Thursday, June 12, 2014

500 Miles to Bollywood: How an American Tune Went South Asian

I often think that old American folk songs would be wonderful in Nepali. All those songs about being down and out and far from home would translate perfectly to, say, the plight of a remittance worker. In fact, I'd thought that somebody should put 500 Miles into Nepali. It would be a great hit, right?

Turns out it already was. Although it changed a bit in translation.

The other day I came outside while our driver was cleaning the car -- oh be quiet, folks in America, you wish you had a driver too, just like I wish I had roads that didn't resemble a bumper car rally (or would if I tried to drive myself) -- and he had it on the radio. "Hey," I said, "I know that song. It's American."

"They must have stolen it," he scowled. Which is his default expression anyway. He used to be a Maoist guerrilla and it's a long story, but he fought a revolution and now the roads are full of terrible drivers and he is not happy about that at all. "It's from an old Hindi movie. It's a classic."

"We didn't steal it. You guys stole it. Really, it's American," I said, "and I can sing along." Hindi is close enough to Nepali that I figured I'd easily spot the not-too-challenging lyrics: lord I'm one, lord I'm two, lord I'm three, lord I'm four, lord I'm five hundred miles away from home.

Nothing of the sort came out of the radio. "Well, OK, I can HUM along." And I did. Yet he was unconvinced. It's apparently a classic Bollywood love song played at weddings and family gatherings, and everyone loves it because it's so sweet, as you can see in this touching scene wherein two men gaze lovingly into each others' eyes and waltz together.

(Note: If you do "subscribe by email" you'll just see some blank air below. Although that's elegantly minimalistic, it doesn't quite convey what I mean. Click the title at the top, which I think is blue in email, and it'll take you to the blog to enjoy these lovely musical moments.)

If you're American or European and actually watched that, STOP LAUGHING. In case you can't stop, I can make you, because here is what it's copied from, performed sweetly and sadly in 1965 by Joan Baez, who can never make anyone laugh, EVER. Dear Nepalis and Indians: Notice the audience singing along through their tears, so they're already familiar with this song in 1965. Which means it came before Jab Koi Baat Bigad Jaaye. Really. 

Westerners may be curious to know how the lyrics of our old campfire favorite translate into Hindi. It seems like a natural, doesn't it? Five hundred miles from home, not a shirt to my back, not a rupee to my name. Great stuff! Well, here's what Bollywood does with it, in the 1990 hit film Jurm. Which, incidentally, is a police drama, so those waltzing guys must be singing policemen. It's called Jab Koi Baat Bigad Jaaye, which means When Things Go Wrong.

Whenever there is a problem
Stand by me, my beloved
There never has been nor ever was
Anyone other than you in my life

Uh, OK. But that's not the first time it's had a rewrite. Five Hundred Miles is attributed to folksinger Hedy West in a 1961 copyright and was a staple of the folk revival of the 1960s, but this was before lawyers discovered the entertainment industry, because Hedy West's "creation" can be traced back at least as far as 1898. And it's had a lot of musical offspring. First up: A strikingly similar tune called Nine Hundred Miles. It was first recorded in 1924 by a Fiddlin' John Carson. Here's the legendary folk musician and civil rights activist Odetta knocking everyone's socks off in 1963 with her bluesy take on Nine Hundred Miles. 

It also has a twin called Reuben's Train, first recorded in 1931 by a Kentucky musician named Emry Arthur (who also recorded the first version of Man of Constant Sorrow in 1928). Here it's being picked by the great bluegrass band The Dillards in 1963. Sounds pretty familiar ...

Come to think of it, they're actually triplets. Here's an alternate version in the bluegrass and old-time music world called Train 45; several early recordings came out in 1927. (A list of early recordings of all these versions can be found here.) Here's how it sounds from the bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, which has helpful subtitles in case any Nepali or Indian readers are still not convinced that the original version wasn't a Bollywood love song:

In all of the versions of 500 Miles or its predecessors, whether from Woody Guthrie (1944) or Peter, Paul and Mary (1962) or any number of folk musicians, some poor fellow is far from home, or "going where the chilly winds don't blow," or "trying to read a letter from my home," and he wants to "railroad no more" or get back home where he belongs. It's a mix-and-match quilt of classic folk lyrics, stuck into a tune that can be touchingly sad or soulfully bluesy or full-steam-ahead bluegrass. But I must say that Bollywood is the first to see its potential as a wedding song. 

So that's how a piece of Americana ended up on radio stations in Nepal as a "golden oldie" from 1990 called Jab Koi Baat Bigad Jaaye. It also goes to show that if Bollywood wants to do a knock-off of the tune, they're welcome to it, because everyone else has fiddled with it too. But seriously -- why did they change lyrics that would work so fantastically in this part of the world and turn it into total schmaltz?!? 

Although I do like the guys waltzing together. That was a nice touch. 


Norm Hall said...

Great idea for a blog, the transmittal of musical memes through time and space.

Now how am I supposed to get all of these versions out of my head?!

Monsoon Rose said...

Well, you get the Hindi version out of your head by deploying all of the other ones. It takes a lot to fight it, because Bollywood is very powerful, so you can take your pick. They can also be used to fight bad American pop, which is way worse than Bollywood. So this isn't just setting the record straight; it's a global public service :-)

Anonymous said...

Why you gotta be so down on Joan Baez?

Monsoon Rose said...

Oh, I love Joan! Always sweetly sad, sadly sweet, and sweetly sadly heartfelt. She makes me want to build a better world. The words "laugh" and "Joan Baez" really don't go together, though. I'm not counting Children of the 80s because that's more like head-scratchingly surreal. And consequently wonderful in its own way. Particularly if you have something in your eye, and need to get it out by getting all bug-eyed.

Stef S said...

Ahh, I loved Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary! And so many others. You just made me think of my 70s CD that I mixed just for myself, about a year ago. It's like the soundtrack of my childhood...but I'm pretty sure that translating it to Hindi would not be the same, lol. ;0)

I should go see if I can find that cd...*wanders off to dig through the entertainment center*

Dennis said...

Did you ever find your compilation CD?? Too funny you mentioned that as I recently unearthed some old compilation cassettes I made from records in the 70's and 80's.

I'd have to dust off ye olde cassette deck to see if they still play.