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Monday, March 14, 2011

Hurtin', Leavin', and Longin'—Introduction

For the complete list of Hurtin', Leavin', and Longin' posts, go to the Resource Center (click here)
The Two Stone Buddhas
On yonder road are two stone Buddhas;
[a] Stone Buddha society    RF
          face to face they stand.
Assailed by the wind, the rain, and the frost,
          cold and hungry they must be.
And yet how I envy them, for they do not know
          the meaning of human separation.
                                         Jong Chol (1536-1593) 
Kawliga was a wooden Indian standing by the door
He fell in love with an Indian maid over in the antique store.
Kawliga just stood there and never let it show
So she could never answer yes or no.
                                          Hank Williams (1923-1953)

At some point in the early 1990s, I put two images together (those above)—by chance. The context was an argument I was having with a colleague about the "worth" of cultural comparison—especially those dealing with American popular culture. Suffice it to say that I was very much in the "elitist" camp at the time, and felt that the lines above proved my point. The Korean poem was resonant and layered, while the lines by Williams (as I thought of him then) were wooden (literally and figuratively) and insensitive at best. Indeed, the rest of the song takes that observation to new levels. It is not a masterwork of cultural understanding, to say the least, and I determined that such matters were not worth my time. I studied East Asian poetry and eschewed popular lyrics of all kinds.

Then, on a July morning in 1992, it was almost as though some higher radio power asked me to reconsider. I had just bought a car—the nicest one I had ever owned (which isn't saying much), and the FM radio was tuned, by chance, to KQRS 102.4 in Minneapolis. I was in the middle of my graduate studies at the University of Chicago at the time, and had just finished a seminar on Song dynasty (960-1279) lyric poetry. We had read many hundreds of pages of that special style of lyric and discussed its deep place in early-modern Chinese social and intellectual life. I had also been reading the classic shi (詩) "poem" that saw its heyday in the Tang dynasty (618-906). The images, cadences, rhymes, and patterns coursed their way through my system, as they do today. A seventh-century hybrid might give a small glimpse of at least a little of this rhythm and beauty (yes, even in translation).

To the Tune “Wugeng zhuan”
           —Anonymous (Seventh Century)
My combing and washing are finished
Alone, I lean against the tower built for watching the river
A thousand sails have passed from sight—none his
The setting sun ardent, the waters distant
Heartbroken—the white duckweed islet
Before I could let myself turn the station, as I would have done several years earlier, three straight songs froze my retuning hand in midair...and changed my life. It started slowly, with Sawyer Brown's ruddy, down-home philosophy of how to live one's life on the middle way, the straight and narrow. I was intrigued as I thought of Daoist recluses off in the backwoods and mountains of China, practicing the craft of life without the messy intrusions of the bustling, striving world of scholar-officials at court. As the poet Xu Ben (1335-1380) put it of a slightly different situation.

             To a Hermit in the Mountains
                                               —Xu Ben (1335-1380)
                    You've lived there long, away from the trappings of office
                    Your mind at peace, cut off from the world
                    In jars: herbs, handed down by your teacher
                    In bags: elixir, refined by your own hand
                    You whistle out loud beyond the thousand peaks
                    Walk quietly along a hundred streams
                    You resent even the intrusion of woodcutters and shepherds
                    So now you want to move still deeper into the clouds[1]
[b] Ways   RF
The "Way" (道) of life (up and away, into the clouds) lies at the heart of Daoist thought; its core meaning is "road, path," and it is that road to reflection and oneness that he sought in his own life as well as in his poetic image, above. Add a bit of Alabama clay and a humid sky, I mused, and the road and clouds stretch from the twentieth-century United States to early-modern China.

Dirt Road
—Sawyer Brown
(Steven Gregg Hubbard; Mark Miller)
Daddy worked hard for his dollar
He said some folks don't, but that's o.k.
They won't know which road to follow
Because an easy street might lead you astray

I'll take the dirt road, it's all I know
I've been a'walking it for years
It's gone where I need to go
It ain't easy, it ain't supposed to be
So I'll take my time
And life won't pass me by
'Cause it's right there to find, on the dirt road

I have lived life in the fast lane
You gotta watch your back and look both ways
When it's said and done the time we have is borrowed
You better make real sure you're headed the right way

Chorus x2

On the dirt road
***  ***
Hardly had I had time to reflect on the connections between Daoism and farm roads before another song came on (there were no commercials in that fateful stretch of music). From the very first notes, I thought I had it pegged—sappy country music. But I kept listening. I couldn't stop myself. There was something that I had never heard before, even though (I later learned) it had been there all the time—from the earliest days of the developing country-western genre. There was cliché, to be sure (the steel guitar, the lonesome fiddle), but it was mixed with real images of misery. And beyond that, there was truly the je ne sais quoi quality of heartache and irony. It seemed to be a song that both did and did not (at the very same time) take itself seriously. That will be a large theme in our weekly Hurtin' posts.

On top of it all, though, there was anthropology—and not the kind I was used to studying. This was, I thought to myself, the archaeology of lost love—a ballad about digging up and selling off the last remains of a life together, all the while remembering a shared past.

Well I wonder what you'd say if you could see
The way they’re sortin’ through what’s left of you and me

And then I began to think of connections to Chinese poetry. The utter pain—deflected for effect by images of the loss of possessions rather than people—recalled Chinese lyrics that emphasized the combs, brushes, sewing needles, and other very personal effects meant to portray, from the perspective of a despondent man, the life of a woman who was no longer there. Although it seems a stretch in retrospect, Wu Wenying's little poem about heading back, empty, to his modest home was on my mind.

                    Rain Just Ended; Night of the Lantern Preview
                              —Wu Wenying (c.1200- c.1260
                    Dark clouds have rolled clean away
                    Goddess of the Moon looks down after her evening toilet
                    Laying the dust and moistening the ground
                    That Fairy Maidens tread

                    Back again in the bustling thoroughfare,
                    I feel myself reliving
                    Scenes of jolly lantern shows of other days
                    With nostalgic feelings tender as water
                    What can I do but retrace my steps to the small chamber
                    Where under heated quilts
                    I'm soon lost in spring dreams
                    Still haunted by the din of music and song [2]
I heard on the radio, almost as an echo, a sentiment that connected subtly to Wu's words, written eight centuries earlier—even as yard sale images jarred me with their contrast. Lanterns and quilts gave way to summer dresses and wagons.

Yard Sale
—Sammy Kershaw

(Larry Bastian, Dewayne Blackwell)

Cardboard sign says “Yard Sale”
Real estate sign says “Sold”
Family picnic table
Holds all that it can hold

On the grass and on the sidewalk

Well, there must be half the town
Ain’t it funny
How a broken home
Can bring the prices down?

Oh they’re sortin’ through
What’s left of you and me
Paying yard sale prices
For each golden memory
Oh I never thought
I’d ever live to see
The way they’re sortin’ through
What’s left of you and me

You left two summer dresses

In the backyard on the line
A lady just brought ‘em to  me
She said she thinks they’ll fit  just fine

Well there goes the baby’s wagon

And the mirror from the hall
I’d better take just one last look
Before they take it all

Repeat Chorus

Well I wonder what you’d say
If you could see
The way they’re sortin’ through
What’s left of you and me

***  ***
Similarities swirled in my mind as I drove, fittingly, south out of Minneapolis.[3] I was becoming convinced that images (and rhetorical patterns) of loss were cross-cultural, even though I dared not let the word "universal" enter my thoughts. That train of thinking was broken completely by images that put loss, separation, and the anxiety of missing a loved one in direct contrast with a conception not often discussed in Chinese lyrics. Mark Chesnutt's rendition of "Broken Promise Land" gave a new perspective to the painful loneliness of the cheating spouse. The first bars portend misery, and opening lines—anytime, anywhere—don't get much worse than these:

                               There's a Bible on the dresser
                               And a sign hung on the door
                               And a woman in my arms who shouldn't be

Broken Promise Land
—Mark Chesnutt
 (Bill Rice, M. Sharon Rice)
There’s a bible on the dresser
And a sign hung on the door
And a woman in my arms who shouldn’t be

I’m to the point of no returnin’
But I’ve been here before
This cheatin’ life is nothin’ new to me

There’s someone to be considered
So I call her on the phone
And say the job is takin’ longer than I planned

I don’t have the heart to tell her
That a stranger’s turned me on
And I’m headed for the broken promise land

Tonight I’m crossing over
And I’ll reach the cheatin’ side
And I’ll hate myself for comin’ here again
Where the streets are paved with misery
And lives are built on lies
A place they call the broken promise land

Found a note left on the dresser
And the key left in the door
And on the floor I found her golden wedding band

Guess she finally had to tell me
She’s not waitin’ any more
She’s headed for the broken promise land
Tonight she’s crossin’ over
And she’ll reach the cheatin’ side
And I’ll hate myself for givin’ her the chance

‘Cause the streets are paved with misery
And lives are built on lies
A place they call the broken promise land

And it’s more than I can stand

The shattered monogamy of a husband with little consideration for his wife did faintly remind me of carousing men in Chinese fiction who spent evenings—and sometimes entire weeks—in the teeming pleasure quarters of large cities, drinking and playing silly games as they enjoyed the purchased comforts of dancers, lute-players, and prostitutes. The notoriously rakish character Hsi-men Ch'ing (Ximen Qing) in the sixteenth century novel The Plum in the Golden Vase was unavoidable. Drinking and carousing on the town (with five wives at home), he devotes his formidable time and money to having his way with Li Kuei-chieh (Li Guijie), a singing girl in a local establishment.
[d] Party   PD
On this occasion, Li Kuei-ch’ing and Li Kuei-chieh sang a suite of songs together, while at the table the guests were having such a good time that:
             Drinking vessels and game tallies lay helter skelter.
Turning to Kuei-ch’ing, Hsi-men Ch’ing said, “Since the two of you are both here today, and I’ve heard for a long time what an accomplished performer of the southern melodies Kuei-chieh has become, why not ask her to sing us a song, as a means of encouraging our two guests to have another cup of wine? What do you think?...
The story goes that Hsi-men Ch’ing was so infatuated by Li Kuei-chieh’s beauty that he lingered in the licensed quarter for nearly half a month, without going home. [His principal wife] sent a servant with his horse to bring him home on numerous occasions, but the proprietors of the Li family establishment even hid his clothes and hat, so reluctant were they to let him leave the premises [and stop spending money].[4]
***  ***
Yet I was stuck by the contrasts, as well. A dyad broken by infidelity is different from a wealthy husband of five wives out on the town. Country music, I had already noticed, doesn't deal with multiple-partner concubinage (at least not in the way that Chinese literature does). And revenge. That seemed to play a larger role in the country lyrics (even here, and certainly once I started listening closely) than in the Chinese lyrics. I couldn't help but feel that there were very large cultural patterns arching above the emotions of hurt, loss, and separation that every human being has felt in some way.

Suddenly, the conceptual categories encompassing the country song and the East Asian lyric came into focus for me, and I have spent (parts of) the last nineteen years listening to country-western songs and reading Chinese lyrics whenever I can find the time. I have become even more convinced that there is a thoroughness, a continuity, in the lyrics that is striking on many levels. The posts that follow in Round and Square's weekly Hurtin', Leavin', and Longin' segment will show some of the cultural similarities and differences that weave their ways through the lyric as a cross-cultural art form.

For the complete list of Hurtin', Leavin', and Longin' posts, go to the Resource Center (click here)

[1] Victor Mair,ed, The Columbia Anthology of Classical Chinese Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 263.
[2] Mair, Anthology, 347.
[3] Driving, appropriately, south—it works in the Chinese and American country-western imagery (the rich cities of the south were centers for the development of the Song lyric). And don't even get me started on my "theory" about painful lyrics originating in the Song dynasty (960-1279) and then working their way up through Siberia, across the Bering Strait, and eventually ending Alabama. No, don't get me started.  
[4] David Roy, The Plum in the Golden Vase—Volume One: The Gathering (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 220-222; 224.

Mair, Victor. The Columbia Anthology of Classical Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Roy, David. The Plum in the Golden Vase—Volume One: The Gathering. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

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