Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing

huapencun

Mural, Lord Guan Hall, Huapen village, Yanqing district, Beijing, c1809.

Quite beyond my area of expertise, I was inspired by reading the brief yet suggestive article

  • Liu Lingcang 劉淩滄, [1] “Minjian bihuade zhizuo fangfa” 民間壁畫的製作方法 [Techniques of making folk murals], Yishu yanjiu 1958.2, pp.52–6.

As Hannibal Taubes divined when he sent it to me, slight as it is, it links up nicely with my taste for scholarship under Maoism documenting the customs of old Beijing just as they were being dismantled. It’s not so much the quality of the research that attracts me here—rather, the delicate nature of studying the topic just as collectivisation was escalating, painfully evoked in films like The blue kite. As ever, we need to read between the lines. Moreover, we can always learn from accounts of the nuts and bolts of creativity.

I’ve already introduced the work of the great Yang Yinliu at the helm of the Music Research Institute, along with the ritual traditions of old Beijing represented by the Zhihua temple. For more on old Beijing, see also Li Wenru, Wang ShixiangChang Renchun, and narrative-singing (here and here)—and in recent years a major project on the social history of imperial and Republican Beijing temples through epigraphy and oral sources.

* * *

From November 1955 to the autumn of 1956, the Central Academy of Fine Arts carried out a project documenting the work of ritual painters in Beijing. Rather than Liu’s gloss huagong 画工, the common folk term was huajiang 画匠 “artisan painter”, as in Yanggao, referring to artisans working for what had always been largely a ritual market—part of the whole network of ritual service providers upon whom Chang Renchun‘s work opens a window. They were apprenticed from young, often within the family.

Themes of their murals and paintings included the Seventy-two Courts (qisier si 七十二司) (cf. here, under “Buddhist-transmitted groups”) and the Ten Kings of the Underworld, depictions of Guanyin, the life of the Buddha, Yaowang Medicine King, and Water and Land rituals; and scenes from popular fiction such as the Three Kingdoms and the Water Margin. The article also hints at the market in the surrounding countryside for New Year’s lanterns and diaogua hangings, such as our own team found in Hebei (cf. the story of itinerant Qi Youzhi and his forebears, tuning sheng mouth-organs for temples and village ritual associations). The themes of such hangings were closely related to historical subjects embodied in opera and story-telling.

Diaogua hangings adorning the alleys of Gaoluo village, 1989. My photos.

Just as our understanding of ritual is enriched by zooming in on the nuts and bolts of its vocal and instrumental soundscape, we can learn much by unpacking the techniques and vocabulary of religious painting. [2] In the end, ritual performers and ritual artisans are closely related.

The whole process of creating murals consisted of three stages (yixiu erluo sancheng 一朽二落三成):

  • xiu “draft”, known as tanhuo 擹活, creating a draft outline, drawn in charcoal
  • luo (lao, perhaps), “setting down”, known as laomo 落墨 “setting down the ink”
  • cheng “completion” (cheng guanhuo 成管活).

As with Renaissance artists in Europe, the laborious final stages depended on a division of labour, with the assistance of disciples.

Liu goes on to discuss elements in turn, with details on materials and tools, including this marvellous summary of the technicalities of preparing Water and Land paintings:

Shuilu details

Citing examples as far back as the Tang dynasty to illustrate techniques still in use, Liu goes on to discuss applying ground layers to the wall, templates (fenben 粉本), traditional methods of mixing and adjusting mineral pigments, the use of glues and alum, creating 3-D effects, and colour gradation. For pigments, while Liu notes the incursion of Western materials since the 1920s, among the team’s informants for traditional painting techniques was none other than Guan Pinghu, master of the qin zither! And in a detailed section on depicting gold, Liu consulted Wang Dingli 王定理 and Shen Yucheng 申玉成, working on the statuary of Tibetan temples in Beijing, as the best artisans then working in the medium.

An intriguing part of the final stages of mural painting is the addition of colours according to the master craftsman’s indications in charcoal, such as gong 工 for red and ba 八 for yellow—economical versions of the characters hong 红 and huang 黄, or liu 六, whose pronunciation stood for  绿 green. They even found such indications visible in the Ming-dynasty murals of the Dahui si 大慧寺 temple in Beijing. Liu notes that the custom was already dying out in Beijing, [3] but the shorthand reminds me, not quite gratuitously, of the secret language of blind shawm players in north Shanxi, and (less directly) the characters of gongche notation, which persisted.

Though again the ancient tradition of oral formulas (koujue 口诀) was dying out (at least in Beijing), Liu lists those that they could recover—just the kind of vocabulary that we seek from ritual performers, going beyond airy doctrinal theorising to gain insights into the practical and aesthetic world of folk society:

koujue

Just as the ritual soundscape still heard throughout the countryside in the 1950s (and today) contrasted starkly with the official diet of revolutionary songs, these traditions occupy an utterly different world from our image of propaganda posters of the time.

But—not unlike all the 1950s’ fieldwork on regional musical traditions (links here)— what the article could hardly broach was how the lives and livelihoods of such ritual service providers were progressively impoverished after Liberation, as their whole market came under assault and temples were demolished or left to fall into ruin. Even in the previous decade, through the Japanese occupation and civil war, the maintenance of temples can hardly have been a priority; new creation of murals was clearly on hold, and one wonders how much, if any, maintenance and restoration these artisans were still doing when Liu’s team visited them. Some of the artisans were doubtless already seeking alternative employment such as factory work or petty trade. We get but rare glimpses of this story, such as Zha Fuxi’s 1952 frank letter to the former monks of the Zhihua temple tradition. Later in the 1950s some official documents inadvertently provide further material on the period.

Of course, irrespective of their current circumstances, asking people to recall their previous practices is always an aspect of fieldwork, while one seeks to clarify the time-frame of their observations.

 

[1] Liu LingcangBy this time Liu Lingcang (1908–89) was already a distinguished artist and educator; but his early life qualified him well for the project discussed here. A native of a poor village in Gu’an county, Hebei, as a teenager he worked as an apprentice folk ritual artisan in nearby Bazhou before finding work as a restorer of temple murals in Beijing—so the 1955–6 project was based on his own former experience as a participant. Becoming a member of the Research Association for Chinese Painting in 1926, he went on to study at the Beiping National School of Art (precursor of the Central Academy of Fine Arts), taking up senior official posts after the 1949 Liberation. Some of his later paintings addressed religious themes: like Yang Yinliu over at the Music Research Institute, he clearly remained attached to his early background, despite his elevation. Again I think of Craig Clunas’s comment “The published curricula vitae of Chinese scholars often give a false idea of the continuity of their employment, and conceal the long periods of frustrating idleness caused by periodic political campaigning.”

[2] Craig Clunas kindly offers some further leads to “technical art history” in China, such as John Winter, East Asian paintings (2008), and (for the medieval period, notably for Dunhuang) Sarah Fraser, Performing the visual: the practice of Buddhist wall painting in China and Central Asia, 618-960 (2004). For technical details in the world of literati painting (such as mounting), see Robert van Gulik, Chinese pictorial art as viewed by the connoisseur (1981).

[3] As Hannibal tells me, a variant of this system is still used by folk ritual artisans in rural Shaanbei. For the anthropology of folk ritual art there he also directs us to a wealth of research, notably the insightful work of Huyan Sheng 呼延胜, such as his PhD on Water and Land paintings (Shaanbei tudishangde shuilu yishu 陕北土地上的水陆画艺术), and the article “Yishu renleixue shiyexiade Shaanbei minjian simiao huihua he kaiguang yishi” 艺术人类学视域下的陕北民间寺庙绘画和开光仪式, Minyi 民艺 2019.3; as well as a detailed article on painter-artisans in nearby Gansu by Niu Le 牛乐, “Duoyuan wenhuade yinxing chuancheng celue yu wenhua luoji” 多元文化的隐性传承策略与文化逻辑, Qinghai minzu yanjiu 2018.3.

Gosh—for such remarkable continuity in Chinese culture, despite all its tribulations, yet another reminder that “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”, and that “a starved camel is bigger than a fat horse”.

Temple murals: a new website

HT site

For aficionados of Chinese art and religion, to complement the fine website of Hannibal Taubes on north Chinese temple murals http://twosmall.ipower.com/blog/ (see my post here), we now have a related (and still evolving) site Temple Trash—the drôle title taken from the description of the murals by an unnamed professor! http://twosmall.ipower.com/murals/

Both websites are vast, and still only a selection from the archive deriving from his fieldwork. It’s a Herculean (or in this case Hannibalesque) task, that invites us to reassess the whole history of religious art—commonly assumed to have entered terminal decline since the Ming dynasty. Unlike the many glossy compendia of early temple murals and architecture protected by the state, these murals come mainly from minor village temples, and often suffer from neglect and pillage. And given the southern focus of religious studies, the focus on north China (mainly for Hebei, Shanxi, and Shaanbei), is itself original.

Categories

The wealth of images is meticulously documented. As Hannibal explains, the image scroll on the main page is in chronological order from c1500 to the present day, top to bottom. Click on the little squares to see the galleries. You can browse the images according to type by clicking on the “Categories” menu at the upper left—select the dropdown menu for a quick-list of categories (deities, genres and topics, locations, venues, periods, and so on, all extensively subdivided), or scroll down for more info. The murals are shown in context, with details of temple architecture and village topography.

To give a few examples of the wealth of the new site: apart from the temple focus, some interesting galleries show images depicted since the 1949 founding of the PRC. Some living traditions of ritual paintings are also included (cf. my modest contributions on this blog under Ritual paintings), such as pantheon scrolls for spirit mediums (Shaanbei, and Wutai in Shanxi). Among many topics, the theme of Women in murals supplements the Goddesses listed under the Deity category.

Of course (as I would say), like ritual manuals, material culture is both silent and immobile: temples are not mere repositories of artefacts, but sites for social activity. All such documentation should complement studies on religious life in north China; and (as I would say) funerals too have remained vibrant occasions for ritual life.

Exploring these sites is an edifying, eye-opening pleasure.

A 2019 retrospective

For my sake as much as yours, I’m rounding up some themes from the last year (cf. my post for 2018)—do click on the links, both below and in the posts themselves! There’s plenty more to explore under the monthly archives as you scroll down in the sidebar.

I continue to add vignettes on the Li family Daoists (always bearing in mind my film and book!):

and I augment my post Walking Shrill with

On my other main fieldsite of Gaoluo (summary here),

Bearing on both the Li family and Gaoluo is

And under the main menu, it’s always worth exploring the many fieldnotes under Local ritual, and the various pages under the Themes sub-menu.

Among many posts on the great Yang Yinliu are

For links to ritual life around south Jiangsu, see

and for the rich cultures of Fujian,

Note also

For more on China, see

The plight of the Uyghurs is a pressing concern (see also Uyghur tag):

Note also

Further afield, see

The category of “world music“, or rather musicking in societies around the world, continues to grow. For salient perspectives on musical cultures worldwide (notably the brilliant, accessible work of Bruno Nettl), see

For diverse regional genres, see e.g.

For the musics of Iran, see

Pursuing my shawm theme. see

Among several posts on Italian folk culture are

See also

Note also new posts on flamenco.

On English culture (roundup here):

and having given Alan Bennett time off for good behaviour, he stars in several recent posts, notably

Under the WAM category, posts include

and recent additions to the Mozart tag, like

Under the Messiaen tag, major new posts are

On a lighter note are two classics on rubber chicken:

In my Must-Listen Playlist of songs (complementing the sidebar playlist for local Chinese traditions, with commentary here), most spellbinding is

And I continue the theme of stammering:

Also well worth a read is

And don’t forget the *MUST READ* category—among which my personal choice remains

Dream songs

 

In my post on Noh drama, I noted that Allan Marett’s Eliza made a kind of bridge to his fieldwork on aboriginal culture in Australia.

In the fine tradition of subaltern studies, Allan Marett, in partnership with Linda Barwick, has long been studying wangga, a musical and ceremonial genre of Aboriginal people of the Daly Region of northwest Australia. Along with many articles, he has written

  • Songs, dreamings, and ghosts: the wangga of north Australia (2005, with CD online here)

and co-authored

  • Allan Marett, Linda Barwick, and Lysbeth Ford, For the sake of a song: wangga songmen and their repertories (2013), with associated website here (NB audio here).

Dream songs make one of the most fascinating instances of the process of musical creation, and the relation between “inspiration and perspiration”. They also make a fine exhibit for us to broaden our concept of “serious music”.

Here I’ll consider Songs, dreaming, and ghosts. It’s the result of nearly twenty years of fieldwork, its detailed analyses enhanced by participant observation. In the Preface Allan explores the ambivalence of non-Aboriginal society towards Aboriginal culture, asking why its visual arts are so much more valued than its music:

Part of the answer must surely lie in the fact that both paintings and popular songs are easily commodified, while traditional songs are not. They do not lend themselves to reframing within a European modernist tradition in the way that paintings do. Moreover, traditional songs work in ways that are unfamiliar to most audiences and are sung in languages that nobody outside their home communities understands. They tend to be intensely local, focused on places that are frequently unknown to any but those who have rights to the country. They rest on cosmologies and ways of being that are radically different from those shared by the majority of the Australian community.

The articulation of the relationship between the living and the dead occurs both in the process of song composition and in ceremony. The whole culture is deeply embedded in the concept of country (for a very different kind of Country, see here).

As Allan observes,

The many social changes—settlement, migration, marginalization—that attended European intrusion on Aboriginal domains in the Daly region are reflected in, and mediated by, wangga.

The focus of the book on the positive roles of cultural transmission emerged from Allan’s dialogue with his mentors, whose primary wish was to share the beauty and resilience of their art, rather than dwelling on the post-colonial traumas that permeate all their lives, shared by indigenous peoples worldwide—poverty, low life expectancy, discrimination, high rates of incarceration, land rights, and so on (see e.g. here). For endangered songs and endangered languages, see here, and for the role of technology in preservation, here.

Allan outlines the history of research since the 1950s (A.P. Elkin, Trevor Jones, Alice Moyle, Catherine Ellis, and so on). He reflects on how to integrate social and musical analysis—a model for which I recommend Berliner, Thinking in jazz. We may think of WAM as complex, but the complexities of both the culture and soundscape of aboriginal life are of a different order. He reflects wisely on the role that notation may serve for us:

Although analysis is not particularly fashionable within ethnomusicology today, I am strongly of the view that it provides our best methodological tool for isolating significant (and signifying) moments of performance. I am not so naive as to assume that Western notation can ever accurately represent the totality of the sound world of wangga—or indeed any complex sound world—but I believe that transcription can, if sensitively handled, be used to direct the listener to salient features of the music, much as maps direct travelers to salient features of the landscape. Just as maps are socially constructed documents with their own sets of conventions, and just as they can never represent every aspect of the landscape without simply replicating the landscape in its entirety, so too are transcriptions socially constructed documents that can never totally encode the sound world to which they relate. But insofar as they help us navigate through an unfamiliar music, they can be extremely helpful.

The reason that I use Western notation—despite its obvious shortcomings—is because it is the most widely understood way of graphically representing musical sound. Many of the recordings on which my transcriptions are based are presented in the accompanying CD, and I invite readers to judge the efficacy of the transcriptions, and their associated analyses, with regard to the extent to which they open up the music and render it intelligible.

Indeed, reading such densely-argued analysis makes it all the more important to follow Allan’s careful transcriptions in conjunction with the 28 short audio tracks on the associated website. Such analysis of arcane repertoires is admirable—all the more so in view of the dearth of indigenous musical terminology. Profound concepts are often expressed in misleadingly simple expressions (cf. “doing things” in north China).

Chapter One introduces repertories, histories, and orders of being—opening with the legend of Old Man Tulh, represented in painting and in song.

Wangga songs are performed by one or two (or occasionally more) songmen, who accompany themselves on wooden clapsticks and are accompanied in turn by another performer playing the didjeridu, a long trumpet fashioned from a tree branch thathas been hollowed out by termites. Wangga songs typically comprise a number of bursts of singing, which I term “vocal sections”, which are accompanied by didjeridu, and, in some cases, clapsticks. Vocal sections are separated from one another by a number of “instrumental sections”, which are performed using clapsticks and didjeridu, with occasional spoken, sung, or hummed interjections by the songman. In many case, it is in the instrumental sections that dance comes to the fore.

The wangga repertory may be divided into two broad musical types. In the first, which I call “unmeasured”, the singer alternates didjeridu-accompanied vocal sections without clapstick accompaniment with instrumental sections performed by both clapsticks and didjeridu. In the second, “measured” type, the singer accompanies himself with clapsticks throughout the whole song, and the delivery of the text in the vocal sections is contstrained by the metrical framework established by the sticks and the rhythmic ostinato of the didjeridu.

Allan introduces the two main centres for the composition and performance of wangga, Wadeye and Belyuen—both migrant communities.

Today it is the Walakhanda wangga repertory that is dominant at Wadeye. The reasons for this go back to a set of extraordinary decisions made by Wadeye elders almost fifty years ago. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, a conscious decision was made to create three new repertories of song—the Walakhanda wangga, lirrga, and dhanba—as the basis of of a new tripartite system of ceremonial reciprocity. […]

The immediate impetus for the establishment of this system was the rapid expansion of the Port Keats mission that occurred during the late 1940s and early 1950s. The expanded community included groups who had long histories of conflict with one another and therefore required a new mechanism to maintain social harmony. The tripartite system established at that time continues to function to the present day and is pointed to as a source of ongoing stability within the community.

In Belyuen, by contrast, the community was further removed from the country in which their totemic Dreamings reside, giving rise to a different set of cultural references.

Chapter Two, “Dreaming songs: sustaining tradition”, opens with the Barunga songman Alan Maralung’s account of how he was given songs in dream, and goes on to explore what exactly it is that the ancestors give to songmen. The author finds that the process of composition continues to evolve.

I once witnessed Maralung rehearsing a new song that he had just received. He sang fragments of melody and text sotto voce and quietly beat out short rhythmic patterns, adjusting the various elements until he was happy with them. Later that day he was able to perform the song for a recording; this perhaps suggests that he required less composition time than Mullumbuk. One should bear in mind, however, that Maralung’s songs involve a much greater degree of improvisation than Mullumbuk’s. They constantly evolve and never attain the degree of stability sought by Mullumbuk, or indeed by Lambudju. When songs are not regularly performed in ceremony, as is the case with Maralung’s repertory, they never become “set”, and their form invariably remains unstable from performance to performance. Nevertheless, both forms—those set by performance in ceremony, and those that continue to evolve from performance to performance—equally represent the collaborative work of humans and ancestors.

Basic elements are the cooperation and tensions between lineages, and between different language groups, influencing important aspects of performance.

table

As ever, this is not some anonymous, timeless tradition: individual performers make major contributions. As in other genres (including WAM), wangga repertories change significantly over time. Allan notes repertory loss:

Many songs fall quickly from the repertory with the death of their composers, while some survive for several generations. New songs quickly emerge as new songmen take over.

For various parameters for musical change, see Bruno Nettl.

Left: Behaving suspiciously towards strangers [lessons available for Brexiteers].
Right: Circumcision ceremony, Wadeye 1992.

Chapter Three explores ceremony, notably mortuary and circumcision rituals—again, constantly subject to revision. Always paying attention to the underlying importance of myth, Allan focuses on two burnim-rag mortuary ceremonies, in 1988 and 1995; and he makes detailed comparisons between a 1988 circumcision ceremony and accounts from 1935 to 1945. He broadens the topic to include lirrga and dhanba genres, and ceremonial reciprocity.

As performed today, the circumcision ceremonies at Wadeye represent a revival of the rites discontinued in the mid-1940s under influence from the Catholic mission at Wadeye, then Port Keats. The exact date of the revival is difficult to ascertain, though it seems reasonable to assume that it coincides with the creation of new repertories of wangga, lirrga, and dhanba in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

New ritual complexes have been introduced to replace those that are no longer regarded as efficacious. Notwithstanding the function of ritual to enhance social cohesion, given the precarious nature of tradition, I’d be interested to see an account like that of Geertz for a “failed funeral”, which I emulated for China.

Chapter Three ends with an account of funerals, performed within a Christian framework, and “quasi-ceremonial” civic events such as graduation ceremonies and festivals.

Chapter Four addresses the nuts and bolts of song and dance in performance. Referring to Susan McClary, he comments:

The need to focus not only on how performers play against conventions to generate meaning, but also on the meanings embedded in the conventions themselves, is as important for the study of wangga as it is for McClary’s study of the blues or Beethoven’s A minor quartet.

Indeed, pace Taruskin, this is another clear case of “serious music”!

Allan analyses melody, mode, melisma, metre, voice quality (cf. Voices of the world); the role of the rhythmically patterned drone on didjeridu, and the clapsticks, often signifying the footsteps or the gait of an ancestor; and the dance.

He begins by analysing a 1968 performance of a measured wangga song by Tommy Barrtjap at Belyuen (above, with audio track here), discussing in turn how metre and tempo are established in the instrumental introduction, the structuring of vocal and melodic sections, the structuring of text and its rhythmic realisation in song, instrumental interludes and codas, and stabilizing form.

He then unpacks an unmeasured wangga from a 1988 burnim-rag ceremony at Wadeye, and its relationship with dance.

Always uncovering both communal and personal elements in transmission, Chapters Five to Eight explore major repertoires of wangga with detailed analyses. Chapter Five concerns the Walakandha wangga, established in the early 1960s as part of the reorganization of ritual life at Wadeye. Chapter Six discusses the more variable (and now rare) Ma-yawa wangga, Chapters Seven and Eight the wangga of Tommy Barrtjap and Bobby Lambudju Lane at Belyuen.

In Chapter Nine Allan revisits the musical conventions of the Daly region, drawing general conclusions on the diversity of text structures, rhythmic treatment, multivalency, melody and mode, rhythmic mode and dance.

Chapter Ten looks beyond the Daly region to the performance of wangga and lirrga in the Barunga/Beswick and Kimberley regions. Again using material from as far back as the 1940s, Allan explores the wider network of ceremonial reciprocity between Wadeye and other communities, always identifying creativity.

Again, it is most important to follow Allan’s detailed analyses together with the audio tracks on the book’s website. Of course, listening like this we can only admire them as isolated sound objects, detached from the context of ceremony and dance. Short of attending ceremonies ourselves, film should be a major medium to engage with this culture—indeed, I can imagine Allan making a wonderful portrait film on the topic. Meanwhile, we can get a flavour of ceremonial performance here, with Button Jones singing wangga and lirrga from the Kimberley (as in Chapter Ten):

And lirrga from Wadeye:

Allan also admires the dancing in this exceptional video of performers from Wadeye at a 1973 Eucharistic Congress at Melbourne, with specially-composed Christian lirrga:

* * *

Beyond the nuts and bolts of soundscape, Songs, dreamings, and ghosts constantly stresses cosmological significance, and the creativity of individual composers.

Meeting up with Allan again in London recently, I reflect that after our paths converged at Cambridge while studying Tang court music with Laurence Picken, they then diverged with our respective fieldsites, and then converged again with fieldwork on living folk ritual among disadvantaged people (my own topics in China including spirit mediums and blind shawm players)—all paths of which Laurence, in his wisdom, approved.

 

 

More Country

Sources of country musicThomas Hart Benton, The sources of Country music (1975).

Three chords and the truth—Harlan Howard

Do you know what the southern definition of a true music lover is?
It’s a man who, if he hears a woman singing in the shower, puts his ear to the keyhole—cited in Dawidoff, In the country of country.

Complementing his classic series on jazz, the new PBS series by Ken Burns on the simpler but equally meaningful language of Country music reminds us that far from being a quaint byway, it represents the soul of modern US culture. The eight two-hour episodes have been re-edited and pared down into nine 50-minute programmes for BBC4. [1] Now that I’ve watched the latter, I’m keen to see the full version. Here I can only outline a few of the themes and personalities.

If you know about Country, then you won’t be reading this, and indeed you may bring more critical perspectives to bear on Burns’s portrayal; but for the rest of us, it deserves taking seriously. Here’s a trailer:

As with any genre (Aboriginal dream songs, Iranian chamber music, French baroque, and so on), you just have to immerse yourself in the style and the culture (for a more detailed project on flamenco, see the amazing series Rito y geografia del cante).

With Peter Coyote’s distinctive voiceover, the series judiciously blends interviews and performances with lingering photos, encompassing the personal and political, artistic and commercial, poverty and pain, ecstasy and drudge, church and honky-tonks, domestic stability and outlaw excess, survival and solace. Looking beyond the hillbilly costumes and cowboy hats to the heartache, amidst all the drink, drugs, divorces, early deaths, and the ravages of the touring life, Burns accessibly draws us to the lyrics and music, always identifying themes in the history of cultural transmission, and the very nature of tradition.

Gradually over the series, the early log cabins, railroads, coal mines, textile mills, timber yards, and sharecroppers give way to mansions and Cadillacs. And as one review comments, you can almost trace the history in the performers’ faces: the lean lines of the early stars such as Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, giving way to the gnarled faces of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, and then the soft, untroubled faces of the ’80s and ’90s stars. But to see it as “a simple journey from the sublime to the ridiculous” risks succumbing to the bourgeois nostalgia for poverty.

Despite the later countrypolitan sounds, audiences constantly returned to the roots authenticity of old-time, bluegrass, hillbilly. Female performers play an exceptional role, such as The Carters, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash, and Emmylou Harris.

oldies

The Rub (beginnings to 1933) makes a captivating opening, with wonderful archive photos evocatively deployed. Folk music is always eclectic. Spreading through barn dances and travelling medicine shows, the history of Country is intertwined with gospel and spirituals, slavery and the blues, as well as folk traditions of Appalachia and European migrants, notably the British Isles. Though Country has been described as “the white man’s soul music”, the series acknowledges its debt to African-American culture. In addition to the new technologies of phonographs and radio, it soon became a highly commercial proposition, with patronage from institutions like the National Life and Accident Insurance Company and its WSM station, which gave rise to the long-running Grand Ole Opry. Among early performers, the 1927 discovery of the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers was a seminal moment.

In Hard Times (1933–1945) (“The sad songs are the best”), the industry continues to grow through the Great Depression and World War Two, with major migrations. The Texas Swing of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys was based on strings rather than horns—a classic case of the eclectic melting-pot of immigrant styles (Cajun, Hispanic, and so on) (cf. Accordion crimes). Nashville becomes the heart of the scene with the rise of the Grand Ole Opry. Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe are admired, and the Carter family become ever more popular. The steel guitar plays a growing role. Social dancing is still a major element.

Why don’t Baptists make love standing up?
Because people would think they’re dancing.

Country helped people cope with loss. Hard times was adopted from Stephen Foster’s 1854 parlor song:

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears
While we all sup sorrow with the poor
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears
Oh hard times come again no more

Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door
Oh hard times come again no more

While we seek mirth and beauty and music bright and gay
There are frail forms fainting at the door
Though their voices are silent, their pleding looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more

’Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door
Oh hard times come again no more

’Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave
Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh hard times come again no more

Hank and Holly

Hank Williams and his granddaughter Holly.

The Hillbilly Shakespeare (1945–1953) evokes the postwar period, focusing on the great, short-lived Hank Williams, with fine vignettes from his granddaughter Holly, and Marty Stuart reminding us of the importance of black musicians in the tradition. Also featured are the stellar bluegrass lineup of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs; and the Carter sisters with their mother Maybelle.

Carters

In I Can’t Stop Loving You (1953–1963), the confluence of blues and hillbilly music at Sun Records in Memphis gives birth to rockabilly, the precursor of rock and roll; at the forefront are Johnny Cash (with comments from his daughter Rosanne) and Elvis Presley. Not “Walking the Line”, Johnny Cash gets together with June Carter. Among the rapt inmates for his 1959 concert at San Quentin was Merle Haggard. Like Russians listening to Vladimir Vysotsky, when they heard him they couldn’t believe that Cash hadn’t done time in prison.

Meanwhile in Nashville the country twang was replaced by a smoother sound, with Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn among its stars. Before Patsy Cline’s tragic death in 1963, there’s a nice story about how they reached the perfect tempo for her recording of Willie Nelson’s song Crazy, whose exceptional melodic and harmonic invention quite transcends the cheesy accompaniment:

In The Sons and Daughters of America (1964–1968), the Grand Ole Opry story continues, even as social conflict intensifies. Johnny Cash embodies the spirit of the age, his self-destruction mirroring his artistic triumphs. From the new East coast folk revival scene he took on board the current of social protest; his admiration for Bob Dylan was mutual. His 1968 Folsom Prison concert was a triumph. Merle Haggard (“San Quentin graduate”, another engaging commentator throughout the series; he died in 2016, R.I.P) emerges from his misspent youth as a great singer.

Amidst the civil rights movement (note also Detroit 67), Charley Pride overcomes racial prejudice with his fine voice. The unfiltered songs of Loretta Lynn chime with the new wave of Women’s Liberation. Dolly Parton, fourth of twelve children from a rural cabin without electricity or running water (the kind of CV that was still de reigueur for that generation of singers), demands to be taken seriously—despite joining a select group of strong women reluctant to acknowledge the boons of feminism.

Tammy and Loretta

Tammy Wynette with Loretta Lynn.

The story continues in Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (1968–1972). As the Vietnam War intensifies, the industry and its audience react to divisive social upheavals. George Jones and Tammy Wynette get together. Despite Tammy’s submissive Stand by your man, she didn’t—by contrast with the tough-talking songs of Loretta Lynn, who did; as Jennie Seely comments “I always kinda thought they wrote each other’s songs.”

Among a growing number of Country recruits from outside the archetypal deprived rural background was Kris Kristofferson. Several singer-songwriters pay tribute to his exceptional lyrics, such as Casey’s last ride:

Casey joins the hollow sound of silent people walking down
The stairway to the subway in the shadows down below;
Following their footsteps through the neon-darkened corridors
Of silent desperation, never speakin’ to a soul.

The poison air he’s breathin’ has the dirty smell of dying
‘Cause it’s never seen the sunshine and it’s never felt the rain.
But Casey minds the arrows and ignores the fatal echoes
Of the clickin’ of the turnstiles and the rattle of his chains.

 Oh! she said, Casey it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!
Here she said, just a kiss to make a body smile!
See she said, I’ve put on new stockings just to please you!
Lord! she said, Casey can you only stay a while?

As he explains, his song Bobby McGee (Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin’ for a train, And I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans…) was inspired by La strada. Johnny Cash was hugely popular, and increasingly countercultural. And the Californian hippies of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recruited senior Country legends like Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, and Roy Acuff for an album that bridged the gap between generations.

In Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? (1973–1983) (a sentiment that recalls Taruskin) opens by asking a question central to ethnomusicology, how much change a genre can embrace while retaining its identity; and reminds us how resistant Country had always been to arbitrary borders. As the smooth countrypolitan sound reaches new audiences, singers like Dolly Parton achieve crossover success, finding time for the classic epithet

It cost a lot of money to look this cheap.

And Emmylou Harris, with her background in the East Coast folk scene, tells how she found herself by becoming a convert to Country. At the same time, despite pressures from the Nashville bosses, Waylon Jennings managed to persist with a rougher style. And we hear the compelling story of Hank Williams Jr as he emerges from the long shadow of his godlike father to forge his own path (exemplified in his brilliant song Family tradition!)—with further endearing comments from his daughter Holly.

Marty and L Flatt

Lester Flatt with Marty Stuart.

In Music will get through (1973–1983) the less mediated, marginalized bluegrass style enjoys a roots revival: “It was so old that it was new”. It had never gone away, it just hadn’t hit the headlines. Marty Stuart, who provides thoughtful comments throughout the series, comes into his own as a fine performer, touring from young with Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe, and later with Johnny Cash. I’m struck by how much performers themselves revere the whole tradition:

Walking into the Grand Ole Opry with Lester Flatt was like walking into the Vatican with the Pope. It was like that old scene in The Wizard of Oz where the world went from black-and-white to color.

Nelson and Haggard

Merle Haggard with Willie Nelson.

The veteran Maybelle Carter finds a new audience; George Jones and Tammy Wynette, now divorced, come back for a reunion album. Willie Nelson (“Willie’s not from round here—I mean, Earth”) thrived in the freewheeling, genre-bending scene of the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas. With Waylon Jennings he launched the Outlaw movement, later going on to work with Merle Haggard.

Following in her father’s footsteps, Rosanne Cash becomes a fine singer-songwriter. Emmylou Harris bridged folk, rock, and Country, influencing a new generation of artists, including young Ricky Skaggs, with all his bluegrass credentials.

As doors continue to open, the final programme, Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’ (1984–1996) features artists like Reba McEntire, Naomi Juggs and her daughter Wynnona; k.d. lang (“a punk reincarnation of Patsy Cline”), Kathy Mattea, Rhiannon Gid, and megastar Garth Brooks.

Cashes

Johnny Cash with Rosanne.

But the pull of the more traditional elements still remains strong. Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart stay faithful to the bluegrass sound of Bill Monroe, taking Country back to the front porch. Johnny Cash reinvents himself, bowing out on a high note, with Rosanne offering more insights. The series concludes with a wonderful montage on the whole tradition.

And the story continues…

My purpose here, apart from drawing your attention to a fine piece of film-making, is not so much to provide a superfluous summary as to remind myself, in the spirit of ethnomusicology, that all the musickings of all the cultures around the world deserve to be treated on an equal footing, and that they offer a revealing window on societies in change.

 

[1] Currently online, alas only briefly, so catch it while you can; otherwise, the DVDs are eminently worth buying. The book, like that complementing Burns’s series on jazz, also looks tempting. Among many reviews far better informed than I can offer, see e.g. here and here. Among the extensive literature (note Malone and Neal, Country Music, U.S.A.), I’ve enjoyed re-reading Nicholas Dawidoff, In the country of country: a journey to the roots of American music (1997).

 

A flamenco Christmas

Xmas 1

As a relief from the seasonal bombardment of tinsel, schmaltz, and sprouts, you can’t beat a flamenco Christmas in Andalucia.

I featured the Navidad flamenco programme from the brilliant documentary series Rito y geografia del canto in my article on gender, politics, wine, and deviance, but a separate post seems timely—and like this recent addition to my series on flamenco, it bears on the wonders of inter-generational family upbringing.

Filmed with all the characteristic intimacy of the series, the episode features shots of customary life (“not suitable for vegetarians”) and the making of the zambomba friction drum that accompanies villancicos carols; as well as a fantastic Christmas bulerías session featuring the Soto family in Jerez, with the children taking their turns to sing:

For saeta devotional songs at Easter, see Calendrical rituals, and under Cante jondo.

A new volume on Chinese religion

Cover

  • Cao Xinyu 曹新宇 (ed.), Jibian rujiao: jinshi Zhongguode zongjiao rentong 激辩儒教:近世中国的宗教认同 [Provocations to Confucianism: identifying religion in modern China] (2019).

In a recent volume in a series on “New Historiography”, the ever-industrious Cao Xinyu assembles substantial articles by international scholars on a variety of topics on Chinese religion, illuminating broad, long-term trends with detailed studies. In the tradition of Chinese scholarship, it’s based on “salvage” studies of the late imperial and Republican eras, and on texts rather than performance.

Rain ritual《 映旭斋增订北宋三遂平妖全传》 第十七回插图

Cao Xinyu sets the tone with a substantial introduction, setting forth from a Song-dynasty rain ritual to explore the Catholic encounter with Chinese religion through the Qing rites controversy.

The chapters are grouped under four main headings. Philip Clart and Cao Xinyu explore grassroots Confucianism in Taiwan and mainland China. Articles by Vincent Goossaert, Masaru Yamada 山田贤, and Wang Jianchuan discuss spirit-writing and charitable associations, and Zhang Chaoran contributes a substantial essay on Daoist ritual in history. For Shanxi, Yao Chunmin writes on changing village boundaries, and Henrietta Harrison on Catholic and local healing practices. Further afield, Takeuchi Fusaji 武内房司 discusses folk religion among communities of Chinese origin in South Vietnam. Finally Prasenjit Duara outlines the histories of religion and secularism in Europe, China, and Japan.

For recent English-language volumes on Chinese religion, note the surveys of Adam Yuet Chau and Ian Johnson, as well as the classic study of C.K. Yang.