Sunday, October 28, 2012

China Cat Sunflower: Issa's Sunday Service, #141

Photograph by gira4

China Cat Sunflower by Grateful Dead on Grooveshark

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China Cat Sunflower

Look for awhile at the China Cat Sunflower
proud-walking jingle in the midnight sun
Copper-dome Bodhi drip a silver kimono
like a crazy-quilt stargown
through a dream night wind

Krazy Kat peeking through a lace bandana
like a one-eyed Cheshire
like a diamond-eye Jack
A leaf of all colors plays
a golden string fiddle
to a double-e waterfall over my back

Comic book colors on a violin river
crying Leonardo words
from out a silk trombone
I rang a silent bell
beneath a shower of pearls
in the eagle wing palace
of the Queen Chinee

[Editor's note: Usually, the Sunday Service is good old fashioned, light weight rock n' roll fun. Inadvertently,  today's posting unearthed a serious topic, serious beyond the usual "literary" serious, and what results below was something of a struggle. It is neither meant to offend nor to preach - more than likely, it's come up short in its intent. Just sayin'.]

You can find more information than you could ever want, on this song or any other in their repertoire, at the Grateful Annotated Lyrics site, one of the most amazing sites dedicated to the works of a particular rock group or personality.  Among the many things pointed out there is the somewhat oblique inspiration of the work of Edith Sitwell on "China Cat Sunflower." The song makes it on this list because of the obvious reference to Lewis Carroll (the one-eyed Cheshire) but for the Sitwell, one must dig a bit deeper.

According to the Dead lyric site, Robert Hunter, the Dead's lyricist, mentions Sitwell's influence on the lyrics, with a special mention of the following poem, "Polka":

Polka   Dame Edith Sitwell

'Tra la la la la la la la
    See me dance the polka,'
Said Mr. Wagg like a bear,
With my top hat
And my whiskers that--
(Tra la la la) trap the Fair.

Where the waves eem chiming haycocks
I dance the polka; there
Stand Venus' children in their gay frocks--
Maroon and marine--and stare

To see me fire my pistol
Through the distances blue as my coat;
Like Wellington, Byron, the Marquis of Bristol,
Buzbied great trees float.

While the wheezing hurdy-gurdy
 Of the marine wind blows me
 To the tune of Annie Rooney, sturdy,
 Over the sheafs of sea;

And bright as a seedsman's packet
With zinnias, candytufts chill,
Is Mrs. Marigold's jacket
As she gapes at the inn door still,

Where at dawn in the box of the sailor,
Blue as the decks of the sea,
Nelson awoke, crowed like the cocks,
Then back to dust sank he.

And Robinson Crusoe
Rues so

The bright and foxy beer--
But he finds fresh isles in a Negress' smiles--
The poxy doxy dear,

As they watch me dance the polka,'
Said Mr. Wagg like a bear,
'In my top hat and my whiskers that--
Tra la la la, trap the Fair.

Tra la la la la--
Tra la la la la--
Tra la la la la la la la


In addition to the oblique references, it would seem that pacing and style were perhaps more influential than the actual lyrics themselves.

Another quote which Hunter mentions is from the Dame Edith Sitwell poem "Trio for Two Cats and a Trombone," which has a little more direct connection:

  "To the jade 'Come kiss me harder'
    He called across the battlements as she
    Heard our voices thin and shrill
    As the steely grasses' thrill,
    Or the sound of the onycha
    When the phoca has the pica
    In the palace of the Queen Chinee!"

Hunter quotes Sitwell directly with "palace of the Queen Chinee," so I attempted to run down the term "Chinee," which gives off a vague sense of the derogatory, though I'm not sure about it in the context of either the poem or song. Still, it should be noted; even if not meant offensively, ignorance, on anyone's part, is no legitimate defense.

A couple of databases of racial slurs listed the term as offensive, a couple of others did not; it evidently originated as a back formed singular for Chinese in the plural sense, but probably found bigoted popularity in the inability of Chinese people to speak English well, thereby mimicking their pronunciation of English in a derogatory way. Another source defined the term as a Chinese person living in England.

[More on the Sitwell, after a bit of investigation. "Trio for Cats and a Trombone" was part of a larger musical piece called Façade, which was something of a scandal when initially performed. You can find a great deal of background on it here. Evidently, after being variously condemned on its initial performance (with Sitwell reciting the poems, through a megaphone protruding from a curtain, to musical accompaniment), it became quite popular, going through a number of reworkings and even being the basis for a ballet. Interestingly, Wikipedia, which goes into a great deal of detail, does not mention her use of ethnic terms.]

The All Music Guide, in reviewing Façade, says

"Furthermore, either because she was satirizing the upper crust's casual racism or because she shared it, Sitwell's verse does have some mildly racist lines that are somewhat disturbing today. "

I thought about excluding the song because of all this, but it seemed more honest to face up to it and recognize it for what it is and put it out there to consider. Obviously, the Sitwell piece achieved fame in its own way. Certainly, "China Cat Sunflower" has long been one of the Dead's most popular tunes. I leave it to you to make what you will of Hunter's quote of Sitwell. From the Dead site, it appears to be pure homage. Perhaps, too, something is to be gleaned about late 60s America, around the time the Dead song was composed.

Here is the whole piece, Façade, which runs some 32 minutes in length:

Facade by Dame Edith Sitwell and Chamber Orchestra conducted by Frederik Prausnitz on Grooveshark
If above link is wonky, you can listen here


Besides these references to Sitwell poems, there is the Alice in Wonderland reference, plus the song is jammed packed with other things - allusions to Buddhism (Bodhi), Leonardo da Vinci, maybe Ginsberg and Kerouac's sunflower in the train yard (to say nothing of Blake's sunflower), and maybe even Dylan's waiting on the Double-E.

For Cheshire Cat fans, here's a little something that might be taken as advice for the current, ahem, election season:


For traditionalists, here's a collection of Cheshire Cat scenes, voiced by the incomparable Sterling Holloway:


Photo by Umberto Salvagnin

heat shimmers--
how the cat talks
in her sleep!
translated by David G. Lanoue


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Go to the LitRock web site for a list of all 140 songs


Charles Gramlich said...

Cool lyrics and a catchy tune.

Ed Baker said...

ahh... that Alice in Wonderland..
Drugs, Sex, and Rock-n-Roll

As I Re:call Gracie Slick started it
via Carroll et al

with her White Rabbit....

that Jade, "Come kiss me harder"

WOWOW ! I often wonder what was in those various little pills that Alice took just before she went via her mind down that "hole".

Phun "stuff" today (as usual) DW.

Lyle Daggett said...

Those Dead guys sure could write. I appreciate also your raising the discussion of the racial terms -- something I do take seriously, even at a party with the Dead.

My take on the word "Chinee" was pretty much what you've pointed to here. I take it to be a derogatory slur at some people's notions of how Chinese people (and immigrant people in general) allegedly speak English.

Maybe worth pointing out here that I barely know maybe a word of two of Chinese, and likely don't know how to pronouce properly the couple of words I might know...

A whole kettle of related questions still bubbling very close to the surface, and sometimes spilling over, in the current political campaigns. (As far as I know, Romney hasn't yet said that he has a "folder of Latinos," but not hard to imagine him saying something like that if the occasion arises.) Some dead things die hard.


Going off on a slightly different thread of this -- and since this post has jumped down Alice's rabbit hole --

Many years ago, ca. 1972, I saw a copy of a limited edition printing of Alice in Wonderland, with color illustrations by Salvador Dali. It was an oversize book, with the pages loosely bound, a numbered copy of a total of something like 100 or 200.

Thirteen illustrations -- twelve original Dali prints, and a Dali color sketch (with pastel or colored pencil or something else, it didn't occur to me to ask). The book was in a special collection at the U. of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and to look at the book I had to sit at a table while a library staff person turned the pages. So only got to spend the briefest few minutes with the book.

Images of Dali's Alice illustrations are available online, here.

The color sketch shows on the image of the frontispiece in the page at the above link. To see the other twelve images, click on the links "Heliogravures 1 through 6" and "Heliogravures 7 through 12" at the above page. In the subsequent pages, you can click on the individual images to see larger views of them.

Needless to say, the colors in the computerized images aren't as vivid as the originals I saw, but still not bad. * The character Alice is depicted by Dali as the small figure of a girl with a jumprope that appears in many of the images.

Remember what the dormouse said... :)

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Charles, it is one of their more popular songs ...

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Ed, yes, indeed, remember Gracie with her 'Go ask, Alice' exhortation.

Beside the Bible, the Alice books seem to be alluded to in rock songs more than any other literary source.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Thanks for your thoughts on the issue of race, both in Sitwell and this particular song. One of the disturbing things for me is having listened, and enjoyed, this song for so many years without really thinking deeply about it.

So, if this posting did anything else, it accomplished that.


Thanks so much for the Dali/Alice link. Really incredible. I found a listing of one copy on abebooks of the original 200 - it is offered for sale at $27,000.

More importantly, the prints have such a great feel - I don't believe I recall such extended use of watercolors in his work, but it's been decades since I really looked closely.

Fine work.


Ed Baker said...

yes, thanks for the link to the Dali water-colors... Dali had 'eyes/mind' that was 'tuned into' what others of his era were seeing... lots of drug-induced visions of "things" in those days before political, religious and ethical "correctness" became rule..
two books by Dali that I revisit might be fun .... and lots of his sketches/repos in both showing that the Alice pieces were in-his-stream
of doing:

-Dali on Modern Art
-The Secret Life of Salvador Dali

((sorry about the accent over the "i"
(and, as you may know, one should
((in all ways)accent the 'eyes'))

about 10-11 more hours and this storm gonna hit us lucky we are on the south-west side...all north-east of Baltimore gonna get s o c k e d:

expect 10,000 crappy haiku in the after-math ! and, there is a full moon tonight an tomorrow !

full moon
behind a cloud
will I see you again

rain and wind picking up here...
leaves are playing in the gusts
what will happen to the squirrels
in the old oak tree when it falls
where will this white-haired rabbit

pee est remember seeing S D several time on live tv what an intelligent man he was !