Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, places of mystery and attraction to the western civilization. Long a cradle of art, religion and civilization, Asia has always been an enigma and a land of the unknown and exotic ways for those of us in the Western world. In earlier times, many myths and misunderstandings prevailed about Asia due to its inaccessibility and hard to understand languages and ways. Today, we've learned much about Asia and now have a better understanding of the wonderful peoples of that far away continent. It was not always so.
In the middle 19th century, Asia became more open for the west and peoples from Asia began to emigrate to other parts of the world seeking opportunity and bringing their culture and manners to other parts of the world. As with many such influxes, much misunderstanding and misinformation resulted and as well, the ugly face of stereotypes, racism and prejudice raised their heads and took over reason. As we moved into the late 19th century and the early 20th, some better understanding was occurring but still, most Westerners and particularly Americans held inaccurate beliefs and understandings of Asian cultures and manners. The world of music was reflective of these misunderstandings and as Tin Pan Alley took on the subject of Asia and Asian music, we saw a large number of songs emerge that idealized Asian culture and mostly missed the mark when it came to accuracy.
This months issue looks at some of the music from Tin Pan Alley that used Asian and Oriental themes as a basis for the music and lyrics. As we will see, many of the composers and lyricists did a wonderful job of writing music but failed miserably when it came to accuracy about the lands and peoples and their music. Nonetheless, as always, the writers of American songs managed to provide us with great songs and entertainment. After all, that is what it was all about.
Come with us now as we visit exotic Asia and the Orient as seen through the eyes of Tin Pan Alley's early songwriters. As always, this issue is on two separate pages so don't miss page two of this issue.
The Heathen Chinee
Music by: "F.B"
Lyrics by: Bret Harte
Cover artist: unknown
We begin this month's survey with one of the earliest, and ugliest, songs about people of the Orient. In the mid 19th century, the American west saw a huge influx of workers from the orient who were imported as cheap labor to help build the transcontinental railway as well as to work in the gold fields during the California gold rush. Just as today, hard feelings developed among American workers for jobs lost to cheap imported labor and that, combined with a lack of knowledge of Oriental people resulted in a great deal of prejudice and racism directed at the people. Though many of the people arrived at our shores from many Asian countries, to Americans, they were all Chinese.
This song is reflective of the hatred and racist views of the Chinese
who came to America. Written by one of America's greatest authors of the
period, it shows the ugly side of American music. Of course, we've explored
the racist side of American music before in our acclaimed articles about
Coon Songs and Racism in Music but even those articles don't tell
the complete breadth and depth of the issue. Songs such as this one are
threaded throughout American song, even to this day as evidenced by current
trends in "Rap" and other urban hate music. As with most of
Harte's novels, the lyrics of this song tell a tale of a card game in
which a Chinese man feigns lack of knowledge of the game of poker yet
takes all in a game where he is discovered to have been cheating. In a
commentary about Chinese clothes, it was said the deceptive "Chinee"
held twenty-four packs of cards up his sleeve. Of course, one of the other
players, an American held Aces and "bowers" up his sleeve and
little was made of that. The players were incensed that they had been
out-cheated and suffered the wrath of the players. In my own opinion,
this song represents an intentional twist of irony by Harte and behind
the obvious is a clever and well disguised lesson about racism. I believe
Harte knew exactly what he was doing and the song is a slam of the prevailing
unfair stereotypes of the Chinese people.
Bret Harte was one of America's greatest "western" authors. Though New York born (Albany 1839), his family moved to California in 1854 where he worked in a number of jobs from miner to journalist. It was there he met Mark Twain and other notable writers of the period. While working for the Overland Monthly as editor, Harte wrote a short story titled The Luck of The Roaring Camp which immediately became popular. He wrote a number of other stories about the American West as well as poetry, and at least this one song lyric. Harte returned to New York in 1871 and in 1878 was appointed U.S. Consul in Germany. In 1880 he moved to Scotland and later to London where he died in 1902.
(Image & biographical source material http://www.zpub.com/sf/history/harte.html )
Hear this early "Chinese" work Printable sheet music (scorch format only)
In The Land of Far Cathay
With is quite nice song, we experience an early attempt by a songwriter to create an Oriental sounding song. Using a staccato, choppy style using fifths combined with a flowing melody and bass chords songwriters tried to imitate the sounds heard in Oriental music. In some respects their efforts mimic some elements of Chinese music but only manages to use some stereotypical elements and create a similarity of the sound of Chinese music. We also find that at this time, all songs related to Oriental and Asian countries seem to take on the same sound illustrating the confusion and ignorance on the part of the west as relates to the differences between various countries in Asia.
Early Chinese music was defined more by religious and philosophic leaders rather than secular ones. Confucious believed that music should be used for education and that moderation should be applied. As a result, we see the development of a music that is rich in harmony, melody and metaphysical impact, yet simple in terms of fundamentals. As with much Western music, the Chinese system developed with the concept of the octave and 12 pitches within the octave termed the lü. The 12 lü are very precisely defined in mathematical terms as specific relative ratios that result in a series of perfect intervals that begin with a fundamental note, the huang-chung. Listen to the 12 lü scale. The Chinese pentatonic scale, the first five of the 12 lü, is the scale used that creates the unique "Oriental" sound that westerners are more accustomed to. Hear the pentatonic scale. Though not precisely the same as notes defined by Western scales, they are approximate to C-D-F-G-A.. As if all this were not confusing enough, a seven tone scale was also used in Chinese music. Hear the hepatonic scale. Once you've listened to all those, refresh yourself as to the more familiar octave scale used in our music. It is the pentatonic scale most often used to "imitate" the Oriental sound in western music.
J. Arndt Morris & Mary Wood are two of our many creative composers and lyricists whose life story has become so obscure as to be nearly impossible to find. This song appeared in the New York American and Journal on Sunday November 29, 1903 as a music supplement. As with most of our newspaper music supplements, it has deteriorated badly and soon will be nothing more than a pile of dust.
Enjoy this early "Chinese" hit Printable sheet music (scorch format only)
I Like You
In 1903, Richard Carle and Wm. Frederick Peters staged the musical operetta, The Mayor Of Tokio. Not a big hit, nonetheless, music from the musical was published and some songs became popular on their own. Later, in 1905, the operetta enjoyed a run of 50 performances (definitely not a hit) at the New York Theater, with Carle playing one of the leading roles. The New York Theater was built in 1895 and was the venue for many of the era's greatest stage works including Naughty Marietta in 1910 and Ben Hur in 1903. Interestingly, though the work carries a Japanese theme, there was absolutely no attempt by Carle and Peters to imitate Japanese music or oriental musical construct. What we have here is a plain and simple American song from an American stage play with a Japanese setting. A nice song, in the American Tin Pan Alley tradition.
Richard Carle ( b. Jul. 7, 1871 Somerville, MA, USA - d. Jun 28,
1941 North Hollywood, CA, USA ) Was a prominent producer, writer, lyricist
and composer who is best known for his many musicals, musical revues and
stage plays. He enjoyed a fairly long and productive career and staged
many works from 1899 to 1930. Among his works are; The New Yorkers,
1930; Adrienne, 1923; The Broadway Whirl, 1921; The
Cohan Revue of 1916, 1916; Jumping Jupiter, 1911; The
Hurdy-Gurdy Girl, 1907 and Children of the Ghetto, his first
staged work in 1899.
Along The Road To Singapore
Though a song a bout Singapore and what lies there for a traveler longing to be with his "Hindoo Pearl", this song is pure American Tin Pan Alley fare. A delightful tune, upbeat with a good set of lyrics, we can only enjoy it for what it is..a good song about a far away exotic place. Though there are some interesting harmonies at the beginning of the chorus that are reminiscent of Asian sounds, once again we have a great song where the composer uses stereotypes or simply imagined passages that might make the listener think of South East Asia. Of course again, we have some confused writers and the music is nothing like that found in that region at the time and it seems he has even managed to misplace India's Hindu's into an area largely Muslim, Taoist or Bhuddist. However, in today's Singapore, some 4% of Singaporeans are Hindus, almost all Indian.
The music of Maylasia and South East Asia is some of the most diverse found in Asia, yet contains a number of common features that underlie the various styles. The music of this area embraces a wide area and includes Indonesia, the Phillippines, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Maylasia and Thailand. Singapore, on the Maylay peninsula is now independent (since 1965) but when this song was written was a part of Maylay. Perhaps one of the most prominent musical traditions of this area are the gong-chime ensembles, often called gamelans, that consist of different types of gongs and slabs or keys made of bronze brass or iron. In ancient times, the slabs were actually made of tuned rock (called lithophones) which produce a soft, pleasant sound. The resulting sound of the brass slab and gong ensemble can be both pleasant or unpleasant depending on your point of view. Sometimes sounding cacophonous, the music is based on a number of different scale systems ranging from as simple as three tones to seven. The music of this area is more melodic than harmonic, that is, chords are not as important as the melody. Though that may be the case, the layering of melody within an ensemble, can create the perception of harmony but the New Grove describes it more as a stratification of instruments that gives rise to a rich harmonic structure. (New Grove, Vol. 17, p. 764). In addition, the quality of sound is described as homogenous, without the variety of differing tone quality and instrumental timbres which we are used to in Western orchestras and ensembles. Bali has perhaps the most world famous gong or gamelan orchestras. The music in my opinion is more an acquired taste, one I've not developed. Hear a 5 second gong ensemble in action (wav file, 80kb) and decide for yourself. Wav file courtesy of the website; Bali: The Online Travel Guide
Listen to this great old song (scorch format)
See our resources page for a complete bibliography of all resources used to research this and other articles in our series.