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Laying It Between the Lines: Music Diplomacy in Shanghai

“But if I really say it/ the radio won’t play it/ unless I lay it between the lines.”  This song made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary was about rock & roll music, but the same principle was applied in conducting public diplomacy programs in Shanghai at a time of censorship and chilly bilateral relations. China had officials whose job was specifically to guard against “American spiritual pollution,” so overcoming these challenges called for a creative bent.

One way to get around censorship was to convey the message indirectly, by talking about music. Lloyd Neighbors used not only his fluency in Mandarin but also his love of American folk music and jazz to get the message across about U.S. history, society and culture to students eager to listen.

A dedicated China hand, Neighbors served as a Branch Public Affairs Officer in Shanghai from 1983-1987, as Public Affairs Officer in Taipei from 1997-1999, and as the Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs in Beijing from 2000-2003. He was in Shanghai during the events described in this February 2013 interview with David Reuther.

To read about Neighbor’s experience with presidential visits, China or public diplomacy, please follow the links.


 “If I want to make a case for American society and values, I can’t expect to influence people by logic alone”

Early in my career I decided to make use of my skill as a public speaker in order to get access to organizations and be able to talk about issues that the U.S, wanted to present to our so-called target audiences. Now this worked in Taiwan and Croatia — but not so much in China. Chinese organizations were paranoid about student contact with American diplomats. So to be allowed on campus as a speaker, I had to pick topics that at least seemed innocuous. Only that way could the university barbarian handlers approve my lectures. (Neighbors is seen at left.)

Previously, in Taiwan and in Yugoslavia – much less sensitive environments — I spoke to students and teachers about American history as seen through folk music, popular music, and jazz. These lectures proved to be an even better fit for Mainland China. When I told Chinese university officials that I wanted to talk to students about American folk music, they would think, “That’s a safe topic. I won’t get in trouble for approving that. So, OK.”

In early 1984 I was invited by Nanjing University, the English Department, to give a lecture on American folk music. You might ask, why had I decided that music would be a good way to introduce topics of American history to Chinese students? Well, experience has taught me the following: if I want to make a case for American society and values, I can’t expect to influence people by logic alone.

Blunt facts don’t change minds, even if the facts are true. I also needed to be careful about being overly critical of China. So I decided to use an indirect approach when I spoke about American society, politics, and democracy.

“I did it in a way that didn’t seem threatening – at least until it was too late to stop me”

I believe that one of the most persuasive ways to sidle into a political critique is to use music. With music you’re not appealing to a rational explanation of a situation. You’re working on the emotions. If, for example, I tell you: “Here are the five objective, scientific reasons why you should think that America is a good place and that spinach is good for you,” you’re not going to say, “Aha, I see the light.”

It doesn’t work that way. On the other hand, you can approach the truth through music, which arouses people’s feelings, and can often be a more persuasive way to lead into difficult issues.

Why did I decide to talk about American folk music rather than some other genre? Well, first of all, American folk music is influenced by two main traditions: the black music of Africa and the European music brought mostly from Scotland and England. This gave me the opportunity to talk race issues.

Much of American folk music has its roots in gospel and religious music. So this allowed me to explain how religion has profoundly affected American society, history, culture. Later on in my lecture I turned to the role of protest songs. I talked about the labor movement of the 1930s and the Civil Rights Movement – Martin Luther King.

So I presented myself as talking about American folk music, but I was really addressing all the key issues of democratization and race issues — so this was a nice and sneaky way to be able to talk about the weighted topics that USIS was supposed to deal with. But I did it in a way that didn’t seem threatening – at least until it was too late to stop me.

“Wow, this is like Mick Jagger! They’re dying to hear what I have to say”

That was the theory. Now to see how this operated in practice. As mentioned earlier, I was invited to come up to Nanjing University in early 1984 for a lecture on American music. I was excited to have this opportunity. I worked hard in preparing to give the lecture in Chinese. The students I was speaking to — all of them had studied English. Their spoken English wasn’t too good, but they could read English reasonably well. To illustrate my lecture I was going to play recordings of 12 folksongs.

I printed out the lyrics of all the songs in English, so the students would be able read along as they listened. I had been told there would be 100 students attending the lecture. So I thought, “I should prepare 150 lyric sheets. That way I’ll be sure to have enough, and I can always use the leftovers for future lectures.”

So I arrive at Nanjing University and the students are all atwitter, because they’ve heard about the lecture. I arrive in the room — the auditorium — where the event’s taking place. The room is packed – at least 300 students there (laughs).

In those days — not like it is now — students rarely had the chance to meet a foreigner, let along ask him questions. It was politically difficult for them to do this. And then in Nanjing there just weren’t that many foreigners.

In this case they had the opportunity not only to meet an American diplomat but to hear him talk about American popular music as well. This was a big deal. That’s why 300 people showed up. So I’m trying to figure out what to do, since I don’t have enough handouts. I’ve got it.

I make the announcement, “I’ve made some lyric sheets for you so that you can understand the songs. But unfortunately, I don’t have enough copies for everyone. So would you please share the lyrics with the person sitting next to you.”

Immediately I received my first lesson in the economics of scarcity. Originally I had two students stationed in front to hand out my precious lyric sheets. When I said, “Would you please share — I don’t have enough,” everyone in the audience leaped to their feet and charged to the front of the room. The lyrics went flying up in the air and someone knocked over the microphone and broke it (laughs). …

At first I was shocked but then I thought, “Wow, this is like Mick Jagger! They’re dying to hear what I have to say.” So I went ahead and gave the lecture and the audience was enthusiastic, obviously.

The story doesn’t end there, however. Some 20 years later, I was in Beijing at the ambassador’s residence for a dinner. We had invited important writers, artists, and cultural entrepreneurs to meet the ambassador. So I’m at this dinner and this young man comes up to me and says,

“You probably don’t remember me, but I was in the audience at Nanjing University when you gave your lecture on American folk music. In fact, I was the student who organized the event, and I got in trouble for it when school authorities discovered what you were talking about.”

Then he added, “But it was worth it. The lecture was great, and I didn’t get in real bad trouble. They did scold me for inviting you to the university.”

Clearly if I upset the university FAO [Foreign Affairs Office, censor unit], I was doing the right thing.

“Through music I was able to discuss sensitive topics that needed to be understood by Chinese students”

In 1998 I lectured in Chinese at seven different universities and also at the AIT American Center. “The History of American Folk Music” was one of my favorite topics. This allowed me to talk about race and religion, civil rights, the labor movement, the Vietnam War.

Through music I was able to discuss sensitive topics that needed to be understood by Chinese students and the general public as well. I also developed a new lecture, a short history of the United States as seen through popular music. I called it “America: the Dream and the Reality.”

I began with Gatsby and the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s boat dock. I wound the story through songs about whalers and loggers and cowboys; Railroad Bill and John Henry; Joe Hill and the copper bosses; garment workers and coal miners; Woody Guthrie, bound for glory; Judy Garland, not in Kansas anymore; and Rick and Elsa watching time go by in Casablanca. I closed with Martin Luther King and the partially redeemed promise of American democracy.

A PAO [Public Affairs Officer] is supposed to defend U.S. policy and persuade audiences to agree with our views. Early on in my career I realized that rational discussion and explanations don’t often convince….To change a person’s mind you have to strike an emotional note, and a good way to do that is through music.

Music hits a different part of your brain, and makes you want to cry or laugh or leap into action. That’s why music has always been vital to political and social movements — civil rights in America and the Cultural Revolution in China. That’s why I consistently used music to enliven my lectures and give them emotional heft.

I was always on the lookout for new lecture topics. One day I chanced upon a comment by historian Oscar Handlin. He said, “I once thought to write a history of American immigrants. But then I discovered that immigrants are American history.”

About the same time I saw a beautiful article on American education written for The Atlantic by James Fallows. His article talked about American education, showing how our national character shapes the way we teach our children and discussing how our immigrant history makes us so different from more traditional societies like Great Britain, Japan, and China.

Inspired by these two articles, I prepared a lecture linking the two—immigration and education. I started with Franklin Roosevelt’s iconic speech to the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1938. The Daughters were known for being snobs. They looked down on the “unwashed” immigrants who arrived after 1776. FDR put them in their place with his opening words: “Remember, remember always that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”

From there I discussed how the immigrant experience had shaped everything about America, how it made us the first modern nation, free from the traditions and strictures of the Old World. Immigrants were often oddballs, restless renegades who gave up their identities and came to America to recreate themselves. And this spirit of individualism had a dramatic effect on our system of education.

We saw education not as the privilege of the few, but as an opportunity for the many. I wove into my lecture a description of Chinese reverence for education, a reverence blighted by a system that encourages memorization and mindless obedience. I suggested that Taiwan in some ways resembled America. Taiwan society also owes much to its immigrants – both to the Fujian farmers and fisherman who came to the island hundreds of years ago, and to the mainlanders who fled to Taiwan after 1949.

 “Of course we were talking about the American Civil Rights Movement, but we didn’t bill it in those terms”

Around this same time I was also looking for ways to address the issue of human rights and civil society in a way that might be permitted by the ever-vigilant Chinese guardians of Chinese public opinion, those tasked with protecting the populace against American “spiritual pollution.”

To do this I decided to develop a tag-team lecture with John Berry, a colleague from the embassy press section. With Black American History Month approaching, we decided to talk about race in America and the role of Martin Luther King. Of course we were talking about the American Civil Rights Movement, but we didn’t bill it in those terms. That would have been anathema to the moral police at every university.

As I had done for many of my previous university lectures in China, I decided to use music to illustrate our points. I selected a number of songs that talked about the Civil Rights Movement and illustrated the problem of racism in America.

John and I then made comments on the music, speaking about our own experiences as well. I talked about coming from Marshall, Texas, a segregated city when I was growing up. John Berry talked about his experience as a 16-year-old in 1963 attending the iconic march on the Lincoln Memorial and hearing in person Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. At that time John was in high school. He lived in Maryland. [He] came on his own to the greatest civil rights march in American history.

I started out the lecture by playing the song “Strange Fruit” as performed Billie Holiday. “Strange Fruit” was a powerful civil rights song based on a poem by Abel Meeropol, a Bronx high school teacher, a member, incidentally, of the American Communist Party.

In writing the song Meeropol was reacting to a dreadful photograph of two young black men being lynched by a mob in Marion, Indiana, in 1930. As the words to the song have it: “Strange fruit hangs from southern trees. Black men’s bodies swaying in the breeze.”

Much against the advice of her agent and friends, Billie Holiday made this song a standard part of her repertoire. Her version was raw; gut-wrenching, a devastating condemnation of racism in America. It was difficult to start out a speech with this corrosive image of the United States. But John and I wanted to be frank about the problems that existed in the United States at that time.

We followed that up with a song by Big Bill Broonzy, a black blues singer. Broonzy had served in the military during World War I, had been a soldier. When he came back to America after the war, he wrote and performed the song, “When Will I Get to Be Called a Man?”

In the 1920’s, in the segregated South, black men were often referred to as boys. Broonzy said, “I can even go off to war and fight in World War I and risk getting killed. And I come back and they call me Soldier Boy.” It’s also a powerful song — bitter but a good example of the black view of society and the way they were treated. They could risk death for their country, but their country gave them little but contempt and calumny in return.

After these bleak but powerful songs, John and I moved to the best of the civil rights anthems. I noted that when you really want to inspire and convince an audience, move them to action, music can be more effective than words. During the Chinese Revolution, for example, revolutionary songs based on folk models stirred up the crowds. That’s why song and dance troupes played a key role in the spread of Communist ideology and Chinese nationalism.

In much the same way, the civil rights movement used American folk music and Afro-American spirituals/religious songs as a call to action. They changed the words of old hymns to fit the new situation, moving their listeners from biblical times to the present with a few well-wrought analogies.

Many of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were members of the Protestant Church — Baptists, Methodists. Martin Luther King was a Baptist preacher. And many blacks saw themselves in the story of Moses leading the Israelite slaves out of bondage in Egypt.

We ended the lecture with a song by Bruce Springsteen called “Galveston Bay”

From that point in the lecture John and I turned to the protest music of Bob Dylan, featuring his iconic protest song, “The Times They Are a Changing.” We pointed out how the civil rights protest movement boiled up from below and wrought dramatic changes in American life.

We told the story of Thurgood Marshall, a black lawyer, pleading the most famous civil rights case in American history, Brown vs. the Board of Education, and how he later became a Supreme Court justice. We pointed out the increasing role of black Americans in the highest levels of government, noting the rise of Colin Powell and Condi Rice, and explaining how this would have been unthinkable when John and I were boys. (This was before Barack Obama came on the scene.)

We ended the lecture with a song by Bruce Springsteen called “Galveston Bay.” “Galveston Bay” is a modern ballad, a song that tells a true story in the old tradition brought by the Scots and the English from the old world.

Springsteen tells the tale of a man named Billy who fought in the Vietnam War, was wounded, and then came back to the U.S. He had grown up in Galveston and worked as a shrimp fisherman. The other character in the story is Li Bin Song, a Vietnamese fisherman who gets drafted into the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam), fights against the North Vietnamese, but then is defeated, and flees Vietnam as a boat person, winding up as an immigrant in Galveston, Texas, where he, too, works as a shrimp fisherman.

Problem is at this time the entrenched white fisherman and the Vietnamese boatmen are at odds with each other. The whites think that the Vietnamese, the foreigners are driving them out of business. So there’s a great deal of rivalry.

Then one night members of the local Ku Klux Klan decide they’re going to frighten the Vietnamese boat people and burn some of their boats. They come to Li Bin Song’s boat and attack him. And he shoots one of them, kills him.

Now, in the United States and Texas of the 1930s or 40s, a non-white killing a white might have been lynched and certainly would have been sent to prison. But as the ballad tells it, Li Bin Song was acquitted in a public trial, because the shooting was judged to have been in self-defense.

This was an enormous change for the way American society and even conservative Texas 206 works. In the ballad, Billy, the white fisherman, is standing on the courthouse steps when Li Bin Song comes out after the not-guilty verdict. Billy says, “You’re a dead man, Li.”

The scene switches to the Galveston docks at nighttime. Li Bin Song is smoking a cigarette on the deck of his ship. And Billy is hiding in the shadows with his K-Bar knife at hand. But at the last minute, Billy says, “Not worth it.” And so he turns, puts his knife up, returns home, kisses his wife goodnight, and goes out and casts his net upon the waters. And so, that’s a perfect illustration of the way things have changed in America.

“We know we can’t get better unless we’re willing to criticize ourselves”

[This was a lecture to] Chinese students. John Berry and I gave this lecture several times at various universities. I gave it alone on some occasions. It got strong reactions from the students. I always tried to make the point that the United States is far from perfect as a country and as a democracy, but that we do have the oldest written constitution in the world. We’re proud of that, but we’re trying always to perfect that democracy, to make it better.

We have flaws. Racism in America was an incredibly difficult problem, a blot on our society. We have worked diligently to make it better. We still have many flaws, but we know we can’t get better unless we’re willing to criticize ourselves.

After one lecture, I remember a student got up and gave a short speech. He noted that United States was the greatest country, most powerful country in the world. But he was awaiting the day when China would reach the place where it could climb on the shoulders of ot

her nations and crush them into the ground (laughs)! Didn’t say it in quite those words, but that’s what he was getting at.

In response I tried to say that if our two countries can develop a good relationship, we don’t have to crush others into the ground. We can cooperate and make better lives for everyone.

At that same venue another student asked, “What can we as students do to make China a better place? What would you do?”

And I said, “It’s not my position to decide what you need to do. I was just talking about the United States and how we have made things better by having an open society that allows criticism. But it’s not my job at all to tell you what you need to do.

You as students and Chinese citizens have to figure out what your role should be. More openness in government is important – at least that’s what we think in the United States. I’m not trying to lecture you on what you should do. I’m just giving you an example of what the U.S. has learned through its experience.”