It’s a parody of “Be our guest” from the late Disney movie Beauty and the beast (1991)—its melody charmingly reminiscent of a theme from the first movement of Mahler 3 (from 11.05 and 28.51 in Bernstein’s performance there).
Apart from the musical production values (worthy of Family Guy), the lyrics are priceless—such as
Smile was first heard as the romantic orchestral theme in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern times (1936), with Paulette Goddard as “the Gamin”.
It’s a political film critical of industrialisation, lamenting the hardships of the Great Depression. Graham Greene feared it would be seen as a Communist film, and indeed Goebbels banned it. By 1954 when the theme was arranged into a song, Chaplin was banned from the USA.
Here’s the original, purely instrumental, with its gorgeous harmonies:
So despite the smoochy strings, it’s innocent of sentimentality; rather, it’s a parody of the domestic bliss of which most people are deprived, recognising the challenges of life.
It’s said to be inspired by Puccini, but while the melody is indeed close to Ah, quegli occhi! (cf. Jeepers creepers), it was a more generic sound that Chaplin (one of a select group of left-handed violinists!) seems to have offered to his young arranger David Raksin to embellish (see here and here). If we’re playing the melodic similarities game (always a vexed issue), its contour is echoed in the opening of Glenn Miller’s Moonlight serenade:
Modern times is also famed for its nonsense song (cf. Doubletalk):
Talkies had already replaced silent films, but Chaplin persisted; the song is the only time in the Little Tramp films that his voice is heard—ironically, singing gibberish.
* * *
One doesn’t have to know Chaplin’s film to relish the 1954 vocal version by Nat King Cole (one of rather few male pop singers I find expressive):
So with all its further heart-rending harmonic shifts and inspired touches of orchestration, it’s still a sad song. Its mood also reminds me of Michel Legrand’s exquisite You must believe in spring, with its more sophisticated lyrics.
Judy Garland’s 1963 version has a special poignancy:
For the Soul music programme on Smile, click here.
Of course, smiling is a cultural issue: for smiling in China, see here.
aptly dedicated to the fine anthropologist and film-maker Rahile Dawut, who is among countless Uyghurs “disappeared” into the “re-education” camp system.
Integrating expressive culture, religion, society, and politics, it’s complemented by the website http://www.soundislamchina.org, where we can find audio and video examples discussed in the text.
Though Rachel has been unable to return to Xinjiang since 2012, alongside others like Rian Thum and Darren Byler, she has been assiduously documenting the whole cataclysm there with a whole series of articles, some of which form the basis for chapters in this volume. Since then too, her research has benefitted from the perspectives of visiting Uyghur communities in neighbouring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Indeed, even her fieldwork in Xinjiang from 2006 to 2012 was hampered by tensions that came to a head with the protests and inter-ethnic violence of 2009 in Urümchi. Since 2016 for Xinjiang Uyghurs to have any contact with relatives and friends abroad has become highly dangerous.
After a long period of research on the largely masculine worlds of the muqam and Uyghur pop music, Rachel turned late to the less visible world of female culture, studying a group of pious women in a village in southern Xinjiang who recite the Qur’an and intone zikr religious formulas. Their schedule was busy, including calendrical and life-cycle rituals, rituals for the dead, and to heal sickness, for individual families and the whole community. The village women were “immersed in a perpetual cycle of reciprocal hospitality and mutual aid. […] Moral propriety and communal responsibility were intertwined with being a good Muslim.”
By contrast with media images, these women were not isolated, but highly networked and responsive to social change. They continued practising, often clandestinely, throughout the Maoist era, becoming more open after the 1980s’ reforms—until being suppressed since 2014.
The seven chapters flow compellingly in an escalating sequence of tragedy, moving from poor villages to labour camps
.Chapter 1 is an exemplary exposition of the main themes, adding to our material on society and soundscape, always striking just the right balance between cross-cultural theory and grassroots fieldwork. The chapter opens with insightful sonic vignettes:
The massive development of recent decades in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China has brought rapid advances in infra-structure, the wholesale extraction of natural resources, and large-scale Han Chinese immigration into a region until recently dominated by Turkic Muslim peoples, the most numerous of whom are the Uyghurs. This development has wrought huge changes, not only in the landscape but also in the soundscape. By 2012, coal mines and oil refineries had come to dominate the desert landscape, and heavy trucks thundered up and down the new highways transporting minerals and building materials. In Xinjiang’s provincial cities, bulldozers rumbled over demolition sites and mud-brick shacks crashed to the ground, fracturing precarious communities of Uyghur rural migrants. The thudding of pile drivers echoed around the high-rise residential developments that were shooting up in their place. In the manicured town squares, the evening soundscape became carnivalesque. Groups of Han Chinese women performed American line dancing or Chinese yang’ge dancing to techno soundtracks that competed with tinny music from children’s fairground rides. In the Muslim graveyard in Ürümchi, there was an audible hum from the electricity pylons and the mass of wires that passed overhead; relatives complained that the noise was disturbing the sleep of the dead. In the Uyghur villages of the rural south, the roar of motorbikes had all but replaced the groan of the donkeys, and the nights throbbed to the sound of water pumps as farmers took advantage of cheap electricity to pump water to their cotton fields. The village loudspeaker, that supreme sonic marker of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, was once again filling the village streets with a mixture of popular songs and news of the latest political campaigns.
But just as important is silence: “equally important for an understanding of the soundscape are the sounds that are not heard, sounds that do not circulate in the public sphere”—such as the call to prayer. Even the women’s religious gatherings, the main subject of the book, were held furtively behind closed doors. And by 2018 people didn’t even dare to talk (cf. The whisperers).
Rachel introduces the religious history of the Uyghurs, and the revival since the reforms of the 1980s, noting increasing piety among local communities, and placing it within the wider context of transnational flows of Islamic ideologies and practice, notably activity within Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. But already on the eve of 9/11 even the most routine of Muslim practices were coming to be targeted by the Chinese state in campaigns against “extremism” and “separatism”. Nor were Uyghur communities unified in their faith, with a growing debate around stricter forms of Wahhabism. She notes the interpretation of religious revivals as a response among marginalised and deprived people to the upheavals prompted by the introduction of globalized capitalism.
She presents fine perspectives on “Why sound?”, “Is it music?”, and “Thinking about music”, and among “Contested soundscapes”, she draws attention to gendered aspects. With “music”, singing, and dancing all subject to scrutiny within Uyghur communities themselves, she highlights the experience of the participants, and notes the social circulation of religious media via recordings and the internet, finding similarities with the transmission of pop music.
As an interlude, a village woman tells her story in 2009, growing up under the Maoist commune system, and her experiences since the 1980s’ reforms, cautiously taking part in the village’s ritual events. Rachel reflects on the account in Chapter 2, which focuses on the khätmä healing ritual, also used for commemorating the dead. She explores the role of büwi, the senior ritual specialist who leads the women in reciting and weeping in trance. The role is often hereditary, but one of Rachel’s mentors had begun her path after a dream, like many spirit mediums in China (see e.g. here, with many links) and further afield.
The authority for their learning is often conferred by a period of study with male ritual specialists. Some identify as tariqa, people of the path, and she traces the connection with Sufi lodges and the wider history of organised Sufism.
Rachel gives a detailed account of a khätmä ritual she attended in 2009, alternating surah verses in the Qur’an and zikr short repeated phrases of prayers. With the affective power of sound more important than lexical meaning, she focuses on bodily, rhythmic entrainment, as well as ishq (divine love, passion) and därd (suffering), expressed through weeping (some links here), which she explores with yet another detailed cross-cultural analysis. As one büwi commented on watching the video of the climax of the ritual:
The oil is sizzling in the pot [qazan kizip kätti]. Their love for Allah is so strong that they can’t stop themselves crying, just like the pot on the stove. When the oil is hot, you must throw in the meat otherwise the oil will catch fre. It’s just like that. Then you must put in the vegetables, otherwise the meat will burn. So just like that the women cry a lot. . . . Their love [ishq] for Allah is like the hot oil in the pot, their love for Allah is so strong.
She notes that
reciting the khätmä and weeping not only is for alleviating one’s own sin but can also serve as an act of intercession on behalf of the families of the deceased, or even for the whole community.
Chapter 3 discusses the hikmät sung prayers of the women’s rituals, the complex interactions of text and performance, and debates over style. Acknowledging the work of Chinese musicologist Zhou Ji (see here, under “The muqaddime“), she again gets to the heart of religious practice. She describes a healing ritual in 2012, when the political climate was already tense; and a 2015 ritual across the Kazakh border, with insightful comments on the modern history of the region (cf. The Kazakh famine).
Chapter 4 continues to incorporate material from Uyghur communities beyond Xinjiang, exploring patterns of circulation of Qur’anic recitation, and how they are discussed and strategically deployed in public spaces, digital media, and daily practice.
Under the more relaxed conditions of the 1980s and 90s, travel and trade helped satisfy the longing for engagement with the Muslim heartlands in the Middle East. The growing influence of Saudi and Egyptian styles of recitation as heard on media platforms brought a certain dilution of local styles, which was not always welcome. Rachel’s attuned ear notes both the tajwid rules for recitation, including nasal timbre, and the taste for reverb in recordings.
She makes adroit comparisons with modal improvisation and changing styles in Egypt and Indonesia. With all this in mind, she looks again at the vocal style of the khätmä ritual in her adoptive village in south Xinjiang, in another detailed analysis of a “spiritual aesthetic in transition”. She notes the apparent contradiction in the rural büwi incorporating the Saudi style, which preaches against the “superstitious” Sufi practices that they represent. While she notes that “many observers of the Islamic world have pitted supposedly tolerant and hybrid forms of local Islam against the purifying practices of reformist individuals and groups”, the distinction is far from clear-cut. While internalising their marginality,
For them, mimicking the sounds of Salafism did not necessarily denote an adoption of Salafi ideology. For Aynisa, as for other reciters, rather than indexing rival ideologies, what both the Egyptian and Saudi styles indexed was modernity.
felt the need to make herself strong and to make herself modern, in part in response to pressure from state religious policies, in part in response to criticism of her own practice by Uyghur reformists. Cyborglike, magpielike, she mimetically absorbed and deployed foreign styles of recitation within a very local form of ritual, using them to resist backward status and to lay claim to alternative styles of modernity.
After another interlude translating the anonymous satirical poem “They’ll arrest you” posted on WeChat in 2014, showing clearly that the campaign’s true target was normal moral behaviour for Uyghurs, Chapter 5,“Mobile Islam: mediation and circulation”, explores depictions of religion and Uyghur identity (not least through the sensory, affective experiences of images and sound) that thrived briefly on social media platforms, and the complex debates among Uyghurs about how to be a good Muslim—in particular a good, modest Muslim woman. With state repression escalating after the 2009 unrest (fed by the Global War on Terror), virtually any form of Uyghur behaviour became vulnerable to accusations of “religious extremism”, and debate was silenced. Countering the state discourse, she notes:
Together these phenomena helped to produce new structures of feeling within Uyghur society that may be best characterized as a crisis of suffering—both personally and collectively experienced—to which only Islam, in different guises, could provide a solution through its capacity to enable personal and collective transformation. For the majority, this spiritual awakening and quest for greater religious knowledge, and the projects of practice and self-discipline impelled by their new faith, were primarily personal. For some, they converged with experiences of the increasingly repressive state policies and took on a more overtly political dimension.
In July 2014 violent confrontations in Yarkand county in southern Xinjiang began with a police raid on an “illegal religious gathering” by a group of village women. Rachel returns to the ubiquitous theme of därd suffering, now denoting national as well as spiritual pain, and expressed in religious worship and pop music alike. The latter often took the traditional—and transnational—a cappella form of anashid, sung poetry in praise of Allah, only in a breathy popular style remote from the nasality of tajwid recitation. Though their main theme was the call to prayer, Rachel confronts the radical message of some of these items. And with typically instructive cross-cultural examples, she contemplates the power of rumour.
Agents of the state reacted with horror at the spread of what they perceived as alien, antimodern, and hence threatening ways of being, and they invoked the globally circulating trope of Islamic terror, which enabled new violence to be unleashed against the supposed terrorists and against the Uyghur people, who were now coming to be collectively defined by this trope.
Chapter 6, “Song and dance and the sonic territorization of Xinjiang”,notes people’s alienation from the formal musical performances promoted by state media since the intensification of campaigns since 2014. The chapter opens by unpacking Little apple, a bizarrely kitsch video adopted nationally by the security forces to promote stability and ethnic unity. Rachel utilizes research on Tibet. Uyghur culture and the Chinese state have irreconcilable images of the landscape; noting the rebuilding, and bulldozing, of sites like Kashgar and Qumul to bolster the Chinese agenda, she discusses sonic territoralisation. Since 2015 the soundscape of urban Xinjiang has been dominated by Chinese propaganda songs, evoking the mass propaganda of the Maoist era—cue for further instructive introductions to Muzak and shopping malls, and to the use of sound in warfare.
She now discusses the campaign against religious extremism in detail.
Rather than targeting the small number of people who might reasonably be judged vulnerable to radicalization and violent action, the anti-religious-extremism campaign in Xinjiang sought to eliminate all visible and audible expressions of Islamic faith—veiling, beards, public prayer, fasting, religious gatherings, instruction, and media—from the landscape and soundscape.
Among the targets were visible signs of religiosity, including women’s clothing. “By 2016, veils and beards had disappeared from the landscape.” Also to be eliminated was “noise”—meaning Muslim noise, inside unofficial mosques, in restaurants and family homes, and on social media. Listening was dangerous.
Again we are reminded of the debate within Uyghur communities with a discussion of the proper observance of weddings. But the state now fabricated a simplified and misleading opposition: “foreign” religious extremism versus “traditional” song and dance.
To replace Muslim noise, the commodified Chinese song-and-dance style was heavily promoted. In another fascinating discussion Rachel unpacks the meanings of smiling in such performances—by contrast with the Uyghur emphasis on weeping.
If China’s professional minority performers had long been accustomed to smiling to service the requirements of nation building, the unfolding of the anti-religious-extremism campaign in Xinjiang made it clear that it was no longer sufcient for paid professionals to smile; now ordinary Uyghurs from schoolchildren to büwis were required to silence their weeping and publicly demonstrate their happiness. From 2015 on, local cultural bureaus across Xinjiang organized villagers to participate in song-and-dance performances, mass dancing displays, weekly sessions for singing revolutionary songs, and weekly mäshräp gatherings in order to counter extremism.
The mäshräp had long been a contested and regionally variable forum—see her 2020 article, also bearing on the incongruous attempt to gain UNESCO status under the Intangible Cultural Heritage; and in similar vein, “You shall sing and dance: contested ‘safeguarding’ of Uyghur Intangible Cultural Heritage”, Asian ethnicity 21.4 (2020), by an anonymous (apparently Uyghur) scholar.
Again referencing the Maoist era, another focus of the campaigns was singing “Red Songs”, which even religious personnel were required to perform.
With the Uyghur diaspora responding by declaring such performances haram, Rachel has to clarify that “music”, song and dance, including muqam and the songs of the ashiq Sufi mendicants, had long co-existed with more orthodox, austere modes of religious expression, constituting another historical object of debate among Uyghurs. And even the staged song-and-dance style had a history going back to the early 20th century: “a rejection of this culture implied, in the view of many urban intellectuals, a rejection of the development of the modern Uyghur nation”.
Such issues were hotly debated on Uyghur forums in exile.
It was in this context, with music and Islam in Uyghur culture fixed into positions of opposition, and musical performance deployed as a tool of control by the state, that Uyghur pop singers like those mentioned in chapter 5 fled the country, arrived in Turkey “repenting of their sins”—sins that might well have included performing patriotic or revolutionary songs praising the Chinese Communist Party—and atoned for these sins recording radical anashid supporting the mujahidin.
The Xinjiang campaigns were an attempt to replace one form of embodied practice with another—secular, modern, patriotic. While Rachel notes that such compulsory gatherings weren’t invariably experienced as the imposition of an alien sonic regime,
the fact that these experiences of singing and dancing were coercive and underpinned by state violence was completely consistent with past precedent, and this juxtaposition of song and dance and state violence would come still more sharply into focus in the new context of the mass internment camps that were already under construction across the region.
And so the reeducation techniques in the camps are the subject of Chapter 7, “Erasure and trauma”. Among much coverage, this too is a masterly account.
By 2017 the campaigns had extended way beyond the religious sphere.
Increasingly the term “religious extremism” seemed to serve as a gloss for Uyghur culture and identity, which was now regarded as a “virus” in need of eradication.
Again, coercive musical performance played a key role in the reeducation programme of the camps. I remain unclear how making inmates sing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” for foreign journalists might ever be expected to convince anyone—I suppose it’s more of a demonstration of power.
The chapter continues with an astute discussion of trauma, subsuming the Cultural Revolution and other societies.
Rachel finds the binding theme of repetition—in Red Songs and forced confessions, as in zikr and repeating the shahadah 72,000 times for a death ritual. She reads the securitisation of Xinjiang as a colonial project, prompting further global comparisons. Yet—or thus,
we should not assume for one moment that the effects of the anti-religious-extremism campaign in Xinjiang will be a permanent erasure of the religious sensibilities and the cultural identity of its subjects and to rewire them as patriotic automatons.
Simple acts of remembering “suggest the inevitable failure of state projects of social reengineering”.
She adopts scholars’ metaphor of the palimpsest to evoke unsuccessful attempts to erase previous layers.
Far from internalizing understandings of their culture and faith as an infectious disease that led inexorably to terrorist violence, I suggest that Uyghurs are well accustomed to the periodic and transient nature of political campaigns, and they know how to attune themselves to the requirements of the present.
While it will hardly console those grieving over bulldozed gravelands or mourning their loved ones, it’s a remarkably far-sighted and optimistic conclusion.
* * *
While some sections on Islamic transmission are highly technical, Rachel has a gift for integrating theory with ethnographic detail. In all, despite pertinent reminders in the later chapters, Xinjiang faces firmly west, not east: Han Chinese culture may be highly visible, and audible, in the towns, but here it hardly appears except (as Barnett observes for Tibet) as an “inanimate or malignant force”. In Xinjiang and further afield, the whole culture is dominated by the diverse practices of Islam—which are precisely what the Chinese state is now trying to erase.
For more, see Uyghur tag; and for a comparable case, see posts under the Tibet tag. These themes should never have been considered marginal in studies of the PRC, and now they seem all the more urgent.
Dear Mr Donegan, Your message, in its novel audio format,  has just found its way to my desk. I am not entirely clear if it is intended as a complaint or a tribute, but I shall endeavour herewith to address your main points.
I am grateful for your vivid account of your father’s work apparel. While I am unfamiliar with what you evocatively describe as “gor-blimey trousers”, his choice of headgear certainly seems quite suitable to his métier. And I trust he is satisfied with the accommodation provided by the council.
The vocation of refuse collection officer is indeed valuable. With our recent time-and-efficiency directive, the pressures of the job have alas been increasing; but despite the provocations that such upstanding members of society sometimes encounter, I must remind all parties concerned that violence is not a viable option, and may lead to prosecution.
If there is anything further I can assist you with, please do not hesitate to contact me.
cc Department of Refuse Collection; Conflict Resolution; Legal Claims.
Another letter, six years later to the very day, already hints, albeit reluctantly, at a rapidly changing society:
1st April 1966
Your ref.: I can’t get no satisfaction
Dear Mr Jagger (perhaps I may be so bold as to call you Michael?), With reference to your recent cri de coeur, expressed via the medium of film (whatever next?), I am sorry to learn of your troubles in achieving fulfilment. As you so wisely observe, perseverance is the key, although I am reliably informed that excessive indulgence may lead to injury. Apparently something called “foreplay” is currently “all the rage”.
Here at the Council we are always glad to learn of our constituents branching out into such novel ways of expression as what I believe is known as the “popular beat combo”, and we trust that your dabblings will make a diverting hobby for you, despite their very limited potential for material gain. As you may soon learn, such energetic pastimes belong to one’s youth, and can never be pursued into later years.
And as to our encounters with those of the female persuasion, I quite understand that a somewhat irregular lifestyle may mitigate against finding a suitable spouse. However, we have to recognise that a settled domestic routine, involving such wholesome pursuits as gardening (taking care to wrap up warm!), may be a most “satisfactory” recourse in the absence of any more stimulating liaisons—which, as you and your esteemed colleague Mr Richards will doubtless concur, remain purely in the realms of fantasy. I am sure you will be able to “settle down” soon—and if not, then many distinguished personages over the years have enjoyed the benefits of celibacy.
P.S. For any matters of a more delicate nature that may be concerning you, please allow me to remind you that the Council operates a confidential Walk-in (or perhaps in your case, Strut-in) service.
cc Department of Parks and Recreation; Personal Injury Compensation; Pension Planning; Centre for Reproductive Health Within the Bonds of Holy Matrimony.
LOL. For a missive from the Isle of Wight, see here; and for a helpful letter from the BBC, see n. here. See also Bo Dudley.
Wiki ambitiously suggests that the melody is borrowed from Stravinsky’s Petrushka. “Citation needed” indeed…
In my own life I tend to eschew dreams as a source of insight, though they have provided me with some inspiring moments—reminding me of songs I had long neglected, or coming up with a wonderful linguistic reproach to my pretensions to insider status in Lisbon.
The elements of my dream last week can all be identified in my recent experience. * But, typically, they were recombined: somehow I was researching the Tibetan ancestry of I will survive and its links to the Chinese shifan ritual ensemble. And the yunluo frame of ten pitched gongs was a prominent part of the sound. Niche or what?
I’ve already featured Gloria Gaynor’s iconic disco anthem in this post on feminist songs. BBC Radio 4’s long-running series Soul music is always evocative (cf. Moon river). While its themes of loss and recovery tend to recur, its personal vignettes remind us of the transformative power of music in people’s lives—as in the recent programme on I will survive.
Rather than the song’s adoption by the camp “community”, it’s the cathartic theme of women’s empowerment that is important. The message of survival should resonate with Tibetan people too. To me it suggests not the bland propaganda of Princess Wencheng “civilising” Tibet, but rather the tragic tale of Lady Meng Jiang.
For all I know, I will survive may long have been a karaoke hit in the nangma-töshe bars of Lhasa—but I have in mind a more traditional version.
I’ve no idea how the gong-frame worked its way into my dream. The mkhar-rnga bcu-pa frame of ten pitched gongs is one of the lesser-known instruments of Tibetan music. Apart from its use in the dodar ensemble of monasteries around Amdo, it also accompanied the loud shawms and drums of the Dalai Lama’s gar courtly ceremonial ensemble—a most exceptional combination. This image (from the rare, silent 1945 footage in the section on garhere) shows the gong-frame and shawms together on procession—blurry as it is, unlike the sharp focus of dreams, I might try and suggest that it suits my hazy recollections:
The Chinese equivalent yunluo, while mainly a component of the shengguan ritual ensembles of north Chinese temple and folk ritual groups, was also part of Daoist shifan groups in south Jiangsu—which appeared in my dream.
Left: Shifan, Wuxi c1962, showing yunluo on left, next to gongs. Right: Kaikou village ritual association, Xiongxian county, Hebei, with two frames of yunluo. My photo, 1995.
To everyone’s great relief, just as I was starting to pursue arcane, spurious historical clues in detail, I woke up.
In 1905, Debussy’s inspiration for La mer was the sea at Eastbourne: “the sea unfurls itself with an utterly British correctness”, as he observed. * By 1930, it was the exotic acquatic vistas of Bognor that inspired Eric Coates to compose the “valse serenade” By the sleepy lagoon.
It’s been the theme tune of Desert island discs ever since the series began in 1942, soon becoming a comfy old sonic armchair. But like Tchaikovsky’s 1st piano concerto and Also sprach Zarathustra, it’s been truncated into a soundbite, so one rarely gets to hear more than the opening. This seems to be the original version, with Eric Coates directing “the Symphony Orchestra” (a name that all the other symphony orchestras will be kicking themselves that they didn’t think up); it’s good to hear it in full at last— complete with modulation, and a whimsical middle section:
In 1940 Jack Lawrence made it into a song, which Coates loved. Here’s Richard Tauber, being Richard Tauber:
and Kate Smith—a name you don’t often hear nowadays, what with all these young upstarts like Dusty Springfield and Madonna:
Now then, here’s what I came in here for.
The piece soon became a favourite with American big bands. The Harry James arrangement (1942) opens, wonderfully, with a fleeting homage to the magical Lever du jour from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé, and goes on to introduce some abrupt, evocative key shifts:
Other band versions, within a far more contained world than that of bebop, are also creative, with fine details—such as Jimmy King:
By way of a Chinese interlude, here’s his arrangement of Shanghai at night:
and for good measure, Zhou Xuan‘s 1946 original (see also A Shanghai Prom):
Meanwhile back at the sleepy lagoon, here’s Tommy Dorsey, with more key shifts:
and Glenn Miller:
Would it be sacrilegious for Desert island discs to ring the changes?
Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy with Kham shopkeeper, Lhasa 1997.
Following my recent posts on Labrang (here and here), the Cultural Revolution in Tibet (here and here), and 1950s’ Lhasa, I continue exploring Tibetan expressive culture as an outsider.
Only quite recently has the role of women in Tibetan society has become a field for enquiry. And as in other disciplines, the study of gender has become a major topic in ethnomusicology (for a basic introduction, see here). Yet our image of the expressive culture of Tibet is still based on monastic ritual, and thus dominated by men (though nuns too perform vocal liturgy).
It’s a useful volume; other chapters on the modern era include Hildegard Diemberger on female oracles, Charlene Makley on nuns, and Robert Barnett on women and politics. For more on nuns and female visionaries, see the work of Nicola Schneider. And for further articles of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, click here.
* * *
First Isabelle gives a useful outline of gender roles in Tibetan areas before 1959. Women were usually the “beer vendors”, and as “ceremonial beer-servers” they sang for parties and weddings. Indeed, they still are. And she introduces the “label-girls” of nangma-töshe song-and-dance. 
Acha Yitsa, leading performer of the nangma’i skyid sdug association, flanked by two famed “label-girls” at an aristocrats’ picnic, Lhasa 1936–37. Photo: Sir Basil Gould.
She then discusses six Tibetan female singers on the eve of the occupation, the Maoist era, and since the 1980s’ reforms—describing the exceptional case of “stars”, as she explains, since they are better documented than common performers: three from the world of tradition, as well as three stars of popular music, providing an instructive spectrum. She constantly interrogates the role of gender in their careers, offering valuable perspectives on the tensions within modern Tibetan society over three distinct periods, both within the PRC and in exile.
Ama Lhagpo This first sketch makes a good introduction to Isabelle’s fine work on lhamo opera, which I extol here. Ama Lhagpo (1909–97) performed lhamo for over eighty years (!).
Orphaned at the age of 3, she was taken in by a woman whom she accompanied begging on the streets and in chang taverns. There she was spotted by the celebrated Kyomolung lhamo troupe in Lhasa, just in the process of reviving. She gave her first public performance at the age of 8, taking the lead roles from 15.
After the occupation she kept performing with the troupe through the 1950s. In 1961, after a two-year hiatus following the rebellion, she was recruited to the government’s newly-formed Tibetan Opera Troupe, spending a period training at the Shanghai Conservatoire—where she soon lost her voice.
With the revival of tradition that followed the end of the Cultural Revolution, Ama Lhagpo trained a new generation while being showered with honorary titles. As Isabelle notes, “what is poignant is that, in lhamo, the ascribed emblem of ‘tradition’ was an old lady with a broken voice”. A rare female star in a largely male genre, she was a model for the incorporation of women into the state professional troupes. Isabelle draws us into the world of singing and dancing styles for male and female roles in lhamo.
Chung Putri Again, Chung Putri (1920–85) came from a poor folk background, singing and dancing to make a living with her husband and daughter by itinerant begging over a wide area. In 1956 she was recruited to the state Arts-work Troupe in Shigatse, along with Tseten Drolma (see below). From 1957 to 1959 she taught Tibetan dance in Beijing. Returning to Lhasa in 1960, she joined the Tibet Song-and-Dance Ensemble and Tibet Opera Troupe. After the 1980s’ revival, with her extensive repertoire, she played a role in the “salvage” work on folk-song, working with the Chinese scholar Tian Liantao.
Thus having lived through the first wave of state-sponsored adaptation in the 1950s, she came to represent the changing tradition in the 1980s, her style at some remove from musicians from more elite backgrounds like Zholkhang Sonam Dargye.
As Isabelle suggests, the lively debate over “authenticity” took place not only between Tibetans in the PRC and in exile, but within the PRC.
Yumen “Salvage” continues to feature in the portrait of Yumen (b. c1957), a renowned performer of the monumental Gesar epic (see here, n.2), born to a nomadic family in Kham.
As Isabelle explains, there are two types of bards: those who learned by listening to other bards, and—the more valued method—those who (like Yumen) received the text through spiritual revelation in trance following a psychological crisis. The great majority were male: among a hundred bards surveyed in the 1980s, Yang Enhong’s study of 26 bards lists Yumen as one of two women performers.
It seems that we can assume at least sporadic ritual performances until at least 1959. Yumen’s father was also an “inspired” bard; she herself acquired the ability to recite the epic after a dream at the age of 16—in the mid-1970s, note, well before the liberalisations. As she gained a local reputation, she was soon in demand.
But already from 1977, though illiterate, she was summoned to Lhasa to work in state literary units, going on from 1983 to work in the Gesar salvage project. Again, Isabelle gives a good introduction to the process of folklorisation. While performers, perhaps even in ritual contexts, are still quite common, Yumen is one of a dwindling number of “inspired” bards, albeit safely enshrined in a state work-unit.
Yumen is heard on the CD 12 treasures: Gesar songs and prayers from The saltmen of Tibet (Ulrike Koch, 1998).
The Gesar epic is a rather popular subject in online videos. Here’s a short film from UNESCO:
or more extensive coverage, with Chinese commentary:
And here’s a trailer for A Gesar bard’s tale (Donagh Coleman and Lharigtso, 2103):
Tseten Drolma By contrast, the songs of Tseten Drolma (b.1937),“the golden voice of the Party” under Maoism, “symbolizing the Tibetan devotion and gratitude to the Party and to China, and telling again and again about the miseries of pre-1950 feudal life in Tibet”. While rather few Tibetans may subscribe to the ideology of her songs, they are widely known, inescapable.
Born to a serf family in Shigatse, her mother was yet another famed beer-vendor.
In 1956 she joined the Shigatse Arts-work troupe, meeting Chung Putri. From 1958 to 1963 she was sent to study at the Shanghai Conservatoire, developing a combination of Tibetan style and “Chinese” bel canto.
Her popularity was enhanced by her propaganda songs during the Cultural Revolution, and she has remained in favour since the reforms, accumulating honorific, ornamental political titles.
Nowadays, her CDs are purchased mainly by Chinese customers. Amongst Tibetans, they are the usual gifts that work units distribute to their workers, who usually immediately and dismissively throw them away.
This is the kind of thing:
See also the work of Anna Morcom, e.g. “The voice of the state: musical propaganda in Tibet”, in Unity and discord: music and politics in contemporary Tibet (2004); for Woeser’s comment on the ironies of her song Beautiful Rigzin Wangmo, see here.
Dadon Until she defected in 1992, Dadon (b. c1968) was a major star, genuinely popular among Tibetans, in the Tibet Song-and-Dance Ensemble from 1987.
Both her parents were members of the ensemble, and from 1980 to 1985 she studied at the music department of the Central Minorities Institute in Beijing. Back in Lhasa she sang Chinese pop in karaoke bars, modeling herself on the Taiwanese crooner Deng Lijun (Teresa Teng), then highly popular in the PRC. She soon began to blend Tibetan folk melody with an “Asian pop” style. As unrest erupted in Lhasa, her lyrics discarded the old political messages for melancholic and spiritual themes. After an interlude for further vocal training in Beijing and Shanghai, she broke into the national market in 1990, bolstered by TV appearances, just as the “Tibet craze” was developing in China. Yet, working within the state system, she eschewed political messages—like alternative Chinese pop singers of the time.
As her lyrics came under increasing scrutiny, she escaped to Dharamsala in April 1992, where her style was hardly appreciated. She soon moved to the USA, again struggling to gain a footing in a niche market. As she campaigned for human rights, she appeared in the film Windhorse (Paul Wagner, 1997), based on her own story—here’s a trailer:
Isabelle summarises with typical lucidity:
Dadon’s life-story shows the imbrication of at least four issues. First, her aspirations whilst in Tibet: as she sang the first significant songs with a Tibetan flavour after the Cultural Revolution, she navigated carefully within the PRC for a modern, yet Tibetan pop style to be accepted. Second, her defection signalled the impossibility of realizing her aspirations within the PRC. Third, the difficulty of finding, or even creating, a place for her in the exile community. And fourth, her voice changes, which exemplify the search for a modern tone in Tibetan singing.
Yungchen Lhamo By contrast with Dadon, highly popular in Tibet yet little known in the West, Yungchen Lhamo (b. c1964), “a Tibetan diva for a Western audience”, enjoyed a certain vogue on the world music circuit but is hardly known by Tibetans within the PRC.
Both were born in Lhasa and fled to exile around the same time, but Yongchen Lhamo, not having gone through the mill of PRC work-units, built her career in the West from 1995 with a style of “Buddhist devotional songs”.
From a poor religious background, she had no access to education. Escaping on foot soon after the Lhasa demonstrations in 1989, there was no clear role for her in Dharamsala, and in 1993 she moved to Australia.
Cover of Yungchen Lhamo’s first Real World CD.
Yungchen Lhamo released her first album Tibetan prayer in 1995, and coming to the attention of World-Music supremo Peter Gabriel she recorded for his Real World label. Performing totally alone on stage, she undertook a busy global concert schedule. As Isabelle notes, she had to come to terms not so much with the Chinese state but with the pressures of the Western record industry. She later engaged in charitable projects.
This track comes from her second album for Real World:
Like Dadon, but in a very different style, her themes are spiritual and melancholic.
With a longing for a lost country, a constant reference to the religious way of life of the Tibetans, and the Dalai Lama as dominant icon, Yungchen Lhamo wields the three core identity markers of contemporary exile Tibetans. But her approach is personal in that she departs from the singing of religious melodies, and creates her own style […] . The melodies she composes cannot be called Tibetan, and her voice is not recognized as typical by the Tibetans themselves.
As with all the singers discussed, discussions hinge on the issue of “Tibetanness”.
Her mission contrasts with that of the Chinese pop star Dadawa, whose use of Tibetan themes aroused protest among the exile community. Yet Yungchen Lhamo too struggled to find a niche there.
All such stars wax and wane; these singers may already seem as dated as Tseten Drolma. Before venturing into the more challenging recent Tibetan pop scene, as illustrated on the High Peaks Pure Earth site, Isabelle’s article offers fine perspectives on the longer history of traditional and popular musics, and gender, in the PRC and in exile. 
As she summarises:
Singing is always more than just producing melodious sounds. Music is as much a vehicle for politics as it is for pleasure, as it crosses between the realms of public and private use. More than different aspects of Tibet’s singing traditions, these women represent different periods of Tibet’s recent history, and we can see how all six women form a tiled historical bridge […] . The lives of all of them also appear traversed by contradictory tensions stemming from their problematic political positioning. They have been involved willingly or unwillingly in presenting a political message, holding a public position in the community, representing their nationality, mediating between past and present, Tibet and China, and Tibet and the West, yet failing to fully be acknowledged by all Tibetans, from both Tibet and Dharamsala. All these life-stories have been caught up in the redefinition of what it means to be Tibetan, both within Tibet and in exile, and in the negotiation of a professional and cultural identity within the new social forces of contemporary Tibet. […] In their own ways, each of these six women has had to come to terms with the same question: how to be at the same time “modern” and “Tibetan”?
I do recommend this detailed, nuanced article!
 For the demi-monde of Lhasa society before the occupation, note Jamyang Norbu, “The Lhasa Ripper”. For the chang-ma at Dharamsala festivities, see Kiela Diehl, Echoes from Dharamsala (2002), pp.57–62, 88–94.
 Another popular female star in the PRC who might further thicken the plot is Han Hong (b.1971)—see e.g. Nimrod Baranovitch, “Representing Tibet in the global cultural market: the case of Chinese–Tibetan musician Han Hong”, in Andrew Weintraub & Bell Yung (eds.), Musicand cultural rights (2009); and the important study by Anna Morcom, Unity and discord: music and politics in contemporary Tibet (TIN, 2004). Click here for Han Hong’s song Heavenly road (2005); and here’s a live version from 2001 of her 1994 song Tibetan plateau:
Time for an appreciation of Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, or should I say Dusty Springfield(1939–99).
Part of a 60s’ generation of great British female singers like Lulu, Sandie Shaw, Cilla Black, and Petula Clark, Dusty was inspired by the Motown sound at a time when we keep hearing about all the British men who popularised blues and soul.
You can choose from many YouTube playlists of Dusty songs—here’s a succinct one:
You don’t own me (1964) features in this list of feminist songs; and here’s a fantastic live version of You don’t have to say you love me, which she first recorded in 1966:
Her passion for soul culminated in Dusty in Memphis (1969):
The success of Pulp fiction (1994), with its scene featuring her song Son of a preacher man from that album, came wa-ay too late for her:
By then Dusty had belatedly became a gay icon; this doesn’t always involve being gay, but she really was—as she boldly hinted in 1970 before her career went on a downward spiral:
A lot of people say that I’m bent, and I’ve heard it so many times that I’ve almost learned to accept it. I know I’m perfectly capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy. More and more, people feel that way and I don’t see why I shouldn’t.
According to the mores of the day, as her biographer Karen Bartlett commented, “being gay was either a pitiable affliction or an actual mental illness”. Nor did men have a monopoly on self-destruction: Dusty handled all this with pills, coke, and vodka, leading to a sojourn in Bellevue, following illustrious alumni like Leadbelly, Bird and Mingus.
As a former partner observed, Dusty
wanted to be straight and she wanted to be a good Catholic and she wanted to be black.
I had no idea about any of this at the time! Gimme a break, I was getting into Sibelius, Shostakovitch, and Zen—weirdo.
Under the Beatles tag in the sidebar are several posts on particular albums, based on the insightful comments of Wilfred Mellers (Twilight of the gods) and Alan W. Pollack (online: see his guide to the whole series, as well as a useful overview by Ger Tillekens). I began writing what turned into a series in non-chronological order, so now I’ve tried to re-edit them more logically, with this as the introductory post.
From the age of ten—though with my sheltered, genteel, classical upbringing I was quite immune to a lot of pop music—I avidly spent my pocket-money on 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 soul, The 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.
* * *
Wilfrid Mellers’s tenure at York was formative for innovations in new composition and early music. And with his book Twilight of the gods: the Beatles in retrospect, published in 1973, quite soon after the Beatles had disbanded, he was among the pioneers of taking pop music seriously. It was work like this that opened the floodgates, to the consternation of old-school musicologists still seeking to reserve the concept of “serious music” to the WAM canon—as some, indeed, still do, although for them the Beatles seemed more palatable candidates for admission to the elite club than many popular and folk genres.
Clearly, popular music is not dependent on such complex skills for its efficacity; but neither are folk or art musics. Many, even most, popular 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 his 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.
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”.
So 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, for instance. Others, notably Pollack, have taken analysis further.
Great as the songs on the other albums are (and Revolver has been much praised), I still find Sgt Pepper and Abbey road most cohesive as orchestral song-cycles (for wonderful examples of which, see here), like unstaged operas—whether or not they were designed as such. So whereas I can select some individual songs in the earlier LPs, in discussing these final masterpieces I have to give them all equal weight in the total effect.
* * *
So here’s a roundup of my main posts:
Yesterday… (introduced by a hymn of the Li family Daoists!)
I save my favorite free association, this time, for last. Now, this song is characterized by the following gesture that opens each verse: a declarative word, followed by a pause, and then rhythmically active ascent in the tune, as in—”Here (pause) making each day of the year …”
He lists other songs by Paul that share this feature:
Listen (pause) do you want to know a secret
Eleanor Rigby (pause) picks up the rice
Day after day (pause) alone on a hill
Hey Jude (pause) don’t make it bad
Hold me tight (pause) tell me I’m the only one
Honey pie (pause) you are making me crazy
The long and winding road (pause) that leads to your door
Michelle (pause) ma belle
Oh darling (pause) please believe me
Try to see it my way (pause) do I have to keep on talking
Look (pause) what you’re doing
When I call you up (pause) your line’s engaged
Yesterday (pause) all my troubles seemed so far away.
The vocal melodies and harmonies of the Beatles, and their technological innovations, are so entrancing that one may underestimate their instrumental skills. So I may also mention pleasingly technical discussions of their guitar technique, such as this and this.
* * *
In his final chapter, “Elegy on a mythology”, Mellers reflects on the whole trajectory of Beatle music, pondering on the relationship between music and myth.
As pop musicians they are simultaneously magicians (dream-weavers), priests (ritual celebrants), entertainers (whiling away empty time), and artists (incarnating and reflecting the feelings—rather than thoughts—and perhaps the conscience of a generation). If this multiplicity of function is a source of much semantic confusion, both on the part of the Beatles themselves and of those who comment on them, it is also a source of their strength.
Only in a very partial sense can we dismiss the teenager’s orgiastic dancing as a tipsy escape from the hard realities of life. On the contrary, as compared with the romantic unreality of the previous generation’s ballroom dancing (which is in turn related to the fairy-tale myth of classical ballet), one might rather describe teenage dance as practical and functional in Collingwood’s sense: an inchoate attempt to rediscover the springs of being.
On revivalist movements he cites Mary Douglas, who notes that
it is not quite true that effervescence must either be routinised or fizzle out. It is possible for it to be sustained indefinitely as a normal form of worship.
Mellers goes on,
The magical-religious and the art-entertainment functions of Beatle music don’t cancel each other out; they do, however, in their interrelationship, contain an element of equivocation: which is part of the Beatles’ “representative” fascination.
He returns to Collingwood, citing his distinction between hedonistic amusement (entertainment) and utilitarian magic. And he disposes of red herring of the profit-motive. He stresses:
To deplore the illiteracy of the Beatles—or of any pop or jazz group—is nonsensical: for the essence of their achievement is that it is a return from literate and visual to aural and oral culture.
He considers their creative process (cf. Unpacking “improvisation”); however important the contribution of George Martin, he recognised himself as an intermediary. And
if they guffaw at intellectuals (like me) who discover “hidden meanings” in their songs, they’ve given plenty of evidence that these meanings are not hidden at all but merely, like 80% of the meaning in all art, in part unconscious.
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.
Like the audiences of Bach and Mahler, we didn’t know how lucky we were… But beyond any personal identification with the zeitgeist that the Beatles express, all this is significant not only because of the Beatles’ central place in modern Western culture, but in view of the whole incorporation of popular culture into our perspectives on musicking around the world.
Given my whole argument about society and soundscape, I’m aware of the irony of my celebrating “great works” mostly created in the recording studio without an audience. So I’d like to stress again that stunning as all this artistry is, efficacity, generally, doesn’t depend on complexity, or on narrative development; not only does the logical flow of Indian raga or Messiaen work within very different parameters, but more static sound-worlds are also valid—such as punk, Northern soul, Aboriginal songs… Note also What is serious music?!
In 1966, only a year after Rubber soul, the Beatles released Revolver. In a 1996 interview, George found the two albums quite similar: “to me, they could be Volume 1 and Volume 2”. But it is Revolver that is increasingly recognised as one of the greatest and most innovative albums in popular music.
Here it is as a playlist, again in the 2009 remastered version:
Studio technology and psychedelia are coming to the fore; love songs are becoming subsidiary. Yet again I’ll cite Wilfred Mellers and Alan W. Pollack. Mellers opens:
Though Revolver still contains ritual elements, one can no longer discuss it in terms of adolescent ceremonial, nor is it relatable to the conventions of commercialized pop music. Halfway between ritual and art, it’s both verbally and musically an extraordinary breakthrough; and since the songs complement one another without forming a sequence, one cannot avoid some comment on each.
I won’t do so, but some songs most dear to me are;
Eleanor Rigby, the polar opposite of the satirical opening Taxman, is accompanied only by string octet—an innovation that one might hardly notice (cf. She’s leaving home on Sgt Pepper). Mellers is in fine form again:
It is about compassion, loneliness, and implicitly about the generation gap—three basic themes of second period Beatle music—and there is no precedent for its musical idiom, which has nothing to do with jazz, but is an amalgam of rural folk and urban music-hall. The tonality is a dorian E minor, though the initial invocation of “all the lonely people” is a rising and falling scale (with sharpened fourth) over a C minor triad, with a rocking and chugging accompaniment. The song proper is narrative ballad, and the words are poetry, evoking with precise economy Eleanor Rigby, the middle-aged spinster who picks up the rice at somebody else’s wedding, lives in a dream, keeps her face “in a jar by the door”; and Father Mackenzie, the priest who lives alone, darns his socks in the empty night, writes the sermon that no-one wants to listen to, wipes off his hands the dirt from the grave where he’s buried Eleanor Rigby after administering the last rites by which “no-one was saved”. The words reverberate through their very plainness; and manage to characterise not only those two lonely people but also (as George Melly has put it) “the big soot-black sandstone Catholic churches with the trams rattling past, the redbrick terraced houses with laced curtains and holy-stoned steps” of the Beatles’ boyhood Liverpool. The tune, lyrically sung by Paul, never modulates but has a tentative, groping tenderness as it stretches up the scale to those modally sharpened sixths, only to droop again, in a flexible rhythm that often overrides the barlines; so when it returns to the choric introductory phrase as a refrain, the scope of the song is marvellously extended. Miss Rigby and Father Mackenzie, the soaring refrain tells us, may be founded on real characters from the Beatles’ childhood, yet none the less represent all the lonely people; and that includes us, and the young Beatles (who were soon to be members of Sgt Pepper’s LONELY HEARTS club band). Yet there is never a suspicion of emotional indulgence in this song; that is belied by the rigidity of the chugging accompaniment, even though it is given to emotive strings. Occasionally (after that dismayed octave leap for “where do they all come from”) the violins wing up scalewise; more often they reinforce the thumping crotchet pulse, or the rocking quavers. In the final phrase of the tune and in the coda the “where do they all come from” query reaches up not through an octave but through a tenth. This makes something like a climax, and the song has an end which is not, however, decisive. The final cadence is the only V I progression in the piece, and even here the dominant chord is in second inversion. All the other cadences reinforce the tonal ambiguity of the submediant introduction, an effect the more disturbing because the C major triads conflict with the sharpened Cs in the modal tune.
You can look at this song from at least two angles and try to pull it apart with great clinical precision; the Verismo lyrics and grainy, tintype backing arrangement for strings on the one side, and the more familiar bluesy, syncopated, boxy form on the other. But the truth here is even more elusive than usual, and I dare say that the real irony of this song is to be confronted in the extreme to which the otherwise analytically separable elements within its blend are so well synthesised. Think of it as an amalgam whose elements can no longer be so easily separated ever again once combined.
Having first played sitar for Norwegian wood, George now developed the sound more prominently—the soundscape now augmented by tabla:
Love you towas “the Beatles’ first unambiguous exploration of orientalism”. Their use of Indian timbres was influential; indeed, it only strikes me now that this was the beginning of my own youthful fascination with raga. Introduced by the briefest quasi-alap, the song soon launches into a regular metre. Mellers:
The vocal line oscillates around G, moving up to B♭, the flattened seventh, down to F♮; and the music convinces not because it is “like” genuine Indian music (it is by Indian standards rudimentary), but because it is an extension of the anti-Western, anti-materialism, anti-action theme we have seen to be endemic in Beatle music. Though George seems to be singing (as did all the early Beatle songs) of sexual love and presumably of coitus itself, his point is that the act of love can destroy the temporal sense (“make love all day, making love singing songs”) which is what happens in the drone-coda and fade-out.
At the time it seemed like many people who, just the week before, had never seen a sitar or heard of Ravi Shankar, were running out, overnight, to buy what we nowadays call “world music” recordings, tickets to rug concerts, and even authentic instruments.
But as he goes on to note, it was a rather fickle fad:
It’s a chutzpah for the Westerner to expect to confront this stuff without sincere and patient preparation.
The only merit of attempts to suggest a specific raga as the basis for the scale of George’s Indian-based songs (such as Within you, without you on Sgt Pepper) is to draw us to the complexities of raga in its native form. Much as Pollack admires the experiment, he’s not entirely convinced by the result here; the connoisseur of raga may be still less convinced by some of these Indian-inspired songs.
And George was still a beginner on sitar; even supposing that he might have played the opening, the player for the rest of the track remains unidentified; it seems most unlikely that it is George that we hear.
As Mellers notes in a later chapter,
The Beatles’ tinkering with oriental metaphysics, even if sincere, as was certainly the case with George, hardly amounts to more than an alleviatory game if contrasted with the late music of John Coltrane, who might genuinely be said to have prayed with and through his horn.
Ravi Shankar liked both Trane and George; but he was perplexed by the disturbed results of the former’s immersion in Indian music and philosophy, whereas he seems to have looked more favourably on George’s experiments (for more, see e.g. here and here).
Love you to is followed by the gorgeous ballad
Here, there, and everywhere—as Mellers observes, deceptively simple: love as revelation, with tonal as well as metrical metamorphosis, further unpacked by Pollack.
Yellow submarine (cf. Octopus’s garden in Abbey road) is too easily taken for granted. Mellers hits the spot again:
Typically, the Beatles then torpedo this lyrical tenderness… Ringo’s blunt Liverpudlianism brings us back to earth, or anyway to “the town where I was born”, in a rhythm as strictly circumscribed, a diatonicism as plain, as that of the Celebrated Working Man’s Band. Yet the banality is as deceptive as was the simplicity of Here, there, and everywhere. For the song turns out to be a revocation of childhood memory that is also a liberation into dream—an “instant nursery rhyme”, as George Melly has put it, “as unselfconscious as a children’s street song, but true to their own experience… It’s not American comic book heroes who climb aboard the Yellow submarine but Desperate Dan and Lord Snooty and his pals. The departure for the Sea of Dreams is from the Liverpool pierhead.” On might even say that the song’s human triviality sets off the mystery of the “acquatic unknown tongues” we then hear bobbing on and in the waters; in which sense regression is prelude to another rebirth. If there’s nothing in the music that is memorable in itself—except the fact that it’s easy to memorise and so stays in the mind—we’re soon aware that the experience isn’t, and isn’t meant to be, purely musical. A hubbub of friends is heard on the quay, the town band blasts its blatant farewell, and we’re in a mythical world—to be more deeply explored in Sgt Pepper—which cannot be adequately realised in concert hall or on stage. The music has, again, a talismantic function, recalling a Liverpudlian childhood, launching the Beatles on a submarine voyage into the unconscious: out of which their later and greater music was to spring.
provides the firm platform needed to support the campy-yet-futuristic collage of sampled sound-bites overlaid upon it.
The extraordinary final track
Tomorrow never knows is again tinged with the Indian influence. Mellers:
Drums and a tambura drone on C re-establish an oriental atmosphere, while the melody alternates a non-metrical phrase on the triad of C major with a triplet on the fifth, rising to the flat seventh, then to the tonic. “It is not dying, it is shining, it is the end of the beginning”, we’re told, with sundry references to the Tibetan Book of the dead culled from Timothy Leary. […] The singing voice, which is here the mind alone, is gradually engulfed in an electronic hubbub emulating the cries of birds and beasts, the hurly-burly of the natural world. Having begun with adolescent regression, the Beatles conclude the first work of their young maturity with an almost-literal aural synonym for return to the womb. There are parallels to this in avant-garde jazz (the jungle noises possibly derive from Mingus) as well as in “art” music, but this doesn’t weaken the impact of the song.
Listeners may find some of these Indian-inspired songs more successful than others, but here the Beatles create an effective sound-world. Pollack notes that while Tomorrow never knows is a “kitchen sink” of the Beatles’ repertoire at the time, the effect is unified.
* * *
Revolver is indeed a great album. As I reflect in my introduction to this series, Call Me Old-fashioned, but I still find Sgt Pepper and Abbey road more consistent, and more cohesive as song-cycles—but hey, like Mahler symphonies, rather than making a futile attempt to rank them, let’s just rejoice in them all.
Again I’ll cite the analyses of Wilfred Mellers and Alan W. Pollack (and as ever, do bear in mind these reflections on the merits of analysis). Mellers wonders if the prevalence of “anti” songs on the disc may be an inverted positive—a move towards self-reliance. Below I’ll focus on the ballads:
Norwegian Wood, unusually using triple metre, was George’s first venture on sitar. Mellers:
The girl in her elegantly-wooded apartment is strong on social, weak on sexual, intercourse; her polished archness is satirised in an arching waltz tune wearily fey, yet mildly surprising because in the mixolydian mode. Here the flat seventh gives to the comedy an undercurrent of wistfulness, and this embraces both John’s frustration and the girl’s pretentiousness—which is pointed by George’s playing the sitar, not in emulation of Indian styles, but as an exotic guitar. The middle section brings us to the crux of the situation (which is, for John, a night spent in the bath) with a stern intrusion of the tonic minor triad and a tune descending, with drooping appoggiatura, to the subdominant with flattened seventh. After this middle the lyricism of the waltz da capo suggests not so much plaintiveness as a comic dismay. The effect of the flattened seventh, followed by a rise through a fifth and a fall through a sixth, pendulum-like, even seems a trifle sinister in context; as perhaps it is, if “I lit a fire, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood” implies a slight case of arson.
Nowhere Man (Mellers: a satire on “the socialite or all-too-civil servant who’s afraid of emotional commitment”), with its unprecedented a cappella opening, and a little guitar riff trailing each verse. Pollack:
Superficially, the melodic material of the song is straight away in the major mode. However, one’s interest in the tune is piqued on a more subtle level by a combination of the large number of appoggiaturas, the pseudo-pentatonic nature of the bridge, and the prominent role given to the flat sixth degree (C♮) in the backing vocals.
Michelle, [Mellers:] “harmonically sophisticated […], with tender chromatic sequences and tritonal inclusions”, and the pure pentatonic love call of the refrain. “The subtlety of the song lies in the contrast between chromatic sophistication and pentatonic innocence”, a duality already hinted at in the false relations of the F major and D♭ triads of the first two bars, giving “a tentative, exploratory quality to the tenderness, hinting that the barrier isn’t just one of language, but is inherent in the separateness of each individual, however loving”.
How can anyone be as desperately in love with someone with whom they cannot hold a decent conversation, no less an email correspondence?
Girl, largely acoustic, is another instance of [Mellers:] “the interdependence of ‘reality’ and wit”, its tune “in an aeolian-sounding C minor, […] with an almost-comic pentatonic refrain sighfully and unexpectedly drooping to E♭ major. The middle section “veers abruptly to the minor of the supertonic of E♭ (or the subdominant of C minor), the fetching tune abandoned in favour of regularly repeated quavers on the syllable tit-tit (which sometimes sounds like tut-tut!).”
As the lyricism is banished, so the girl is deflated: from being a girl in a storybook she’s become a flesh-and-blood, immensely desirable young woman. […] The melismata are “cool”, the sighs verge on the ludicrous; yet this paradoxically intensifies the loving pathos of the lyrical tune when it’s sung da capo, since life is a tangled mesh of hopes and disappointments. […] The hurt inherent in living, as well as loving, is accepted without pretention, yet without rancour.
Setting aside my personal attachment to the soundtrack of my youth, their 1964 LP A hard day’s night remains moving. Here it is as a playlist:
Again, Wilfred Mellers (Twilight of the Gods) and Alan W. Pollack (online) make perceptive guides for those who care to supplement sensuous experience with discursive analysis. Both writers combine technical analysis with thoughtful comments on the Beatles’ emotional world. For all the sophistication of the Beatles’ later albums, the equivocal roles of innocence and experience are clear in their early years too.
The album—like the film—opens with the most recognisable opening chord in all the world’s music! It’s been much analysed—e.g. wiki, and here’s Alan W. Pollack:
I’ve seen better people than myself argue (and in public, no less) about the exact guitar voicing of this chord and I’ll stay out of that question for now (what a cop-out, Alan!), and merely state that its sonority is akin to a superimposition of the chords of D minor, F major, and G major; i.e. it contains the notes D, F, A, C, and G — to my ears, only the B is missing. Even if you don’t know a thing about harmony or musical dictation, you can at least hear the G as a suspended fourth over the D on the bottom. Hullaballoo aside, this chord functions as a surrogate dominant (i.e. V) with respect to the chord on G which begins the first verse.
As often, it’s the ballads that continue to entrance, such as
If I fell in love with you, tinged with pain: after the complex chromatic intro, harmonic variety continues to decorate the melody, like the surprise of the 9th chord in the second verse at “Don’t hurt my pride like her“. With the elliptical, ambiguous word play of the lyrics, Pollack observes:
beneath the mere cleverness of it all, what makes this song so potent is the desperate vulnerability it manifests; a veritable obsession with the subjunctive “iffy-ness” of love, described as a state in which people might run and hide and pride be hurt. For me though, the greatest ambiguity of all here is in the tension between the hero’s begging for love’s being requited on the one hand, while at the same time holding back from freely offering it for fear of being rejected. Is this ingenuous realism, such a lot of chutzpah, or likely a bit of both?
And I love her, with characteristic ambiguity between major and minor, and the half-step modulation for the guitar break. Pollack notes the similar tonal design of the opening song of Schumann’s Dichterliebe.
Things we said today—for Mellers, their most beautiful and deep song up to this point. Again it’s enriched by subtle harmonic language.
The rhythm is grave, the percussion almost minatory, the vocal tessitura restricted, while the harmony oscillates between triads of G minor and D minor. The flavour is incantatory, even liturgical, a moment outside Time. The second strain hints at the possibility of loss, with a weeping chromatic descent in triplet rhythm, and with rapid but dreamy tonal movement flowing from B♭ by way of a rich dominant 9th to E♭: the subdominant triad of which then serves as a kind of Neapolitan cadence drooping back (without the linking dominant) to the grave pentatonic G minor. […]
Whether or not you’re aware of such harmonic language, it registers with the listener.
Meanwhile, in the great tradition of English satire, here’s the priceless narration of the great Peter Sellers reciting the lyrics of the title song in the Shakespearean style of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III:
Anglo-American popular music—like most music in the world—is so firmly based on the anhemitonic pentatonic (or at least diatonic) scale that it’s intriguing to note how successful songs can be despite unobtrusively break the rules.
Putting familiarity aside, few listeners even pause to reflect that the remarkably similar chromatic opening phrases of these two melodies from 1939 and 1942 are highly implausible:
Hey, no-one’s ever going to listen to songs beginning like that—surely they could never catch on?! (For scathing reviews of Great Works, see Slonimsky’s Lexicon of musical invective.) Without context, you might suppose them to come from soundtracks for horror movies. OK, here’s a clue: like oxygen, it’s something to do with harmony (although no-one needs to know that)… Anyway, the composers soon realised that such slithery meanderings just weren’t going to work—but it was precisely those opening phrases that would become universal earworms. So here they are in context:
We’ll meet again, by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles, sung by Vera Lynn, R.I.P. (for reflections on the predicament of “our” current nostalgia, also unpacked by Stewart Lee, see here):
and (serving a similar role, for GIs spending their first Christmas away from home after entering the war) Bing Crosby with Irving Berlin’s I’m dreaming of a white Christmas * (“Dream on”—Greta Thunberg):
* With my ears attuned to Mahler, I can’t help hearing echoes of the motif in the third movement of the 9th symphony, which returns in the finale—its rhythmically related melody also opening on mi, but less chromatic:
Now that the initial frenzy over Normal peoplehas subsided a little, I must say that I’m overwhelmed by both Sally Rooney’s book and the TV series.
For all the general critical excitement, I’m perturbed to find that that many people, of all ages, don’t get it (e.g. here). Having already read the book, I found myself watching an episode and then going back to the relevant chapters; they complement each other (for the differences, see here). So FWIW, both film and book move me immeasurably.
Daisy Edgar Jones and Paul Mescal as Marianne and Connell are astounding—as well as Sarah Greene playing Connell’s wonderful mum. The story is informed by a great playlist too, I might add.
Now, I’m not saying that Great Art is Universal!, but the Irish setting is finely observed, transcending time and place, like Romeo and Juliet… The S&M subplot (“Fifty shades of Sligo”) is precisely that—a subplot; Marianne may be damaged, but both she and Connell are vulnerable, fragile. It’s sobering to learn of Irish conservatives’ view that the “sex scenes” “promote fornication”—interviews with Daisy and Paul should dispel such medieval nonsense:
Tellingly described by Sally Rooney as “just another form of dialogue”, those scenes, with all their integrity (see e.g. here and here), are surely the most wonderful since the previously unmatched Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don’t look now.
All this serves to underline the sheer intensity of Marianne and Connell’s bond as soulmates—their understated expressions and tiny phrases, as their relationship is constantly derailed by agonising misunderstandings. Now I can hardly bear to watch a single scene.
As Tibetan culture continues to change, and as scholarship has matured, it’s worth revisiting a lucid article from 2002,
Janet L. Upton, “The politics and poetics of Sister drum: ‘Tibetan’ music in the global marketplace”, in Timothy J. Craig and Richard King (eds), Global goes local: popular culture in Asia. 
To the consternation of many, the album Sister drum (Ajiegu, 1995) by the Han-Chinese singer Dadawa (Zhu Zheqin) soon became a huge hit in East Asia, and sold well in the West too.
Amidst an increasingly diverse pop scene with the PRC, the CD was part of the packaging of Tibet for a Chinese audience—the “Tibet craze” since the 1990s in literature, art, and film, to which some Tibetans also subscribe.
While Zhu Zheqin, a native of Guangzhou, had no prior experience of Tibetan culture, composer He Xuntian and his brother He Xunyou, the main lyricist, had experience of collecting folk-songs and working in Tibetan areas. In summer 1993 they all travelled to Tibet to collect and record folk-songs.
The primary intent of Sister drum’s producers seems to have been to use Tibetan culture and quasi-Tibetan religious themes to explore musical and spiritual worlds of their own.
Rather like people have long done in the West, you might think—the so-called “singing bowls” are just one extreme instance; the “om mani padme hum” mantra of the title track has, after all, been amply exploited in the West too. Indeed, the sound of Sister drum appealed not only to the Chinese but to the wider world music and New Age markets. The liner notes spell out the Exotic Othering image of a “primitive” society (a notion also long promoted in the West), providing more classic entries in the Catechism of cliché:
Tibetans are a community noted for group dances and choral singing. An alien land filled even today with marvelous tales and legendary colour. Lacking the so-called “individual” or “individual consciousness”, people there still live as one, according to the ancient custom.
Cultural appropriation is the tightrope that “world music” constantly has to tread. Chinese people, sharing with Westerners an enthusiasm for an image of Tibetan culture, are hardly responsible for the actions of their government—but they are likely to come in for more criticism.
Zhu Zheqin was rebuked for assuming the name Dadawa, and for dressing in quasi-Tibetan costumes for the artwork (which for exiled Tibetans resembled an abomination of a nun’s robes). On the album’s creators, Upton comments:
On the one hand, they focus on the “traditional” qualities of Tibetan culture and the authenticity of their interpretation of Tibetan music; on the other hand, they stress the innovative aspects of their presentation. At one point, for example, the project is described as “a record about Tibet” that represents “20 years of Tibetan folk music”. Yet in the following paragraph, composer He Xuntian states, “We didn’t go to Tibet to find Tibet as such, we went to find ourselves.”
Again, such interplay of innovation and appropriation seems normal in the world music scene.
Noting that the album didn’t emerge from a cultural vacuum, Upton considers some antecedents of the Tibet craze in Chinese intellectual and artistic circles, such as the short stories of the Tibetan author Tashi Dewa, the modern art of Tibetan painter Nyi-ma Tshe-ring, and collections by Chinese photographers. Yet all this enthusiasm, by contrast with romantic Western imaginings,
is framed within a state-sanctioned discourse that demands the representation of Tibet as “an integral part of the motherland”.
As Upton observes,
It is easy to condemn Sister Drum and other products emerging as part of the “Tibet craze” as callous Chinese appropriations of Tibetan culture in response to a new market for the exotic, but the process is much more complex and historically situated. […]
Attempts to incorporate Tibet and Tibetan culture within a Chinese nationalist discourse began long before the founding of the PRC. […] The field of music has been an especially productive terrain in this respect. Ever since the 1930s, Chinese musicians have been utilising Tibetan themes, including Tibetan folk tunes, as they seek to construct a new national music that embraces all of the modern nation-state’s ethnic diversity. This pre-revolutionary pattern of cultural appropriation was continued in the early post-1949 period, when the collection of folk songs was used by the new regime as an important means of coming to know the social concerns of the minority populations of the new People’s Republic. Collections of Tibetan folk songs were published in the 1950s, and their contents represent a more or less balanced presentation of Tibetan musical style, if somewhat weighted toward new revolutionary concerns in content.
These compilations demonstrate a real concern with the accurate portrayal of Tibetan musical life and the cultural context from which it derives, a concern that is remarkable given that many of the compilers were members of the People’s Liberation Army, the agency enforcing the “liberation” of Tibet [cf. Cheremis, Chuvash—and Tibetans]. 
Upton goes on to outline the state-promoted “Tibetan folk songs” of the 60s and 70s.
Ironically for the Tibetan people themselves (and for other minority groups as well) their appearance at the centre of the stage of state-sponsored culture was contemporaneous with the physical and spiritual destruction of much of their historical and cultural legacy. […] So effective were these media campaigns that even when confronted with physical evidence of the devastating effects of revolutionary policies on Tibetan culture, many Han Chinese have difficulty reconciling that reality with the images they carry in their heads.
Meanwhile at the commercial level, by the early 1990s saccharine-sweet cassettes of “folk-song” featured Tibetan and other minority songs prominently. While one aspect of the collection of folk music under Maoism was as source material for new socialist creations, the “new-wave” composers who studied at the conservatoires after the end of the Cultural Revolution (such as Qu Xiaosong, Tan Dun, and indeed He Xuntian) were now adopting a more challenging approach to incorporating traditional ethnic culture into their work, often on the basis of fieldwork—liberating themselves from the constraints of Maoist orthodoxy.
Thus, as Upton points out, Sister drum built on a long tradition of co-opting Tibetan music. She then discusses the hazards of cultural appropriation as the album came to be digested outside China. As Tibetans in exile gained a higher profile, they and other reviewers soon published detailed rebuttals. As one review commented:
For the Western listener, it is hard to tell whether the album represents a Chinese claim on Tibetan culture, sympathy for Tibet, or simply musicians seeking spiritually tinged exotica.
All of the above, perhaps. Anyway, the hype around the album did at least draw wider attention to the Chinese ravaging of Tibet.
In a balanced conclusion, Upton recognizes the positive role of the album in espousing Tibetan culture and religion, and reminds us that Western interest has itself grown out of a legacy of colonialism and Orientalism. Such creations may prompt re-examinations and reworkings of these legacies, both in the West and in China, and even as a forum for protest. Still, for many Han Chinese the state-sponsored image of Tibet—“as backward, under-developed minorities on one hand, and smiling, dancing recipients of the Party’s benevolence on the other”—wields considerable power.
Upton ends by considering a follow-up release, Voices from the sky, which includes a song whose lyrics are adapted from poems of the Sixth Dalai Lama. Moreover, the song “Himalayans” addresses the departure of many Tibetans for a life in exile, invoking a terrible sense of loss. However deliberate, such works “can and will be read in different ways”.
* * *
Upton’s article was a rather early venture into the contested field of Tibetan popular music in the global bazaar, but remains instructive.
§10 (“Pop music, world music and contemporary genres”) of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s extensive, essential Western-language bibliography on the Tibetan performing arts lists impressive research covering pop both within the PRC and in exile, including work by Nimrod Baranovitch, Keila Diehl, Anna Morcom, and Yangdon Dhondup, and singers as diverse as Tseten Dolma, Han Hong, Yungchen Lhamo, Yadong, and Sa Dingding. This article by Henrion-Dourcy herself makes a good introduction.
Since the early years of the reform era, it’s good to see young Tibetan musicians forging their own interpretations (see sites such as High Peaks Pure Earth and Radiichina.com). And Tibetan thinkers like Woeser continue to further the dialogue.
 The same volume also includes an article by Rachel Harris on the Uyghur music industry.
 I would add that by the 1980s, in the spirit of pioneers like Yang Yinliu, local cultural cadres were engaged in the vast nationwide Anthology project—including the documentation of the vocal, instrumental, and dance traditions all around the Tibet Autonomous Region [sic], Amdo, and Kham, county by county. Like their counterparts in Han Chinese regions, they were genuinely concerned to document their local traditions, and many of them would have done what they could to bypass any expectations of serving state cultural propaganda. As with the material on Han Chinese traditions, the project is flawed, but provides valuable leads.
Cf. William Noll‘s comments on ethnographers of one cultural heritage conducting fieldwork among a people of different cultural heritage, where both groups live within the political boundaries of one state.
With an all-female cast led by Margit Carstensen and Hanna Schygulla, the atmosphere is unrelentingly claustrophobic. The soundtrack includes the Walker Brothers, Jo Green Guiseppe Verdi, and The Platters—here’s the Smoke gets in your eyes scene:
While we’re on The Platters, here’s the wonderful Only you (1955)—I’m not sure how deliberate this vignette was in laying bare the hierarchical structure of American society:
Often described as a successor to Fassbinder is Pedro Almodóvar. And for a bonus, almost as perfect in its simplicity as Härlig Är Jorden is Orlando Gibbons’ Drop, drop slow tears(1623):
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 Liangzhouxianxiao 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”:
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 (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. 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”): 
I like this 1946 Glenn Miller version, with the follow-up “How many cats would a catnip nip…”:
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?
Dare 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.
Talking of Bhutanese films, this looks interesting.
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.
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.
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 a case of “selling the Three-character scripture at the door of Confucius” (cf. here), but hey. You might begin with the introduction to my series on the great Beatles albums.
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 below).
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.  You can find the lyrics on sites such as this.
Both Sgt Pepper and Abbey road are 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. As I will comment in a general post on the Beatles, both albums make cogent sequences, resembling unstaged operas, or orchestral song-cycles, even if only Side 2 of Abbey road seems to have been so designed.
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—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” (cf. Yellow submarine), 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. Pollack’s 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 enveloping 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.
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 window—both 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 [great consecutive guitar breaks from Paul, George, and John!]. 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 endthe 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.
 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.
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 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.
Thomas 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.  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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
 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, 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).
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.]
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.
It’s remarkable that the Soviet system could encompass such alternative performance culture, when nothing remotely so challenging emerged in China until after the demise of Maoism (see also Parajanov). This playlist contains many searing songs from Vysotsky—just as Nina Hagen makes me want to work on my German, his songs make 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:
*For main page, click here!*
(in main menu, under WAM)
I’ve just added a lengthy article on the demotion of WAM, and the flawed concept of “serious music”. It’s based on the stimulating work of Richard Taruskin on the “classical music crisis” prompted by the defection of critics to pop music since the 1960s, as he challenges “centuries-old cultural assumptions” such as the myth of musical autonomy. This is typical of his bracing style:
The question that throbbed and pounded in my head was whether it was still possible to defend my beloved repertoire without recourse to pious tommyrot, double standards, false dichotomies, smug nostalgia, utopian delusions, social snobbery, tautology, hypocrisy, trivialization, pretense, innuendo, reactionary invective, or imperial haberdashery.
On the evidence before me, the answer is no. The discourse supporting classical music so reeks of historical blindness and sanctimonious self-regard as to render the object of its ministrations practically indefensible. Belief in its indispensability, or its cultural superiority, is by now unrecoverable, and those who mount such arguments on its behalf morally indict themselves.
I go on to query his recourse to the term “serious music”, broadening the topic to musicking in other societies.
If there are so many “serious” genres all around the world, what seems exceptional about WAM is its apologists’ sense of mission, and their concomitant sense of embattlement. Without wishing to discourage ongoing research, perhaps we should just leave the WAMmies to get on with their arid defences of a waning prerogative. So we might simply ignore labels like “serious” as a nervous attempt by an impotent elite to claim that “our culture is superior to yours”.
That’s just a taster for the article—now click here!
Stuart Cosgrove, Young soul rebels: a personal history of northern soul (2016).
In all kinds of wonderful ways, this book does my head in. 
Quite rightly, devotees of northern soul will be underwhelmed if I describe it as a diachronic ethnography based on participant observation—which is just what it is, like some of the great works of ethnomusicology…
Cosgrove captures the buzz of his addiction:
Saturday passed slowly as I browsed around local market stalls. The night slowly fell and we walked through the backstreets of Stoke along cobbled terraces. The army of leather feet resonated like a drum solo, building percussion in our speeding heads and raising the adrenaline of anticipation. A swell of people hung by the door of what looked like a wartime cinema, and a blackout curtain seemed to have closed across the north of England. It was virtually impossible to make out faces or detail; everything was sound. A pounding noise escaped through the doorway and the wild screeching sound of saxophones pushed through the fire escapes, desperate for air. We paid at the ticket booth, but even in the foyer, an intense heat much like an industrial oven scorched through the thick aggressive air, and the noise was so pure, so fearless and so commanding, it dragged you inwards into a scrum of lurching bodies: hot, wet, and demonic. This was in every respect the Devil’s music, and I had travelled hundreds of miles from home to sip with the deranged serpents that slithered so gracefully on the floor. There was no going back. No music later in life would ever touch its uniqueness, no rock concert could match its energy, and no rave could come close to its latent illegality. This was northern soul: the reason they invented youth.
Themes Of all the diverse tribes of popular music, this scene is just as alien to me (and, I surmise, to Alan Bennett) as the spirit mediums of Guangxi are to a scholar trained at a Beijing conservatoire (for China, I broach the issue of insider/outsider status here, here, and here).
Ethnomusicologists like Nettl and Small highlight music as a social activity, and McClary valorizes the physical, bodily response to music as a caveat to the cerebral, disembodied, “autonomous” bias of WAM.
Basic to the northern soul experience were the all-nighters hosted by clubs throughout the north. They may evoke the “red-hot sociality” of festivals worldwide; but such club scenes also broaden our picture, in that live music is subsidiary. At the heart of northern soul was live dancing, athletic and technical—amazing dancers like car mechanic Frankie “Booper” New, at the Torch:
It was as if NASA had invented a device that could drill into the surface of the moon, and the device was a sixteen-stone guy from Widnes.
Some visiting live bands made memorable appearances, but recorded music was more common. After all, a multitude of bands, often inspired by old blues records, were being formed (not least in the north), creating all kinds of new music; but here the point was not to try and form your own soul band—the fetish for rare Motown discs was sacred. Nor did club-goers care to keep pace with the ever-changing tastes of black Americans, for whom both blues and soul were mere staging posts in a constantly evolving scene.
Thus DJing assumed a crucial role (akin to that of the conductor?), with fanatical, driven DJs like Ian Levine and Ian Dewhirst. Another basic element was the amphetamine scene. While not hesitating to depict its squalor (the Wigan toilets “resembling a war zone”), Cosgrove naturally refrains from moralistic prurience. Andy Wilson, a northern soul pioneer from Harrogate who spent much of his formative years at Wigan Casino, going on to become senior lecturer in Criminology at Trent University, “is now an expert in drug subcultures. He always was”. A model of participant observation, then.
Obscurity and obsession
Alongside the sweaty hedonism of northern soul, just as important was the craving for obscurity—not just any obscurity, like seeking out early blues, but “rare soul”—rougher, less polished than the mainstream Motown sound. Even the origin of the term “northern soul” itself, commonly attributed to Dave Godin, is somewhat arcane (pp.25–6).
Cosgrove lovingly details the nerdiness of the scene: “compiling lists and recording obscure detail is part of the everyday autism of northern soul”. OCD was rife. He even provides a suitably nerdy Glossary.
One of the cardinal rules of the northern soul scene is a respect for obscurity and those who die young. […] Northern soul cherishes its role as savior of the neglected—rescuing some acts from being almost wholly forgotten while plucking others from semi-obscurity and giving them the status of gods.
Ill-fated singers like Linda Jones and Darrell Banks were idolized. Cosgrove also pays tribute to some of the casualties within northern soul itself.
He notes, and shares, the jihad mentality, “the Hezbollah rituals that defined the scene”:
Eclectic tastes were rarely tolerated on the northern soul scene, which by the mid seventies was hardening into a zealous sect with its own strict rules. […]
One night, a DJ was brought in front of the crowd charged with playing a Bowie record; he was given a stern warning and a second chance, but there was a noisy faction on the committee who wanted him hounded through the streets in sackcloth and then burned at the stake outside H Samuel. I was among that zealous throng and I have not mellowed since.
Northern soul devotees shared a virulent aversion to the mainstream as embodied in Top of the pops; they were creating their own charts. Meanwhile in a parallel universe, Morris dancing was enjoying a revival, and my own nerdy tastes were for Boulez and Zen scriptures. The northern soul collectors remind me rather of scholars poring over the cataloguing systems of the Daoist Canon, or WAM bores who can’t help citing Köchel numbers.
At a certain remove from the quest of Oxbridge academics for neglected Renaissance church music, northern soul addicts were on a different kind of “early music” craze. Trapped in a mythical past, they were also on a constant quest for new material from that past.
Cosgrove notes the importance of rail and road networks (“You can go everywhere from Wigan train station”, as DJ Richard Searling commented), the impact of immigration, and the scene’s distinctive fashion sense. Chapter 7, elegantly titled “Soul not dole” after a Doncaster club, explores the effects of the miners’ strike, with the story of pit closures running in tandem with the high points of northern soul. There’s a cameo for Grimethorpe, whose brass band was to be immortalized in the film Brassed off. And the heyday of northern soul coincided with the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror.
Unlike punk, which was more openly anti-authoritarian, the northern soul scene has often been written about as if it “floated free” from the politics of the day, but the reverse is true. The northern soul scene was rooted in the industrial towns and cities of Britain, which across the arch of time faced unprecedented waves of deindustrialization.
Britain’s two greatest subcultures had much in common. Both were underground and frequently misunderstood. Northern soul had grown up organically across a period of ten years since the height of the first-generation Mods and was a subculture that was more authentically the product of young people themselves, often hiding from authority, dodging the drug squad and attending self-managed clubs that were only sparsely advertised. Punk was largely contrived and skillfully managed in part by [Malcolm] McLaren, driven by his genuine love of New York garage bands and an opportunistic interest in anarchism and the Situationist movement.
He cites Paul Mason: “we were using the black industrial music of the late sixties to say something about our white industrial lives in the seventies”. I think also of the intriguing Finnish affinity for tango.
Though—like Daoist recluses—the northern soul crowd prided themselves on shunning outside attention, the scene was soon discovered by media moguls like Tony Palmer, whose 1977 film This England: Wigan Casino divided opinion:
added smouldering furnaces, decaying coalfields and derelict canals—overwrought historical imagery that the citizens of Wigan had long since tired of.
But amidst ongoing debate over “purists not tourists”, the Casino soon became a casualty of economic recession.
Cosgrove’s passion for the music is always evident too:
If the beginning of the night was hectic, the end was emotionally more subdued: it was regretful, solemn, almost elegiac. By 1973, it had become established practice that all-nighters would finish with “3 before 8”: these were three soul songs to mark the end of the night, played as the clock reached 8am and the morning light sliced through the skylight windows in the decaying roofs of the Casino.
Discussing them in sequence, he gives pride of place to the second-to-last song in the set, Tobi Legend’s “Time will pass you by”:
Venues The chapters describe the heydays of the legendary clubs in turn. In the early days they came up against another kind of fundamentalist, James Anderton (“God’s copper”), with his moral crusade to clean up Manchester. The Twisted Wheel there became “the template by which all subsequent northern soul clubs were judged: the intense atmosphere, the rare soul music and the extravagant dancers”. It was succeeded by the Golden Torch Ballroom, a converted cinema in the suitably obscure venue of Tunstall, near Stoke-on-Trent:
The interior of the Torch also told a story of change, not least the collapse of traditional religion and the rise of youth culture. It was a small hall with marble pillars and a balcony overlooking the wooden dance floor. It had started out as a church, before becoming a roller-skating rink and, in the immediate post-war period, morphing into the Little Regent Cinema. Local soul fan and businessman Chris Burton changed its use again and it became a Mod club, and then eventually an all-nighter whose influence stretched across the Potteries, to Lancashire in the north and the Midlands to the south.
aped the patterns of older working-class institutions—electing committees and treasurers, and holding nights in fading workers’ clubs, miners’ welfares and industrial social clubs.
Next the baton was taken by Wigan Casino and Blackpool Mecca, with their musical policies competing. Describing the rise and fall of seaside venues, their decline complementing the rise of foreign package holidays, Cosgrove gives an evocative portrayal of Blackpool, “a wonderland of donkey rides, kiss-me-quick hats and venereal disease”.
He sings the praises of the all-nighters at the Top of the World in Stafford, a late flourishing of the scene from 1982 to 1986, and serving as a bridge between the warring factions. By now he had moved on to a media career, joining the drift to London—a city pithily described by a friend as “just like Barnsley but with more wankers”. He continued to collect rare soul:
After a few days in Washington DC I had perfected a modus operandi that has served me well over many years in America. Written down on paper, it sounds like the machinations of a serial killer, but here goes…
In Birmingham, Alabama he has an epiphany as he discovers a rare copy of the DC Blossoms’ “Hey Boy” (Shrine, 1966) in an inauspicious-looking store minded by an inscrutable assistant:
For northern soul collectors there is nothing more visceral than a “find”. A sudden surge more emotional than meeting an old friend, more powerful than an away goal, and more satisfying than sex itself. I stared in wonder at the light blue label and the iconic burning Shrine logo. I checked for vinyl cracks and deep scratches, but whatever its wandering history, the disc was virtually pristine and had survived its orphan years with no damage. The paint that had splashed over it like semen on a truck driver’s T-shirt had stained the sleeve, but the record itself was flawless. It was a moment of sheer unadulterated joy. I had an uncontrollable urge to snatch the Kool cigarette from the woman’s hands, kiss her peachy lips, rip off her velour pants and make urgent love to her over the cash register. But sense prevailed. I calmly gave her another dollar bill and waited obediently for my fifty cents change. As she handed me the loose coins, her lips curled into a chubby smile, and she gave me the most generous grin I’d seen in three days in Alabama. It had the look of post-coital ecstasy—the look of true love.
Of course, as he notes, northern soul collectors were far from alone. Such initiatives had
a hundred-year history of collectors and black-music pioneers scouring the backwoods of America, visiting brutal prisons, outdoor chain gangs and hidden rural villages, searching for blues performers and for early recordings. […] Northern soul was not the unique leader I had imagined; it was part of a long legacy of trying to collect and catalogue the very best of the African-American heritage from jazz, to blues, and on to soul.
In 2009, just as Frank Wilson’s “Do I love you” came up for auction,
the National Gallery of Scotland had secured the £50 million it needed to prevent Titian’s 16th-century masterpiece Diana and Actaeon being sold at auction. Fearing that Kenny Burrell’s copy of Frank Wilson would also leave Scotland, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek feature for the Sunday Times arguing that northern soul was as worthy of public investment as high art: “Comparing a soul record to a masterpiece by Titian will seem ludicrous to the uninitiated. But leave aside the mores, prejudices and snob value that separate high art and popular culture, and the strange world of northern soul bears very deep similarities with art. Both are driven by collectors who are fixated by rarity, authenticity and the provenance of their collections. So far, both have also resisted the pressure of recession and the value of collections has either increased or held strong. Words like rare, original and limited edition exist in both communities. Respected dealers existed in both worlds and auctions are a familiar mode of transaction. Art and soul share a culture where fakes, bootlegs and shady attempts to replicate the look of original works are not uncommon.”
Cosgrove mentions the multitude of new underground subcultures, like warehouse parties, the Carolina beach scene, the Chicano low-rider scene, and the rare groove scene in London—where the 100 Club also played a major role.
By the millennium, there was a new and lasting schism within northern soul, the latest division in a series of civil wars: those who wanted to look back to the grand days of the past and saw northern as a revivalist and reunion scene; and those clubs that kept the torch burning and insisted on new discoveries and an upfront music policy. Each new era brought with it ever more demanding clubs. […] Many thousands of people who had drifted away from northern soul returned to swell the ranks of new faces who had discovered the music via the scooter scene and still more who had lasted the journey and never left.
The final chapter, opening with the excellent quote
Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born,
describes how social and digital technology has given the scene a new lease of life—YouTube, Facebook groups (where he notes in particular “I used to Go to Stafford All-Nighters”, a veritable popular history project), Mixcloud, and so on.
For all his fundamentalism, Cosgrove admires the new generation:
Younger and brasher than the survivors on the scene, are passionately engaged in the scene and its origins, but have a healthy disregard for its arcane rules: the chin stroking, the soul police regulations and the grumpy insistence that yesterday was always better. […]
The worldwide web has been kind to northern soul. What was once a scene restricted to cardboard boxes and wooden crates in a few obscure clubs is now a global phenomenon, and the footprint that was restricted to a few hundred miles of the industrial north of England now has worldwide reach.
As to gender, while many female singers from the Motown heyday were worshipped by aficionados (as long as they weren’t too well-known), there were few female DJs, and we find little portrayal of the lives of female dancers—like the young Pat Wall from Rochdale, an early denizen of the Twisted Wheel:
While swimming, she would imagine the body turn at the end of a length as part of a dance routine and would simulate the northern soul “swallow dive”. She often practised in the kitchen of her mum’s council house, mastering the smooth sliding style across uneven linoleum, and within a matter of weeks she would compete with any of the Twisted Wheel’s young men. Her dance trucks were mesmerising and her unassuming smile, whispering the lyrics as if she were praying, as if there were no greater music in the world, made her stand out in a crowd of older and brasher men.”
Another regular on the scene was none other than Jane Torvill, who described her 1984 Boléroat the 1984 Winter Olympics as “the dance of my life”—but as Cosgrove gleefully observes, “that had already happened nearly ten years earlier on the floor of Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room.”
As the obscure civil war raged, a more benign figure on the scene was Mary Chapman, who hosted events at Cleethorpes Pier—also including a 1976 appearance of the Sex Pistols as the moral panic over punk exploded. And the much-loved Fran Franklin (1961–2014) gives perceptive insights in documentary footage. More recently, female DJs have become important on the scene.
On film As usual, however evocatively one writes about music (or ritual), it’s still a compromise: silent immobile text can never approach the sensation of the lived experience (cf. China). Among myriad finds on YouTube, following Tony Palmer’s 1977 This England, try
Paul Mason’s tribute Northern soul: keeping the faith (BBC, 2013):
Northern Soul: living for the weekend (BBC, 2014; some breaks in sound):
I’m rather envious that they coined the term northern soul 北靈 before I could use it for the ritual groups of Hebei and Shanxi, but ethnographies like this can inspire us (obscurely, as ever) in documenting pilgrimage networks and temple fairs in China. Echoing northern soul aficionados’ aversion to the mainstream, I essayed an arcane Strictly spinoff here.
And as I write, I also delight in the wondrous Bach orchestral suites in a live broadcast from the Proms, alternating with new compositions inspired by them. Though from an utterly different social milieu, devotees of Bach—whether amateur concert-goers or nerdy professors poring over manuscripts and watermarks—have more in common with the early music movement of the northern soul scene than one might think. Up to a point…
 Apart from numerous websites, other books on northern soul include
David Nowell, The story of northern soul: a definitive history of the dance scene that refuses to die (1999)
Elaine Constantine and Gareth Sweeney, Northern soul: an illustrated history (2013, complementing the former’s feature film).
All over Europe, not just World War Two but the years immediately following it were deeply traumatic, as evoked tellingly in
Keith Lowe, Savage continent (2012).
I cited his bleak opening passage in the biography of my colleague Hildi. Thoughout Europe it took many years to remould the physical and ethical landscapes. Amidst displacement, famine, vengeance, ethnic cleansing, civil wars, and the consolidation of Communist regimes, people continued to face moral dilemmas as they struggled even to survive (cf. Why the First World War failed to end). Britain, never occupied, plays a rather minor role. Allied observers who had experienced the Blitz were still unprepared for the scale of the destruction of the landscape that they found in Germany. And the devastation was worse the further east one travelled.
Housing displaced persons in Heilbrunn.
* * *
The battle against the cold this long winter, the continual Government crises and blunders, the cold, wet, delayed spring and everlasting austerity have exhausted us all to the bone.
Maggie Joy Blunt, 2nd April 1947
Simon Garfield, Our hidden lives: the remarkable diaries of post-war Britain (2005)
intersperses the daily diaries of five ordinary people writing at the behest of the Mass-Observation Project, evoking the period from the end of the war to 1948. Of course, both diaries and biography can be instructive windows on social history. How I wish we had such detail for the lives of Yanggao peasants at the time—themselves still mostly illiterate, of course.
In their daily lives, often mundane, food shortages and rationing loom large. The diarists show concern for the wider world (the Nuremberg trials, Palestine, the assassination of Gandhi), along with some disturbing anti-semitism. The victors find the continuing deprivation and drabness hard to take, bemoaning the diversion of much-needed funds to help rebuild Germany. Hopes for greater social justice are tinged with concerns about lawlessness.
For ordinary Russians too, despite all their appalling losses, the war had brought similar hopes, and their disillusion was even greater.
On the cultural front, Maggie Joy Blunt receives a letter from a British soldier serving in Austria:
Then we are whisked off to a luxurious flat which is a Russian officers’ mess, where sober, stiff, disciplined soldiers serve us with caviar and vodka. There are about twenty officers and a number of Austrian girls all well dressed and crowding round an elderly officer who is playing Chopin on a grand piano. A senior officer with a ravishing blonde enters, and she says to me in lilting French, “I am a displaced person”, and gives me her hand to kiss. Suddenly they all begin to sing magnificently in harmony, a wild rousing song that on inquiry I find has the delightful, incredible title of “Yo Ho For The Day, the 10,000th Tractor Cut The First Furrow at Ekaterinoslav”.
The Colonel announces that he will sing an English song, and with a voice to challenge Paul Robeson sings with fervour “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me A Bow-Wow”. He then turns to me and asks what the words mean, for he learned them by heart without knowing the meaning. I hadn’t the heart to tell him the truth so I said it was called “The World Shall Be One People”.
Several diarists sing the praises of the new Third Programme. And B. Charles gives an intriguing take on Vera Lynn:
It seems this woman admits that she has never had a singing lesson in her life, never practises, can’t play the piano, yet manages to earn, so we are told, £1,000 a broadcast in Australia if she goes there. […] I have never heard Vera Lynn, and I certainly do not want to. But the idea of making £1,000 a broadcast for making a noise over the air seems fantastic. Money, really, has ceased to have any value.
They are most impressed by the 1945 film Brief encounter, reminding us how bold and truthful it must have seemed at the time.
Edie Rutherford’s comments on an item in The Brains Trust now look quaint:
The question asked was whether the phone had destroyed the art of letter writing. From the answers you’d have thought every home in the UK has a phone. No doubt all those round the table had phones and have had for years, but that obtains in so few homes that I could not help realizing how The Brains Trust is NOT representative of the people. No one thought to point out that phones are the luxury of the few. We, for instance, have never been able to afford one.
For the first landline in Li Manshan’s village, and Alexander Graham Bell’s prophesy, see here.
Reservations about royalty are nothing new. Edie reports some overheard comments:
Housewife: “I wish all I had to do was dress up and smile.”
Typist, aged thirty-five: “All that nonsense about not enough coupons and how they make over their clothes, as if anyone believes it!” […]
Housewife: “I thought we were supposed to be hard up. They are all the time telling us we are and yet we throw away thousands at a time like this for four people to swank at our expense.”
She also notes:
Chinese laundry near here has a new notice up, “A few customers taken in”.
Even by the early 1950s, as Andrew Marr (A history of modern Britain, 2007) notes,
People still look different. Few schoolboys are without a cap and shorts. Caught breaking windows or lying, they might be solemnly caned by their fathers. Youg girls have home-made smocks and, it is earnestly hoped, have never heard of sexual intercourse. Every woman seems to be a housewife; corsets and hats are worn, and trousers, hardly ever. Among men, a silky moustache is regarded as extremely exciting to women, collars are bought separately from shirts and the smell of pipe tobacco lingers on flannel.
Above all Britain is still a military nation…
Most of the challenges that British people faced may seem minor in comparison to the terrible tribulations of their fellows on the continent; but it’s a reminder of the changing world of our own parents.
In my post The shock of the new, on the most iconoclastic work of the 20th century, in addition to the Joffrey and Bausch ballets and a version for organ solo I’ve now added the Bad Plus jazz arrangement and an indirectly inspired track by Russian folk-metal band Arkona.
By the rise of vaudeville, the stuttering song was established enough that it was considered its own small genre, a specialty for comic singers—Sammy Stammers, from 1894, is a typical example. These stuttering songs fit naturally into a coarse period whose popular music mocked the Irish, Jews, Asians, and blacks.
And in all these cases, modern audiences can only await their cue from the victims to benefit from, even enjoy, such creations.
In the heady days before PC (“gone mad”), there was a b-b–bumper crop in the early days of the recording industry, showing at least that stammering was a significant element in public consciousness. It’s good to contextualize it in the context of other disabilities:
Joseph Strauss and Neil Lerner (eds.), Sounding off: theorizing disability in music (2006),
among many interesting chapters (not least on Glenn Gould!), includes
Daniel Goldmark, “Stuttering in American popular song, 1890-1930”,
showing how stutterers there were portrayed in music between 1890 and 1930. Here’s a medley of short clips:
Intriguingly, several of the most popular songs focus on female sufferers, always in a minority—like K-K-K-Katy (Billie Murray, 1917), which, on a roll, he followed up with the “incredibly insulting” You tell her I S-T-U-T-T-E-R.
Oh Helen (1918) contains the ingenious lyric
Oh H-H-Hel, Oh H-H-Hel, Oh Helen please be mine
You s-s-simp, You s-s-simp, You simply are divine
You m-m-mud, You m-m-mud, You muddle me it’s true
Oh D-D-Dam, Oh D-D-Dam, Oh Damsel I love you
Still, there’s a disturbing undercurrent of romance. As the Locust St. post oberves,
The poor stuttering protagonist falls in love but his impediment makes it hard for him to express his feelings. There are typically two outcomes. There is the (relatively) optimistic: in “Stuttering Dick,” as in “The Stuttering lovers,” an Irish folk song, the stuttering guy finds a stuttering girl, and the two live in bliss. Then there is the more popular and more tragic scenario, when the stuttering character falls in love, can’t communicate his feelings, and winds up scorned and ridiculed.
Charles L. Todd records among Mexican migrants, California 1941.
Turning to ethnographic fieldwork, here’s the full version of the unusually endearing song that opens the YouTube medley above. Sung by Lloyd Stalcup, a 14-year old Texan migrant worker, it was recorded in 1940 at Shafter FSA (Farm Security Administration) Camp in California as part of the fine Voices from the Dust Bowl project by Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin of the Library of Congress (with evocative fieldnotes here):
But as non-PC goes, the pick of the b-b-bunch—as politicians are discovering, if you’re gonna be offensive, why not go all the way?—has to be Possum pie (or The stuttering coon, 1904), with lyrics by Joseph C. Farrell, music by Hughie Cannon:
Of course, few of these songs attempt to break out of the rhythmic mould to reflect more accurately the irregularity of stammering. Ironically, the impediment disappears when singing, and in rhythmic speech, but neither offers more than temporary relief. I wonder if there are any east-European songs in the parlando-rubato form beloved of Hungarian scholars, or even Bulgarian aksak “limping” treatments…
Delving further back, for us early music fans Andrew Oster has a chapter in Sounding off about Demo, a stammering dwarf (YAY!) in Cavalli’s 1649 opera Giasone. Here the fast repetitious ornament trillo or gruppo, a kind of throat tremolo (defined by Caccini, used expressively by Monteverdi—and recently by Abrahamsen in the mesmerizing let me tell you (see Soundscapes of Nordic noir), is put to comic use:
It reminds one of the drunken stammering poet in Purcell’s The fairy queen (1692—also featuring a Chinese man and woman, BTW):
Now all we need for a full house is a drunken stammering black Jewish Chinese gay dwarf, FFS.
The links above take the story on to pop since the 1950s; but for blues fans, I’ll play out with John Lee Hooker—one of the more realistic impersonations of the sound. You can decide if it’s “a revelation—the singer isn’t a poor victim but a player, wooing a girl through his stammer” or if it’s just “good old-fashioned sexual harrassment”:
* * *
This may just be a coincidence of the birth of the recording industry, but it looks rather as if stammering songs reached peak popularity in the wake of World War One. So recalling that many Chinese stammerers are also documented in historic periods of warfare, we may wonder if there’s some correlation between social trauma and disfluency in speech. Speech therapy is clearly among the needs of current refugees, for instance. Still, if conflict were a simple stimulus, our forebears would all have been at it. And I’ve no idea how one might make a more comprehensive global diachronic survey—taking account of class, economic conditions, gender, and so on.
Struggling to encompass all this? I know I am. While we inevitably specialize in particular topics, it’s important to build bridges. I guess it’s that time of year when another guide to my diverse posts may come in handy—this is worth reading in conjunction with the homepage and my roundup this time last year.
I’ve added more entries to many of the sidebar categories and tags mentioned in that summary. I’ve now subheaded many of the categories; it’d be useful for the tags too, but it seems I can’t do that on my current WP plan. Of course, many of these headings overlap—fruitfully.
To accompany the visit of the Zhihua temple group to the British Museum in April, I also did a roundup of sources on the temple in the wider context of ritual in Beijing and further afield, including several posts on this site.
I’ve posted some more introductions to Local ritual, including
I’ve given basic subheads to the language category (note this post on censorship), which also contains much drôlerie in both English and Chinese. Issues with speech and fluency (see stammering tag) continue to concern me, such as
This is just an alert to a substantial update on my post Moon river, featuring—in addition to Audrey Hepburn, Amy Winehouse, and Stacey Dooley, the gorgeous major-7th leap, as well as the dodgy language of “femme fatale” and “elfin waif”—thoughts on Truman Capote’s novella, stammering, and fado…
Pace Andy Williams, the classic sung version is that of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961):
Johnny Mercer’s lyrics, “a love song to wanderlust” (cf. Roaming the clouds), are complemented by Henry Mancini’s melody. I just love the leap of a major 7th:
I’m crossing you in style some day / There’s such a lot of world to see,
always effective—as in the finale of Mahler 9 (introduced by quintuplets!) and, um, Raindrops keep falling on your head! Indeed, there’s another brilliant touch: following “We’re after the same rainbow’s end“, when that sequence returns with
Waiting round the bend, My huckleberry friend,
for the first phrase the melody omits the low tonic, making us nostalgic for the missing major-7th leap (waiting, indeed), until it returns for the second phrase.
So Moon river (nearly cut from the film, PAH!) makes a perfect expression of Holly’s persona—and indeed that of Stacey Dooley, with her documentaries from around the world.
The dominant interpretation currently seems to be that Hepburn’s screen characters make her some kind of feminist role model. But “it’s complicated”—certainly in this film, which largely replaces the edgy feel of Truman Capote’s novella (1958, set in 1943) with a “sugar and spice confection”; indeed, Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe for the part! I tend to side with more critical reviews, such as this, this, and this. After I cited some dodgy sexist terms to describe talented female performers, gamine and ingénue are among those for which there are both male and female equivalents, but the latter are far more commonly used, and flawed. Oh, and how ahout “elfin waif”…
For Hepburn’s actual life, Darcey Bussell (another fragrant icon) made a fine documentary Looking for Audrey(2014), including her childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland.
* * *
Capote describes Holly as an American geisha—rural child bride Lulamae, reinventing herself in New York. Film adaptations can be effective, but in this case the novella portrays her with more nuance and depth. So—not least because I’m so averse to Hepburn’s “elfin waif” shtick—I find Capote’s silent invisible original far more moving, and Holly herself far more poignant and (as she would say) sympathique.
Inevitably, at the end of the film the narrator and Holly fall in love and stay together, whereas in the novella their relationship remains platonic, and Holly disappears.
Lending significance to Moon river, the name-slot for Holly’s mail-box reads:
Miss Holiday Golightly, travelling
She reflects on how she demurred from a break in the movies offered by a Hollywood agent:
But he’s got a point, I should feel guilty. Not because they would have given me the part or because I would have been good: they wouldn’t and I wouldn’t. If I do feel guilty, I guess it’s because I let him go on dreaming when I wasn’t dreaming a bit. I was just vamping for time to make a few self-improvements: I knew damn well I’d never be a movie star. It’s too hard; and if you’re intelligent, it’s too embarrassing. My complexes aren’t inferior enough: being a movie star and having a big fat ego are supposed to go hand-in-hand; actually, it’s essential not to have any ego at all. I don’t mean I mind being rich and famous. That’s very much on my schedule, and some day I’ll try to get around to it; but if it happens, I’d like to have my ego tagging along. I want to still be me when I wake up one fine morning and have breakfast at Tiffany’s.
And Holly does indeed sing and play guitar:
Don’t wanna sleep, don’t wanna die, just wanna go a’travellin’ through the pastures of the sky
With a Brazilian suitor in tow, she takes to Linguaphone:
Oh screw it, cookie—hand me my guitar and I’ll sing you a fado in the most perfect Portuguese.
In the novella, I note with proprietoral pride that Holly’s fellow-geisha Mag Wildwood (intriguingly, Capote gave her the full name of Miss Margaret Thatcher Fitzhue Wildwood)—as if being a redhead over six feet tall isn’t enough—is a stammerer (Marilyn Monroe might have resented the competition):
Even the stutter, certainly genuine but still a bit laid on, had been turned to advantage. It was the master stroke, that stutter: for it contrived to make her banalities sound somehow original, and secondly, despite her tallness, her assurance, it served to inspire in male listeners a protective feeling.
* * *
Amy Winehouse (see my tribute here) may seem an unlikely exponent of Moon river, but she was grounded in ballads, as we can hear in her “late” sessions with Tony Bennett. Here she is, subverting the waltz, making the song sugar-free—maybe it doesn’t quite work, but even at the age of 16 she was always exploring, discovering new personal connections:
Click here for a discussion of the song in the BBC Radio 4 Soul music series.
From my playlist of songs, it’s clear that, with some noble exceptions, I find female voices more moving than male ones—and I’m right!!! And don’t forget to keep voting for Stacey on Strictly…
However did they film the captivating restaurant scene near the opening? I’m mortified that I can’t find it on YouTube—but it’s OK, you can just watch the film! As Jean-Luis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée, both widowed, explore their bond through their respective kids, the camera delights in their blossoming relationship, lingering adoringly on her complex, enchanted, enchanting expressions. This is one of several scenes that suggests the improvisation that Lelouch encouraged.
The recent BBC Radio 3 Late Junction programme on the Beijing indie scene (still available here for 20 more days) prompted me to educate myself a bit by exploring further—with my customary disclaimer. Whatever our tastes, our modern ears are imbued with modern sounds (for a somewhat less contemporary take, see here).
As in any society, the Chinese soundscape is diverse. What individuals mean by “music” may often seem comically circumscribed (see also here). Just as “European music” means more than either Beethoven or British pop, so “Chinese music” should encompass all kinds of genres. For some, it may mean the qin zither (which, as I am wont to observe, is like focusing on the clavichord); for others, the schmaltzy solos of the conservatoires or the kitsch song-and-dance ensembles; for folkies like me, the gritty rural shawm bands (cf. here) and the songs of spirit mediums. Of course, the Chinese soundscape is all of the above, and more. Zooming out still further, there’s the whole issue of elite and folk cultures worldwide.
* * *
While Cui Jian still remains iconic, it’s a relief to be reminded that the scene moves on. Like I’d know—it’s largely invisible (inaudible) to me. My first arrival in Beijing in 1986 more or less coincided with the rise of Chinese rock (though I don’t believe I can claim credit). It makes me feel my age—I can tell you much more about temple ritual groups there, now and before 1949.
But the indie scene too is a worthy topic of ethnography, all part of the diverse soundscape. And of course it’s always fluid. The current scene in Beijing, with its diverse techno and clubbing subcultures, has been compared to New York or Berlin—no wonder that artists like Miranda Vukasovic are drawn here.
There’s a wealth of journalistic coverage, which is as it should be (recently, see e.g. here, and here). But it’s long been a popular academic subject too; for a definitive study, what we need is
Jeroen de Kloet, China with a cut: globalisation, urban youth and popular music (2010).
Besides hanging out with performers, he learns from producers and other industry people, fans, and pundits. The book is an exemplary ethnography, and makes a fine prism to view change in modern China altogether.
As is common worldwide, most of these bands disavow simple political agendas—and not merely out of prudence. And by contrast with the early period after the 1980s’ reforms, people no longer seem so hung up on issues like “But is it Chinese?”. De Kloet delves deeper into such issues; particularly in his Conclusion, he unpacks deeper political meanings.
Anyway, the scene is an important corrective to the Western media image of a brainwashed population cowed by Xi Jinping Thought. It’s worth listening to these bands as you read the latest propaganda from the People’s Daily (as you don’t…). De Kloet also offers a nuanced view on the commercial pop scene:
If we dig deeper, both sonic as well as political realities are more complex and contradictory than we may at first realize, and hence refuse to be essentialized into monolithic meaning like “rebellious” and “totalitarian”, or to be contained in fixed dichotomies like official versus unofficial or resistance versus compliance. Neither state nor artists can be pigeonholed that easily.
Bands Sure, in this field my grasp of taxonomy is impressionistic (rock, underground, punk, noise, metal, hooligan, dakou, depression, grunge, and so on; for hip-hop, see e.g. here). But popular musos are simultaneously capable of wonderfully fine distinctions and not at all hung up on them, as we can see in the Rito y geografia del cante flamenco series. Anyway, I may be doing a bit of genre-bending with this selection.
Punk, including girl bands, makes the most lively sub-tribe (cf. here, including Riot grrrl’s take on China)—as ever, De Kloet’s Chapter 3 “Subaltern sounds” is well worth reading. Many online sites give updates, with bands like Criminal Thought, Gum Bleed, and Torturing Nurse—try this, and listing sites like thebeijinger.com and timeoutbeijing.com (e.g. this 2014 survey); see also this interview with entrepreneur Michael Pettis. For punk in the GDR, see here, and in Madrid, here.
CarsickCars—whereas the fieldworker’s choice of Zhongnanhai cigarettes, named after the luxury compound of the Party leadership, has lost its ironic bite, this is more incisive:
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai… I can’t live without Zhongnanhai. Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai… Who the fuck smoked my Zhongnanhai?
De Kloet is also good on “hyphenated scenes”, like pop-rock, pop-punk, folk-rock, and so on. His book also led me to this hard-hitting 2007 song from blind musicianZhou Yunpeng (cf. Mo Yan’s Garlic ballads, cited here under “Old and new stories”):
And here’s a 2010 documentary from Shaun Jefford (and as ever, note the BTL comments):
For what it’s worth, while I remain deeply committed to the ethnography of rural society, I find all this an invigorating contrast with the fusty, rosy official praise of “traditional culture” and the absurd heritage flapdoodle. It’s gratifying to think that playlists like these must be on the phones of students who attended my recent film screenings in Beijing.
Meanwhile in the poor countryside, perhaps terminally demoralized, much of this is alien to funeral singers in Yanggao; but there too the scene has been changing. And students returning from city colleges to attend the rural funerals of their grandparents may be listening to the grittier urban sounds.
It goes without saying that David Lynch is a genius.
In 1990 and 1991, in between orchestral tours and fieldwork trips to Hebei, and just as I met the great Li Qing for the first time, I spent much of my time back home in London glued to Twin peaks on TV.
As always, it’s both disturbing and enchanting, with a diverse cast of stunningly beautiful female and male characters, and
an uneasy strain of nostalgia that blends sentimentality with menace; hideous secrets chafing against the illusion of innocence […] postwar trauma buried beneath an aggressive normality.
Just a couple of clips to epitomize Lynch’s mastery. After the cliffhanger of the series 1 finale, just as we’re all desperate to know what happened to Agent Dale Cooper, the seemingly interminable room-service scene at the very opening of series 2 suspends the whole drama unbearably:
This episode [sic] on Brevity, with a playlist of miniature gems encompassing Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Satie, Webern, Boulez, Zorn, Napalm Death, Bartók, Kurtag, and Ligeti, is full of fine observation—under the headings of absurdity, immediacy, density, violence, and eternity.
Irrespective of genre, such pieces are microcosms, crafted with a range of expression and intensity—akin to haiku (see under Some posts on Japanese culture) or netsuke.
Also among the fleeting exhibits is the great Carl Stalling, composer of classic soundtracks for Warner Brothers cartoons (these playlists should work if you click on YouTube at the bottom right of the window):
Stuart Cosgrove, Detroit 67: the year that changed soul (2015)—
not just to educate myself about the music, but to admire compelling writing about history, and the nexus of society and culture.
For background (if you’re on another planet, like me—I guess if you know much about soul, you’ll have better things to do than reading this blog…) it’s worth revisiting the fine BBC documentary R.E.S.P.E.C.T (from the Dancing in the street series), here in four parts—they should segue automatically:
The film also covers the southern scene, no less important—and more edgy. I now look forward to reading Cosgrove’s Memphis 68: the tragedy of southern soul.
* * *
In 1967—just as the Cultural Revolution in China was becoming even more violent, and ritual specialists were keeping their heads down; shortly before the crushing of the Prague Spring; while I was primly learning Brahms and Ravel in a youth orchestra in suburban London, with little idea that there might be any other kinds of musicking in the world—Detroit and Motown were entering a pivotal phase of turmoil.
Cosgrove’s focus on one year is a most effective device. At a time-remove from the “one-year” rule of anthropological fieldwork, he takes 1967 as a microcosm of festering race relations, social upheaval, and musicking.
Incredulous as we are at the current travails of the USA, it’s also a reminder that they have a long history.
This was the year of Sgt Pepper (for all popular [Anglo–American, that is!] genres that year, see here). Indeed, the soul movement had had to react to the market challenge from British groups like the Beatles, and to maintain crossover appeal; but Sgt Pepper itself was a retreat from the innocent lyrical messages they had been crooning on their frantic touring life.
A fine piece of thick-description ethnography from a distance of time and space, the book is based on the troubled relations of Berry Gordy and his protégées the Supremes, with a focus on the ill-fated Florence Ballard. But Cosgrove adroitly weaves in portraits of individual figures with their back-stories; the automobile industry, social change, race, housing, poverty, crime, and the police; civil rights, Vietnam, hippy counterculture, bikers, and LSD.
There was the hippie Steering Committee, the young rock gods of the Grande Ballroom, the disgruntled officers of the Detroit police, and a legion of car-assembly workers drawn from the tense communities of Polish and African-Americans. There were disenchanted young men who moved from unemployment to Vietnam, the radical soldiers of Black Power, the independent producers who saw soul music as their Klondike, and the caravan of older gospel Christians who had seen their homes destroyed to make way for freeways.
Youth culture was fragmenting into a mosaic of different tribes.
Half a million people had migrated to Detroit between 1940 and 1943, mostly African-Americans from the southern states. Already by 1959 its image as a boomtown was wearing thin, but migrants kept arriving.
As anti-Vietnam protests grew, in 1965 came a wave of self-immolations. By 1967
the area around Twelfth Street had witnessed complete transformation in twenty years as white residents fled to new buildings, better neighbourhoods or the encroaching suburbs. In a contemporary survey by the University of Michigan’s Psychology Department, the area was described as a community of high stress where an overwhelming majority of the residents were disenchanted with their living conditions. […] It was a blighted area about to take centre stage.
Still, the social milieu for Motown was aspirational. In March, Berry Gordy’s mother hosted a coffee evening in her role as past Exalted Ruler of the Lady Camille Temple of the Michigan Elks:
Floral handbags, matching frocks and elegant hats turned the room into a chorus of colour. […] This was a room of elegant elderly women who valued status, took pride in their families, and cared deeply about emancipation.
In June the Supremes, “in a bubble of fame, increasingly out of touch with the new militancy in the black community and the rising fury of their hometown”, made an ill-judged appearance in LA for a beleaguered President Johnson.
The July riots, including the appalling Algiers Motel incident (on which see John Hersey’s book), were a flashpoint—and again there’s plenty of youtube footage. As with the violence in towns throughout China at that very time, the turmoil had deep social roots.
As Motown abandoned Detroit for LA, African-American music kept moving.
Detroit’s wooden-porch image as the home of soul music had been damaged to the core, and the family image that had been so crucial to the Motown story was brutally displaced by darker visions of a charred city under martial law. […] The nightclubs, the bars and the independent studios that had been the foundations of Detroit’s soul scene had been burned to the ground, ransacked, or destroyed. […] The generation that had shaped one of the greatest periods in the history of popular music had seen its city devastated. For the Supremes and others within Motown, the riots were to become a metaphor for ruined harmonies and wrecked friendships. In a broader sense, the disturbances were also a requiem for Detroit’s great industrial achievements and its declining manufacturing base.
Meanwhile John Sinclair and MC5 feature regularly, and there are cameos from Muhammed Ali and Martin Luther King. The latter observed:
Perhaps the most tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population… So we have repeatedly been faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
It was his assassination in 1968 that would mark a definitive turning point for both society and music.
Singers, songs, music The Motown sound emerged from the background of the incredibly rich talents brought up in gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, and so on. Cosgrove explores the nuances of changing style, documenting the host of composer-arrangers, choreographers, backing groups, instrumentalists, recording execs, and lawyers.
And decorum coaches—the Motown Finishing School (great scenes in #2 of the R.E.S.P.E.C.T. film)! Some of the singers took readily to Miss Maxine Powell’s training, while one of the Temptations complained “I don’t want to learn how to be white”.
To some, Motown resembled a hit machine, an assembly-line like the city’s car plants, producing polished feel-good tracks—a saccharine soundtrack to a convulsive era. It was “predicated on a compromise”. Gordy had
softened the rough edges of R&B, draped the music in the familiar cadences of teenage love, and his girl groups […] pioneered a highly addictive from of “bubblegum soul” that lent itself perfectly to the still-segregated radio stations of America.
It was in every respect an art of repetition: familiar backing tracks were refashioned, everyday phrases repackaged and the anxieties of young love were played out as memorable drama.
In fact even I heard The Supremes on Top of the Pops in the mid-60s, though they felt alien to me. Of course, they were—but countless other British kids were hooked.
Cosgrove also weaves in the stories of
Martha and the Vandellas, Dancing in the street—“an otherwise innocent piece of teenage pop [that] became inextricably linked to social unrest”:
Marvin Gaye—Ain’t no mountain high enough, with Tammi Terrell:
And the roots of What’s going on were firmly in 1967: “masterpiece of the inner city, echoing the events of the Algiers Motel killings, the ‘trigger-happy policemen’, the lives of returning Vietnam vets, the emotionally devastated mothers who had placed their faith in the benevolence of God, and the scattered fragments of a war-torn city”:
Aretha Franklin(R.I.P.) came from Detroit, but wasn’t part of the Motown stable, getting snapped up by other labels. And she was also more readily recruited to the civil rights movement. Respect, her version of an Otis Redding song:
I say a little prayer was originally written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for Dionne Warwick, but Aretha, along with the Sweet Inspirations, transforms it. Not so homely as the dreamy opening suggests (it’s about the singer’s anxieties for her man serving in Vietnam), it’s both ecstatic and defiant, with a real gospel call-and-response feel:
This live version from 1970 is just amazing too:
(Talking of how naturally performers learn the complex rhythms of flamenco clapping, I guess no-one even had to think about the triple-time bar inserted into the chorus here (you’ll stay in my heart / we never will part—see also here; and for additive metres, here)… Actually, why did Bacharach write it thus? It’d work perfectly well to maintain the duple beat throughout—but in Aretha’s version it creates greater urgency and a feeling of spontaneity. I am in awe of everything about this song.)
Her 1972 church performance of Amazing Grace is legendary. Just the audio, with its lengthy alap, is spine-tingling:
I can’t wait to see the complete footage—here’s a trailer:
Otis Redding (one of many sadly short-lived artists in the story) also features in the book, though his story belongs with that of southern soul. And James Brown was leading the way forward with that common blend of musical brilliance and unsavoury personal relations.
Behind the glossy stars and glamorous hype lie gruelling touring schedules (indeed, The Supremes were rarely in Detroit), drug habits, internal disputes, and personal breakdowns—like a New York orchestra, a Chinese shawm band, or indeed any group.
Tedious legal wrangles invariably take up considerable space in such books on the popular music business. Motown seemed like a cosy family, yet
the close-knit relationships forged in postwar Detroit were destined to be dismantled as success and dysfunction tore the surrogate family apart.
In many world genres, links between culture and politics may be opaque. The book’s social context is compelling, but the commercial pressures that drove the music seem estranged from social change. In the end the music inevitably, suitably, takes a back seat, though the songs remain intoxicating.
I had remarkably little idea of any of this, either then or later. Better late than never, eh. Detroit 67 is just the kind of in-depth study of social and musical tensions to which ethnographers aspire in documenting any genre—whether “art”, “folk”, or “popular”.
Left: I found this postcard in Ireland in the mid-1990s; though still drôle, it no longer seems quite so fantastical.
Right: Susan McClary—less futuristically.
Since the party for Madonna’s 60th birthday [I know…] has already begun (see e.g. here), it may seem a tad cerebral to celebrate by revisiting the work of the great Susan McClary (notably her classic 1991 book Feminine endings: music, gender, and sexuality). But given that academics are mostly lumbered with writing, she does at least rejoice in the physical.
Of course, many female performers have continued exploring the trail that Madonna blazed, and she no longer has such power to shock. Similarly, while many critics (not least feminist authors) have disputed and refined McClary’s work, the thrust [sic: her own writings are full of such ludic language, matching her theme] of her argument has practically become mainstream—but her thoughts remain most perceptive.
So far I’ve mainly written about Susan McClary in the context of her provocative analysis of the extraordinary harpsichord solo of Bach’s 5th Brandenburg concerto. Her insights also get a mention in my post on Ute Lemper.
It would be quite wrong to reduce her oeuvre to soundbites—but hey, here goes! With her early research based in baroque music, she notes the historical contingency, mutability, of musical signifiers. Inspired by Greenblatt on Shakespeare (“once science discovered that female arousal served no reproductive purpose, cultural forms silenced not only the necessity but even the possibility of sexual desire in the ‘normal’ female”), she revels in the (pre-watershed) erotic friction of the 17th-century trio texture from Monteverdi through Corelli:
in which two equal voices rub up against each other, pressing into dissonances that achingly resolve only into yet other knots, reaching satiety only at conclusions. This interactive texture (and its attendant metaphors) is largely displaced in music after the 17th century by individualistic, narrative monologues.
The narrative structure of 19th-century instrumental music becomes for her
“a prolonged sexual encounter of intense foreplay that results inevitably in a cataclysmic metaphorical ejaculation. Beethoven becomes the supreme perpetrator of sexual violence in music, whose recapitulation of the first movement of the 9th symphony “unleashes one of the most horrifyingly violent episodes in the history of music”.
McClary was a pioneer in broadening our concepts of cross-genre “music” studies, encompassing both WAM from a wide period and notably pop music—all with a focus on gender. Feminine endings also covers Monteverdi, Tchaikovsky, Bizet, and Laurie Anderson—and such breadth is just what makes her so great. She’s a real genre-bender. As she writes in Conventional wisdom: the content of musical form (2000),
If I tend to reread the European past in my own Postmodern image, if I frequently write about Bach and Beethoven in the same ways in which I discuss the Artist Formerly Known as Prince and John Zorn, it is not to denigrate the canon but rather to show the power of music all throughout its history as a signifying practice. For this is how culture always works—always grounded in codes and social contracts, always open to fusions, extensions, transformations. To me, music never seems so trivial as in its “purely musical” readings. If there was at one time a rationale for adopting such an intellectual position, that time has long since past. And if the belief in the 19th-century notion of aesthetic autonomy continues to be an issue when we study cultural history, it can no longer be privileged as somehow true.
Madonna In the final chapter of Feminine endings,
“Living to tell: Madonna’s resurrection of the fleshly”,
McClary notes the conflicting strands of interpretation between viewing Madonna as mere commodified sexuality or as a feminist in control. And even while she rails against the denial of the body, what most reactions share (as she comments) is an automatic dismissal of Madonna’s music as irrelevant. Visual appearance and image seems primary, yet the music in music videos is also powerful. Hilary Mantel’s 1992 review doesn’t even bother with any of these features (and an apt riposte there draws attention to McClary’s work); perhaps Madonna might herself respond by reviewing Mantel’s significance without referring to her literary output?
As McClary comments, Madonna’s pieces
explore—sometimes playfully, sometimes seriously—various ways of constituting identities that refuse stability, that remain fluid, that resist definition.
Citing the historical demeaning by sexualization of composer–performers Barbara Strozzi (as featured on the wonderful T-shirt) and Clara Schumann, and continuing to unpack the sexual politics of opera, she observes:
One of Madonna’s principal accomplishments is that she brings this hypocrisy to the surface and problematizes it. […]
The fear of female sexuality and anxiety over the body are inscribed in the Western music tradition. […]
Like Carmen or Lulu, she invokes the body and female sexuality; but unlike them, she refuses to be framed by a structure that will push her back into submission or annihilation.
McClary reiterates the historical trivializing of dance by (male) critics. Madonna’s
engagement with traditional signs of childish vulnerability projects her knowledge that this is what the patriarchy expects of her and also her awareness that this fantasy is ludicrous.
No matter what genre she discusses, McClary’s work is always detailed in musical analysis. She repeats her thesis of tonal structures, with the exploration and subduing of “Other” keys—the “desire–dread–purge sequence”, returning to her much-cited portrayal of the violence of Beethoven.
In her analysis of Live to tell McClary shows in detail how such assumptions are subverted:
and she validates the contradictions of Open your heart:
She takes Like a prayer seriously, its ancient virgin–whore cliché mingling with an exploration of religion and race, sexuality and spirituality—
about the possibility of creating musical and visual narratives that celebrate multiple rather than unitary identities, that are concerned with ecstatic continuation rather than with purging and containment.
Her footnotes (endnotes, actually) are always wonderful too. McClary’s, not Madonna’s.
* * *
Whether or not you concur with all of McClary’s conclusions (apart from a host of critiques, do read her thoughtful introduction “Feminine endings in retrospect” to the more recent edition), it’s a throughly stimulating way of reflecting on culture. (For another lead suggested by the book, see here.)
All my own gadding about from century to century, culture to culture, is partly inspired by her work. But that’s not her fault. As ethnomusicology shows, if elites invariably try to prescribe and control the prestige of genres across the world, in studying them a level playing field is essential (for a cross-class analysis of Chinese music, see here).
Among numerous YouTube clips, albeit less physically engaging than those of Madonna, here’s a sample of McClary’s wisdom:
I used to delight in Bach without stopping to think about Leipzig society of his time; flamenco, without noticing gender and social issues; and it took me some time to unpack gendered aspects of Chinese ritual. Such a mindset is basic to ethnomusicology, to which McClary’s work is a major stimulus.
In the 1990s, for what it’s worth (and not for what it’s not worth), on returning from village funerals in Hebei to regroup at Matt’s place in Beijing, I would regularly bask in Holiday:
In their different spheres, Madonna and Susan McClary are both iconic and iconoclasts!
On my returns to Beijing from the countryside, much as I miss Li Manshan, I oscillate between encounters with inspiring Chinese scholars and glimpses of the expat life. Following my fleeting introduction to Miranda there, she deserves a separate homage.
You can explore her varied talents online—as singer-songwriter, poet, and designer (notably jewellery).
Photos: Wu Hujun.
* * *
Like a Daoist priest, Miranda roams the clouds 云游, a free spirit, finding evanescent soulmates. In her exuberance she’s more Italian than the Italians. Her company—”red-hot sociality” more akin to Mediterranean fiestas than to Chinese temple fairs—is both enchanting and exhausting; but she lives with her energy all the time.
After her early life in wartime Croatia  (and even here, she stresses love, not trauma), Miranda spent periods working in architecture in Milan, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Mexico City, London, and New York before coming to live in Beijing in 2011—always exploring spiritual and physical landscapes, spreading her wings.
I’m particularly drawn to Miranda’s music. In Beijing she formed the Radiance band in 2015. While I’m keen to avoid the trap of sexist vocabulary like diva and femme fatale (ha!), as a singer-songwriter Miranda creates compelling music “through a kaleidoscope of fragile emotions” in multi-media performances.
From a 2016 gig in Beijing—Beginning of the end:
With Nina Simone, David Bowie, Bach, and Astor Piazzolla among her inspirations, Miranda is working with Chinese and international musicians (as has been common since the 1980s, or, to take a longer view, since the Tang dynasty)—constantly exploring.
Beijing gig, 2016.
Miranda—“to be marveled at”, indeed. Beijing is just the kind of creative environment in which she can thrive; she feels an “energy and a flow of young ideas, always in motion”. But wherever she lands, she will always find like-minded people and stimulating projects.
 For some other roving female prodigies from East Europe, see here and here.
The latter came as a surprise to me. As you see in one of the most striking images of my film (from 30.32), whereas in the early 1980s villagers were glad to restore the “old rules”, by the 90s they were much more excited* by the pop bands performing on a truck outside the soul hall. Their acts soon became quite innovative. But over the last few years even the audience for pop has dwindled, as people can watch the Real Thing (sic) on their phones.
The work of Susan McClary, both for its ideas and its lively language, has prompted such a major “disciplinary explosion” in musicology, with her iconic book Feminine endings. Her ideas, “received as radical—even outrageous—within musicology, only brought to music studies the kind of projects that had long since become standard fare in most other areas of the humanities” (p.ix).
McClary’s work shouldn’t be reduced to soundbites, but alongside astute gender-based discussions of a broad range of music from Monteverdi to Madonna, Carmen to Laurie Anderson, many passages have both inspired and shocked—her detailed unpackings of patriarchal assumptions, such as on Beethoven (“assaultive pelvic pounding… and sexual violence “), or the “erotic friction” of Italian trio sonatas (“two equal voices rub up against each other, pressing into dissonances that resolve only into yet other knots, reaching satiety only at conclusions”—an interactive texture that was later displaced).
Somehow I long took for granted Bach’s “frenzied” harpsichord solo near the end of the 1st movement—McClary observes how our senses are dulled by familiarity with later romantic concertos (and anyway we fiddlers tend to think it’s none of our business—we know our place, which is precisely McClary’s argument). So I’d like to run through the way she unpacks it; whatever you think, she’s always stimulating (see also this post).
She begins by summarizing important background, her constant theme:
At the very moment that music was beginning to be produced for a mass bourgeois audience, that audience sought to legitimize its artifacts by grounding them in the “certainty” of another, presumably more absolute realm—rather than in terms of its own social tastes and values.
From very early times up to and including the present, there has been a strain of Western culture that accounts for music in non-social, implicitly metaphysical terms. But parallel with that strain (and also from earliest times) is another which regards music as essentially a human, socially-grounded, socially altered construct. Most polemical battles in the history of music theory and criticism involve the irreconcilable confrontation of these two positions.
Inspired by Attali’s book Noise, McClary seeks “the tension between order (indeed, competing claims to legitimate order) and deviation —if not outright violence…” Reminding us of harmonic music’s underlying assumptions of goal-attainment (“playing with (teasing and postponing, gratifying) the expectation of imminent closure”), she plunges into the 1st movement of Brandenburg 5.
She notes the rise of the concerto form, where “the soloist is an virtuosic individualist who flaunts the collectivity of the large ensemble”. […] “It begins as if it is going to be a concerto for solo flute and violin, but it soon becomes clear that “there is a darkhorse competitor for the role of soloist: the harpsichord”. Its normal “service role” at the time seems self-effacing, but “the harpsichordist is often a Svengali or puppet master who works the strings from behind the keyboard. Here s/he “creates a ‘Revenge of the continuo player’: the harpsichord begins in its rightful, traditional, supporting norm-articulating role but then gradually emerges to shove everyone else […] out of the way for one of the most outlandish displays in music history.”
The harpsichord, which first serves as continuo support, then begins to compete with the soloists for attention, and finally overthrows the other forces in a kind of hijacking of the piece. […] The ritornello seems to know how to deal with the more well-behaved soloists, how to appropriate, absorb, and contain their energy.” But Bach now “composes the parts of the ensemble, flute, and violin to make it appear that their piece has been violently derailed. They drop out inconclusively, one after another, exactly in the way an orchestra would do if one of its members started making up a new piece in the middle of a performance. Their parts no longer make sense. They fall silent in the face of this affront from the ensemble’s lackey, and all expectations for orderly reconciliation and harmonic closure are suspended.
It unleashes elements of chaos, irrationality, and noise until finally it blurs almost entirely the sense of key, meter, and form upon which 18th century style depends.
McClary concludes provocatively:
The usual nice, tight fit between the social norm, as represented by the convention of concerto procedure, and specific content is here highly problematized. Certainly social order and freedom are possible, but apparently only so long as the individuals in question—like the sweet-tempered flute and violin—abide by the rules and permit themselves to be appropriated. What happens when a genuine deviant (and one from the ensemble’s service staff yet!) declares itself a genius unrestrained by convention, and takes over? We readily identify with the self-appointed protagonist’s adventure (its storming of the Bastille, if you will), and at the same time fear for what might happen as a result of the suspension of traditional authority. […] The possibility of virtual social overthrow, and the violence implied by such overthrow, is suggested in the movement, and the reconciliation of individual and social hierarchy at the end— while welcome—may seem largely motivated by convention. To pull this dramatization back within the limits of self-contained structure and order may seem to avoid the dilemma, but it does so at the expense of silencing the piece. For Bach is here enacting the exhilaration as well as the risks of upward mobility, the simultaneous desire for and resistance of concession to social harmony.
McClary’s work is akin to ethnomusicology (“If I can no longer privilege any one tradition, I find myself perpetually in awe of the countless ways societies have devised for articulating their most basic beliefs through the medium of sound”), and its class and gender implications cry out to be applied to Chinese musical cultures (I made a preliminary and rather unsuccessful attempt in my “Living early composition: an appreciation of Chinese shawm melody”).
With Bach’s solo, it’s easy to think “that’s just how it goes”, but whatever your “class standpoint” (阶级立场), if you listen to it afresh, every few bars you think, WTF??? I know the analogy with jazz can be overdone, but even jazz solos, however virtuosic, also generally fit within fixed (and democratic?) parameters—except when someone like Coltrane goes off on an interminable fantasy. In its wackiness Bach’s solo reminds me of a pianist like Hiromi—or a Hendrix guitar solo.
And now for something completely different: Glenn Gould, 1962—don’t worry about the rest of it, just listen from 8.06ish:
Reception history and performance practice are always intriguing. Little is known of any performances in Bach’s lifetime, but it looks as if the concerto may not have been played again, at least in public, until 1853. Like Rudolf Serkin’s 1935 recording with the Busch Chamber Players, Alfred Cortot’s 1932 version (still on piano) is more genteel than manic:
And here’s Furtwangler in 1950 (cadenza from 8.54ish)—praised by Richard Taruskin, no less:
But performances only became more common with the harpsichord revival of the mid-20th century. So now, despite a rearguard action to rehabilitate the Golden Age before HIP (see Alternative Bach, and Playing with history), modern ears may find such early versions heavy going.
Richard Egarr always offers wacky insights (from 6.30ish):
Having blown everyone away, the harpsichordist gives a little signal of the return to normality (“relents and politely (ironically?) permits the ensemble to re-enter”) so that they can pick themselves off the floor to come in with the ritornello that innocently began the whole trip.
Sure, one can’t really cheer at every manic new turn, but I still think the only possible reaction of both band and audience, whether now or in Bach’s lifetime, would be akin to that of Billie Holiday as she exults in the succession of amazing solos her band offer up to her.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glued to Strictly come dancing every week. Oh yeah, I’ve got my finger on the pulse of popular culture all right [adjusts monocle, grappling ineptly with concept of the high-five]. I was mortified in 2015 when Georgia and Giovanni (aka Joe Varney) didn’t win:
Or indeed Alexandra in 2017… But hey, “It’s not winning but taking part”, eh [zzzzz].
And now the brilliant Stacey Dooley—who did win, YAY!!! (See also Moon river.) Here’s another Charleston. Now let’s all watch her fine documentaries.
The thing about Strictly is, as with Handel opera, or a Moroccan wedding, you just have to suspend your disbelief. The dancers don’t want to go home, but for some reason they do want to go to Blackpool, which is unlikely to feature even on the itinerary of perfectly innocent Russian tourists. Li Manshan hadn’t even heard of the Carnegie Hall, let alone Blackpool, but it’s clearly more appealing than doing a Messiah in Scunthorpe.
Sure, as Barbara Ellen notes in a fine review, Strictly proved yet again
that it understood its own winning formula—drown the contestants in a vat of fake tan and what a cynic might term even faker bonhomie, and let the controversy and sequins fly. […] A sugar-rush of schmaltz combined with a brawl on the entertainment deck of a cruise ship…
But for me it’s classic BBC “educate, inform and entertain” stuff—inculcating diligence, expression, and appreciation of historical style (!), with the pros and the judges vouchsafing us little dollops of technical advice. For all the fatuous clichés of the competitive format (see also Alexei Sayle‘s pertinent critique), Strictly can be inspiring and deeply moving. So there.
Still, my question is this:
However were we all conned into thinking that a genre that seemed pathetically antiquated even in the early 1960s could possibly achieve such wild popular success in the 21st century?
This baffling device of prefixing an unlikely and outmoded format with an utterly random adverb gives me an idea whose time has surely come:
Strictly north Shanxi Daoist ritual
After all, Daoist bands have long been used to ritual competition, “facing platforms”. In my film (from 24.08) my use of karaoke captions for the percussion mnemonics makes an instructive innovation that draws us into a crucial element of ritual performance. And we’ve just had “The Reverend Richard Coles” on Strictly, so hey. My new programme concept has got everything from the original—a grand ritual arena, movement, costumes, music… And since, as Heidi Stephens notes in her drôle Guardian commentaries, what viewers really need is a Journey, what better than Pacing the Void?
Admittedly, even with a minimum of six ritual bands contesting, each performing a different ritual segment for each programme (Presenting Offerings, the Invitation, Beholding the Lanterns, and so on), the weekly programme would require at least four hours—and the nocturnal yankou ritual alone takes longer than that. Still, BBC ratings will doubtless soar.
Coming up next—we’ve got Du Zhimin’s band all the way from Guangling, performing the Ambulating Incense ritual!!!
I’ll be delighted if the drôle Claudia Winkleman will host the new show. As to
the fragrant Darcey Bussell [surely an anagram, e.g. “Recall Debussy”—cf. Gran visits York and Maidstone] is always welcome. How can anyone be so elegant and savvy and still be English? Her only tiny flaw seems to be that she can’t get the hang of clapping (watch her as she applauds couples just voted off). And now that the great Li Manshan is ceding much of his ritual work to his son Li Bin, he seems the ideal choice as chair of the judges.
 Inexplicably, I still await a reply from the BBC to my initial pitch, Strictly Albanian Dentistry—where peasants attired in colourful traditional costumes have just a week to learn a series of intricate procedures such as implants and root-canal treatments (cf. Alan Partridge). But following the public verdict on the moral morass of the Strictly dance/snog of shame—a quandary that will be mercifully obviated by Strictly north Chinese Daoist ritual—there’s (allegedly) a letter in the post from the Beeb about my new concept:
BBC4 has just reshown an interesting diachronic trawl through the archives in Classic quartets at the BBC, for you to catch online before it disappears again.
Apart from the inevitable Amadeus quartet, there are vignettes from groups like the Borodin, Lindsay, Arditti, and Kronos quartets, as well as the Smith quartet playing Steve Reich’s extraordinary Different trains, and the Brodskys’ work with Elvis Costello.
I like the early footage of the Allegri led by Eli Goren, predecessor of my teacher Hugh Maguire. Here one can’t help noticing James Barton, left-handed fiddle-player—part of a select group that notably includes Charlie Chaplin:
And among hours of harmless fun on YouTube:
How can I resist reminding you that the divine Ronnie O’Sullivan is ambidextrous—though I’m not sure he stretches to Bach.
Of course, the life of a quartet (actually, any performing group that works together regularly—few are so constantly in each other’s pockets as Li Manshan‘s Daoist band) resembles that of a marriage, or (still more thornily) a ménage a quattre—a worthy ethnographic topic (see e.g. articles here and here, and Anthea Kreston’s diary on slippedisc.com).
But I digress. I love the quaint early vignettes, as if the swinging 60s never happened—the clipped tones of announcers, and musicians gamely clambering into their dinky little cars (before long we will all look quaint) to play for expectant audiences keen to worship at the altar of High Culture after the tribulations of the war… Which leads nicely to the delightful thankyou letter to the Martin string quartet!
As a corrective to all the glowing speeches from divas and the rapturous adulation of their fans, Bill Bailey (don’t miss his Love song!) recalls:
I was at a Whitney Houston gig, it was supposed to start at three—finally at four o’clock she comes on stage and says,
“I just wanna say, I love each and every one of you!”
and this big black guy next to me shouts, “Sing, bitch!”
This is a metaphorical version of the fan hitting the shit.
The Schubert string quintet is one of those pieces that is always there when you need it. The slow movement in particular is deep in the heart of many musicians (and gratifyingly, its also one of those pieces that recurs on Desert Island Discs), but it’s all amazing.*
I’ve been appreciating the 1941 studio performance by the Budapest Quartet with Benar Heifetz—part of their amazingly busy recording schedule, and just as bebop was evolving:
Indeed, the group’s history makes a fascinating history of the metamorphoses of a string quartet under the conditions of the 20th century.
Benar Heifetz was the older brother of Jascha—who is quoted as saying:
One Russian is an anarchist. Two Russians are a chess game. Three Russians are a revolution. Four Russians are the Budapest String Quartet.
Which reminds me of the old Cold War joke:
What’s the definition of a string quartet?
A Russian symphony orchestra after a tour of the West.
*PS Anyone got a good fingering for the ending of the Scherzo?
I’ve got a sneaky one, but hey—what do I know? Available on request… The last note may be “hit and hope”; Hugh Maguire said he had about a 70% strike rate—better than in football, where the long high ball upfield in the direction of Peter Crouch’s head is even less reliable. But how to negotiate the preceding run is debatable too.
In My Time I’ve heard a few divas live in concert (Jessye Norman, Renée Fleming)—indeed, I’ve accompanied some (Monserrat Caballé, Cecilia Bartoli). In this blog I also praise outstanding male singers like Michael Chance and Mark Padmore.
In Italian the term divo is occasionally used, but elsewhere there’s no male equivalent of the diva, or the related femme fatale; both terms reveal male anxiety—dangerous, damaged women meeting (and luring men to) a bad end (cf. Lulu). Male behaviour, more intrinsically fatal, is not advertised thus. The chanteuseis a similar archetype. And the skewed language continues with prima donna—as if male performers are never temperamental, self-important, and demanding (yeah right).
Susan McClary opened the way for later unpacking of such stereotypes in both opera and popular music, such as Lori Burns and Melisse Lafrance, Disruptive divas: feminism, identity and popular music (2001). And the use of these terms in English adds xenophobia to sexism—our impeccable moral virtue threatened by these loose foreign women (“They come over ‘ere, with their dramatic genius, and their perfect control of phrasing and diction…”).
Anyway, “that’s not important right now” (Airplaneclip, suitably in a post on solfeggio!)—
I can’t think when I’ve been so entranced by a singer (that’s the word we’re looking for!) as hearing Ute Lemperin concert at the Cadogan Hall last week. I thought I could consign her to a comfortable old Weimar pigeonhole, but her music is endlessly enchanting. Never mind that I wasn’t quite convinced by this latest project based on Paolo Coelho, with a world music sextet—she keeps exploring. Her sheer physical presence is irresistible—as with Hélène Grimaud, it’s an intrinsic concomitant of her musical magic. Audiences hang on her every breath, every inflection of her slender wrist… I’d love to hear her in a little jazz club.
As with Billie Holiday or Amy Winehouse, the variety of dynamic, timbre, and vibrato that “popular” singers can command is all the more moving by being deeply personal. Once again, I rarely find perfect distinctive vocal artistry in the world of WAM. They’re all building on their respective traditions, but it’s harder for WAM singers, more burdened by formality, to convey such intimacy. Of course, Ute Lemper is also somewhat polished and controlled—less destructive than Billie and Amy; that may make her slightly less moving, but it also helps her stay alive. Her stage presence is breathtaking.
For a recent incarnation of the femme fatale, see here.
With my youthful (1963) awareness of popular culture then submerged beneath Beethoven and—imminently—Euripides, I was devoted to the Beatles but little else in the field. Summer holiday (the wiki entry is unusually frugal—I’m looking for an in-depth musicological analysis, guys) became an embodiment of fatuous kitsch almost as soon as it emerged from Cliff’s immaculate lips. Still, it was pretty much inescapable, even for me.
Seeking a more global comparison, if you google “music 1963”, you only get pop music. Typical! So I’ll just offer Messiaen‘s Couleurs de la Cité Céleste. Hmm. I’ll leave you to imagine new songs emerging from Lagos, or Jakarta.
OMG, I’ve just realized that my mother (who didn’t exactly have her finger on the pulse of popular culture)* must have taken me to Cliff’s film soon after it came out in 1963! However could she have done that—surely I couldn’t have begged her to take me? That would be hard to live down—a skeleton in my closet such as Bachelor Boy Cliff may or may not have.
Now I hear it again—actually listening—it’s fascinating. Those irritating catchy syncopations that Cliff seems makes a token effort to rescue from cliché, the casual triplet on “sea is”, the instrumentation (great little instrumental opening, later used insistently as an interlude, worthy of Chinese shawm bands!), the classic upward shift in key. There is some serious, um, craftspersonship going on here.
After post-war drabness, that 60s’ spirit of optimism that most of the really brilliant bands, including the Beatles, were soon to undermine… Summer holiday is a major document in the social history of the day—and one that still means a lot to many people.
*Talking of the Beatles, in my book on the Li family Daoists I describe our 2009 Carnegie Hall gig:
The Daoists know nothing of the Carnegie Hall, and have to take it on trust that it’s a big deal. As my mum said of the Beatles, “Well I’ve never heard of them—they can’t be famous!”
Having regaled you with the Pearl and Dean signature tune, not to mention the priceless Parks and recreation, let’s not forget Soap, whose brilliant characters were also introduced by a finely-wrought theme:
Apart from its meandering pentatonic opening “statement” (only rescued from banality by its whimsical syncopations), interrupted by a suitably weird temporary modulation and then gratuitously repeated, I love the way the Middle Eight (or rather Four), leading precisely nowhere, is peremptorily brushed aside. Nor is the kitsch orchestration to be neglected. Getting stuck towards the end, it just gives up. Altogether, How Like Life…
Wonderful as it is, reading the BTL comment
I want this played at my funeral… sums up my life really
Sure, for me to write about Amy is like a football journalist discussing ballet. But she was one singer I was entranced by at the time, rather than decades too late—her music forming a soundtrack while I was getting to grips with the rituals of the Li family Daoists. I continue to listen to her songs in awe.
I cheated myself, Like I knew I would, I told you I was trouble, You know that I’m no good.
The comparison with Billie Holiday is inevitable. If Billie isn’t considered a blues singer, Amy isn’t necessarily linked with jazz. Pop, like WAM (at leastsince the 19th century!), is at the narrow end of the spectrum of variation in world music (instances of the broader end perhaps including Indian raga or Aboriginal dream songs)—whereas Amy sang with the freedom of a jazz instrumentalist. To listen to all her different versions of the same song with the aid of YouTube, no matter how strung-out she was, you can hear how she couldn’t help exploring constantly: she couldn’t bear to sing anything the same way twice. So I guess the commercial pressure to churn out the same old standards “note-perfect” contributed to her decline.
Back to black is one of the all-time great songs:**
Sifting through different versions of her songs is instructive (more so, for instance, than comparing recordings of Zerfließe):
The whole album is a masterpiece. This BBC film by Jeremy Marre in the Classic albums series is a fascinating insight into the process of creation and recording—great contributions from producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, instrumentalists, friends, with Amy always a moving presence.
For all the craft that went into perfecting the studio album, Mark Ronson comments,
Sometimes I’d even go to her shows and I found it a little maddening, cos I was like, “We worked so hard and these are the songs and people wanna hear it this way, but everything is slightly improvisational. She would never sing a melody the same way twice, because it’s almost like, “Why would you do that? I already did it that way.”
She was at her best (and this may be a universal truth) in small-scale informal sessions.
Please excuse the BBC bias here (“Typical!“), but her 2007 session for them makes a good compromise, where she is on her best behaviour yet comfortable in the personal setting of Porchester Hall, with her home crowd:
A definitive film is Asif Kapadia’s Amy (2015) (update, June 2020: currently on Channel 4 for a month only!). A recent programme in the Soul music series on Radio 4 also shows how much she moved people.
I’d love to be reincarnated as one of her backing singers, though this seems unlikely. I would have settled for her staying alive, and happy.