Coronavirus 2: songs from Gansu, and blind bards

 

ZGS vid

To follow blind bard Liu Hongquan’s song mourning Li Wenliang, thanks to Alex Davey and others on Twitter I note some great new satirical songs about Coronavirus by the enterprising Gansu folk-singer Zhang Gasong 张尕怂 (b.1989).

His own song about Li Wenliang appeared only very briefly on Weibo (see his regular posts there at weibo.com/zhangdabenshi). Another one, criticising a range of responses to the crisis, with incisive visuals, was also soon deleted from Chinese social media:

And he created this song to cheer up his granny by satirising his unexpectedly lengthy sojourn upon returning home for New Year —a common predicament:

Musically the gutsy style, with funky sanxian lute, is reminiscent of the blind bards of Shaanbei—like Liu Hongquan’s song, the “northwest wind” makes an incisive medium.

On Zhang Gasong there’s a lengthy article in Chinese, with a clip from the documentary Huanghe gayao 黄河尕谣. What’s more, I find that he’s a fellow-stammerer (among posts under the stammering tag, note Great Chinese stammerers)!

Brought up in a poor village of Baiyin municipality beset by frequent drought, he relished the huar song festivals at temple fairs; he managed to attend college, but found himself drawn back to his local culture, becoming a collector as he studied with noted folk performers.

Zhang Gasong studying Liangzhou xianxiao with Zang Shande (left) and blind female singer Feng Lanfang (right).

A busy touring schedule has brought him celebrity—though he finds the idea of “touring” (xunyan 巡演) poncey: “it’s pretty much like being an itinerant singer”. As his horizons have expanded, he’s absorbed new pop styles; yet he’s aware of the dangers of losing himself in the urban jungle, and as he astutely comments, he doesn’t like to be forced into representing a contrast between rural and urban China.

Here’s his song “Tell the truth”:


Appendix

Zhang Gasong’s work in collecting the local song cultures of Gansu, with its complex ethnic tapestry, is part of a long tradition dating back to the Maoist era. As ever, it’s worth consulting the folk-song and narrative-singing volumes of the Anthology:

  • Zhongguo minjian gequ jicheng, Gansu juan 中国民间歌曲集成, 甘肃卷 (1994)
  • Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Gansu juan 中国曲艺音乐集成, 甘肃卷 (1998).
Feng Lanfang

Feng Lanfang (centre).

Just one instance: Zhang Gasong visited Wang Yue 王月 (b. c1936; see also here), Zang Shande 臧善德 (b.1945), and female performer Feng Lanfang 冯兰芳 (b.1965) to study melodies from the Liangzhou xianxiao 凉州贤孝 (“virtuous and filial songs of Liangzhou”) genre, popular around the region of Wuwei. Belonging under the wide umbrella of morality songs “exhorting virtue“ quanshan 劝善, widespread in China, its history and structure are outlined in the Gansu narrative-singing volume. [1] Like so many genres around China (such as Zuoquan in Shanxi), it is mainly performed by itinerant blind singers for life-cycle and calendrical observances.

Research was carried out under Maoism, with official attempts to reform “superstitious” content of limited effect. Activity resumed more openly in the 1980s, coinciding with the Anthology fieldwork. In recent years Liangzhou xianxiao has been espoused by the Intangible Cultural Heritage project, with considerable media coverage—while (here I go again) substituting reified festivals on urban stages for serious ethnographic fieldwork on its life in a changing society.

Some of the great perfomers whom Zhang Gasong visited may be found in online videos; here’s Feng Lanfang, incorporating topical themes into her morality tales (cf. Bards of Shaanbei, under “Old and new stories”): [2]

Still in Gansu, for a fine film on shadow-puppetry, see here; and for Daoist ritual, here. For some archive recordings of huar songs and narrative-singing from the northwest, note the CDs here; and for a recent project from Naxos, Folk music of China, vol. 1: folk songs of Qinghai and Gansu. Yet more instances of the remarkable resilience of Chinese tradition through successive modern crises…

 

[1] Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Gansu juan: introduction pp.636–40, transcriptions 641–92, biographies 693–4. More recently, see e.g. Li Wulian 李武莲 ed., Liangzhou xianxiao jingxuan 凉州贤孝精选 (2011).

[2] As I’m sure you’ll notice, the final instrumental melody (from 16.54) was mistakenly uploaded at high speed!

Bhutan: a tongue-twister, archery festivals, and teasing cheerleaders

Bhutan

Not a Lot of People Know This, but the popular tongue-twister*

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

is a modern American adaptation of an ancient ritual in Bhutan.

Really?—The Plain People of Ireland.
No—SJ.
Begob! You had me there.

The woodchuck song (cf. More stammering songs) dates from 1902—here’s the popular version by Ragtime Roberts, recorded in 1904, just as Mahler was conducting the premiere of his 5th symphony:

I like this 1946 Glenn Miller version, with the follow-up “How many cats would a catnip nip…”:

cartoon
To answer the question, apart from the song’s decidedly surly “A woodchuck would chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood”, there have been some hilarious scientific attempts
(cf. Stewart Lee’s pedantic research on “the tip of the cesspit” under The c-word).

* * *

The word woodchuck, first recorded in 1674, is an English rendition of the Algonquin wejack or wuchak. And by way of the etymology of wang in whangdoodle (cf. schlong), I note, with the greatest respect, the many illustrious bearers of the name Wangchuk in Bhutan—which inspires me to

How much wang would a Wangchuck chuck if a Wangchuck could chuck wang?

In translation this may not quite match the elegance of the woodchuck version, with its euphonic “wood” and “would/could”—but I like to imagine that it works even better in the original Middle Bhutanese (just the kind of wacky topic that Sir Harold Bailey might have relished: “Indeed I’d say there’s hardly a line that could not have been understood by any Persian of the fourth century”)—perhaps

Wonga wang wunga Wangchuk chuka wangka Wangchuk wunga chuka wang?

wangsDare I surmise [Yes, I’m afraid you probably do—Ed.]** that wang-chucking festivals were once a major part of the ritual calendar in Bhutan, with ornately decorated wangs,*** assembled from monasteries throughout the region, to be hurled towards a distant target, or tôs-pöt? The arcane sentence might thus be the pious request of a courtly petitioner, curious despite the ineligibility of the royal family to participate in an event of which they were the main patrons.

Indeed, phallic symbols, representing Avalokiteśvara, are common in Bhutan and Tibet, as documented in this substantial (and for once, real) article. One of the names of Shiva is Wangchuk chenpo; and the phallus was a major part of the symbolic repertoire of atsara jesters.

* * *

Perhaps [sic] we may find the modern descendant of the Bhutanese wang-chucking ritual in its archery festivals (cf. Zen archery). OK then, so far this post has been Rather Silly, but now that I come to seek material on archery in Bhutan, I am full of genuine admiration.

Via the splendid community website bongopas.com, I find several videos of archery festivals (do consult the original posts, under bongop videos). Here’s a lovely short documentary from 2015, showing the ritual sequence, with vignettes from flag-bearer and storekeeper as well as the women of the chorus, and—for anyone who likes to think of Bhutan as “unspoilt”—a final comment on the decline of the “old rules” (cf. China, e.g. here):

Women play a major role as cheerleaders [sic], singing songs to tease the archers with their nicknames (cf. French taunting):

Whose forehead is bulging and swollen like a wine-serving spoon, in aimless flight his shaft will drift to hit the mark not even once.

Lips sheltered in a black beard, in aimless flight his shaft will drift to hit the mark not even once.

Here are some more instances (“Forehead is like wine sieve??”, “Dried ears!!!”, “Sneezing carpenter??”, “Pumpkin wine container”, “Polished stone head”):

And some more choral songs:

So while I’m encouraged by their own delight in jocular wordplay, ethnography makes a fine counterpart to my earlier frivolity.

Archery festivals are also common in Ladakh and Sikkim, and, with very different modern histories, in Tibet, Kham, and Amdo—as in this documentary, filmed in Lo khog village, Qinghai:

Returning to Bhutan, all this should encourage us to explore the riches of diverse soundscapes there, through sites such as this—not least monastic rituals, such as this 2-CD Lyrichord collection recorded by John Levy in 1971 (liner notes for download here):


The research for this project was
not made remotely possible by a generous grant from SPICE, the Society for the Promotion Prevention of International Cultural Exchange; and believe it or not, no ice-cubes were “educated” with Bombay Sapphire during the creation of this post.

 

* For an operatic tongue-twister, click here; and for a Chinese tongue-twister of mine, here.

** In such exegesis I may be inspired by Mots d’heure, gousses, rames; for other spurious excursions in cultural and linguistic history, see my series on the faqu (“French pieces”) under this roundup of posts on the Tang dynasty.

*** Cf. Dud ‘n’ Pete’s illumination of the lyrics “Mama’s got a brand new bag yeah, gonna groove it the whole night long baby“. More recently, Miranda Vukasovic has amassed an impressive collection of gaily-coloured phallic bottle-openers from Bali.

 

 

Staving off old age

I may be nostalgic for 1950s’ comedy, like Beyond the fringe and Tony Hancock, and as to New-Fangled Popular Beat Combos I only make occasional rash forays beyond Bach [sic: see e.g. Bach as bandleader and arranger] and the Beatles (e.g. punk, Country, northern soul, and so on). My tastes in film also often hark back to formative experiences in my youth (see this roundup).

But just now, in my desperate attempt to stave off old age (less harmful than the alchemical elixirs for long life consumed in vain by ancient Chinese emperors), there are two British TV series that I just love among a plethora of Yoof programmes (across the pond, cf. Family guy, Parks and recreation, and Soap).

  • The end of the fxxxing world. The asterisks there are sadly authentic, result of the delicacy of Channel 4, not mine or indeed that of the series’ creators—which inspires me to yet another post on The c-word.

The two seasons are both noir and tender; the surreal style of filming, along with the fabulous playlist, (season 1 here, season 2 here; or complete on Spotify), evokes David Lynch; and the limited vocabulary of the awkward young couple Alyssa and James (Jessica Barden and Alex Lawther) is weirdly expressive. Here’s a trailer for season 1:

* * *

Going back a little further, also on Channel 4,

  • Fresh meat (2011–16), somewhat less surreal than The young ones, remains delightful—all four series are available online. In a strong cast, the priceless character of Vod (Zawe Ashton—notwithstanding her great versality and later celebrity) never fails to hit the spot:

When Josie tells her she’s thinking of switching to pharmacology:

Vod: What is it?

Josie: It’s the study of drugs.

Vod: You can study drugs? Now they tell me.

God has given me a brain. And I’m choosing to do some pretty wicked things to it. Which may or may not result in further hospitalisation.

And here’s how to do a CV:

More in this playlist—but go on, watch the series!

Series 4 ends with her “organising” Vodstock—”a festival that is Burning Man meets Cirque du Soleil meets Countryfile meets hajj“. In the end it’s just a student party.

* * *

So I’m like, YAY! (adjusting my monocle à la The Haunted Pencil). BTW, FFS, WTF is “streaming” anyway? WTF is an “app”? It’s OK, I don’t really want to know. And FYI, a phone is a big heavy Bakelite thingy in the hall (cf. Alexander Graham Bell’s priceless prophesy).

See also Fleabag, and Philomena Cunk.

Right, back to those Daoist ritual manuals.

The genius of Abbey road

Abbey road

Abbey road album cover: no title, band unnamed.

You can go for ages without paying attention to some of the most iconic works of music, while they lie dormant in the soul. Or, as a counterpart to my more obscure posts, we may just consider this the latest in my extensive series “Pieces that everyone knows are totally brilliant—that I now find are totally brilliant”. So it may be an instance of “selling the Three-character scripture at the door of Confucius” (cf. here), but hey.

I can’t quite work out when I became devoted to Sgt Pepper and Abbey road. Through my teens, though quite immune to a lot of pop music, I avidly bought the early Beatles singles and EPs. In my book Plucking the winds I reflected on the stark contrast between the lives of my village friends under Maoism and my own tranquil upbringing:

Meanwhile Gaoluo villagers were starving. I began to learn the violin in a polite suburb south of London, under very different conditions from those in which Cai An had learned music. By 1963 I was doing quite well, and won a local contest, though I was less keen on Handel sonatas than on the new songs from the Beatles, whose photo I kept in my violin case. My awareness of issues in defining classical and popular musics was still very basic.

At some stage I acquired the LPs of Rubber soulThe white album and Revolver—all of them brilliant. But I don’t recall becoming hooked on Sgt Pepper and Abbey road until after 1972 at Cambridge, when they were party regulars: I trust I didn’t attempt to dance.

Abbey road (1969) was the Beatles’ final masterpiece, created (like Sgt Pepper) in the recording studio as they took refuge from the frenetic touring life. Given my constant stress on musicking as a social activity, I’m aware of the irony of paying tribute to such disembodied creations (see also n.1).

The album resembles an unstaged opera, or an orchestral song-cycle (for wonderful examples of which, see here). Just in case you’re on another planet, here it is as a playlist, with the songs individually—it’s far better just to put on the LP (or CD), listening to the two sides whole, with the original transitions (and silences) between tracks. [1] You can find the lyrics on site such as this.

In my post on Sgt Pepper I observed how Wilfrid Mellers was among the pioneers of taking pop music seriously, with his book Twilight of the gods: the Beatles in retrospect (1973, published quite soon after they had disbanded). At the same time, for old-school musicologists still seeking to reserve the concept of “serious music” to the WAM canon, the Beatles seemed more palatable candidates for admission to the elite club than many popular and folk genres.

Actually, neither popular nor folk and art musics are dependent on such complex skills for their efficacity: many songs (e.g. Country: “three chords and the truth”), making use of a more limited technical palette, can make a deep effect individually, without the verbose sanction of the metropolitan elite and all our fancy analytical vocabulary. In the Preface Mellers qualifies his approach:

Music quotation, even in reference to literate “art” music, can never be adequate; in reference to Beatle music (and to most pop, jazz, folk, and non-Western music) it may be not only inadequate but also misleading; for written notation can represent neither the improvised elements nor the immediate distortions of pitch and flexibilities of rhythm which are the essence (not a decoration) of a music orally and aurally conceived. […]

To those who still found it “inherently risible” that pop music should be discussed in technical terms at all, his reply suggests an ethnomusicological grounding:

There is no valid way of talking about the experiential “effects” of music except by starting from an account of what actually happens in musical technique, the terminology of which has been evolved by professional musicians over some centuries. The fact that a Beatle—or a jazzman or a peasant singer or a perhaps highly sophisticated oriental musician [sic!]—has never heard of a dominant seventh or a mediant relationship or whatever, is neither here nor there; people who live and work in “oral” traditions have no need critically to rationalise about what they are doing. Of course it is possible to argue that all discussion and writing about music is a waste of time; I’ve occasionally come near to saying this myself. However, if this is true, it applies to all discussion of all music equally; analysis of Beethoven is no less irrelevant than analysis of Beatles.

This chimes in with Allan Marett’s point, inspired by Susan McClary, on Aboriginal dream songs—which indeed are among the exhibits in Mellers’ “Prologue and initiation”, whose opening section explores general themes in the Beatle world. Pursuing the mission to treat all musickings around the world on an equal footing, he ponders music as a way of life:

It is not an embellishment of living which one can take or leave; it does something, being music of necessity in somewhat the same sense as this phrase is applied to the musics of primitive peoples [sic].

After considering childhood games and ritual, he moves on to the evolution of musicking in European cultures; the “mythological” significance of popular lyrics; the origins of pop melody, and vocal and instrumental style, in blues and folk; the role of harmony and metre; and the narcotic loss of identity in the communal act. He goes on to explore the Beatles’ development of their cosmopolitan Liverpool background, quoting John:

I heard Country and Western music in Liverpool before I heard rock and roll. The people there—the Irish in Ireland are the same—take their Country and Western music very seriously.

Far more all-embracing than other pop music of the time, the Beatles (and we should also bear in mind George Martin’s input as producer) would refine elements from blues, Country, folk, rock, music-hall, children’s games, and psychedelia into their unique “Edenic dream”.

Some may still find it redundant to analyse such works that are so widely appreciated on an intuitive level, but For What It’s Worth, Mellers’ analysis reveals the great artistry of the Beatles. Actually, such are the riches of their creativity that his discussion could be far more extensive—covering their whole ouevre, Twilight of the gods only has space for eleven pages on Abbey road. Indeed, several other scholars, such as Allan Pollack, have since provided detailed analyses.

Like Sgt Pepper, Abbey road is full of extraordinary variety, nuance, and (even within single songs) contrast, with multiple layers and homages to the whole gamut of popular culture. Even the lighter, seemingly jocular songs contribute to the panorama. Side 2 is described as a song cycle, but the whole album makes a cogent sequence.

  • In the opening song Come together, “a portrait of a kind of hobo-outcast messiah”,

the screwed up vocal line […] attains a near-miraculous release in the refrain, when the reiterated minor third suddenly swings up a fifth, then down to the major third—harmonised, however, with the submediant triad.

  • The exquisite, soaring Something (George’s composition—Alan Pollack’s analysis worth reading as always, suggesting parallels with Beethoven), punctuated by the intoxicating key shift of the hook, and a gorgeous guitar break;
  • Maxwell’s silver hammer, an unsettling black comedy;
  • Oh! darling, with Paul’s amazing gutsy vocals, the song’s “passionate intensity undimmed by its parodistic elements”. (On another autobiographical note, such was my classical snobbery in the 60s that the concurrent explosion of blues and soul was lost on me; so they could only tinge my consciousness through the benign filter of the Beatles, rather than through the hardcore medium of the Stones);
  • Octopus’s garden (Ringo!), “a child’s dream-song”, though I don’t pick up on Mellers’ “hiding something blackly nasty in the woodshed“—far more applicable to the dark comic songs of Side 2;
  • In I want you (she’s so heavy), Mellers notes how the the zany vocal melisma modifies our response to the hammered dominant ninths that create the frenzy; and the refrain, “apparently in D minor but with dominant ninths of A (changing to German sixths on B flat), so that the A major triads are uncertain of their identity, wobbling between dominants of D and tonics of A”, becomes a long (over 3 minutes!) relentless 10-beat ostinato for the coda, “on the threshold of a scream”—ending the track, and Side 1, with an abrupt cut-off.

If these six songs of Side 1 themselves constitute a cohesive thread, the fragments assembled for Side 2 are still more of a continuous suite (see e.g. this thorough discussion)—starting again on an innocent note after the preceding menace:

  • Here comes the sun (George again), its phrases linked by additive rhythms (3+3+3+3+2+2), leading into
  • Because, inspired by the Moonlight sonata, is entrancing, “runic” (again reminding me that I didn’t do nearly enough drugs—just couldn’t seem to find the time…). Beneath the spacy, soaring choral harmonies, suspended in the void, the keyboard arpeggios (the intro—George Martin on harpsichord!—seemingly continuing the 3+3+2 rhythm), are “like a lulling of the cradle or even a swaying of the amniotic waters”. To cite Mellers at length:

The eight-bar first strain rocks slowly in dotted rhythm through its minor triad (“Because the world is round it turns me on”), dropping rather than drooping on to the subdominant triad, and dreamily fading in a melisma. The effect of this sudominant is unexpectedly emotive, perhaps because the triadic harmony has been so static. The answering strain extends and deepens the feeling, since the melody is protracted into dotted minims, and instead of the subdominant we have a submediant chord of the ninth, the melismas wafting longer and more hazily. The resolution of this ninth chord on to the supertonic is delayed because we shift abruptly back to C sharp minor for the second stanza, which tells us that “because the wind is high it blows my mind“. When, after the second stanza, the dominant ninth does resolve on to a D major triad, it’s hardly a real modulation establishing a new, and remote, key. Its harmonic function is “Neapolitan” but the triad, on the exclamation “Ah“, immediately pivots back from D not to the dominant but to F sharp, C sharp’s subdominant. This initiates the middle section which, changing the subdominant minor to major, creates with inspired simplicity the newness and all-embracingness of love. This middle contains four bars only; after which the envloping arpeggios return and the haunting melody sings da capo,  finally floating away in extended melismata, but without harmonic resolution. Indeed, although that flattened supertonic opens heavenly vistas, the song is virtually without harmonic progression, the only significant dominant–tonic cadence in the piece being the one that returns us to our source, and to the da capo of the melody. […] In the coda the upward leaping sixth—traditionally an interval of aspiration—is pentatonically suspended on the word “Because“; indeed the arpeggiated swaying is replaced intermittently by silence—in the use of which the Beatles betray something like genius.

Because

Slightly skewed screenshot—not the result of the intake of medicinal substances, honest guv.

  • You never give me your money opens wistfully, but successively ramps up the mood, segueing into Out of college (its introductory boogie-woogie only fleeting), an exhilarating guitar modulation into One sweet dream (“tonally rootless, rhythmically exuberant”), before merging into the hazy nursery-rhyme paradise of One two three four five six seven, all good children go to heaven—HOWEVER DID THEY DO ALL THIS?!;
  • Sun king, whose trippy feel develops out of Here comes the sun and Because;
  • Mean Mr Mustard, abruptly changing the mood—its brief refrain oscillating between E and C major, leading into a plagal cadence approached by way of the flattened seventh (more additive rhythms at the end!);
  • Polythene Pam (“a mythical Liverpool scrubber”, apud John) and
  • She came in through the bathroom windowboth songs “comically scary portraits, at once within the dream and part of the crazy-kinky scene that passes for today’s reality”, before the brilliant final sequence:
  • Golden slumbers, “an ironic title to an ironic song”, with “Sleep, pretty darling, do not cry, and I will sing a lullaby“, with soothing strings, contrasting with the raucous refrain, leading into
  • Boy you’re gonna carry that weight—savage, grim, with a memory of You never give me your money, segeuing into
  • The End “abandons words for a furious hammering of percussion, which leads into a long instrumental section, all dominant sevenths in rumba rhythm, but rocking a tone lower than the starting point, getting nowhere. Suddenly the hubbub stops; there’s a tinkling of A major triads on a tinny piano; and Paul’s voice returns to sing ‘in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make’. The phrase descends scalewise, harmonised in parallel triads that fall from F major, to E minor, to D minor, to A minor, and so to C major.” And then, just when you think it’s all over,
  • Her Majesty (an unlisted “hidden track”), sung by Paul—a perfect little throwaway fragment, a nonchalant farewell to Beatledom.

Mellers observes that

The seraphic vision of Because was momentary, and the rest of the disc trips away from vision and from Pepper‘s awareness of human relationships into a magical mystery tour that, if it’s a dream, is a bad one, and no escape.

Still, the cumulative effect, with its multiple layers, is supremely life-enhancing.

sessions

As with all musics, you can zone out or zoom in—or both; anyway, focusing on compositional artistry can enhance our appreciation just as much for the Beatles as for Mahler, the Uyghur muqam, or Chinese shawm suites.

Though my later path has intersected but rarely with these albums, I take impertinent pride in belonging to a generation capable of producing such genius. Personal reception histories are a significant aspect of our cultural appreciation, but at whatever point in Life you engage with the Beatles, their work is astounding.

 

[1] I trust you won’t be thrown off the scent by the many cover versions masquerading online (to me they sound awful, almost sacrilegious). That’s not to belittle cover versions generally—they’re part of music’s whole creative social afterlife—but they can make us appreciate the craft of the original all the more. By contrast, I want every single guitar break, every tiny vocal inflection, to be faithfully reproduced and worshipped come sta for eternity, preserved in aspic—gleefully aware that this contradicts just about everything I’ve ever written (e.g. under Unpacking “improvisation”). Indeed, the release of the original sessions (with alternative tracks and running orders), and the remixes, remind us that even a studio recording is a living organism, subject to variation: what I regard here as so sacrosanct is just one possible realisation. The songs were recorded individually, and only later arranged into the sequence that we now found so cohesive and definitive.

 

Norman Wisdom big in Albania

 

Albania

Oops, sorry—this statue in Tirana is to Mother Teresa. Same difference… For a less flattering portayal by Christopher Hitchens, see Dragging the icon to the trash.

In this thrilling new fantasy world of unfettered (unfetta-ed) opportunity that Brexit promises for “Great” “Britain”, perhaps we can now look forward to a lucrative trade deal with Albania, inspired by Norman Wisdom (and note the cameo from Tony Hawks):

For more, see here. A wacky instance of International Cultural Exchange, eh.

For other cute vignettes from Albania, see here and here. On a more serious note, do explore the wonders of Albanian folk music. For the earlier conjunction of Alexei Sayle with culture behind the Iron Curtain, see here.

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).

 

Two guttural vocalists

While Private passions is generally more satisfying (see e.g. the contributions of Philippe Sands, Tanita Tikaram, and Vesna Goldsworthy), episodes from Desert island discs led me to two remarkable vocalists. [Note: author’s source for popular culture appears to derive almost entirely from the demure echelons of the BBC—Ed.]

Gary Kasparov’s selection led me to the Russian actor and singer Vladimir Vysotsky (1938–90):

WOW. As the wiki article comments:

With his songs—in effect, miniature theatrical dramatizations (usually with a protagonist and full of dialogues), Vysotsky instantly achieved such level of credibility that real life former prisoners, war veterans, boxers, footballers refused to believe that the author himself had never served his time in prisons and labor camps, or fought in the War, or been a boxing/football professional.

How could the Soviet system encompass such alternative performance culture, when nothing remotely so challenging emerged in China until after the demise of Maoism? This playlist contains many searing songs from him. Just as Nina Hagen makes me want to work on my German, Visotsky makes me want to learn Russian.

Meanwhile I’m grateful to the brilliant Elif Shafak for introducing me to the Canadian singer Alissa White-Gluz with the Swedish “melodic death metal” band (another instance of the subtle taxonomy of popular music!) Arch enemy:

More material here for Voices of the world