Two months ago, give or take, I was talking with a friend of mine about George Harrison. Specifically, I was sharing an interesting story about the composition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” his song from The Beatles’ “White Album” on which Eric Clapton guested as lead guitarist. While I can’t recall the exact words that I used, I said something quite close to this — “Harrison believed that nothing was coincidence, that everything had meaning and was interconnected, so when he opened up the I Ching and saw the words ‘while my guitar gently weeps,’ he decided to write a song around that phrase.”
My memory for half-remembered scraps of Beatles lore is a bit frightening. That was pretty close to the truth, without having to look at anything. A few days ago, for some light bedtime reading, I picked up Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, his song-by-song analysis of lyrics, music, even cultural context of the Beatles’ output. The third edition, updated to cover the Anthology sets, is an essential tome for any Beatles fan’s collection; it puts everything into context. I may not agree with MacDonald’s opinions of some songs — he’s particularly not fond of the heavier idiom the Beatles used in their later recordings, on songs like “Yer Blues,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and especially “Helter Skelter” — but the fact is, the man argued them well, and his book is compulsively readable.
Here’s what MacDonald wrote about what I half-remembered: “The characteristically accusatory lyric, written after returning from India, originated in one of the many random impulses The Beatles resorted to around this time, Harrison finding the phrase ‘gently weeps’ by chance in a book.” This is footnoted, which leads to: “He chose the phrase thus in accordance with his understanding of Indian teaching that there is no such thing as coincidence, that meaning inheres in every moment (The Beatles Anthology, p. 306).”
So, it wasn’t the entire phrase “while my guitar gently weeps.” Just the last two words. And MacDonald didn’t cite which book. He did, however, cite the source for Harrison finding the phrase — The Beatles Anthology book. From page 306:
GEORGE: I wrote ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ at my mother’s house in Warrington (the spiritual home of George Formby). I was thinking about the Chinese I Ching, ‘The Book of Changes’. In the West we think of coincidence as being something that just happens — it just happens that I am sitting here and the wind is blowing my hair, and so on. But the Eastern concept is that whatever happens is all meant to be, and that there’s no such thing as coincidence — every little item that’s going down has a purpose.
‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ was a simply study based on that theory. I decided to write a song based on the first thing I saw upon opening any book — as it would be relative to that moment, at that time. I picked up a book at random, opened it, saw ‘gently weeps’, then laid the book down again and started the song.
Harrison’s recollection here isn’t definitive as to what book it was that he had picked up. It could have been any book. A number of sources online, however, suggest that it was, in fact, a copy of the I Ching itself that Harrison opened at random, not just a book opened at random inspired by his interest in the I Ching.
The I Ching, for those unaware, is a tool of Chinese divination. Written something like 3,500 years ago, the I Ching works by using yarrow stalks or coins to create a symbol that provides an answer to a question posed by the user. This symbol, called a hexagram, consists of six lines that represent the yin and the yang, and these lines can transform into the opposite, creating a new hexagram that indicates the direction that events may occur. I first encountered the I Ching when I was in college; I read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, and much of the book revolves around the decisions the characters make in consultation with the I Ching. (In fact, Dick plotted and wrote the book while using it himself; when a character receives a certain hexagram in the book, it is because he himself received that hexagram in his own personal casting when he was preparing to write.) Out of curiosity, I bought a copy of the book myself about fifteen years ago. In goofing around with it, I used the three-coin method, until I learned the far more accurate four-coin method (or an Excel spreadsheet I wrote that simulates the four-coin method).
The late night read of Revolution in the Head a few nights ago prompted random musings. I wondered if I could answer the question — if George Harrison opened up his copy of the I Ching, where might he have seen the phrase “gently weeps” in the book? My copy of the I Ching runs over 800 pages; it’s probably not even the same edition, let alone the same translation, that Harrison would have had access to.
However. We’ve already made the assumption that Harrison used the I Ching. Let us further assume that his edition of the I Ching wasn’t loaded down with much of the commentary that mine is. (Seriously. Mine spends loads of time defining words, giving synonyms, etc.) In other words, let’s assume that Harrison opened up his I Ching and saw, on the page, the original Chinese words translated into English.
Fortunately, my edition of the I Ching comes with a concordance. To everything in the book.
According to the concordance, the word “weep” appears twice in the I Ching. It appears in hexagram 3 (Sprouting) as “weeping blood, coursing thus.” It appears in hexagram 61 (Centering Conforming) as “maybe weeping, maybe singing.”
In hexagram 3, the phrase is part of a transforming line reading (specifically, Six Above); if the questioner receives an old yin, it becomes a young yang as events develop, and it receives a special reading:
Riding a horse, arrying thus.
Weeping blood, coursing thus.
Weeping blood, coursing this.
Wherefore permitting long-living indeed?
Allowing for variations of translation, this is unlikely; I cannot see any way of a translator misreading “blood” as “gently.”
In hexagram 61, the phrase also appears as part of a transforming line reading (specifically, Six-at-third) and, again, it comes from an old yin transforming into a young yang:
Maybe drumbeating, maybe desisting.
Maybe weeping, maybe singing.
Maybe drumbeating, maybe desisting.
Situation not appropriate indeed.
Could this have been the phrase? Could what this translation renders as “maybe weeping” have been translated in George Harrison’s edition as “gently weeping”?
It’s possible. One of the most common editions of the I Ching used in the English speaking world is the Wilhelm/Baynes translation, which translated the I Ching from Chinese into German and then into English. The Wilhelm/Baynes translation is the edition that Philip K. Dick used in 1962 when writing The Man in the High Castle. In that book, hexagram 61 was called “Inner Truth,” and a casting of that hexagram plays a key role at the novel’s climax.
I can’t say for certain whether or not Harrison opened the I Ching at random, nor can I say for certain that if he did the phrase “maybe weeping” was translated as “gently weeps.” This is hardly definitive. But barring evidence to the contrary, I think it’s entirely possible that George Harrison, one spring day in 1968, opened up his copy of the I Ching to hexagram 61, and there found the phrase that lead to one of his finest songs.