The oral tradition may not be dead, but it’s been buried in an academic journal. Nonetheless, as all-around smart guy Ray Davis noted in an email to me, if you squint right, the answer song looks like the latest — possibly the last — in a long line of forms taken by the oral tradition ancestors. Certainly Kool Herc, when he brought breakbeats and toasting to New York’s black music scene, wasn’t thinking about the praise songs of the West African griot. But I’m hardly the first to think that rap battles bear a significant resemblance to signifying or playing the dozens. But it’s not surprising; what else is communication for, if not for talking trash about your enemies, bragging about your sexual prowess, and giving shoutouts to your friends? It probably dates back to Neanderthal days. The medieval Norse traditions of the flyting and the senna were ritualized deliveries of insults, as in the Lokasenna, or the "Flyting of Loki":
FREYA: You are mad, Loki, to mention here
Your foul and ugly arts:
Frigg knows all that is fated to be,
Though she does not say so herself.
LOKI: Enough, Freya! I know well
You have been as bad as the rest:
With all who sit here, elves and gods,
With each you have played the whore.
FREYA: False is your tongue.
You will find before long
That ill comes to the evil:
The gods are enraged, the goddesses also
Unhappy will you go hence.
LOKI: Enough, Freya! I know you a witch
Who has done many wicked deeds:
You enticed into bed your own brother, remember,
And then, Freya, you broke-wind.
NJÖRD: It’s a small matter if a maiden chooses
To lie with a husband or lover,
But a shameful sight is a She-god
Who has given birth to babies.
LOKI: Beware, Njörd! I know you were sent
From the east as a hostage to gods:
For Hymir’s daughters you did as a urine-trough,
They made water in your mouth.
TYR: I lost a hand, but you lost a son,
The wolf brought woe to us both:
In painful fetters shall Fenris lie
Until the twilight of gods.
LOKI: Enough, Tyr! You know that your wife
Mothered a son by me:
Nor rag nor penny were you paid for that
In recompense, wretched one.
The jibes work even today: I slept with your wife, and that’s not your baby! You’re a pervert! And the formal insult tradition wasn’t unique to Scandanavia. Consider the Irish “Scél Mucci Mic Dathé”, the "Story of Mac Dathó’s Pig":
"Stop a bit, Celtchair!" said Cet, "unless we are to come to blows at once. I came, Celtchair, to the door of your house. The alarm was raised around me. Everyone came up. You came too. You went into the doorway in front of me. You cast a spear at me. I cast another spear at you so that it pierced your thigh and the upper part of the fork of your legs. You have had a … disease ever since. Since then neither son nor daughter has been begotten by you. What could encourage you to fight with me?" Thereupon the other sat down.
That may be even more insulting than today’s radio lyrics.
Other European cultures have their own traditions, such as the (often political) Tuscan improvised rhyming form of contrasti. Even as Gaelic harpers dwindled into nothingness, the Celtic tradition of making mock lived on in song. The Rebels Ceilidh Song Book contains a number of political Scottish songs, including this one about Queen Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh:
"Now the first one we’ll pray for, we’ll pray for the Duke,
Glory O Glory, that big handsome plook
And if he loses one hair, may he also lose ten
May the bastard go baldy, and we all say amen."
But the rebellion song was largely an artifact of another time. There was still a place in popular music for political music, songs about the fascist regime or even impressionistic punk about the Troubles. The method of letting loose on one’s political or artistic enemies had shifted away from improvised, localized verse to broadsheets, pamphlets, articles in the Times, and published verse. The bardic tradition of flyting may have passed, but the art of the insult will never die.