically, like the creation of fire. Music was intended to heal as if it contained within itself potency, a spiritual utility. But something happened. The mystical and the practical were displaced and music’s function reassigned.”
King, who is a bit of a crank, abhors modern music as inauthentic and soulless, but finds emotional depth and pathos in the music of Epirus, which he characterizes as the oldest surviving folk music in Europe.
You can hear Epirotic music on the “Lament from Epirus” Spotify playlist:
It’s not all easy on the ear. According to King, even Greeks outside of Epirus compare the sound to “an old goat boiling … in the cauldron.” None of the songs appeal to me quite so much as Epirotiko Mirologi, which first drew me into Lament From Epirus. But you don’t have to share King’s obsession with Epirotic music (or some of his more idiosyncratic views on music generally) to be smitten by his passion for Epirus and its people. I certainly was.
Editor’s note: This review is part of Global Atlanta’s annual project asking influential readers and community leaders to review the most impactful book they read during the course of the year. This endeavor has continued each year since 2011. Purchases through the Amazon affiliate links at top will provide a commission to Global Atlanta. All reviews were written independently with only mild editing from our staff.