Wednesday, July 04, 2001

Sleep in Heavenly Peas

If you're the kind that likes to sing along with the radio, odds are that sooner or later you've bungled a lyric. Perhaps the singer was slurring her words. Perhaps the guitars were playing too loud. Perhaps a subtle rhyme eluded you. But when the chorus came up, and the Sandpipers were singing "Guantanamera" in 1968, you joined in with, "One ton tomato, I eat a one ton tomato..."

It's nothing to be embarrassed about. While it's probably been going on as long as there has been music, it wasn't until 1954 in an article in "The Atlantic" that writer Sylvia Wright coined a term to cover the offense. As a child she had heard the Scottish ballad "The Bonny Earl of Murray" and had believed that one stanza went like this:

"Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands
Oh where hae you been?
They hae slay the Earl of Murray,
And Lady Mondegreen. "

Poor Lady Mondegreen, thought Sylvia. A tragic heroine dying with her liege. But it turned out that, some years later, she discovered that what they had actually done was "slay the Earl of Murray, and lay him on the green." Wright was so distraught by the sudden disappearance of her heroine that she memorialized her with the term "mondegreen"... and a new misdemeanor was born.

Depending on which researcher you check with, the most common example in popular music comes from either Creedence Clearwater Revival or Jimi Hendrix. The former had a hit with a song called "Bad Moon Rising," the chorus of which ("There's a bad moon on the rise") was heard by a large percentage of the listening public (this writer included) as, "There's a bathroom on the right." And whether or not you took as many drugs as Hendrix did, it was easy to hear the refrain from "Purple Haze," which really went "'scuse me while I kiss the sky," as "'scuse me while I kiss this guy." Hendrix is reported to have realized the confusion, and would occasionally give a smooch to a roadie after delivering the line, giving rise to further confusion.

Examples abound from every genre and performer. There are some who heard Bob Dylan sing the classic "The answer, my friends, is blowin' in the wind" as "Dead ants are my friends, they're blowing in the wind." Others heard Paul Simon sing "Mama don't take my clothes and throw 'em away," or "Mama don't take my chromosomes away," both of which do sound a bit like the correct "Mama don't take my Kodachrome away." Steve Winwood did sing "Bring me a higher love;" he didn't sing "Bring me an iron lung." And who could forget the famous Crystal Gayle tune, "Doughnuts Make Your Brown Eyes Blue."

There are hundreds more where they came from. But mondegreens don't occur just in music. Popular sayings are fertile ground, especially when overheard and repeated by kids. One person reports that her daughter thought that we lived in a "doggy dog world" populated by pushy people with a "no holes barred" attitude. Another relates that her kids think that rich people sit around and "drink themselves to Bolivia," while another thought that they were moving breakable items "out of arm's sway." A friend reports that as a child, his father always told them when they were going through a puddle that they were "shooting the rapids;" he heard it as "shooting the rabbits." And then there's the little girl whose mother told her when it was time to go under water you should "close your eyes and hold your breasts."

Even that most sacred talisman of our democracy, The Pledge of Allegiance, is not immune. In fact, it turns out to be rather fertile ground, especially since it's generally kids who add to this particular body of work. In fact, when you string some of the more popular misstatings together, you get a positively schizophrenic interpretation, to whit: "I pledge a lesion to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the republic for widget stands, one naked, under guard individual, with liver tea and just this for all."

But it is indeed the musical world that offers the most entertaining examples. There's the famous Maria Muldaur song "Midnight After You're Wasted," (actually, "Midnight at the Oasis)" as well as that well know Jose Feliciano rendition of "Feliz Navidad," better known as "Police naughty dog." And remember the Fifth Dimension hit "Who is the daddy of the angel Aquarius?" (really, "The dawning of the Age of Aquarius"), not to mention Herman's Hermits singing "There's a can of fish all over the world tonight." (that would be "kind of hush"). And then there's the tender sentiment contained in the Elton John song that goes "Hold me closer, Tony Danza.'" While the actual lyric was "hold me closer, tiny dancer," the former is really more Elton-esque.

The list is endless. My favorites? Well, there's the Joe Cocker request to "Give me a chicken for an air-o-plane,'' as opposed to a ticket. Or the Merilee Rush song "Angel of the Morning" which asked you to "Just call me angel of the morning, angel; just brush my teeth before you leave me." The actual line was "just brush my cheek,'' but that's so pedestrian.

But for sheer fun you have to go back to the Monkees and their hit "Daydream Believer" with its rallying cry, "Cheer up, sleepy Jean.'' Not a bad sentiment, but as we go into summer, dig out your old 45's and sing along with the chorus as some have heard it: "Cheer obscene bikinis!" Now, that's more like it.


Marc Wollin of Bedford always wondered why Steve Miller was singing about the "the sleek hippopotamus of love." He still doesn't know. His other confusions appear regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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