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Linguist Geoff Nunberg

Linguist Geoff Nunberg considers obscure legal language and the word 'prurient' used in the landmark 1973 Supreme court ruling on obscenity.


Other segments from the episode on May 28, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 28, 2002: Interview with Jim Lauderdale; Interview with Charles Hazlewood, Pauline Malefane and Sandile Kamle; Commentary on language.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Jim Lauderdale discusses his music

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is country music singer and songwriter Jim Lauderdale. He was once
described in Spin magazine as the most gifted voice in alternative country.
He may be alternative country, but his songs have been recorded by such
country stars as George Strait, Patty Loveless, the Dixie Chicks and Vince
Gill. Lauderdale grew up in North Carolina, and now lives in the capital of
country music, Nashville. He has two new recordings. "The Hummingbirds" is a
collection of his country songs. "Lost in the Lonesome Pines" is a collection
of his bluegrass songs, on which he performs with Ralph Stanley & the Clinch
Mountain Boys. Stanley has made an extraordinary comeback as a result of his
performance on the sound track of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" He's a
longtime hero of Lauderdale's, and this is their second album together. Let's
start with the title track, "Lost in the Lonesome Pines."

Mr. RALPH STANLEY: (Singing) I feel the snow that's fallin' as I'm drifting
out of view. I could not hear you callin'. The clouds have fallen through.

lonesome pines, with you I'll never be. Lost, lost in the lonesome pines, and
never more I'll see.

GROSS: Jim Lauderdale with Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys from
their new CD "Lost in the Lonesome Pines." Lauderdale brought his guitar to
the studio. I asked him to introduce and play one of his early songs.

Mr. LAUDERDALE: I've always been a huge Gram Parsons fan ever since I heard
him and wished I could have got to see him play, and also a big George Jones
fan and I read a book by Sid Griffin about Gram and it was talking about how
he used to play George Jones records for people and he'd start crying. And
he'd say `That's the king of broken hearts.' And when I read that, I just
kind of got this jolt and came up with part of this melody. And then I drove
out to Joshua Tree and it was a full moon and I went out by this place called
Capped Rock, where Gram and Keith Richards used to hang and Phil Kaufman later
took Gram's body there and tried to cremate it per Gram's wishes. So anyway,
here's a little bit of "King of Broken Hearts."

(Singing) The king of broken hearts doesn't ask much from his friends and he
has quite a few of them. They know he will understand. That's just the way
it goes. The king of broken hearts doesn't know he's a king. He's trying to
forget other things like some old chilly scenes he's walking through alone.
He talks to angels and the stars start to spin. He thinks of troubles that
he's gotten in. He recalls how his heart got broken and how it's still that
way. The king of broken hearts is so sad and wise, he can smile while he's
crying inside. We know he'll be brave tonight, 'cause he's the king of broken

GROSS: Good song.

Mr. LAUDERDALE: Thank you.

GROSS: That's Jim Lauderdale performing. So when you're writing a song for
somebody else, do you write a different kind of song than you'd write for
yourself? Or do you just, like, write your songs and some you play and some
they play and some you both play?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: When I try to write for somebody else, it does kind of turn
out to be different, the process, if I'm just writing it for myself. I think
a lot of times when I write for other people, when I'm asked to or if I'm
co-writing with someone, I'll get together with them and we'll think
specifically of that person in mind as we're writing and then try to write
something that we could really hear that person do. Oddly enough, it's only
in a couple of instances have people recorded songs that I've written
specifically for them. A lot of times, the songs that really surprise me that
they would record, they end up recording.

GROSS: Why don't we hear one of George Strait's recordings of your songs and
this is called "We Really Shouldn't Be Doing This." It has a kind of Cajun
feel to it. Did you write this one for him?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: No. That one just came out. I luckily wrote that fairly
quickly and then he was looking for stuff, and I had really been racking my
brain for several weeks writing stuff, along with other people, and they kept
passing on that. So that was kind of my last--I had demoed that earlier and I
thought, well, you know, just on a--it's kind of a long shot, but maybe he'll
like it. So I dropped it off at the studio when they were in there recording
and they ended up doing it.

GROSS: OK. So this is George Strait singing a song by my guest, Jim
Lauderdale. This is called "We Really Shouldn't Be Doing This."

(Soundbite from "We Really Shouldn't Be Doing This")

Mr. GEORGE STRAIT: (Singing) We really shouldn't be doing this and we both
know why. Just being close enough to think like this, enough to make you even
lie. This kind of talk with lead us to somewhere, we're getting wicked close
to going there. No farther off; we're better to resist. We really shouldn't
be doing this. Only an isolated incident but the acquaintanceship is done.
The first attraction was the hardest hit I thought I'd ever overcome. This
kind of situation has to pass, this chance encounter has to be the last. To
take it farther we would be remiss. We really shouldn't be doing this.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STRAIT: (Singing) We'd each be hurting somebody else if we don't say our
goodbyes real fast. Won't even think about a farewell kiss. We really
shouldn't be doing this. Well, we really shouldn't be doing this, and we both
know why...

GROSS: That's George Strait doing a song by my guest, Jim Lauderdale.

There are so many types of songs in country music, the kind of crying in your
beer song, the cheating song, the `I just fell in love' song, the `I just fell
out of love' song, the `she's cheating on me' song, `he's cheating on her'
song. Do you think of songs as falling into a category when you write them?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: No, they just come out. But I'll tell you, all those types
you mentioned, that's the stuff I really like in country. And I got to write
some with Harlan Howard over the past several years, and he was certainly one
of the best we've ever had. And I learned a lot from him just hanging out
with him.

GROSS: His best-known song is "I Fall To Pieces," which Patsy Cline recorded.
What did you learn from working with Harlan Howard?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: To kind of explore something, to really get into the psyche
of the character, the person singing the song and the story. He was so
prolific with his lyrics. I'd usually come out with a melody idea and get an
idea from a title of something we would say in conversation. And then he
would just sit there and go, `Well, kid, you know, now what he's saying here,
see, he really loves this woman, but she just won't give him the time of day,'
you know, and he'd go on and he would just sit there and start scribbling and
then we'd edit that down.

GROSS: So he'd make you think of it in terms of a character, not just a song.

Mr. LAUDERDALE: Yes, mm-hmm.

GROSS: Can you play an excerpt of a song you co-wrote with him and talk about
his influence on that song?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: Sure. I was in his office one time where we'd write. And I
was kind of talking about certain situations, and he just said, `Well, kid,
you'll know when it's right.' And when he said that, I just got these chills
up my back, and he was still talking. I grabbed my tape player and I said,
`Excuse me just for a second. Let me put down this melody if that's OK,' and
I did. And then we just finished it right there.

(Singing) Well, I'm sorry that you couldn't love me. But I'm grateful for
your time. And I know there'll come a morning when you won't be on my mind.
Well, I hope that I'll always be as honest as you've always been to me. I
just wish that you were feeling that I was what you need.

GROSS: And what year did you write that?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: We wrote that in '97.

GROSS: Do you think of yourself as being an analytical or an intuitive
songwriter? When you write, are you thinking about the craft of the song and
how the chords are resolving and, you know, where the melody's going, or is it
just kind of coming to you?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: No, it's totally intuitive. The melodies come first, and I
usually get the whole arrangement of a song just in one fell swoop and then
have to flesh out the lyrics later.

GROSS: It's funny, you make--when you get the inspiration for a song and like
the chills go up and down your spine, it sounds almost like one of those
Hollywood musical biopics where like Hoagy Carmichael's crossing the street...

Mr. LAUDERDALE: That's right.

GROSS: ...and then a horn honks. He goes, `That's it! That's a song!' you

Mr. LAUDERDALE: That's right. That's right.

GROSS: So it really happens to you that way where you're just kind of struck
by lightning and you have a song.

Mr. LAUDERDALE: That's right. That's just kind of the hillbilly version of

GROSS: Did that start happening to you as a kid, that songs would just come
to you?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: Little bits would. And then I guess when I was about 19, I
started finishing those little ideas. But I'd get little phrases and kind of
jot them down, write them down. That was before I thought about putting the
melodies on a tape player.

GROSS: My guest is country singer and songwriter Jim Lauderdale. He has two
new CDs, "The Hummingbirds" and "Lost in the Lonesome Pines," which also
features Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singers: Red bird, red bird, stepping on a leaf. Red bird, red
bird, stepping on a leaf...

GROSS: My guest is country singer and songwriter Jim Lauderdale. He has two
new CDs, "The Hummingbirds" and "Lost in the Lonesome Pines," which also
features Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys.

You've been living in Nashville now for about how many years?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: Oh, kind of on and off for about seven, I guess.

GROSS: A lot of people say that Nashville is the contemporary Tin Pan Alley.
Would you agree with that?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: I would. Oh, definitely. And kind of the Brill
Building--yeah, it's where people get together and collaborate. It's probably
the--yeah, this is the capital for that. And I really love a lot of that old
stuff. I used to live in the same building as Doc Pomus, one of my favorite
writers, up in New York. And he was really a sweet guy and always had a lot
of encouragement and advice. And, you know, Doc wrote stuff like "Little
Sister" and "Marie's the Name of His Latest Flame," "Save The Last Dance For

GROSS: "Viva Las Vegas."

Mr. LAUDERDALE: "Viva Las Vegas." And in Nashville, it is that--you know,
with all the publishing companies and writers here--you know, it's funny.
Harlan told me that when he first got to Nashville, there were, you know, like
eight or 10 writers in Nashville at the time. And, you know, now there's
hundreds, if not thousands, of writers here.

GROSS: So Doc Pomus also wrote songs for Dion. What kind of advice did he
give to you?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: He told me kind of to use restraint and not kind of give it
all away and kind of hold back a little bit, you know, just...

GROSS: In terms of performance or the lyric?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: Well, in terms of kind of the whole thing. You know, we--and
kind of a simplified--he wasn't too much for going over the top lyrically.
And he kind of got right to the point.

GROSS: Is there a song of yours that was inspired by him?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: There's one that I wrote with Nick Lowe when we were on a
tour together. Nick's one of my favorites. And it's called "Always On The
Outside." Do you want to hear a little bit of it?

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. LAUDERDALE: (Singing) Always on the outside of your love and looking in.
I want to find a way to climb back into your arms again. Always on the
outside; ask me why, I can't say. You've built a wall around your heart
that's keeping me out of the way. It's wrong so long to be on the outside and
looking in.

GROSS: Good song.

Mr. LAUDERDALE: Thank you.

GROSS: That's Jim Lauderdale performing. Now I think you were in a
production in which you played the part of George Jones?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: Yeah, that's right. Last fall at the Ryman Auditorium in
Nashville, and then before that, we kind of worked the kinks out at the Flat
Rock Playhouse, which when I was a kid I used to cut the grass there and work
in the concession stands. So that was really neat to go back there. And I'm
just a huge George Jones fan. So it was kind of--it was really fun to do
that, to portray him. And he came out to the show, he and his wife and some
of their family. And he took me out to dinner the night before they came.
They surprised me when they came out because they didn't want to make me
nervous. But it was really a great experience.

GROSS: Well, since George Jones is a real-life country music star and you
were playing him and everyone--you know, people know your recordings and they
know his recordings, did you try to sound more like him? Did you...

Mr. LAUDERDALE: Oh, yeah, yeah. I--definitely. And I had heard him so much.
Yeah, I definitely wanted to--I studied a lot of--I'd listened to his singing,
so that was no problem at all. And then I just wanted to kind of try to, you
know, get into his mannerisms and the way he talked and everything and really,
you know, kind of did a character study like that.

GROSS: Can you do a few bars a la George Jones for us?


(Singing) Just because I asked a friend about her, and just because I spoke
her name somewhere, just because I dialed her number by mistake today, she
thinks I still care.

GROSS: That's good. So did it make you nervous to have George Jones in the
audience while you were doing him?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: Well, luckily I didn't know till right before the
intermission. And so my main stuff was done, and then it was just kind of
surrealistic to be there at the Ryman Auditorium, where the Grand Ole Opry
used to be, portraying George for him, you know, knowing he was out there. It
was pretty wild.

GROSS: Did he give you any tips on how to be a better him?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: No, no, not at all. He's another guy--you know, we were
talking about Ralph. And George just turned 70, and I think he's singing as
great as ever. And he just is at a really good place in his life. He's just
really happy. He and his wife, Nancy, are really happy. And he's just--it's
great to see that because he's been through so much and he's given so much.
And he's just such an amazing artist.

GROSS: Well, Jim Lauderdale, thank you so much for talking with us and for
singing for us.

Mr. LAUDERDALE: Thank you.

GROSS: We really appreciate it.


GROSS: Jim Lauderdale has two new CDs, "The Hummingbirds" and "Lost in the
Lonesome Pines," which also features Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Singer: It's a trap. It's a trap. No matter what you do, don't
fall for that. It's a trap. Mouse and cat. In the corner now you'd better
watch your back. Don't take the bait, it makes it so you can't escape.
Amazing where your fate will be in doubt. No, nothing's...

(Funding credits)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, the two stars of the South African production of the opera
"Carmen," which is currently being performed at the Spoleto Festival USA.
We'll also meet the British music director behind the production. And
linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the use of the word `prurient' in legal cases
about obscenity.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Charles Hazlewood, Pauline Malefane and Sandile Kamle
discuss the performance of the operas "Carmen" and "The Mysteries"
with South African casts at the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

At the Spoleto Festival now under way in Charleston, South Carolina, two
operas are being performed with South African casts: Bizet's "Carmen," and an
adaptation of "The Mysteries" based on 14th-century dramatizations of Bible
stories. These productions were staged by a British company called the
Broomhill Opera, which was invited several years ago to work in South Africa.
My guests are Charles Hazlewood, the music director of Broomhill--he traveled
through the townships auditioning about a thousand singers--and the two stars
of "Carmen," Pauline Malefane and Sandile Kamle. They're also in "The
Mysteries." They grew up in the townships near Cape Town. Unlike most of the
singers in these productions, they're both trained opera singers.

"Carmen" and "The Mysteries" have already been performed in South Africa and
in London's West End. A review in The Guardian said, `This is the most
shattering version of Bizet's opera I have encountered. Pauline Malefane
combines voluptuous, insolent sexiness with a voice as varied and versatile in
its different registers as a clarinet, from mellow to shrieking, ripe to
reedy, strident to soulful.'

I would love for our listeners to hear your voice. Is there anything...

Ms. PAULINE MALEFANE (Opera Singer): Yes.

GROSS: ...that you could sing for us, just like a short excerpt of a song,
traditional, popular, opera, anything of your choosing?

Ms. MALEFANE: I'll sing something from "The Mysteries," which Mary sings when
Jesus is, you know, crucified. Jesus is on the cross and goes like this.
(Singing in foreign language)

GROSS: That's lovely. Thank you so much.

Mr. SANDILE KAMLE (Opera Singer): Sassy!

GROSS: And, Sandile, could I ask you to do the same?

Mr. KAMLE: Yeah, I can sing the "Shosholosa" theme.

GROSS: And what is it?

Mr. KAMLE: It's called "Shosholosa."

GROSS: And what is it from?

Mr. KAMLE: It's also from "The Mysteries."


Mr. KAMLE: Yeah. (Singing in foreign language) That OK?

GROSS: That's fine. Thank you so much. Charles Hazlewood, you did a lot of
the auditioning in South African townships for these operas. What was your
approach to getting the word out?

Mr. CHARLES HAZLEWOOD (Music Director): Well, that, yeah, was an interesting
and quite complicated problem, because we started out auditioning in places
like Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth--you know, the major
centers--and it quickly became clear we weren't really mining into the real
vein of talent, basically because most of the talent is not necessarily in
those centers. It's out in rural communities, and people don't have the money
or the wherewithal to get to those regional centers. And indeed, they
probably hadn't even heard about the auditions, because newspapers, which
would be the normal way you'd advertise certainly in Europe, are not, you
know, widely read throughout the country.

So we then worked out the thing to do was to get in through the township choir
networks, which are incredibly detailed and sophisticated process of
communicating information. That and the radio stations. So once we'd gone to
those two specific networks, then suddenly we found ourselves in all these
very rural locations with huge numbers of people turning up to sing for us.
But I should say a lot of them would have turned up if we'd been from
McDonald's offering sales assistance posts. You know, I think they were
interested because we were offering work in a large majority of cases. The
fact that they could all sing like gods was just sort of, you know, a detail.

GROSS: What are some of the most surprising songs you heard during the

Mr. HAZLEWOOD: Well, I heard the broadest, broadest, broadest cross section.
I mean, I've been auditioning singers for years, and nothing prepared me for
the sheer range and scale of material I would hear in South Africa. I heard
everything from Barry White to Gary Glitter to traditional Zulu war chants to
Xhosa laments to Afrikaans carols to bits of Dutch polyphony to marimba tunes
to dances to sort of, you know, war chants. I mean, the most incredible and
sparkling array of stuff.

GROSS: Charles Hazlewood mentioned that he put out the word through the
township choirs that they were auditioning. I'm wondering if, Pauline and
Sandile, if you each ever belonged to a choir?

Ms. MALEFANE: Yes, definitely we did.

GROSS: And, Sandile, did you perform in a community choir?

Mr. KAMLE: Yes, I did. I did. I started singing in the choir in 1989.

GROSS: And did you learn your parts from written music or was it, you know,
all oral?

Mr. KAMLE: Yeah, it's mostly the Western, and there are some traditional song
which are written, through--not in staff notation, but in tonic sol-fa. Yeah,
we mostly use, like in choirs in our townships, they use tonic sol-fa notation
more than staff notation.

Mr. HAZLEWOOD: Which is--I'd just add in there--is an amazing revelation for
me. You know, I don't use tonic sol-fa. I read music off the staff like most
Western-trained musicians, but the extraordinary thing about South Africa,
because tonic sol-fa is kind of the basis of it, but basically it's an oral
tradition where people learn stuff very, very fast by ear. It means it
actually frees the music to an enormous degree and it's not stuck on a page.
It's not a sort of sterile code. You know, music is a living, breathing
expression about life and about emotion and about everything, and if you learn
by ear, then you cut out the kind of cold code part, and it becomes a pure
manifestation of all of those wonderful things, expressions of emotion and
feeling and so on. And, of course, South Africans are incredibly deft and
fast orally because they're used to that tradition. You can teach a bunch of
South Africans a tune in five seconds flat, and then if you want, they'll
improvise you 40-part harmony on top of it. Sometimes it's a bit crazy. You
say like, `Guys, we just want the tune here, OK? Let's not have the harmony.'
But, you know, there is that degree of facility that you just don't find
anywhere else.

GROSS: So tonic sol-fa is what? Is it a method of notation or just an
approach to...

Mr. HAZLEWOOD: It's do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do, you know. I think of
`doe, a deer, a female deer,' from "The Sound of Music." That is what tonic
sol-fa is.

GROSS: Was it hard to teach any of the trills or ornamentation of opera? Was
there a kind of precedent for that in African pop or traditional singing?

Mr. HAZLEWOOD: I mean, it doesn't really apply that much in "Carmen," to be
honest. There...


Mr. HAZLEWOOD: ...isn't a great deal of ornamentation in that. I mean, it
would be a whole other story if we were doing...

Mr. KAMLE: Mozart.

Mr. HAZLEWOOD: ...yeah, Mozart, particularly, or any music from before
Mozart's time within the operatic canon. But in terms of "Carmen," we haven't
really crossed that bridge. Interestingly, the one big challenge we did have
was that a lot of the harmony in "Carmen" is very chromatic, which is quite a
challenge for South Africans, because I would say that--while I was saying
earlier that their harmonic style in terms of traditional African singing is
quite close to what we call the Western operatic tradition, that's certainly
true, but Western operatic tradition, certainly in a piece like "Carmen" is
more chromatic, and getting a South African choir to sing in semi-tones is
sometimes a bit of a challenge.

Ms. MALEFANE: A nightmare.

Mr. HAZLEWOOD: They don't do that. So getting them to hear, you know, the
gray area between, shall we say, you know, two tones. If you looked on a
piano, you know, two white notes together, not in all cases, but in most
cases, are a tone apart, and the note in between is the black note, and
getting a South African to hear the black note in between and hear the exact
difference between that--because the interval between the two semi-tones is
very close--was something of a challenge to begin with.

GROSS: Right, right. What kind of songs did you grow up hearing before you
started studying music? Like what did you hear around the house, either on
the radio or sung by your family or by local choirs that you heard?

Mr. KAMLE: To be honest with you, I started singing at a very early age. I
was about eight years, seven years singing with people who were about 30 years

GROSS: Was that...

Mr. KAMLE: The very old people in the church.

GROSS: In the church.

Mr. KAMLE: Yeah, in the church. I was the only small boy. That was 1983.

GROSS: You must have been very good even then.

Mr. KAMLE: I was the only small guy. Usually put the chair for me when
there's a competition. Two chairs, and I would stand there, stick my little
head out and sing.

GROSS: And what were the songs like? Were they hymns?

Mr. KAMLE: Some English style songs and some traditional songs. And then the

GROSS: Could I ask you to sing one of the traditional songs that you learned
when you were young?

Mr. KAMLE: Very young, oh. (Singing in foreign language) Is that OK?

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. KAMLE: And anyway, that song is from when they are taking like--when boys
are coming from the initiation school, so the old men usually sing that song.
Usually, like when I was a little boy, I was like running after these men
singing with them. (Singing in foreign language) Running after them.

GROSS: What language is that in?

Mr. KAMLE: Xhosa.

GROSS: Uh-huh. And, Pauline, what about you? What kind of traditional songs
did you hear when you were very young growing up in Cape Town?

Ms. MALEFANE: Lots of them from lullabies to, you know, what girls sing when
the boys, you know, come back from the initiation school, and weddings and
church music. All, you know, different kinds of traditional songs.

GROSS: Can you sing us a few bars of a traditional song that you learned when
you were young?

Ms. MALEFANE and Mr. KAMLE: (Singing in foreign language)

GROSS: Oh, that was so nice.

Ms. MALEFANE: Yeah, that's...

GROSS: I guess that's an example of just knowing the harmonies. I guess you
both sang that when you were young, yes?


Mr. KAMLE: Yeah.

Ms. MALEFANE: Yeah, yeah. It's a wedding song that the girls sing, you know,
asking--it means that I had a man saying that, `Hey, you girl, give me that
engagement. I don't want you anymore,' you know. But you sing all those
songs when someone is getting married you know, but just taking the Mickey out
of, you know, everything.

GROSS: We're talking about two South African productions of operas now being
performed at the Spoleto Festival USA. My guests are singers Pauline Malefane
and Sandile Kamle. Also with us is Charles Hazlewood, the music director of
the Broomhill Opera, the British company that staged these productions. We'll
talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of overture from "Carmen")

GROSS: We're talking about two South African productions of operas now being
performed at the Spoleto Festival USA. Pauline Malefane and Sandile Kamle are
currently starring in "Carmen" and performing in "The Mysteries." Charles
Hazlewood is the music director of the Broomhill Opera, the British company
that has staged these productions.

Charles, opera is a historically European form, and I think most people think
of opera as a music that is sung primarily by white people. In America, I
think African-Americans had a difficult time breaking into the opera world.
What kind of reaction have you gotten in Europe to these South African
productions of operas?

Mr. HAZLEWOOD: Well, enormously positive. "Carmen" and "Mysteries" both
came to London to our theater, Wilton's Music Hall, last summer and the
response we had from the press and the public alike was something that we had
never imagined. I mean, people went absolutely crazy for it. And as a result
of that, "The Mysteries" has just been playing in the West End of London for
the last three months, and again, the reviews of it were, you know, crazy.
Like, you know, we couldn't have even written them ourselves, they were so
madly, absurdly positive, and that's in the West End which is like, you know,
jumping into a tank of piranha fish, quite honestly. So, you know, we've been
incredibly lucky. But, no, people have responded in the most hugely positive
way. I mean, again, saying--come back to what I said earlier, you know, opera
is nothing to do with white people or black people. It's nothing to do with
Europe or America or Africa or anywhere else. It's a universal. It's a
given. It's the best possible way of telling a story using music, and as a
result, it can work in any context with whoever you like.

I mean, "Carmen" is written by a French man and it's about Spain, so it's
already flawed. Do you know what I mean? It's not authentic Spain, because
what did Georges Bizet really know of authentic Spain? He wasn't Spanish. So
it's his view of it. So equally, when Pauline sings Carmen, when Sandile
sings Don Jose, they're giving their account of that music. And, of course,
the story as well as the music are as true for them as they are for anyone
else. What is the story? You know, a bunch of low-born people doing low-born
mucky, dirty, revolting things to each other. I mean, it's universal. We can
all relate to it.

GROSS: Pauline, you're 25 now, so you came of age after apartheid. Do you...


GROSS: ...think that you were exposed to certain music or certain arts
because apartheid was over and, if not for the end of apartheid, are the
things that you would not have been introduced to, that you wouldn't have
known about, have had access to?

Ms. MALEFANE: I was only involved in the last part of the, you know,
so-called apartheid, you know, which I don't think it's still--which I think
maybe it's still there, but I mean, because we have the new South Africa so we
want to just, you know, forget about it.

But what I'm trying to say is, you know, I got to--when I first started--you
know, it's a good example. When I first started doing music at the College of
Music, I was the only girl who was doing opera at the college. There was one
before me, but she finished. And so I was one of the few students who were
involved in the music school, which I think were not more than even 15 black
students at the college. And which, if you go now, you'll find half or even
more than half of the students mostly black people doing mostly opera. In
that sense, it has changed. I mean, my experience of apartheid and all that
has changed a bit, you know. There are things that you can do now without
feeling, you know, that you sort of--what's the word? Charlie, help me.
You're not interfering in people's things, you know. You know, my mother is
still amazed, you know, at the fact that I have so-called white friends and I
hang up with white people all the time. I'm not being fine about saying
white. I mean, there are white people, there are black people. It's fine.
It's how it is, you know. So, I mean, I think the mentality towards white or
black people, it's getting better.

GROSS: Sandile, what about you? Do you feel like your music experiences are
broader because apartheid is over, that you're able to do things that you
couldn't have done during the apartheid years?

Mr. KAMLE: Yeah. At first, I thought opera was only for white people, and
very rich white people. And I once believed that if you're black, you can't
sing opera because you don't have money. In fact, like, I thought that
opera--in order to be an opera singer, you have to have money and you must
come out of a very rich family, so that the other rich people can come and
watch you perform. That's how it came to me at first.

GROSS: Charles, you must hate to hear this in a way, that, for instance for
Sandile, opera when he was young seemed like music that you had to be rich and
white to sing or to participate in, in any way. That's the kind of thing that
can really just kill opera, that perception.

Mr. HAZLEWOOD: Yeah. It makes me feel sick, really, the very thought of it.
But it persists. That's the awful thing. I mean, South Africa happens to be
a country that's been forced to confront the very root issues of racism in a
way that few countries have. I mean, God knows no country would want to go
through the kind of extreme social engineering that South Africa had to go
through in order for people to think hard about racism. But the reality is
they do have a stance on it. Most people in South Africa are forced to have a
stance on issues of race in a way that perhaps some of the rest of us aren't
to quite the same degree.

But I mean, that aside, you go to the Royal Opera House in London and it's
just the same bunch of very privileged, you know, usually corporately
entertained, upper-middle-class white people wearing Armani and, you know,
bedecked in jewels and pearls. You think, `Stuff it!' Opera is not just for
these people. Opera is also for the people that go and watch football
matches. Opera is also for the people that love soap operas or Oprah Winfrey
or whoever. So to kind of brand it as for them and not for us is hideous,
ludicrous and outrageous.

GROSS: Pauline Malefane and Sandile Kamle are currently starring in "Carmen"
and performing in "The Mysteries" at the Spoleto Festival USA. Charles
Hazlewood is the music director of the Broomhill Opera, the British company
that has staged these productions. "Carmen" and "The Mysteries" will be
performed at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven June
13th through 16th.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg on the word `prurient' and its place
in obscenity law.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Using language in laws so that they can be better
understood by people

Until the Renaissance, English law was usually written in French or Latin.
Although now in English, the language of modern law today often seems just as
incomprehensible. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg looks at the way the law uses
the word `prurient' and what, if anything, the word means to the average


A couple of years ago, I had a call from a lawyer working with a local public
defender's office. His client had been arrested when he was stopped on the
street late at night with a length of chain attached a padlock in his pocket.
The arrest was pursuant to an old section of the penal code that makes it a
felony to carry any of a long list of weapons, including a slungshot. That's
an archaic term that one old dictionary defines as `a weapon used chiefly by
criminals, consisting of a weight attached to a flexible handle or strap.'

The attorney wanted my help in filing a motion arguing that the statute
clashes with a basic principle of interpretation: The law ought to be written
in words that give, what lawyers call, `fair and reasonable notice' of the
conduct prohibited.

That seemed fair enough to me. When you're telling people what they can and
can't do, you ought to use language they can be expected to understand. Of
course, you might say that the wording of the penal code hardly matters in a
case like this. People don't ordinarily consult a statute book before they go
out at night with a chain and lock in their pocket. But by that line of
argument, we may as well go back to writing statutes in Latin. Actually, I
know a lot of classicists who could use the work.

Obscure legal language can sometimes have a much broader effect than in that
slungshot case. Take the word `prurient.' In a famous 1973 decision, the
Supreme Court held that the standard for judging obscenity is `whether, to the
average person applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme
of the material appeals to prurient interest.' That formula's been widely
used since then, but it's an odd way to put things; asking the average person
to judge whether something appeals to prurient interest when the average
person probably doesn't know the word `prurient' in the first place. I have
an image of Larry Flynt stopping passersby to ask their opinion of the latest
number of Hustler. `What do you think? Not too prurient, is it?'

It's true that `prurient' is far being an obsolete word like `slungshot.' But
even people who know the word often seem to have no clear idea of its meaning.
`Prurient' is originally from the Latin root for `itch,' and modern
dictionaries define it in terms of an unusual or unhealthy interest in sex.
So people have prurient minds when they have an unhealthy interest in sex, and
things are prurient when they arouse that sort of interest.

But you find a lot of people using prurient just as a vague synonym for `lewd'
or `erotic.' At the 2 Live Crew obscenity trial in St. Petersburg a couple of
years ago, the prosecutor charged that the rap group had incited the crowd to
prurient behavior. And some years ago, Massachusetts Governor Edward King
claimed that a new pornography law would protect children from perverted
persons who would coerce them into committing prurient acts.

Those people are plainly unclear on the concept. Acts and behavior can't be
prurient in and of themselves, not if you use the word correctly. But then,
it's unlikely that any of these people ever looked the word up. They just
guessed at its meaning on the basis of having seen it in one context, that
Supreme Court definition of obscenity. In fact, that single clause of the
court's definition accounts for more than half the occurrences of the word in
the press. If not for that decision, `prurient' would probably be as rare a
word as bowerbird treasures like `lucubrate' and `nugatory.'

The problem with building law around obscure words like `prurient' isn't just
that you fail to give fair and reasonable notice. The fact is that it's hard
for anybody to say what a word like `prurient' means today, not excluding
lexicographers. Lawyers tend to think that learned words like `prurient' are
somehow more precise than everyday items like `lustful' or `dirty.' Actually,
it's the opposite. That fuzziness about the meaning of `prurient' is typical
of words that live in the margins of the language. People don't encounter
them often enough to get a clear idea of what they mean. The more closely an
expression is associated with a unique situation, like the court's obscenity
definition, the harder it is to pry out its general meaning. Take the words
`caisson,' `madding' and `petard.' We've all heard each of them in a single,
famous setting, but how many people can tell you with confidence what each of
them means?

`I know it when I see it.' That's how Justice Potter Stewart responded when
he was asked to define obscenity. And, in fact, that's pretty much what the
court wound up saying when it slipped that obscure word `prurient' into its
decision. It left prosecutors free to define obscenity however they liked.
In the end, the court's definition would have been more precise and more
consistent with the standards of real communities if it had used the same
words that ordinary people do when they're talking about these things. The
justices should have asked whether the average person, applying community
standards, would say that a work appealed to people with dirty minds, but then
they wouldn't have sounded like judges.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a researcher at Stanford's Center for the Study of
Language and Information, and he's the author of "The Way We Talk Now."

(Soundbite of burlesque music)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of burlesque music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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