From Round to Square (and back)

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Hurtin', Leavin' and Longin' (28)—Better Off in a Pine Box

[a] Slow RF
Doug Stone's first country song was his worst, at least in terms of hurtin'. Most songs cannot inflict pain from the very first notes on the melancholy fiddle, but this one hints at a rumbling funeral train even before a word is sung. Listen for the opening notes, and then let the first lines begin to sink in. If you're like me (and this is not certain, for better or worse) the combination of music and lyric will tear open a wound or two. And, although the phrase pine box is quite capable of being understood in cross-cultural terms, it might be best to consider its specifically American, even regional, implications. If you do a quick Internet search, you will find pine boxes (finished or unfinished) usually meant for storage and display. Let's just say that the pine box to which Doug Stone refers is meant to store the deceased remains of human melancholy.

Take a listen. Oh, and the grammar? That's just part of the charm.

      I'd Be Better Off in a Pine Box
        Artist: Doug Stone
        Songwriter: J. Mac Rae, S. Clark
I said the night you left me
Nothing worse could ever happen
But seeing you with someone else 
Proved that I was wrong.
And when your eyes met mine
I knew that you were gone forever
Along with all the reasons 
I had for hanging on.

I'd be better off in a pine box
On a slow train back to Georgia
Or in the grey walls of a prison doing time.
I think I'd rather die
And go to hell and face the devil
Than to lie here with you and him together on my mind.

I always thought that someday

We might get back together
I just thought you needed time 
To spread your wings and fly.
But when I saw the loving way
You held onto each other
It was all that I could do 
Not to break right down and cry.

Repeat Chorus

I can't lie here with you and him together on my mind.

[b] New Guinea RF
Among the Kaluli people in New Guinea there was (I speak of the ethnographic past, written about memorably by Edward Schieffelin) a ceremony called the gisaro that emphasizes the infliction of great emotional pain upon an audience. If you have been struck by the cultural seriousness of these weekly posts (despite their seemingly lighthearted title), you would do well to read Schieffelin's classic ethnography The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers.

In a nutshell, there is a reciprocal exchange of emotional pain that plays out over months and years on significant social occasions. The visitors, invoking specific references to longed for relatives and melancholic memories, cause—in song and dance—the members of the longhouse to cry. Purging emotional energy, these very same listeners rush with torches to burn the arms and backs of the singers.

Read the book; it is a classic. For our purposes, and I am not making light of this, the sub-genre of the sad country song works in similar ways. A few weeks ago, I noted that several prominent administrators at a distant college burst into tears while I played two different songs ("He Stopped Loving Her Today" and "Pine Box"). Were I among the Kaluli in New Guinea, they might have rushed me with torches. The difference is that in the gisaro ceremony the goal is the infliction of pain (from the perspective of both singer and listener). This, too, is not unlike the sad country song.

For it to work, it must inflict pain, and this is done with instruments and lyrics. "Pine Box" is one of those unremittingly miserable songs that heaps detail upon detail intended to make the listener feel the pain. I sometimes think that the writers (and Doug Stone, the singer) seek to carve away at the listener until a sluice of raw, wounded memory is opened and the song becomes real. Only the torches are missing, replaced by enormous sobs in the VIP section of the audience.

[c] Overcome RF
One thing that has struck me, however, is how terribly difficult it is to try to elicit misery in song and dance. Since first reading The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers I have not been able to shake a question that most other readers seem not to find very interesting. How do you cause people to cry? It's a great deal harder than it looks. Just try it sometime (be very careful, though). It's hard enough for an individual to become miserable at the drop of a hat or refocusing of the mind (although many human beings get quite good at it through practice). But how do you cause someone to be sad without getting laughed at, hit, or verbally abused?

This has been on my mind since first studying the gisaro and listening to country music. Let's keep thinking about it, because the difference between bursting into tears at the slide of a steel guitar or cracking up with laughter at ridiculously failed attempts at very small, indeed. Just watch the audience at a poorly done "tearjerker" movie, and you get the idea. I find "Pine Box" to work (you may or may not agree) precisely because it finds those little weaknesses in our memory and rubs aching salt in them. This is a theme to which we will return in the coming weeks on Hurtin', Leavin', and Longin'.

[d] Clusters RF
For now, though, it is time to consider our East Asian lyric for the week, which we will juxtapose with the slow train whistling on to Georgia. We have already had the bonus of considering a South Pacific ritual (the gisaro), so where shall we take it from here? Well, the theme of death and longing is certainly prominent in China, Japan, and Korea.

It is to Korea that we will turn today for a selection of lyrics in the Sijo form. These little clusters of verbal emotion are among the most elegant, simple, and compact statements ever made. Instead of choosing just one, I wish to juxtapose the Korean lyrics with the country song and against each other. You will notice that four of the five poems were written by the incomparable Jong Chol in the sixteenth century. Take a read, so to speak, and we'll continue our exploration of Sijo (and Jong Chol's work) next week.


Jo Jun (1346-1405)

Having had too much wine, I fall asleep
            beside a path under the sky.
Heaven and earth became my bed.
            Who will awaken me?
But then, the dawn breeze gathers the rain
            to rouse me from my sleep.


Jong Chol (1536-1593)

Flowers bloom side by side;
            tiger butterflies fly together.
Willow buds grow in clusters,
            and orioles sing duets.
All creatures realize themselves in pairs;
            why then am I so alone?

The Two Stone Buddhas

Jong Chol (1536-1593)

On yonder road are two stone Buddhas;
            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.

To See My Lord

Jong Chol (1536-1593)

If I could cut this heart from this body,
            I would make of it the moon
            and let it hang in the infinite sky.
When it reaches my beloved,
            I would see him by its light.

A Tea of Bitter Greens

Jong Chol (1536-1593)

A tea of bitter greens can taste better
            than broth made from meat.
A thatched hut is small,
            but I accept this as my fate.
It is only because I miss you so
            that I cannot bear this sadness.
Bubba Shot the Jukebox
We'll continue next week with a humorous twist our theme of revenge for inflicted pain. It might be called The Sorrow of the Cowboy and the Shooting of the Jukebox. This one won't hurt like most of the other posts in our series. Only one inanimate jukebox will be injured in the preparation of next week's post.

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