Chao’s sadness comes from experience.
While the title makes you think otherwise, something about the portrait of Taiwanese singer Lily Chao on the cover of Chinese Folk Songs tells you that this is not exactly an album of folk music. Maybe it’s the silky pink dress; maybe it’s the look on her face, big eyes gazing upward as she poses for a coquettish glam shot. But the reluctant, barely formed smile seems to reveal the inner life of a woman who didn’t even want to be a singer.
French record label Akuphone introduces this reluctant pop star to Western audiences with a reissue of an album originally released in 1968. The songs indeed have folk sources, from different traditions: “Whose Blooming Rose” is Sichuan; “Mountain Girl,” Little Cowherd” and “Feeling Grieved” are from Taiwan; while “Rainbow Girl” and “Youthful Dance Song” are Xinjiang folk songs. But these traditional songs are given swinging pop arrangements that suggest a variation on Cliff Richard and the Shadows, with sharp guitar lines and moody organ floating over a lilting rhythm section.
Though catchy and charming, the songs draw a melancholy air from Chao’s voice. Still, it’s not all plaintive and wistful. Shouted choruses of “Hey!” and an organ riff that could have come from an American garage band turn “Mountain Girl” into something like a Western movie theme for Swinging Taipei. Its lyrics suggest a melodrama with a happy ending: “Missing the girl, the alpine burly and passionate man/ Marries that girl and leads a happy life.”
Song lyrics seem to present different ideals of the young Taiwanese woman. Chao’s voice gives these a hint of tragedy, as if she’s trapped by the impossibly ideal image of fame. “Rainbow Girl” wraps up this sadness and idealism into one catchy number. She may sing (in translation), “Oh how this sweet affection will hold us together as one,” but her voice suggests an unhappy ending.
“I Smile When I See You” is one of the album’s more up-tempo songs, its swinging rock beat driving lyrics translated as “Your elegant demeanor is just awesome.” Midway through “It’s Vexed to Talk About Love,” she bursts into English, with a surprising rockabilly twang: “Every time I see you coming/ Walking down the street/ Oh I get a funny feelin’/ Then my heart skips a beat.” As the song ends her language breaks down into a crazy-talk blubber, confirming the difficulty of putting the heart’s desires into words.
Chao’s sadness comes from experience. She postponed going to college so she could become a cabaret singer and support her mother in Taiwan. The singer was uncomfortable with fame and the gossip that accompanied it and was known for a cold look that led to her nickname “The Ice Queen.” She married and moved to the United States in the early ‘70s, in part to escape notoriety and a demanding mother. Her husband supported her through school, but when he was severely injured in an accident Chao returned to singing, working so hard that she was back on stage at a late-night club just days after giving birth. That marriage failed, and she returned to Taiwan where another marriage failed. Despite a last-minute attempt to find solace in a higher power, she was too far gone and committed suicide. Chinese Folk Songs is the record of an exotic pop talent; if you listen closely enough, it’s the sound of a tragedy.