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, March 25, 2012

Hurtin', Leavin' and Longin' (45)—Kentucky Bluebird

[a] Turriroad RF
After a few weeks of hurtin' and cheatin', we're going to take a little break this week along the shores of the Wistful River. While it would be possible to dole out more big helpings of raw pain that overpower like the tannins in a 1974 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, we occasionally strive for subtlety on Round and Square. Think of this post as a seasoned blend of emotions—something more akin to a Bordeaux first growth (79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot, and 5% Cabernet Franc). Or something like that. Think subtlety; think wistfulness.
[b] Blend RF
That idea will get us a fair stretch down the road, as the opening lines of Kentucky Bluebird note. I am not going to try to "explain" the song any more than I would offer more than a polite rebuff to the question "what does the poem mean?" Songs mean, and some of them mean a lot better than others.

This is one of them, in my opinion. The combination of Keith Whitley's mellifluous longings—as well as the combination of flight, lyric, love, and home—are more than enough for me. The title is perfect; it envelops the listener in the weaving profluence of the song while pointing almost playfully toward a false lead or two.

This is a fine example of a song that needs to be sung. When I just read the lyrics, it is hard to see anything particularly special in it. I attribute that to songwriting mastery—a kind of understatement that is brought to fruition and ripeness (like a carefully decanted vintage) over the course of the telling...with instruments. It is fundamentally performative, and it is only when the lyrics meet the air of spoken delivery that their evocative power really springs forth. Although I am straining the oenological references a bit here, the point remains. Lyrics are just a part of the toolkit employed by the experienced singer of tales.

[c] Birds-eye RF
If you study history, you might want to take note(s) here, and consider what the anthropologist (usually) already knows. The text is archival gold, and is always a thing to mine, ferret-out, plumb, and treasure. It remains paper (or computer screen), though. Keith Whitley gives it life. That is the surely the gift of the performer, but let's not forget that lyrics (text) provide the germ. These words seem particularly well-suited to ripening, and it is another tribute to songwriters who understand that understatement is often undervalued in the world of country music.

Take a listen (and then a read) to Kentucky Bluebird. The first recording is from the incomparable Keith Whitley. I have included an (in my opinion quite good) interpretation by another artist, Wade Hayes (with backup by my all-time favorite, Patty Loveless).

Kentucky Bluebird
Artist: Keith Whitley
Songwriters: Don Cook, Wally Wilson

Blown down the highway
By two different winds
Lord only knows
When I'll see you again
You're about as close
As the stars up above
You're my long distance love

Kentucky Bluebird
I heard your song today
But when I try to touch you
You fly away

Blue is a feeling I'm learning so well
Turn on the TV
In another hotel
Turn down the volume
And stare at the wall
God I wish you would call

Repeat Chorus

How I hate the miles between us
They get longer each day
I had this dream
And you should have seen us
Holding each other
And drifting away

Repeat Chorus
[d] Wistful RF
Our challenge this week lies in finding a Chinese poem that doesn't share just about every image in Kentucky Bluebird except Kentucky...and bluebirds. Remember, this series of posts emphasizes juxtaposition of themes, and it is only the title that lacks immediate...and visceral...poetic connections in China. Memory, longing, flight, vacant staring—all there. For that reason, I spent a little time this week really thinking through that distinctive genre of Chinese writing known as the "lyric" (詞). We have seen many examples of it on Round and Square, but my challenge was to find lines that "pushed back," at least a little, against the themes of our country song. Most weeks, as I have noted, that is pretty easy. There aren't many lyrical equivalents in China to Travis Tritt's "Bible Belt," for example.

And then I stopped trying to juxtapose the lyrics (for just this week). "Kentucky Bluebird" is a Chinese poem, I realized, and I would prefer to show just a little of the crisscrossing strands of aviary longing to be found everywhere in Chinese poetry. Once I had decided to go for echo, the new problem was to find just one poem. They are all "Kentucky Bluebird."

There was only one solution. I simply opened the book and pointed. Really. Here is the plumèd result.

Tune: "Echoing Heaven's Everlastingness"
Li Jing (916-961)
     A single slender crescent brow before her dressing mirror
     Her cicada-wing hairdo and phoenix pins indolently left awry,
               Still, within many curtains,
               Remote, in her storied tower,
     Sad and grieving over falling flowers the wind will not let rest.

     On the willow banks there were paths in the fragrant grass,
     But her dream was broken by the windlass of an ornate well.
     Last night as the watches ended, she awoke from wine;
     Her spring grief worse than any illness.
                                —Translated by Daniel Bryant
[1]  Wu-chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo, Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1974), 299.
Liu Wu-chi and Irving Yucheng Lo. Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry
     Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1974.
[e] Blue RF
Sunday, April 1st
Good Ole Boys Like Me
We'll stay on our wistful memory theme for another week, with reflections on youth and aging by Don Williams. If you have stereotypes of country boys, this will pretty much break 'em. Not many country songs reference Thomas Wolfe and Tennessee Williams.

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