It might seem a bit odd to imagine ancient Greek poet Sappho crooning into a classic microphone with a Gibson guitar slung low on her hip. But that’s just the kind of image University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor emeritus David Mulroy wants to conjure.
The classics professor began a project about 10 years ago to set ancient lyric poetry to rockabilly music. The project, dubbed “Sapphobilly,” will come to the Baraboo Public Library in the form of a live musical performance and lecture by Mulroy at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
The professor has given presentations in Baraboo on topics ranging from grammar to “Antigone.” Marc Boucher, who directs the T.N. Savides Library at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County, which is co-sponsoring the event, took his first class with Mulroy in 1989.
“I was just taking some of my humanities credits,” he said.
Boucher was hooked. Mulroy opened his mind to the worlds of Greek and Roman mythology, and the two became friends.
“He helped spark for me just the love of learning because he was just that good of a teacher,” Boucher said.
The professor has performed his innovative translations at the University of Wisconsin-Washington County and Nicolet College in Rhinelander — both times at Boucher’s invitation. Wednesday, in Baraboo, will be his first time with accompaniment.
“I’ll be the one playing with him,” Boucher said.“ … And he’s even going to let me sing two songs.”
Boucher plans to perform one poem in a heavy metal style, but he wouldn’t say which one.
“Sapphobilly” is a response to the typical contemporary interpretations of the ancient Greek and Roman literature, which tend to get away from the original spirit of the work, Boucher said.
“These lyric poems were the popular music of the day, so they were meant for the common person,” he said.
Mulroy’s translations of the poems by Sappho, Catullus and Horace allow the work to be easily understood. And the little ditties are quite catchy.
“Some people call the cavalry/marching men or ships at sea/the fairest thing. I disagree./It’s what a person loves,” Mulroy sings in one of his translations of Sappho's poetry.
In ancient times, the pieces were sung along with lyre music, and people often danced to their accompaniment. Modern translations leave readers without a true sense of their original musical quality, the professor said. He set his translations to simple chord progressions on the guitar.
“I think you get the idea of the spirit of these ancient songs much better,” he said.
Mulroy said the project started as a hobby, something just for his own enjoyment. He also said he wants to warn the audience up front that he has no musical training.
“This is like one step removed from singing in the shower,” he joked.
But what he might lack in classical training Mulroy makes up for in knowledge of the classics, and there is much to be learned through his words and process.
He said his quest to make the work fun and accessible for contemporary audiences has been enjoyed by the people with whom he’s shared the songs.
“People have always been very receptive and enthusiastic,” he said.
Boucher said the work is a good introduction to ancient literature and mythology.
“Hopefully it’ll help pique the curiosity of those who would love to learn more about it,” he said.
Mulroy said he’d encourage anyone interested in poetry to check out the lecture and performance.
“They’re all somewhat different in their outlook and spirit, but what they share is this style of musical poetry and expressing personal feelings,” he said of the poets.
And what would Sappho, Catullus and Horace, who came from different eras, places and experiences, think of his interpretation? They’d probably dig it.
“I’m sure that they would approve,” Mulroy said with a chuckle.