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, April 22, 2012

Hurtin', Leavin' and Longin' (48)—Harper Valley PTA

[a] Back home RF
Tom T. Hall is a story-teller, and knows how to put a good one into just a few lines. Jeannie C. Riley was a wonder who took this one hit through the roof in 1968. Note the year. The times...well, there was a change in the air. A young man from Hibbing, Minnesota had said so a few years earlier. Who knew that—amidst protests at the White House, Walter Cronkite's own critique of the war, urban riots, and two assassinations—even the backwater towns of rural America were changing? Tom T. Hall's story (and Jeannie C. Riley's memorable renditions) tell a tale of dramatic change happening even in sleepy hollows like Harper Valley. Take a listen and, in this case, do check out the videos. It'll be good for your personal philosophy of history. Times have changed just as much as they haven't. Trust me. For readers unfamiliar with American public education, a PTA is a "parent-teacher association," which forms the backbone (at least in theory) of the local school system.

Harper Valley PTA
Songwriter: Tom T. Hall
Artist: Jeannie C. Riley
I want to tell you all a story about a Harper Valley widowed wife
Who had a teenage daughter who attended Harper Valley Junior High
Well her daughter came home one afternoon and didn't even stop to play
And she said, "Momma got a note here from the Harper Valley P.T.A."
[b] Track to the Future RF

The note said, "Mrs. Johnson, you're wearing your dresses way too high
It's reported you've been drinking and a-runnin' 'round with men and going wild
And we don't believe you ought to be bringing up your little girl this way"
And it was signed by the secretary, Harper Valley P.T.A.

Well, it happened that the P.T.A. was gonna meet that very afternoon
And they were sure surprised when Mrs. Johnson wore her mini-skirt into the room
And as she walked up to the blackboard, I can still recall the words she had to say
She said, "I'd like to address this meeting of the Harper Valley P.T.A."

Well, there's Bobby Taylor sittin' there and seven times he's asked me for a date
And Mrs. Taylor sure seems to use a lot of ice whenever he's away
And Mr. Baker, can you tell us why your secretary had to leave this town?
And shouldn't widow Jones be told to keep her window shades all pulled completely down?

Well, Mr. Harper couldn't be here 'cause he stayed too long at Kelly's Bar again
And if you smell Shirley Thompson's breath, you'll find she's had a little nip of gin
And then you have the nerve to tell me you think that as a mother I'm not fit
Well, this is just a little Peyton Place and you're all Harper Valley hypocrites

No I wouldn't put you on because it really did, it happened just this way
The day my Mama socked it to the Harper Valley P.T.A.
The day my Mama socked it to the Harper Valley P.T.A.
  ***  ***
[v] Rural RF
I'd like to address this meeting of the Harper Valley PTA...

And the crap hits the fan from there. While only a few people will recognize "...this is just a little Peyton Place" these days, everyone understands the follow-up: "...and you're all Harper Valley hypocrites."

Everyone "gets" hypocrisy, and this blockbuster number one song had every bit as much to do with the swirling waters of 1968 as much bigger issues in the news. Not a little of this has to do with the fact that the song was everywhere (number one on the Billboard Country and Pop charts) even though it hovered beneath the historic events coursing through the year. It was in the water, as we (still) say back home.

Unlike the events in Chicago, Washington D.C., and Saigon, this little scene played out in Anytown, U.S.A. Mrs. Johnson takes exception to being told how to dress, date, and raise her daughter, and the whole town comes in for criticism. Through this little story we can see a world in change. A strong single mother? That was challenging ground to till in those days, and "widowed" might just as well be "divorced" in the changing landscape of rural America. This song plays it safe, but everyone knew something big was going on.

Harper Valley's secrets flow out of the bottle from there, and the shaky borders of gemeinschaft would never be as sturdy again, for Tönnies's sake. Even as a young student of social theory (this was called dinner table conversation in my household), it was hard to miss that Mrs. Johnson was socking it to the powers-that-be. It occurred to even my young mind that the song was profoundly cynical about the happy lives in small town America.
[d] Crossroads RF
It just so happened that my dad was teaching sociology at Edgewood College, and I was entranced by the titles of the books on his shelf—Street Corner Society, Small Town in Mass Society, Tally's Corner, Amish Society, The Levittowners, and Village Japan. There were was a whole bunch of "society" and not a few "corners." 

This was also the first time that I ever heard of Talcott Parsons and his functionalist approach to social analysis. I also heard my dad utter the words "conflict theory" for the first time. Conflict? How could that occur in little towns where everyone works together? That was the mantra from thinkers ranging from Richard Nixon to Mao Zedong in the late-1960s. And now—more than a decade before I read Marx (or even Weber), Jeannie C. Riley was blowing this little fourth-grader's cozy view of bucolic, rural integrity (it was not all that hard to understand the word in several senses even back then) right out of the water.

I have never been the same since. "Conflict" and even "passive-aggressive" became workable concepts for me. 1968 could make even an elementary schoolchild a cynic, and the world would never be the same. I lost a bit of innocence in 1968, growing up in Madison, Wisconsin...watching the news and listening to the radio.
[e] Cropped RF
***  ***
Suffice it to say that you won't find (m)any East Asian poems about a single mother telling off small town know-it-alls. We'll have to look for contrast today, and I have found a nice juxtaposition in Sei Shōnagon's elegant Pillow Book. It is as difficult to summarize the eclectic and elaborate contents of this book as it is to understand the intricacies of Harper Valley social life (which has more in common with tenth-century Heian Kyō than I had considered up until now). There are extended narratives, snatches of lyric, and lists. I give a small sampler here. They blend and weave in startling ways with the lines of Tom T. Hall and Jeannie C. Riley.

Sei Shōnagon's Pillow Book (tenth century)
24 Things People Look Down On
The north side of a house.
A person with a reputation for excessive good nature.
A very old man.
A loose woman.
A crumbling earthen wall around an establishment
[f] Elegant RF
A preacher ought to be handsome. It is only when we keep our gaze fixed firmly on a good-looking monk's face that we feel the holiness of the text he expounds. If the man is ill-favored, our gaze wanders and we lose track of what he is saying. For this reason, it seems to me that listening to an ugly monk's sermon may actually lead us into sin. But I must not write these things. Although it might have been all right when I was a little younger, the thought of sin terrifies me now. When I contemplate my own sinful heart, I wonder about the honesty of those who make a point of being first to arrive wherever there is a sermon, informing us that sutra expositions are holy occasions and that they themselves are bursting with piety.  

49 Elegant Things
A young girl's trailing white summer robe, worn over a lavender chemise.
Shaven ice, mixed with vine syrup and put into a new metal bowl.
Fallen snow on plum blossoms.
A sweet infant eating a strawberry.
A duck egg, broken.
Crystal prayer beads. 

65 Bridges
The bridges of Asmutsu, Nagara, Amahiko, Hamana, and Hitotsu. The Sano Boat Bridge. The bridges of Utashime, Todoroki, and Ogawa. Anything spanning a ravine or providing passage across the face of a cliff. The bridge on Kiso Road. Horikawa Bridge. The Raven Bridge. The Lover's Meeting Bridge. The floating bridge at Ono. Yamasuge Bridge (and interesting name). Utatane Bridge. 

Special trysts are especially enjoyable in the summertime. The short night slips by before the lovers can get a wink of sleep. The latticed shutters have been left up, and the garden looks delightfully cool. As the couple exchange a few essential last words, a crow flies directly in front of them, cawing in a loud voice. Most amusingly, they suddenly feel very much exposed.[1]
[g] Span RF
[1] Helen Craig McCullough [translator and editor], Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 165-167. 

McCullough, Helen Craig [translator and editor]. Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Sunday, April 29th
It Would Be You
It's hard describin' a heartache... Next week, Gary Allan will try, and the literary-theoretical implications are wide and deep. If we're talkin' 'bout a heartache...there will be plenty of room for metaphor, metonymy, and even a little dash of synecdoche. Stay tuned.

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