This past Wednesday, musical artist Joe Goodkin performed his rendition of “The Odyssey” in Downey House. The 30-minute original musical composition consisted of vocals and solo acoustic guitar. This was Goodkin’s 199th performance after having traveled to high schools and universities across the nation.
Based on Homer’s epic of the same name, “The Odyssey” is comprised of 24 original songs sung consecutively, each with lyrics based and inspired by stories of Odysseus’ exploits. The performance is part lecture, part musical performance, and part interactive discussion.
Goodkin grew up playing music in Chicago, where he is currently based as a musician. Music was always central to his interests.
“I was in bands going back to fifth grade; my high school band almost was signed by a record label, and my music roots go back to playing guitar at age eight,” he said.
In college, Goodkin was introduced to Ancient Greek and Classics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and later earned a Bachelors’ Degree as an Ancient Greek and Classics major.
“It was a chance decision to take Ancient Greek in college,” Goodkin said. “I was taking mythology and archaeology, and I got a sense for how complimentary and multidisciplinary Classics is. It struck a chord with me….It’s like looking back in time and seeing what it’s like to be human [during a certain time].”
The conception of “The Odyssey” came as a combination of his two major passions.
“I had the notion that I wanted to combine the two and figure out where the intersection was,” Goodkin said. “And I thought, well, ‘The Odyssey’ was originally told by bards, that’s sort of musical, so that’s where I started. I guess I sort of got lucky that I picked a great story to tell. I finished it and then I performed in high schools mostly, then five years ago I started playing in colleges and universities.”
The performance in Downey House was held in room 113, a small auditorium where the audience was close to Goodkin. He was playing an acoustic guitar while the audience was able to read his lyrics up on a projector. However, this intimate and isolated experience is not what each of his performances is always like.
“Because it was in such a closed room, we were really in the element with him,” Hannah Xu ’20 said. “We were so engaged, we could see everything in action, up close, which made for a very dynamic experience.”
For Goodkin, consistency is something he prizes.
“In my head, [the performance] hasn’t changed at all,” Goodkin said. “I’m playing the same chords, singing the same words. But I listen to a recording I did five years ago, and it sounds completely different. It’s really opened my eyes to how you improvise within a form, and the range you have even when you think it’s not changing. And more importantly, how the space and the audience change what you’re producing.”
Goodkin also linked this changing form to the wider style of recounting stories orally.
“My performance in a room like this, isolated, it was way different than [performing] outside,” Goodkin said. “There’s a lot of symmetry from the way in which we think the oral tradition worked. [In] acknowledging that each story is told by a bard in a particular time and place they’re in that day, there’s a lot of flexibility to tell the story in totally different ways. That’s the way I think about it when I’m performing.”
Goodkin’s decision to dedicate so much of his time to the original version of “The Odyssey” is grounded in a deep connection and study of the work.
“It was the piece that I’ve read in the most contexts,” Goodkin said. “I started to read it when I took Ancient Greek, and it was one of the most moving things ever. There was this emotional hook for me, but I had also studied it in more of a literature and translation scenario, and comparative literature context. I felt that I could find the emotional and intellectual center of the story pretty easily.”
It was through his initial interest in “The Odyssey” that he developed his own take on this.
“I had a take on it, I knew what I could see in the characters, and I just started writing, and suddenly I was knee deep in it,” Goodkin said. “It still surprises me, after 199 performances, that I can find new things in the story. It was either instinct or luck that I found the things that I could connect to the best. And I think that’s a lesson for art in general. Sometimes you just make decisions and who knows why? But you do something right.”
As for the future, Goodkin does not foresee himself moving onto other projects yet.
“I made a promise to myself to only do this this way until it stopped fulfilling me emotionally, intellectually, and career-wise,” Goodkin said. “And when I made that commitment, I haven’t run out of stuff, I think I’m getting better. I’m constantly surprised by every performance and what the audience gives me every performance…it’s amazing.”
Goodkin’s “The Odyssey” is on Spotify and iTunes, and available for streaming on his website http://joesodyssey.com/.