Country music to many people is a sort of albatross hanging around the neck of popular American music. Those who love it, LOVE IT while those who hate it seem to really, really hate it. I can’t say I know enough about country to fall into either faction, but I do know the “Tennessee Waltz” and can register a bit of sadness at the fact that the person who brought that into the world is no longer living in it.
Country is a quintessentially American musical form, and Patti Page was a dominant voice throughout her early career. In the 50s, Patti Page’s influence stretched across the Pacific to Japan where local entertainers adapted American popular music for the expatriates (mostly soldiers at the time) that filled the clubs and bars. Eventually a 14-year old by the name of Chiemi Eri got her hands on the music and used her version of the American classic to launch a bright, if unfortunately short, career. I’m tempted to say that her version of “Tennessee Waltz” was the first real crossover hit in the Japan-US postwar era, but I really don’t have any “facts” to back that up.
Here is Page’s original version for context / listening pleasure. We should all be so lucky to be remembered looking like this.
I realized that I didn’t offer many examples of actual min’yō music in the last post, so I thought I’d post one of my favorite albums…WITH A TWIST.
Click to download
The album is called Chiemi no min’yō shuu ( チエミの民謡集, 1958), or Folk Songs of Chiemi. The concept is simple and intriguing: a collection of traditional folk songs sung by Chiemi Eri is set to the tune of the Tokyo Cuban Boys’ brand of Latin swing. It’s a classic “traditional meets contemporary” match-up, only made more interesting by the fact that “contemporary” in this case means half a century ago. DAG.
The mashup doesn’t always work, but when it hits, it hits HARD. “Soma Bon Uta” is easily one of my favorite songs ever and has triple-digit plays in my iTunes. The track is a perfect mix of min’yō vocal tradition (which involves crazy voice control) and jazzy swing music with a KILLER BREAKDOWN. UGHHGHG. OG fans of Jet Set Radio might remember the song from the Oldies But Happies episode, but I’ll offer it up again here because I love it so much.
Chiemi Eri & Tokyo Cuban Boys – Soma Bon Uta | Download
For context, I’ve added a brief and cursory history of the era, so read on if you thirst for knowledge / have nothing better to do.
In the aftermath of WWII, when Japan was making the transition from militarism to democracy, the presence of occupation forces catalyzed the frequent opening of military clubs throughout the country. American troops brought their tastes in music along with them, and these military clubs would often play the popular American styles of the day (jazz, swing, bebop) for their specific audiences. Legendary saxophonist Nobuo Hara observed that these clubs were often split between white and black servicemen, the former preferring swing, and the latter preferring bebop. This effectively created segregated clubs in the occupied territory which makes absolutely no sense and is hilarious in the most depressing way. LOL @ wartime enforcement of the color line!
Anyway, it was in these type clubs where Chiemi Eri got famous. She arrived on the scene at age 14 with a bilingual rendition of “Tennessee Waltz” and gained fame afterwards with her vocal talent and performances of other J-versions of popular American songs such as “Blue Moon” and “Come on-a My House”.
Chiemi Eri – Tennessee Waltz
As she got older and her popularity grew, she recorded more and starred in films alongside two other young singers, Izumi Yukimura and Misora Hibari; the three were collectively dubbed the Sannin Musume (or, Three Sisters). A talented singer with a very successful career, Chiemi eventually died in 1982 of mysterious causes. The internet says that she fell to a rager’s fate, choking on her own vomit (rugged!), but does not corroborate it with any type of “proof”, so grain of salt that one.