What Did That Song Say?
By: John Shepler
OK, we're going to have a little sing along here. I'll start with a line from a famous television series theme song and you fill in the lyrics to the next line. This is easy. It's the Flintstones theme. Ready?
"Let's ride with the family down the street."
Now it's YOUR turn for the next line. Ready? Sing!
"Um......" Did you by any chance sing "Wilma, will you see if Fred's asleep?"
The real lyrics are "through the courtesy of Fred's two feet." But how many people caught that? I think I remember it as "through the courtesy of Frank and Pete." Whoever Frank and Pete are. Maybe they were producers on the show or something. Anyway, I kept that to myself as it might be too embarrassing if the words were really something quite different...and for good reason.
You've probably misunderstood the lyrics to a song at sometime yourself. Oh, come on. Admit it. We all have. Well, be embarrassed no more. No matter how crazy you've interpreted song lyrics, someone else has botched them even worse. Now there's even a place to find out what others have heard in your favorite songs, compare notes (so to speak) and confess your mondegreens to the world.
Mondegreens? Yes, that's the technical term for misunderstood song lyrics, as stated by Scot Hacker who is a collector and publisher of these things. He has over 1,780 different ones archived at his web site, The Archive of Misheard Lyrics. It's at KissThisGuy.com, which is a story in itself.
One of the most famous mondegreens is attributed to rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix. In the late 1960's psychedelic rock ruled, and Hendrix was a legend. He is best known for the song Purple Haze, in which he plays some pretty wild guitar riffs and pauses to sing this famous lyric: "Scuse me while I kiss the sky." In 1967, kissing the sky wouldn't have been considered all that out of the ordinary, but there was just enough distortion in the mix of guitar and vocal that a lot of the concert and radio audience heard him say "Scuse me while I kiss this guy!"
Just to muddy the waters further, Jimi reportedly caught on to what people thought they heard and started including the misinterpretation in his act. One report of a Hendrix concert at Washington D. C.'s Ambassador Theater has him goofing with fellow singer Noel Redding on stage. Every time the questionable lyric came up in the song, Jimi would point at Noel and sing "Scuse me while I kiss this guy!," puckering his lips in Redding's direction. I suppose this is how history gets rewritten. Speaking of written, there is also a book with the title "Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy" by Gavin Edwards, who has a collection of books on the subject.
So where does this term "mondegreen" come from? It was coined in the fifties by columnist Sylvia Wright who wrote about misinterpreted song lyrics. She had mistakenly heard a line in the Scottish folk song, "The Bonny Earl Of Morray," as "Oh, they have slain the Earl o' Morray and Lady Mondegreen." It was supposed to be "Oh, they have slain the Earl o' Morray and laid him on the green." This is according to another web site of misunderstood lyrics called "The Ants are My Friends." You remember when Bob Dylan sang "the ants are my friends, they're blowing in the wind," don't you?
Both websites are soliciting online contributions from readers who, seeing what others have posted, now have the courage to come forth with their own unique mondegreens. No style of music is immune. Garth Brooks' country hit "I've Got Friends in Low Places" has been misheard to be "I'm not big on harsh abrasives, think I'll slip on down to the horse races." John Cougar Mellencamp's "Little Pink Houses" comes out to some as "little bitty cows for you and me." Rapper M.C. Hammer's famous "Can't Touch This" has no less than four misinterpretations. "King Tut Says," "Can't Trust Him," "King Justice," and would you believe "Kentucky?"
Even the most classic songs of all time get jumbled in the listening. "Making spirits bright" in "Jingle Bells" sounds like "making spare ribs right," especially if you've been caroling too long between meals. "In the Army Now" becomes "in Miami now." "Bei mir bist du schoen" becomes "My dear Mr. Shane." But that's easy if you don't know the song is in German.
One of my favorites is the story by Brian Henry who, at age 17, realized that the Fifth Dimension were not singing "this is the dawning of the age of malaria" but instead "the age of Aquarius." Seems his dad had gone along with it for some time and told him the song title was really "Ode to the Mosquito."
It's nice to know there are places to check out those questionable lyrics BEFORE you embarrass yourself to friends and family. Of course, these may not help if you grew up being taught that the correct lyrics to Stars and Stripes Forever have to do with being kind to web footed friends!
Books of Interest:
When a Man Loves a Walnut: And Even More Misheard Lyrics by Gavin Edwards. The author who gave you two other volumes of misunderstood song lyrics, "Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Pants," returns. This edition pokes fun at hard-to-understand warblings from such rockers as Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam, and Bruce Springsteen.
Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy: And Other Misheard Lyrics by Gavin Edwards, Chris Kalb (Illustrator). Drawing on thousands of letters which Details magazine received in response to a column on misheard lyrics, Edwards identifies the songs and the artists and presents the wrong and right lyrics to dozens of popular songs. 100 line illustrations.
He's Got the Whole World in His Pants: And More Misheard Lyrics by Gavin Edwards, Seth (Illustrator). This sequel to "Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy" carries on with even more misheard songs, including the most popular misconceptions about the true lyrics to "Louie, Louie."
Deck the Halls with Buddy Holly: And Other Misheard Christmas Lyrics by Gavin Edwards, Ted Stearn (Illustrator). Not even Christmas songs are not immune from being misunderstood. How about "He's making a list, chicken and rice." Too much Christmas cheer can be hard on the lyrics.
Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs by Dave Barry. More than 10,000 readers responded to Dave Barry when he asked readers about their least favorite tunes. This witty volume compiles the lyrics of some of those horrible songs, with hilarious results.
Also visit Books-A-Million for an excellent selection of new books, magazines, e-books, audio books and more at low, low prices.
Also visit these related sites:
The Archive of Misheard Lyrics - Scot Hacker's collection of over 1,700 lapses in hearing includes a form to submit your own errors of the ears.
I Want a Baby Elephant For Christmas - A parody of the famous hippopotamas song with a message for elephant lovers.
What Becomes of the Broken Hardware - It's a parody, alright. See if you understand the strange world of Information Technology.
Copyright 1999 - 2018 by John E. Shepler. Linking to this article is welcome, but no online republication is permitted. Print media republication rights are available at reasonable rates. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: August 8, 1999 as part of A Positive Light