bookmark_borderPost-293: Jordan Am a Hard Road to Travel

“Jordan Am a Hard Road to Travel” is a traditional American song out of 1800s with many versions. One version is by Jimmie Driftwood, a prolific songwriter out of Arkansas, active from the 1930s-1990s. The lyrics are nowhere to be found online. I’ll transcribe them and put them up here.

The song was recorded in 1959. It tells the story of a man who went to California during the Gold Rush.

Jordan Am a Hard Road to Travel
By Jimmy Driftwood / 1959 / “The Westward Movement” album

There was an old man
from the county called Pike
And his name was Jolly ol’ Higgins

The darned ol’ fool
Who went an’ bought an ol’ mule
And was bound for the California diggins

Pull off your overcoat
‘n’ roll up your sleeves
For Jordan am a hard road to travel!
Pull off your overcoat
‘n’ roll up your sleeves
For Jordan am a hard road, I believe.

He took some bacon
An’ he took some beans
An’ he took some raw corn whiskey

He woulda took more
But he couldn’t pile it on
For the darned ol’ mule was so frisky

On he went
Through the mire and the mud
Till he came to this ol’ Platte River

In he plunged
Head over heels
And the bacon and the beans were lost forever


If ever I marry
In this wide world
I’ll marry the ferryman’s daughter

So my wife can stand
In the prow of the boat
And my children can play in the water

If ever I marry
In this wide world
I’ll wed sweet Sally Gordon

She owns half the land
In the You-nited States
And a farm on the other side-a Jordan


If you’re wondering
Who I am,
My name is jolly ol’ Higgins

I’m the darned ol’ fool
Who went ‘n’ bought the old mule
And I’m bound for the California diggins




Pioneer Trails, mid-1800s USA
Trails along the Platte River start at Council Bluffs, Iowa

A section of the South Platte River today (Photograph by Lori Potter, Kearney Hub newspaper [Kearney, Nebraska]).

Painting of a pioneer crossing the Platte River
Comment: I can imagine this simple-seeming song being painfully indecipherable to those not familiar with folksy old-style American English and with the Bible. “Jordan” refers to the Jordan River of Biblical times; here “crossing the Jordan” is a metaphor for hard struggle. Also: Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River; “Jolly ol’ Higgins” is submerged totally in the water, too!

A credit to Jimmie Driftwood that he ends the song with Higgins still on the journey out to California, even after losing all his supplies. Jimmie Driftwood (1907-1998) was a product of 1910s and 1920s America, a time when (I think) the American spirit was optimistic and self-confident. He supposedly wrote many of his songs as aids to teaching his students U.S. history. His first career was as a teacher. His most famous song of all is probably Battle of New Orleans, sung by Johnny Horton.

bookmark_borderPost-292: On Lee Kuan Yew, Founder of Singapore

Singapore was expelled from Malaysia in 1965.

Singapore’s government in ’65 was led by a man born Harry Lee, educated at Cambridge. By then, he was using the name Kuan Yew. He’d led Singapore since 1959, when full self-government was granted by the British. Lee Kuan Yew did everything he could to prevent the expulsion from Malaysia, I’ve read. When it was finalized, he went on television, in front of the entire nation-to-be, and as he announced the expulsion, he wept. He wept!

Singapore was unable to feed itself or even provide itself with water, and so he understandably feared that Singapore would be reduced to a pathetic walled-off island ghetto, a kind of Southeast-Asian Gaza. No wonder he wept.


Lee Kuan Yew in the 1950s
Fifty years later, Singapore is one of the world’s premier cities.

I’ve been through its airport once, but so far never outside. It felt like a several star hotel, that airport did. (By contrast, I regret to admit that U.S. airports today tend to feel like second-rate bus stations.) By all accounts that I’ve read and heard from others, Singapore is efficient and well-run, with the main criticism being that it’s rather boring.

With the death of Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015), the Singaporeans of my acquaintance seem truly sad. One, resident in Korea, took the time to go to the Singapore embassy in Seoul and sign a book of condolence (whatever that is) on Friday of the mourning week. Another, who returned to Singapore some time ago, spent hours in line to view the casket, it seems finally getting to view it past 3:30 AM. It is hard for us to imagine the attachment they must feel to him. He led the government for over thirty years and heavily influenced things for over twenty more. His party has never been out of power. His son is the new prime minister.

That Singapore is a one-party state (defacto) with authoritarian overtones (e.g., its very high per capita usage of the death penalty, limited freedom of the press) doesn’t seem to bother the Singaporeans I have known, that I can tell. Lee said that this was the nature of Asians — they want and need strong government.

Lee viewed multiracial society as inherently unstable, it seems. He was an advocate of Singapore maintaining a primarily Chinese racial character (without persecuting the minority races), with a comfortable Chinese racial majority. (If any White American public figure of today said anything comparable [“We need to protect the USA’s majority-European racial character”, e.g.], we all know that he would be mercilessly demonized by the media and would likely be expelled from public life.)

Lee said: “I have to amend [British parliamentary democracy] to fit my people’s position. In multiracial societies, you don’t vote in accordance with your economic interests and social interests, you vote in accordance with race and religion. Supposing I’d run their system here, Malays would vote for Muslims, Indians would vote for Indians, Chinese would vote for Chinese. I would have a constant clash in my Parliament which cannot be resolved because the Chinese majority would always overrule them. So I found a formula that changes that…”

“There are some flaws in the assumptions made for democracy. It is assumed that all men and women are equal or should be equal. Hence, one-man-one-vote. But is equality realistic? If it is not, to insist on equality must lead to regression. Lee wrote this. A typical Westerner of today would feel uncomfortable, weak in the stomach, at hearing this kind of talk; it is akin to blasphemy for the true-believing Westerner. The problem…is the system of one man, one vote when we have to get quality leadership to the top. If we leave it to natural processes it will be a contest of television performances as in the West. And the best television performers and rally entertainers are not necessarily the best leaders who can deliver good government.” I challenge anyone to argue that this is not a rational and sound criticism of democracy.

So let’s say that Lee Kuan Yew got away with saying a lot (things Western public figures are no longer allowed to say). On the other hand, Singapore hasn’t had much time for individuals’ free speech. I have read U.S. journalist Robert Elegant’s 1990 book Pacific Destiny,  a survey of each the countries of East Asia, with discussions of their recent pasts, cultures, politics, economic situations, and likely futures based on then-current trends, interspersed with the journalist’s own extensive experiences all across East Asia. The writer, Elegant, tells of his decades-long-running animosity with Lee Yuan Yew. “We have known each other since 1954, but not have been terribly fond of each other,” Elegant wrote this around 1989. (Elegant is an impressive figure: a White American, Yale educated, fluent in Chinese and Japanese, and a journalist for U.S. news magazines and newspapers from the 1950s through at least the 1990s.)
It seems that this animosity was kindled by Lee Kuan Yew’s regular defamation lawsuits against Elegant. Elegant sometimes published things critical of the Singapore government, you see. Other journalists had the same problem.

Elegant respected Lee all the same, and the Singapore chapter in the Pacific Destiny book is mostly a mini-biography of Lee Kuan Yew. Elegant comments on this by saying something like, “To discuss Singapore is to discuss Lee Kuan Yew.” He boldly attributes Singapore’s success to the man. Lee is cordial in the interview for the book (Elegant published long quotations of all his interviews in the book, recorded on a tape recorder). Alas, Lee respected Elegant, too, as perhaps the USA’s most eminent journalist in Asia of that era.


Excerpt from the Singapore chapter of “Pacific Destiny” (1990) by U.S. journalist Robert Elegant. ‘Moira’ refers to the author’s Australian wife.
Reading Elegenant’s various comments about Lee Kuan Yew, the idea comes to my mind for a comedy movie, following this pair from their first meeting in 1954 through say 2014, “documenting” their long-running feud.

The entire Singapore chapter of Pacific Destiny is good (the entire book is good). Here is another excerpt:


At one point, Elegant describes the first time he met Lee Kuan Yew. It was 1954. At some kind of Chinese political rally in then-British-Malaya. The atmosphere is lively; one rousing speech in Mandarin after another. Poor ol’ Harry Lee, aspiring politician, can’t understand Mandarin (Elegant himself, fluent in Mandarin, is observing the scene from the back in his capacity as a journalist). A nervous Lee paces around, mostly staying in the back, trying to blend in and hoping no one notices his lack of understanding of the other speeches. Now it’s his turn to speak. Up goes Harry Lee to the podium. He begins to speak, in English. Suddenly, booing! Lee gets shouted down by the more macho ethnic Chinese in the audience (who is this clown using English?) and that’s the end of that!

This bizarre scene, viewed in the right light, can be a metaphor for Singapore itself. The very same man who was booed off the stage in 1954, had, a few decades later, achieved world fame and acclaim as a respected statesman. He will be a secular saint to Singaporeans for many, many years to come.

I admire Lee Kuan Yew, from what I know about him. Whatever his faults, he had the  intellectual and moral courage to say what he believed was right and not waffle around, bending this way and that with each passing breeze. This is true leadership and is admirable.

bookmark_borderPost-291: “It Works Good” (Or, a 1974 Prediction about the Evolution of English)

I didn’t exist yet in the summer of 1974 and I wouldn’t for some time to come. No matter. Through the Internet, I can look back at the news published across the world even years before I was born and in places I’ve never been.

On Thursday July 11th, 1974, the Milwaukee Journal (circulation then 400,000) ran front-page stories about the Watergate scandal. That’s too boring to me to re-read. Towards the back of that day’s paper, a certain letter to the editor was also published. (Don’t ask how I found this.) I’ll republish it here, over forty years later, because I think it’s rather clever. It makes certain predictions we can analyze, given the passage of almost forty-one years now.

The writer was a young man called Jack Chiang. From certain things he says, I would guess is from Hong Kong, and would further guess he is today 60s; possibly early 70s. I wonder what he’s made of the past four decades.

Here is the letter:



In My Opinion
English Is a Fine, Expressive Language, but Please Be Kind to the Learners

If you hear a foreigner say, “He don’t like it,” don’t laugh. There is no big deal. If he says, “I have five hundreds dollars,” don’t feel funny. There are many mad dogs in English waiting to bite foreigners. Only those who learn it as a foreign language know the pain of such bites.

Just think how difficult English sometimes is. We say “spaghetti” but “noodles;” “two sheep” but “two dogs;” and “I do, he does,” but “I did, he did.”

Many sounds in English are very difficult for foreigners to pronounce. When a foreign couple were asked of their ages, the husband replied, “My wife is Dirty, I’m Dirty-two.”

Some people in Hong Kong often confuse the “sh” sound with the “s.” If you say  “Happy New Year” to a person from Hong Kong, do not feel offended if he happens to reply, “Shame to you!” In a Chinese restaurant, “fried rice” might become “fly lice.” One foreign student at Marquette said he was almost driven crazy by the unnecessary changes of tenses. He now uses the present tense to indicate different times of actions. It works. Nobody misunderstands him when he says, “I work yesterday and I work tomorrow.”

What is considered incorrect at one time may be considered acceptable at another. The people who speak such “poor” English might become the pioneers of the English of the future. Even today we seldom complain when we hear people say “it works good,” “the mass media is,” or “this is different than that.” Perhaps one day we will be able to say “You do, I do. You not do, I not do,” instead of “If you do it, I’ll do it. If you don’t do it, I won’t do it, either.”

One of the reasons why English is difficult is because of the many foreign words. Many foreigners — and sometimes even Americans — mispronounce such words as Illinois, Arkansas, Des Moines, detente,to name a few.

When I told my American roommate that the word “ketchup” is Chinese, that “ket” means tomato, that “chup” means sauce or juice, and that “tomato ketchup” is repetitious”, he replies “So is ‘stupid Chinese’.”

Fortunately, even learning English as a second language is sometimes fun — if we do not take the mistakes too seriously. In a college English speech class in Hong Kong, a Chinese student brought the house down when he began his speech with “Ladies and Gentlemans…” An American friend of mine always makes fun of me by saying — before we go anywhere together — “Let’s went.”

Of course, hundreds of millions of English speaking people can’t be wrong. With all its difficulties, English is still very expressive. Any foreign student who has studied English for a while would find delight in learning expressions like “sell down the river,” “barking up the wrong tree,” “beat the price down,” and “six of one, half a dozen of another.”


Jack Chiang is a graduate student in journalism at Marquette. He taught Chinese conversation at Marquette Free University during the 1973-’74 academic year, and is spending the summer at Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.

[End of Quotation from the newspaper] [Original text]

Jack Chiang (probably born in the 1940s), whoever he is, gives four examples of “wrong English” which he suggests may become standard English in the future. The future has now arrived. I’m curious to see if he was right. Here are the four phrases, and my impressions of them, as an American English native speaker born in the 1980s:

(1) “It works good”. This sounds to me like an uneducated person’s phrasing. Probably we all agree this is a phrase that should not be written, and that if you want to say it in spoken speech, choose your company carefully. I don’t know how people reacted to “It works good” in the 1970s, but I doubt it’s made much more headway (if any) into standard English by the mid-2010s, now, than it had by the mid-1970s. “It works well” has held the line very well these past four decades, for whatever reason. Check again four decades from now, in the 2050s.

(2) “The mass media is”. He got this one right. Media has become a singular. “The media is” has become standard. And as well it should be! In Latin it’s a plural, but English is not Latin. The word functions as a singular in English. Checking Google, I find “the media is…” gets 27.3 million hits. Meanwhile, “the media are…” gets 10.2 million hits, and all the top results for “the media are…” we see to be language-learning websites discussing this very issue(!); in other words, there are not so many ‘living’ usages. Another of the front-page Google hits, as of this writing, for “media are” is a quotation from 1954. So much for “the media is” as incorrect English. One solid point to Jack Chiang.

(3) “This is different than that”. This one took me a little by surprise because it doesn’t even seem obviously wrong at first glance. I looked it up, and found this:


If 30% of Americans prefer “different than”, it means it’s heard commonly enough to not be immediately recognizable as wrong. (I wonder what percent say “It works good”). In writing, “different than” does seem more wrong.

I have probably used “different than” in speech, but rarely in all but the most informal writing. It’s strange how that works. I did a search of this website (again via Google), and I find that I’ve used “different from” many times and have never used “different than”. The latter phrase appears once on this website (before now), as part of a quotation from someone else (post-#129).

(4) “You do, I do. You not do, I not do.”  I think Mr. Chiang probably meant this almost entirely as a joke. Even though the Chinese did get “no can do” and “long time, no see” into more-or-less standard spoken English, I can’t imagine any self-respecting English native speaker ever talking like, “You do, I do. You not do, I not do”.  At best, that sounds like Yoda from Star Wars. I don’t think Chinese grammar has had any influence on American English. Maybe if China becomes the world’s superpower, this odd phrasing proposed by Jack Chiang forty years ago may become less odd. Check back in a few decades.

And so Jack Chiang, writing in 1974, gets one prediction absolutely right (#2), one sort of right (#3), and two wrong, I think.

It’s only 2015. There’s a lot of future left to be had. And, say, why is “It works good” wrong, anyway?

bookmark_borderPost-290: First Impression of Japan

I’ll write about my trip to Japan in small pieces.

Day One
Outside Hakata Station, Fukuoka, Kyushu Island.

Wheeling my suitcase along, trying to find my way in diminishing daylight, I am forced to stop a while and wait until the little red man gives way to the little green man and we are allowed to cross the street.

It is just then that the Quiet really hits me.

I look around. Buses, and taxis, and bicyclists, and pedestrians, some frantic ones and others less frantic; there is a force-of-nature-like surge of energy to all of it flowing together; overheard, billboards, neon in liberal doses. Behind me, one of the country’s major train stations with its adjacent shopping center. A typical big city. A typical Asian city. But where is the noise?

Yes, it is much quieter than it ought to be. Where is the noise…?

This is my first impression of Japan, and I like it.

This Quiet fit neither my previous experiences of such places nor my expectations. Maybe I should have expected such, from what others have told me about Japan over the years. I didn’t. How can a place with so many thousands of people (and running motors), in close quarters be…so quiet?


Hakata Station in Fukuoka, Japan, early March 2015, sunset.

Let me try to answer my own question.

Urban noise, I suppose, is nothing more than the jumbling together of lots of small, extraneous noises, like a car honking off yonder, someone shouting at a friend in the distance, music blaring from an unseen speaker, loud conversations from passersby, a motor-scooter revving behind you and zooming by on a sidewalk, and these days, cell phone conversations. A lot of small things like that. And, come to think of it, probably the majority of these noises come from individual choices. Do I need to honk that horn? Do I need to shout at my friend? Do I need to play my music loudly? And so on.

I figure that in Japan in public, part of the social contract is “Don’t make noises for no reason”. This does not apply to entertainment districts or shopping areas, where noise is okay and encouraged. Outside those kinds of designated areas, I think this rule applies and is followed by Japanese loyally. When the sum total of thousands of individuals’ decisions “to not make unnecessary noise” are added together, we get quiet. It seems simple, but to actually see it is amazing. Many Americans also basically follow this principle, but many don’t. It only takes a few…

bookmark_borderPost-289: Back from Japan

I have returned to Incheon, South Korea from Japan. Over two weeks with no regular Internet access, I lost the habit of occasionally writing here. It requires discipline to write here. After returning from Japan, I busied myself with moving to a new home. I spent a lot of time with my friend M.P., who has returned to the USA this past Monday.

I really need to write about Japan. There is too much to say. Let me say something simple. I liked Japan. I was all around the country, from Kyushu (about a week) up through Tokyo. My first impression was that Japan was, “per capita”, the quietest place I’ve ever been.

A lot more can be said; maybe later.