Sunday, January 8, 2012

Reflections in a Golden Oldie

My trips to the local supermarket sometimes turn into nostalgia trips. The market typically plays an oldies station as background music, featuring numbers from the 50s through 80s. I’m frequently unaware of the tunes, as we often are of background music, but sometimes they invade my consciousness, as do the implications of the fact that I know most of the lyrics to 40 and 50 year old songs. I even phonetically know some of the foreign language lyrics from that era, though I haven’t a clue what they mean. OK, I understand the title of Santana’s Oye Como Va (“Hey, how’s it going?”), which was playing when I stopped in the store this morning and which prompted this blog, but not much else in it.

Non-English songs never have been a big part of popular music in the English-speaking world, where most folks (Americans perhaps especially) are famously monolingual. Foreign bands rarely try to break into the Anglophone market in any other language. ABBA, for instance, didn’t even bother recording Swedish versions of the majority of their songs. Still, there always have been exceptions. As far back as World War 2, Lili Marleen was popular in the UK and the US as well as in Germany. While there were English versions (in which Lili’s profession is slightly obscured), Marlene Dietrich’s German version was the preferred one among Allied soldiers ( ). That one is too old for the supermarket’s oldies station, of course, but several songs with Spanish lyrics turn up on it occasionally (Guantanamara, La Bamba, Lo Siento Mi Vida, etc.). So does the Japanese Ue o Muite Aruko, which inexplicably was released in the US under the mouth-watering but irrelevant title Sukiyaki and which topped the US charts in 1963 ( ).

All popular music reveals something of its time and place, and much of it, regardless of language, fails to translate to another time; this is especially true of dance numbers which rarely are heard again unless someone revives the dance. LP Hartley: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." The songs that survive – which can be heard with pleasure decades later – are the ones that still can evoke some emotional response (not necessarily anything deep) in the listener. Sometimes melody and voice are enough to do that; you don’t have to understand a word of Sukiyaki, for example, to catch its wistful mood.

Nevertheless, it certainly helps to understand what you’re hearing. So, most commonly, then and now, when artists borrow from overseas they translate. Sometimes they more than translate, as when Paul Anka wrote the completely original lyrics of My Way to the tune of Comme d'habitude. The past is indeed another country, and there are parts of it (and people from it) I sorely miss. One background song as I left that very same supermarket brought that thought home. It was the 1968 hit song by Welsh singer Mary Hopkin Those were the Days (see below). As it happens, this is a translated song. The original, the Russian standard Dorogoi dlinnoyu, was first recorded in the 1920s.

Yes, those were the days. But, all in all, these aren’t so very bad either. I’d better tune the radio to something current on the drive home tonight, and, if I find I forgot something on the grocery list, I'll try the A&P. I’m pretty sure they don’t play the oldies.

Those Were the Days

дорогой длинною

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