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Interview: The Blues of Achilles

Image credit to Flaroh Illustration

This month, here at Mythos, we were thrilled to get to have a chat with singer-songwriter, Joe Goodkin, about his album ‘The Blues of Achilles,’ a collection of songs inspired by Homer’s ‘Iliad’. ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’ are some of the oldest existing tales from Ancient Greece, believed to date to late seventh and early eight century BC. Though they are attributed to Homer we know very little about the bard – or even if he truly existed. It remains a mystery to this day, with speculation that the tales may have been composed by two or more people rather than a singular bard. Perhaps the most famous theory is that Homer was a blind bard, ‘blind’ being one possible interpretation of Homer’s name. A blind bard even features in ‘The Odyssey’ Demodocus, who is suspected of being a reflection of Homer himself.

Despite how little we know of the original bard, his work lives on, opening a window into the lives of the Ancient Greeks and inspiring the works of many modern singers, poets, and storytellers.

Believed to be the elder of Homer’s two Epic Poems, ‘The Iliad’ details the Trojan War, opening several years after the war began, with the hero Achilles withdrawing from battle. Achilles felt dishonoured and spurned by the theft of his war-prize, the slave Briseis. Fated to die a noble death in the Trojan War – and live a long ignoble life if he did not fight – Achilles refused to fight unless he received the honour and acclaim he was due, returning to battle only after the death of his beloved Patroclus. The tale deals with the grim realities of war – the death of sons, husbands, and friends – but also with honour, glory, destiny, and legacy. So many of the characters of the Epic are concerned with the immortality of their name, with knowing that their deeds will live on after death. And with the enduring fame of ‘The Iliad’, their desires come true. They are remembered and live on in each new retelling of their stories.

One such retelling comes from modern-day bard, Joe Goodkin. Based in Chicago, the singer-songwriter has a long love for Homer’s work, graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in Classics. For twenty years he has performed across America, and even travelled as far as Greece to perform in Athens. Inspired by ‘The Iliad’, his album, ‘The Blues of Achilles’ speaks to the tragedy and grief not just of the Trojan war, but of all wars. Interestingly, Goodkin tells the story backwards, beginning after the death of Hector and travelling back to the beginning, when Achilles withdrew from the war. The album features songs such as ‘Hands of Grief’, in which King Priam appeals to Achilles for the return of his son’s body for burial, ‘In the Mud’, which tells of the death of Patroclus and ‘They’ll tell your story when you’re gone’ in which Thetis speaks to Achilles, the son she knows will die in war. We were thrilled to get to have a chat with Goodkin about the process of writing his album and his relationship with Homer’s ‘Iliad’.


Q. What first made you want to write music inspired by the Iliad?

I studied Classics at University of Wisconsin-Madison and really loved reading Ancient Greek, in particular Homeric epic. I was fascinated with the largely accepted view that the poems originated as oral performances, and I was curious to see if I could reintroduce the musical performance aspect to the stories and use song to make them accessible to modern audiences. I wrote a folk opera retelling of Homer's Odyssey in the early 2000's and have performed it to date almost 400 times in all 50 US states, and even in Greece and Italy. Though it took me some time to get around to the Iliad, in 2018 and 2019, I wrote the song cycle ‘The Blues of Achilles’ and premiered it in 2020, releasing an album of the material in 2022.

Q. Was there a particular moment or character from the Iliad that you were most eager to explore in your music?

The most important moment for me was Priam's visit to Achilles' tent in Book 24 (which is the song ‘Hands of Grief’). I think it's one of the most beautifully rendered and important scenes in all of literature and I wanted the emotion I feel every time I read it to come out in my song treatment.

Q. Conversely, which song did you find the hardest to write, and why? 

Figuring out how to represent Achilles' rage and the violence of war in first person song (‘The War Lullaby’) was difficult. I didn't have a lot of models for songs like that in my genre of choice and singing about violence is a tricky thing: it can cross the line into something more campy than horrible very quickly.

Q. Being a modern-day bard, how important do you feel oral retellings are to keeping the spirit of Homer’s work alive?

I think it's a helpful thing to understand that the texts we have, even in the original language, are translations of a sort: they are an attempt to translate and preserve something that was originally an experience, stories that had no "definitive" versions for many hundreds of years, only tellings and retellings. I think of the Homeric texts as similar to ancient statuary that is now white: many of these pieces were painted with bright colours, and I think the musical and performance aspect of Homeric epic is colour that we don't see when we look at only the texts.

Q. Following on from the Blues of Achilles – are there any other classical tales or myths that you would be interested in exploring?

Good question. Nothing has moved me quite in the same way as Homer has. But I'm always thinking and looking for the next project.



If you haven’t already listened to Goodkin’s incredible album, we would certainly recommend checking it out. Evocative and emotional, the album highlights the grief and tragedy of war, often through the voices of those left behind, creating a rich adaptation of one of the world’s most famous classical texts. To check out the wonderful songs of ‘Blue of Achilles’ please find the album here:


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