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, January 15, 2012

Hurtin', Leavin' and Longin' (36)—Upbeat and Downcast

Click here to read the introduction to the Round and Square series "Hurtin', Leavin', and Longin'..." 
[a] Upbeat RF
I have always been puzzled by a peculiar kind of song. In both folk and country-western versions, I have more than occasionally heard some of the saddest lyrics imaginable set to jaunty and upbeat tunes.
[b] Downcast RF
The contrast can be startling when realization hits, because (this is my experience, at least) the melody tends to bury the lyrics, wrapping the painful lines in a seemingly happy musical package. In fact, I first noticed this many years ago when I (for some reason I cannot remember) found myself transcribing the lyrics to George Strait's 1983 hit, "Eighty Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper." I was stunned by the unremitting misery in the lyrics, and—maybe it's just me—I did not find as much irony in the language as I suspect the songwriter did. 

Let's try a little experiment, in any case. Most Sundays, I have you listen to the song and examine the lyrics at the same time (this is how I usually want you to do it, anyway). Today, just read the lyrics first. Then listen to the song. 

I hope you'll see what I mean by "upbeat and downcast."

     Eighty Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper
        Artist: George Strait
        Songwriter: Darrell Statler

You ain't never fell as far as when you fall in love
Except the fall you take when you've been loved and given up
When you have your heart and soul rubbed into the dirt
An 80-proof bottle of tear-stopper will take away the hurt

Give me an 80-proof bottle of tear-stopper
And I'll start feeling I forgot her
Get a little loose and lose her memory
And I won't think I'm close to dying
Because it dries up all my crying
An 80-proof bottle of tear-stopper always sets me free

It ain't easy losing love although it's turned out bad
All at once you're turning off old feelings you once had
But I found a helping hand right here in my hand
An 80-proof bottle of tear-stopper will help me take command

Give me an 80-proof bottle of tear-stopper
And I'll start feeling I forgot her
Get a little loose and lose her memory
And I won't think I'm close to dying
Because it dries up all my crying
An 80-proof bottle of tear-stopper always sets me free

[c] Stopper RF
O.k., of course I can see some irony in the lyrics, but it still reads like a tale of despair to me. Now take a look and listen to what the producers (and the incomparable George Strait) did. It became a toe-tapping and downright buoyant little tune. I'm not saying this is a "bad" thing. The purpose of these blog musings is to explore little and often forgotten dimensions of culture. Well, the playful hurtin' song seems to be one of these hidden corridors. Take a listen.

"When you've had your heart and soul rubbed into the dirt / An eighty-proof bottle of tear-stopper will take away the hurt."

Wow. So I started asking myself if there are other songs like this. Anyone who knows me well understands that my musical range isn't very broad. It's pretty much Rachmaninoff and Johnny Cash for me. I did remember a folk song from my youth, though. Performed by the exquisite (and all-too-brief) pairing of Sylvia Fricker and Ian Tyson, this song has a similar intellectual tension between vivacity and despair.
So I have raised the question here. Now I hope that y'all will contribute your own thoughts on the matter of upbeat but downcast songs from different genres. Place your insights in the comments section, and we'll see where it takes us. Don't be shy. Put your choices into the comments section.
•••  •••
[e] Updown RF
Finding East Asian parallels for "upbeat, downcast" is not very difficult. I found examples of exuberant tellings of sad stories in various genres, and from all three major East Asian literary traditions. Since I pick only one a week, I had to make a choice.

There is nothing that provides as much of a contrast between "upbeat and downcast" as a certain kind of Japanese poem. Called a "Death Poem," this form of lyric was meant to be written in the moments before a Haiku poet or Zen monk passed off into death. This is about as "downcast" as situations get, but some of the lyrics are postively upbeat. Take a look, and consider the context. I will be exploring this genre of poems in the coming weeks.

                    Died on the fifteenth day of the fourth month, 1725
                                   at the age of fifty-seven
        I wake and find                       Mishi yume no
        the colored iris                        sametemo iro no
        I saw in my dreams                kakitsubata

     Died on the fifth day of the fifth month, 1801
       Cuckoo,                                   Hototogisu
       let's go—how bright                 iza ya akaruki
       the western skies!                   nishi no sora

               Died on the third day of the fourth month, 1798
                             at the age of sixty-seven
       Today the sky above Mount Hiei, too,    Hie mo kyo
       takes off its clouds:                                 kumo naki sora ya
       a change of robe.                                   koromogae
January 22nd
She's Gone, Gone, Gone
Lefty Frizzell will lead us back into the forests of misery next week, when he discovers that she's gone.

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