Teach me your song

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Patrick Cox: You may have heard of Agnetha Fältskog. She’s one of the singers in ABBA who’ve just made a comeback album. Agnetha is the one with blond hair. ABBA, of course, sang their songs in English. But Agnetha Fältskog got her start with hits like this.

Song excerpt: “Om Tårar Var Guld”

Patrick Cox: This song reached number 3 on the Swedish charts in 1970. The key lyric goes something like, and this is loose translation: I’d be a millionaire if tears were made of gold. It wasn’t an international hit like those ABBA songs that followed a few years later. But the tune was taken up in a really big way right next door to Sweden, in Denmark. The lyrics were translated and a bit rewritten so they worked in Danish, and it became a hit all over again.

Song excerpt: “Hvis Tårer Var Guld”

Patrick Cox: The song became something of a standard in Denmark, it was covered many times there. Including — and this is a bit weird to say — by me. Here’s what happened. I was at college in Denmark, and I was acting in a play. The character I was playing was, as far as I remember, an unhappy wannabe rich guy. I think he was on a beach flirting with a woman. Anyway, he starts singing a few lines from this song, which is what i did.

When we performed the play, the audience loved the singing. It was so incongruous to them that a foreigner was singing this oh-so Scandinavian song. At the time, I didn’t speak much Danish. It was tough learning my lines. But the song: I got that down really quickly. Singing Danish words was just easier than speaking them.

Well, that was the start of my love affair with singing in languages other than English. Not that you’re going to hear any of it, but as well as Danish, which I now speak reasonably well, I’ve also tried my hand at songs in Chinese, French, German. Behind closed doors, but still.

Wen-hao Tien — she’s an artist here in Boston — she’s more adventurous than me. She also learns to sing in other languages– including languages she doesn’t speak at all– AND she actually records the result.

Two women chanting.

Patrick Cox: This is a religious chant in Sanskrit. A friend is coaching Wen-hao.Same with this song, which is partly in Dutch and partly in Bahasa Indonesia.

Two women singing a Dutch-Indonesian song

Patrick Cox: I watch Wen-hao as she’s learning to sing this. It’s strangely moving to watch, even though I know nothing about the song, don’t understand the lyrics. In fact it was after I spent a few hours watching Wen-hao learn songs that I decided to devote an episode to why she does it. Why we do it. And to figure what’s going on when we sing — when we sing in our mother tongue and in other languages. Also, of course, I had to teach Wen-hao one of my favorite songs.

From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: Stories about languages and the people who speak them. I’m Patrick Cox.

Patrick Cox: Wen-hao Tien was born in Taiwan and has lived in the US for 33 years.

Wen-hao Tien: My parents used to visit me from Taiwan. And the first thing they would do when they arrived is to take the subway to Chinatown.

Patrick Cox: They’d go to a grocery store in Chinatown and buy a ton of food. Wen-hao remembers the last time they did this, not long before her father died.

Wen-hao Tien: I was in my apartment and it was getting dark. So I looked out the window. I saw two old people. Both of them carried as many bags as they can possibly carry on both hands.

Patrick Cox: She knew it was her parents because of the bags. That Chinese grocery store, like many others, used red plastic bags.

Wen-hao Tien: So like a gigantic balloon on both hands. So that’s my kind of last memory of my parents visiting me from far away, and the image on them carrying many, many red plastic bags. So I have a feeling for the bags.

Patrick Cox: Wen-hao filed this away in her mind for years. Recently, she was commissioned to assemble an exhibit at the Pao Arts Center in Boston’s Chinatown, just a couple of blocks from where her parents would shop for groceries. She started thinking about the red bags again. And so for the exhibit, she made a dress out of about 35 of these bags stitched and branded together, in the style of a gown that you might wear to a fancy party. A very crinkly gown. The dress became a focal point of her exhibit. You can interpret it a million ways: as a symbol of Chinatowns all over the world, of Chinese migration and commerce, as the color of blood or of communism, or just Chinese people’s favorite color. For Wen-hao though, the crinkly red dress evokes the memory of her parents and their visits to her adopted homeland. Tinged with sadness, for sure, but she’s turned the memory into a party accessory.

Wen-hao’s exhibit is called Home on Our Backs. It’s about living away from your homeland, your Chinese homeland, its shapes, its smells, its tastes. But what about the sound of homeland? Wen-hao wanted to explore that too, and to go beyond Chinese culture and language. She started inviting people from as many parts of world as she could find to teach her a song from their past, usually their childhood. In addition to the Dutch-Indonesian song and the Sanskrit chant, there was a French song,

A French song

Also a Shaker song,

A Shaker song

And the happy birthday song in Portuguese — Brazilian Portuguese — which Wen-hao now considers far superior to any other version.

Two women sing “Happy birthday to you” in Portuguese

Patrick Cox: After the break, Wen-hao’s biggest challenge yet, a Mozart aria, sung to her by a true maestra.

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William Beeman: Singing is enhanced communication.

Patrick Cox: This is William Beeman, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He says singing may involve mouthing a succession of words, just like speaking. But it’s not — not even closely — the same as speaking.

William Beeman: When you sing– when you break into song– you’re actually overflowing with emotional feeling.

Patrick Cox: Beeman knows this in a personal way. As well as his career in academia, Beeman also was an opera singer for a time.

Beeman singing opera.

Patrick Cox: Yes, that’s him.

William Beeman: When we are breaking into song, perhaps it is true that we’re less inhibited because we’re doing something that we can’t do very well in words.

Patrick Cox: Words, in fact, get in the way. Beeman says, we were all much better off, inhibition-wise before we had many words.

William Beeman: Little kids are wonderful. You could get to do anything they can. You tell them, go be a bunny rabbit and hop around and they’ll do it without any inhibition at all. By the time they get to be about eight or nine years old, they start to think, “Well, maybe I don’t look so cool. Maybe people are going to be judging me.”

Patrick Cox: And so learning to sing can be a bit like learning to become a young child again.

William Beeman: The first thing that a vocal teacher has to do in order to be able to get a person to sing is to kind of regress to the time when they were four or five years old and could sing freely and openly without any inhibition.

Patrick Cox: It’s similar for language learners. Infants and preschoolers pick up language fast. In multilingual settings they’ll pick up more than one language fast. If the words come out a bit wrong, adults laugh and think it’s cute. Compare that to when we try to learn languages later in life.

William Beeman: Most people don’t understand that almost nobody speaks grammatically. Almost nobody! Even in their native language. But when you’re learning a second language, you oftentimes are really inhibited. You’re afraid you’re going to make mistakes. And so you tend to be shy about speaking to other people. I remember a person who was learning English, they said, “You know, I don’t understand it. But after I’ve had a few beers, I really speak English a whole lot better.” The reason is because the alcohol lowers inhibitions and it makes it easier to be more fluent. It’s also true you’ve had a few beers. Maybe you’re more ready to sing something.

Suzi Hamill: Do we want to learn the whole song?

Wen-hao Tien: No maybe just teach me a part that you think I can learn

Suzi Hamill: Great!

Patrick Cox: We’re at Boston’s Pao Arts Center for another session of Wen-hao Tien’s Teach Me Your Song project. We’re in a room surrounded by some of Wen-hao’s art, including the dress made of red plastic bags. This time it’s the Mozart aria, from The Marriage of Figaro. Wen-hao’s teacher is Suzi Hamill. She hasn’t sung opera for a long time, she tells Wen-hao, but you could have fooled me. Suzi explains the context of this moment in the opera: a countess is waking up at dawn and realizes her marriage is over and her life changed forever.

Suzi Hamill: So let’s just say it, like, “Porgi Amor, porgi amor, qualque ristoro.”

Wen-hao Tien: Qualque ristoro.

Suzi Hammill: Yeah, perfect.

Patrick Cox: A few more rehearsals and then…

Suzi Hammill: Ready?

Suzi Hammill sings the lines

Wen-Hao: That’s beautiful. Do it again!

They sing the lines together.

Suzi Hammill: I can hear you. You can do it!

Wen-hao Tien: I’m hiding behind you.

They sing again.

Patrick Cox: And off they go again. A few minutes before this, as Suzi was having Wen-hao do breathing exercises, something quite startling happened. With Wen-hao’s permission Suzi put on the plastic bag dress. Wen-hao said, “It’ll add to the performance.” She was right. For one thing you could hear the dress as Suzi moved about in it.

Before Suzi leaves, Wen-hao asks her to sing more of the aria — not just the first couple lines that she learned. No problem says Suzi. No inhibitions from anyone here.

Suzi sings the aria.

Wen-hao Tien: Beautiful. Thank you so much Suzi!

Suzi Hamill: You’re so welcome. Thank you, this is awesome. Thank you for the gown too.

Wen-hao Tien: The red dress!

Patrick Cox: I should really end the episode here. I should, right? But what the heck, I had a song to teach Wen-hao too. I wasn’t consciously trying to return to a pre-inhibition infantile state, but the song chose was something I learned when I was very young.

Patrick Cox (to Wen-hao Tien): So this song, it’s a song that is shrouded in mystery. I did a little bit of research on this, and people said people on both sides of the Atlantic have claimed it as their own. And it’s a sort of playground song. I loved it…

Patrick Cox: I tell Wen-hao that a band from London called The Boys did a punk version, and I was so taken by that that I copied it and sang it myself in front of an audience when I was pretending to be a punk rocker.

Wen-hao Tien: Do you need a rock band?

Patrick Cox: The way that it works is that you sing it twice. The first time you sing it, you sing it kind of slowly without a rock band. And the second time you sing it super-fast punk-style. Shout it.

Wen-hao Tien: OK, alright!

Patrick Cox: Alright, shall we sing it together?

Jackie Mow: Yes.

Patrick Cox: That’s my wife, Jackie Mow, who’s been exposed to this song a lot over the years.

Patrick and Jackie sing the worm song

Wen-hao Tien: Lovely!

Patrick Cox: Don’t you like that?

Wen-hao Tien: I love it!

Patrick Cox: It’s very profound,

Wen-hao Tien: Sing it again?

Patrick Cox : Sure.

Wen-hao sings The Worm Song

Patrick Cox: Very nice. Take a bow. We should have worms. I should have bought worms.

Jackie Mow: Gummy worms!

Wen-hao Tien: That was fun!

Patrick Cox: I’ll post links to Wen-hao Tien’s exhibit and her Teach Me Your Song project, which is ongoing by the way. I’ll post them in the show notes. And in case those links don’t survive on the podcast platform you use, you’ll be able to find them at our website. That’s also where to head to for the transcript, where I’ll post photos. There are some really good ones.

Wen-hao, by the way, has made another red dress. She says it’s inspired by the recent election for mayor here in Boston. The new mayor is Michelle Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants. She’s the first non-white and the first Asian mayor of Boston, also the first female . Maybe Michelle Wu will one day wear, or maybe Wen-hao will at a mayoral ball. Either way,

Thanks to everyone who sang in this episode: Peter Crawley, Sorelle Curis-Chiang, Claudia Fiks, Diya Ghosh, Suzi Hamill, and Peggy Martheze. Thanks also to Ian Sexton, Warren Patterson, and Casey Curry for technical support. To Allison Shao, and to Alyson Reed and everyone at the Linguistic Society of America.

One last thank you: to whoever composed The Worm Song. Though you have long-since left this earthly paradise, I hope you are happy that your magnificent oeuvre lives on.

Subtitle is a member of the Hub & Spoke podcast collective. It’s worth checking out all of the other Hub & Spoke podcasts. Just going to mention one here: Rumble Strip, which tells extraordinary stories about ordinary people. If you haven’t heard the recent episode, Finn and the Bell, stop what you’re doing right now and listen. I haven’t heard a heartbreaking story like this told so movingly and respectfully.

OK, that’s it, thanks for listening, all the way to end! Subscribe to our newsletter, and see you in a couple of weeks.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

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A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod