Scientifically speaking, sounds are simply vibrations that spread through the air for anyone’s ears and brain to pick up on and interpret. Sometimes, if those vibrations are just right, they can seem to travel much farther and deeper than anyone could imagine.

In that same way, a song can spread around the world when it hits people just the right way. That’s perhaps why a Japanese folk song by the legendary Hibari Misora from the 50s ended up as a British ska tune in the late 80s. Here’s the evolution of that song based on an explanation by Tsuyoshi Sato of music website Tap the Pop.

■ Ringo Oiwake by Hibari Misora
The name Hibari Misora might not be known as well in the rest of the world, but ask anyone inside Japan who she was and you’ll get as weird a look as you might make if someone had just asked you who Michael Jackson was.

In addition to being the top-selling Japanese singer of all time she had an extensive film career and also stood as a symbol whom a disillusioned post-war Japan could rally behind while finding the strength to persevere. Her song “Kawa no Nagare no Yo ni” was voted the greatest Japanese song ever in a 1997 poll. Needless to say, she’s a pretty big deal around here.

Around 1952 she recorded another of her hit songs, “Ringo Oiwake.” Have a listen.

■ “Ringo Oiwake” by the Skatalites
About a decade later, as the Jamaican take on American jazz known as ska was taking shape one of the genre’s notable groups, The Skatalites, did most of their recordings. Somehow, during this time, the Hibari Misora song found its way to them and inspired them enough to do a cover version.

Here it is along with some interesting additions, which we’ll explain in a moment.

Right off the bat you can hear someone shout “Here comes Ringo!” and the sound of a horse galloping. Also the sounds of gunshots are peppered throughout the song.

Sato explains that this is most likely because of the way they interpreted the word Ringo in the title. In the 1939 film Stagecoach, a young John Wayne made a name for himself by playing a character named the Ringo Kid. So it would seem the Skatalites either thought the song was about him or intentionally changed it to be about him. Considering the Skatalites biggest hit was “Guns of Navarone” and they were fairly big western movie fans this isn’t a far-fetched theory at all.

Those familiar with the Japanese language might find that rather funny as the word “ringo” in Hibari’s native tongue actually means “apple” in English. However, this possible misinterpretation is about to come full-circle and get oddly appropriate again.

■ Horse driver’s song
We already explained the first half of the title “Ringo Oiwake” as “apple,” or more accurately “apple blossom” according to the lyrics. The latter word oiwake is a reference to oiwake bushi which means a horse driver’s song. As the name suggests, it’s a song which someone would sing while traveling from town to town with a horse. It uses a steady mellow beat to simulate such a journey.

There are many variations but here is one example of an oiwake bushi, also often called a mago uta. Notice the percussionist using four cups to emulate a horse’s walking.

Now, if you listen again to Hibari Misora’s version of “Ringo Oiwake,” you’ll probably notice the horse beat much more distinctly. So even though it would seem The Skatalites made the horse connection through the word ringo, there was actually a deeper connection between the song and the film Stagecoach, which deals with a long journey and horses.

■ “Ringo Oiwake” by The Trojans
As the decades passed, ska music had made a transition from the jazzy precursor to reggae to a faster and more beat-heavy style specialized in by many UK groups throughout the eighties such as Madness and The Specials.

At the tail end of this movement was a band called The Trojans. They picked up on “Ringo Oiwake,” which by then had become something of a standard in jazz and ska circles thanks to the Skatalites, and did their own unique cover. Here is their version with yet even more interesting additions.

The first thing you might catch in this song is the inclusion of Celtic instruments which blend surprisingly well with this ska cover of a Japanese folk song. It’s a trademark of The Trojans.

Another noticeable addition is the return of the Japanese lyrics and almost in-your-face Japanese references as was the style during the eighties given hits like The Vapors’ “Turning Japanese” and Styx’s “Mr. Roboto.”

■ Scattered in the wind
The following is a rough translation of the lyrics to “Ringo Oiwake”:

The apple blossom scattered in the wind,
Softly on a moonlit night.
A girl from Tsugaru was crying.
For a painful parting she was crying.
The apple blossom scattered in the wind.

“On the top of Mt. Iwaki,
The clouds white like cotton,
Float through the void.
Peach blossom blooms.
Cherry blossom blooms.
Soon after the apple blossom blooms.
That’s the time when it’s most fun for us.
But then a cruel rain comes,
And scatters the white petals,
That was the time when my mom died in Tokyo.”

The Tusgaru girl cried.
She cried for her painful parting.
The apple blossom scattered in the wind.

▼ Here is another version of “Ringo Oiwake” with Hibari Misora (both women are her) from the movie Utae! Seishun Harikiri Musume.

Hibari Misora passed away from pneumonia in 1988. All of the founding members of The Skatalites have also since passed. “Ringo Oiwake” lives on though, scattered throughout the world for another musician to catch onto in seasons to come.

Source: Tap the Pop, Uta Net (Japanese), Gaz Rockin (English)
Video: YouTube – Bill Shaw, kose tube, CASSOUNET1, hrb37s kanal, alouette529