From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Hurtin', Leavin' and Longin' (24)—Don't Come Home A-Drinkin'

[a] Drinking RF
[b] Icons RF
Except for "old Hank," nothing says "country music" like Loretta Lynn. Nothing. She has been a force in Nashville since the 1960s, and has managed a fifty year career as artist, author, and (this is difficult) icon. Several years ago, my sister, who was then a country music DJ, received a handwritten letter from Loretta Lynn, urging the station to play her music. Loretta Lynn pays attention to the details, and that is also one of the reasons why she has been successful, and not only in the "business" of music.

Lynn's attention to detail is also what made her one of the finest ethnographers of married life ever to write...and sing. The hits of her heyday (sixteen of which went to number one on the Billboard charts) read like an ethnography of rural America in the 1960s. This was not the world of demonstrations, teach-ins, and a certain music festival in New York. No, this was a world of poverty in youth, marriage at thirteen, and close observation of the details that led, at twenty-four, to a career as an entertainer. Perhaps no song provides as strong a contrast with "the rest of the sixties" than Loretta Lynn's "One's on the Way." It is not our song for the day, but I include it as a bonus to make a point about a storied ethnographer of rural America.

Today's song deals with a peculiarity of married life that particularly caught Lynn's ethnographic eye. It takes an acute sense of observation of a particular set of (in her telling, male) foibles and then adds an artistry that I doubt any writer has caught as well as she has. Thousands of songs (and Chinese poems, not to mention novels) discuss the issue of male drinkin'. Loretta Lynn adds lovin' to the analytical mix, though, and we have a brilliant portrait of dysfunction that is as memorable as it is alliterative. Take a listen, and read the lyrics (watch the video later; it is good, and provides an excellent glimpse of the bluegrass master Bill Monroe).

               Don't Come Home A-Drinkin'
               Songwriter: Loretta Lynn
               Artist: Loretta Lynn

[c] Belted RF
Well you thought I'd be waitin' up
When you came home last night
You'd been out with all the boys
And ended up half tight

But liquor and love
They just don't mix
Leave the bottle or me behind
And don't come home a drinkin'

With lovin' on your mind

No don't come home a drinkin'
With lovin' on your mind
Just stay out there on the town
And see what you can find
'Cause if you want that kind of love
Well you don't need none of mine
So don't come home a drinkin'
With lovin' on your mind


You never take me anywhere

Because you're always gone
And many a night I've laid awake
And cried here all alone

Then you come in, a kissin' on me
It happens every time
No don't come home a drinkin'

With lovin' on your mind

Repeat Chorus

So don't come home a drinkin'

With lovin' on your mind
No don't come home a drinkin'
With lovin' on your mind

Drinking and loving. It's a combination Loretta wants no part of. She was definitely testing the interpretive waters with lines such as "that kind of love," and it is a small wonder that country music radio in the 1960s did not flinch. There is no mistaking her meaning, though, and it is the kind of gendered anger that gives me a strong feeling of feminist satisfaction. One of the comments on the YouTube® video hits the nail on the head, and I quote it here: "Loretta Lynn is a badass." I take this to be a positive statement, and am confirmed in my estimation of her toughness by several other songs of hers, such as "Fist City," and "The Pill." 

Loretta's lyrical rage is not confined to men, though, and that complicates any easy "feminist" picture of her. Life is complicated, and so are Loretta Lynn's songs (at least one of which really tests the limits of my anthropologically-informed Native American cultural-studying patience). So, in addition to "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "You're Looking at Country," we have "You Ain't Woman Enough to Take My Man." Indeed, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty brought all of the themes together in a lighthearted duet that explores teeming, underlying marital tension. It's called "You're the Reason Our Kids Are So Ugly." Life is complicated.

[d] Traditional RF
So, how do we follow "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin" with Chinese poetry? If we wanted to echo the themes, we could open the Ming dynasty novel The Plum in the Golden Vase (金瓶梅) to almost any of its 2,000 or so pages. The protagonist of the novel is notorious for coming home a-drinkin' with loving on his mind (both recent past and future tenses, if you get my drift). I have already quoted from that "racy" novel on these pages, and the comparison is just too easy. Instead, we'll look to the Song dynasty (my own "homeland" for historical study), and a poet who was still predominantly writing in the Tang shi (詩) style. This poem provides a few lines that take Loretta's verses in a new direction. Here we have a sad poem about marital happiness (and loss). Poems about happy marriages in Chinese history are about as common as blissful-marriage country songs. They exist, to be sure, but the vast majority tend to go "the other way." Tolstoy was onto something here.

          Second Marriage
          Mei Yaochen (梅堯臣; 1002-1060)

          I married a second time the other day,
          happy about the present, still grieving for the past.
          Once more there is someone to take care of the household;
          my shadow is no longer alone in the moonlight.
          Yet from force of habit I still call old wife's name—
          my heart is just as troubled as before.
          Luckily both women are kind and gentle
          and I have married again the best of wives.
                                             —Translated by Jonathan Chaves

[1]  Wu-chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo, Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1974),316.

Liu Wu-chi and Irving Yucheng Lo. Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1974.

Sunday, October 23rd
He Stopped Loving Her Today
The classic of the classics. This song was listed in the early-1990s as the greatest country song of all time. I have played it during lectures about country music and East Asian poetry (people actually attend them). Grown men and women cry. Younger people sometimes laugh, and not in a rude way. This is the song's brilliance. Prepare yourself for misery mixed with a little irony and week on Hurtin', Leavin', and Longin'.

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