I have outlined the importance of the Song of the Skeleton in the rituals of both north and south China (In Search of the folk Daoists pp.233–4). It is a common theme throughout the north—mainly as part of the yankou, both Daoist and Buddhist.
In Yanggao Daoist ritual (Daoist Priests pp.274–5), several hymns are related. The main one is Mantra of the Skeleton (Kulou zhenyan), more commonly known here by the melodic label Ku huangtian. It is prescribed, a cappella, for Opening Scriptures on the first afternoon of a funeral.
From Li Qing’s hymn volume, 1980. The final folio on the left has the opening of Mantra to the Wailing Ghosts—my book p.266, also featured in the film, from 1.03.56).
It’s a kind of catalogue aria, with seven long verses for the visits to the stations of purgatory over seven days. Its melodic material overlaps substantially with that of other hymns, beginning with the opening of the Diverse and Nameless melody (Daoist priests pp.267–8). The melismatic “Ah, Skeleton” (Kulou) refrain, and the coda in pseudo-Sanskrit (also in common with Diverse and Nameless), are not written here in the manual. My film (from 56’08”) gives the sixth verse:
Ah Skeleton! Skeleton!
On the sixth day he reaches Netherworld Souls Village
His sons not to be seen
Starving and parched, at his wits’ end,
Desperate to sup broth.
* * *
For most such hymns one hardly expects an “emotional” response from audiences—in Yanggao, after all, it shares both melodic material and style with many others in the repertoire. But in his brilliant ethnographic studies of ritual practice in old Beijing, Chang Renchun notes how the renditions of two celebrated Buddhist monks moved their audiences to tears. Some common versions open:
昨日去荒郊玩游 Yesterday, seeking diversion roaming in the barren outskirts…
So talking of “Yesterday”, Paul McCartney’s early solo rendition (which I can’t find online), albeit secular, is just as moving as the polished Beatles arrangement with its use of string quartet. Like Aboriginal singers, Paul heard it in a dream.
I can be quite confident about our own emotional responses to this song; less so about Chinese responses to the Skeleton, over time.