III. A STREET SINGER
A woman carrying a samisen, and accompanied by a little boy seven or eight years old, came to my house to sing. She wore the dress of a peasant, and a blue towel tied round her head. She was ugly; and her natural ugliness had been increased by a cruel attack of smallpox. The child carried a bundle of printed ballads.
Neighbors then began to crowd into my front yard, - mostly young mothers and nurse girls with babies on their backs, but old women and men likewise - the inkyo of the vicinity. Also the jinrikisha-men came from their stand at the next street-corner; and presently there was no more room within the gate.
The woman sat down on my doorstep, tuned her samisen, played a bar of accompaniment, - and a spell descended upon the people; and they stared at each other in smiling amazement.
For out of those ugly disfigured lips there gushed and rippled a miracle of a voice - young, deep, unutterably touching in its penetrating sweetness. "Woman or wood-fairy?" queried a bystander. Woman only, - but a very, very great artist. The way she handled her instrument might have astounded the most skillful geisha; but no such voice had ever been heard from any geisha, and no such song. She sang as only a peasant can sing, - with vocal rhythms learned, perhaps, from the cicada and the wild nightingales, - and with fractions and semi-fractions and demi-semi-fractions of tones never written down in the musical language of the West.
And as she sang, those who listened began to weep silently. I did not distinguish the words; but I felt the sorrow and the sweetness and the patience of the life of Japan pass with her voice into my heart, - plaintively seeking for something never there. A tenderness invisible seemed to gather and quiver about us; and sensations of places and of times forgotten came softly back, mingled with feelings ghostlier, - feelings not of any place or time in living memory.
Then I saw that the singer was blind.
When the song was finished, we coaxed the woman into the house, and questioned her. Once she had been fairly well to do, and had learned the samisen when a girl. The little boy was her son. Her husband was paralyzed. Her eyes had been destroyed by smallpox. But she was strong, and able to walk great distances. When the child became tired, she would carry him on her back. She could support the little one, as well as the bed-ridden husband, because whenever she sang the people cried, and gave her coppers and food.... Such was her story. We gave her some money and a meal; and she went away, guided by her boy.
I bought a copy of the ballad, which was about a recent double suicide: "The sorrowful ditty of Tamayone and Takejiro, - composed by Tabenaka Yone of Number Fourteen of the Fourth Ward of Nippon-bashi in the South District of the City of Osaka." It had evidently been printed from a wooden block; and there were two little pictures. One showed a girl and boy sorrowing together. The other - a sort of tail-piece - represented a writing- stand, a dying lamp, an open letter, incense burning in a cup, and a vase containing shikimi, - that sacred plant used in the Buddhist ceremony of making offerings to the dead. The queer cursive text, looking like shorthand written perpendicularly, yielded to translation only lines like these: -
"In the First Ward of Nichi-Hommachi, in far-famed Osaka - O the sorrow of this tale of shinju!
"Tamayone, aged nineteen, - to see her was to love her, for Takejiro, the young workman.
"For the time of two lives they exchange mutual vows - O the sorrow of loving a courtesan!
"On their arms they tattoo a Raindragon, and the character 'Bamboo' - thinking never of the troubles of life....
"But he cannot pay the fifty-five yen for her freedom - O the anguish of Takejiro's heart!
"Both then vow to pass away together, since never in this world can they become husband and wife....
"Trusting to her comrades for incense and for flowers - O the pity of their passing like the dew!
"Tamayone takes the wine-cup filled with water only, in which those about to die pledge each other....
"O the tumult of the lovers' suicide! - O the pity of their lives thrown away!"
In short, there was nothing very unusual in the story, and nothing at all remarkable in the verse. All the wonder of the performance had been in the voice of the woman. But long after the singer had gone that voice seemed still to stay, - making within me a sense of sweetness and of sadness so strange that I could not but try to explain to myself the secret of those magical tones.
And I thought that which is hereafter set down: -
All song, all melody, all music, means only some evolution of the primitive natural utterance of feeling, - of that untaught speech of sorrow, joy, or passion, whose words are tones. Even as other tongues vary, so varies this language of tone combinations. Wherefore melodies which move us deeply have no significance to Japanese ears; and melodies that touch us not at all make powerful appeal to the emotion of a race whose soul-life differs from our own as blue differs from yellow....Still, what is the reason of the deeper feelings evoked in me - an alien - by this Oriental chant that I could never even learn, - by this common song of a blind woman of the people? Surely that in the voice of the singer there were qualities able to make appeal to something larger than the sum of the experience of one race, - to something wide as human life, and ancient as the knowledge of good and evil.