I have outlined the importance of the Song of the Skeleton in the rituals of both north and south China (In Search of the folk Daoists pp.233–4). It’s a common theme throughout the north—mainly as part of the yankou, both Daoist and Buddhist.
In Yanggao Daoist ritual (Daoist Priests pp.274–5), several hymns are related. The Mantra of the Skeleton (Kulou zhenyan 骷髏真言, more commonly known here by the melodic label Wailing to Sovereign Heaven, Ku huangtian 哭皇天) is prescribed, a cappella, for Opening Scriptures on the first afternoon of a funeral.
It’s a kind of catalogue aria, with seven long verses for the visits to the stations of purgatory over seven days. Its melodic material overlaps substantially with that of other hymns, beginning with the opening of the Diverse and Nameless melody (Daoist priests pp.267–8). The melismatic “Ah, Skeleton” (Kulou) refrain, and the coda in pseudo-Sanskrit (also in common with Diverse and Nameless), are not written here in the manual. My film (from 56’08”) gives the sixth verse:
Ah Skeleton! Skeleton!
On the sixth day he reaches Netherworld Souls Village
His sons not to be seen
Starving and parched, at his wits’ end,
Desperate to sup broth.
From Li Qing’s hymn volume, 1980. The final folio on the left has the opening of Mantra to the Wailing Ghosts—my book p.266, also featured in the film, from 1.03.56).
* * *
For most such hymns one hardly expects an “emotional” response from audiences—in Yanggao, after all, it shares both melodic material and style with many others in the repertoire. But in his brilliant ethnographic studies of ritual practice in old Beijing, Chang Renchun notes how the renditions of two celebrated Buddhist monks moved their audiences to tears. Performative tears feature in many posts on this blog—links here.
Some common versions open:
昨日去荒郊玩游 Yesterday, seeking diversion roaming in the barren outskirts…
So talking of “Yesterday”, Paul McCartney heard his own version in a dream, like Aboriginal singers.
Though secular, it’s deeply moving. Here’s an early solo rendition, live (and Paul’s unaffected style is a major element of the song’s impact—no cover versions come close):
Here’s the remastered version from 2009:
As I observe in the introduction to my series on the great Beatles albums, analysis, while optional, can supplement our response; again it’s instructive to read Wilfred Mellers and Alan W. Pollack. Dating from the same period as A hard day’s night, Mellers considers Yesterday a “small miracle”:
Although the opening words tell us that yesterday his troubles seemed far away, the music in the second bar immediately enacts these troubles with a disquieting modulation from tonic, by way of the sharpened sixth, to the relative. The first bar, with its gentle sigh, seems separated, stranded, by the abrupt modulation; and although the troubles “return to stay” with a descent to the tonic, the anticipated modulation sharpwards is counteracted when the B♮is flattened to make an irresolute plagal cadence. […]
The immediate nostalgia of the song is without suspicion of sentimentality, and the corny accompaniment of string quartet can be employed, with validity, to reinforce the music’s frail bewilderment.
George Martin’s manuscript for Yesterday, on display at Abbey road studios.
Pollack’s analysis is also insightful. And as he notes (also in my roundup), the opening uses a device here that Paul was to use regularly in some of his great songs: a declarative word, followed by a pause, and then rhythmically active ascent.
I can be quite confident about our own emotional responses to this song; less so about the responses of various types of Chinese mourners to the Skeleton, over time.