Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, February 05, 2004


When my sweetheart, who is now also my wife, and I went to China in the early part of 2000, we had the opportunity to sit in and listen to a Chinese Opera jam session one afternoon. We had been walking our usual path in Beijing, where we had been staying for several days, and my sweetheart heard sounds coming from an odd little building that had always been closed up. I pressed my face to the window and saw a jam session going on, 8 or 9 musicians and about the same number of listeners. The listeners enthusiastically waved us in the room and got us chairs.

The musicians were mostly in their 50s or 60s or 70s, men and women playing away, sharing jokes, and having a great time. Great music. Strange, to my ears, and precise, and passionate. A few of the musicians still wore the Mao-era outfits that they had worn most of their lives, even though they were no longer required. The singer was a younger man, in his 30s or 40s, neatly dressed in western clothes. When the jam session ended after 20 minutes or so, the singer approached us.

He spoke heavily accented, slow English. I asked whether the musicians were professionals. He wasn’t, but some of the others were. He had been to America on business a number of times.

“LA, Chicago, New York, and what’s that place? Kentucky. Nashville. I like the country music.”

Yesterday a co-worker and I had to drive about an hour north of Seattle to Everett to give a presentation. My co-worker is a 50-something Vietnamese immigrant, a very generous Buddhist. I was doing my usual channel-flipping on the radio when it occurred to me to ask her if she had a preference.

“Do you like American music?”

“Oh, sometimes John. I like country music.”

So I flipped back to the country station and kept it there for a while. The first song was sung by a relaxed man. A cheery tune, “All I wanna do is watch the wind blow by.” Would have been a hippie song 25 years ago, but this singer sounded more middle-American. Nice song, “breezy” -- then it struck me as unexpectedly (unintentionally?) paradoxical. As the 19th century poet Christina Rossetti put it, “Who has seen the wind? Neither you nor I.” You can’t watch the wind, you can only watch what it moves. Was the singer expressing a desire to be mellow, or a wish for the impossible? Or both? The unexpected depths of hit songs never cease to draw me in. Either way, nice song.

After that the DJ, a cheery woman, was taking a request from a serious sounding woman. “What can I play for you honey?”

“Could you play a LeAnn Rimes song and send it out to my husband, and tell him I love him?” (I forget which LeAnn Rimes song.)

“You bet. You and your husband doing OK?”

“We’re working on it,” was the worried-sounding answer.

“We’re all working on it sweetie. We’re all in the same working-on-it boat. You hang in there, OK?” And she played the song, which made no impression on me, other than it was a “you are my everything” type love song and very sweet. I’m a sucker for that love stuff. The request more than the song itself in this case, but I can see why the song meant something to the woman making the request.

A couple months ago another co-worker had to go to Nashville for a conference. She asked me before going if I knew anything about Nashville. I’d never been there, but a good friend had been several times, so I e-mailed him and got recommendations about where to stay and what to check out. My co-worker got back and thanked me and my friend for the recommendation, saying she had a good time. Then with a puzzled smile she asked, “How would you define country music?”

“Oh geez,” I said, rubbing my brow. “Southern accent music where you can understand the words.” (I should have specified “white” southern accent music.) “Other than that pretty much anything goes.”

My co-worker laughed and said that sounds about right.
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