A mondegreen can be defined as an unintentional mishearing and misinterpretation of (usually) poem lines or song lyrics that changes the original meaning of the phrase. While the mondegreen has probably existed as long as there has been the spoken and sung word, mondegreens seemed to have reached a fever pitch of pop culture popularity during the boomer years.
The term “mondegreen” was coined in 1954 by writer Sylvia Wright in an essay in Harper’s Magazine titled, “The Death of Lady Mondegreen.” She was describing her misinterpretation of a line in a 17th century Scottish ballad that was supposed to read:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh where have you been?
They have slain the Earl O’ Moray
And layd him on the green.*
Instead, the writer recalls that as a young girl she thought the final line was: And Lady Mondegreen.
In her essay, Ms. Wright coined the term as way of describing what had previously not had a label.
There are many theories of why the number of song lyric misinterpretations increased at an astonishing rate in boomer years. First of all, there was much more music being played on the radio than previous decades, and those listening were most often using transistor or car radios, often known for their “tinny,” less than high-fidelity sound quality. Some point to the singers themselves; the lyrics to many songs were slurred or otherwise sung with various accents or personal vocal eccentricities that made it difficult to ascertain the correct wording. Others point to the nature of human perception itself: Since thought is to a large part based on our experiences, on hearing a lyric that doesn’t immediately register, the mind defaults to the nearest approximation of what it thinks the word may be — sort of the human equivalent to digital spell-checking.
Whatever the reason, mondegreens — even though most of us didn’t know the name for it — were a fun part of our boomer teen years. Once you’ve misheard these famous mondegreens, it’s hard to go back to the real lyrics:
Hold me closer Tony Danza, Elton John (Hold me closer tiny dancer)
There’s a bathroom on the right, Credence Clearwater Revival (There’s a bad moon on the rise)
‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy, Jimi Hendrix (‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky)
The ants are my friends, they’re blowin’ in the wind, Bob Dylan (The answer my friends, is blowin’ in the wind)
Wrapped up like a douche you know the water in the night, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (Bruce Springsteen wrote it in 1973 as: Oh, cut loose like a deuce another runner in the night, but the Earth Band sang it in 1977 as: Revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night.)
Secret Asian man, secret Asian man, Johnny Rivers (Secret agent man)
Fun with mondegreens!
Perhaps the most famous set of mondegreens came from the song Louie Louie, in 1963. Never before had the mishearing of song lyrics brought on such a fuss on a national scale. The song, like a great many others in boomer years, was recorded many times by various artists. Written by Richard Berry in 1955 as a ballad, the song was performed and recorded in various incarnations throughout the late 1950s. In 1963, the Kingsmen from Portland, Oregon put their spin on it, reinterpreting the Caribbean-style ballad into a rock ‘n roll beat. The song was released in May of that year, then re-released on a new label in October. Sales were extremely light and it appeared the record would go nowhere until a Boston DJ named Arnie Ginsburg was given the record, and he chose to play it as his “Worst Record of the Week.” Boomers took notice, despite the deliberate pan. By December it reached the Billboard Top 100, and eventually rose to number two, very likely because of its mondegreen status.
Every boomer of a certain age knows the story: Many thought the singer had purposely made the lyrics unintelligible because they were laced with profanity and references to graphic sex. Boomers passed around sheets of paper at school that supposedly showed the “true” lyrics to the song. It became one of the most popular songs boomers would play at house parties, both for its raw rock ‘n roll guitar exuberance and perceived naughty lyrics.
As a result, the song was banned in several states, making it that much more compelling for boomers to try and figure out what the lyrics actually were. In 1964 a parent wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy claiming the song was obscene. The FBI was asked to investigate the complaint, and the agency conducted a two-year investigation. The conclusion of FBI experts was that the song could not be called obscene because the lyrics were “unintelligible at any speed.” The FBI interviewed a member of the Kingsmen, who denied there was any obscenity in the song.
Some bands thought they’d beat the mondegreen monster before it could rear its funny little head. In 1968 the band Iron Butterfly released Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida. Rock legend has it that the original title was In the Garden of Eden, but since lead singer Don Ingle was drunk in the recording studio, he slurred the words. The title stuck and the rest is history. Another story suggests Ingle was drunk, and when drummer Ron Bushy asked him for the name, he wrote it down as the mondegreen title we know it today. Still another says when the producer asked Bushy for the title, he was wearing headphones and gave him what he thought he heard. Despite the origins, the title and song remain a giant in the world of reverse mondegreens.
Sly and the Family Stone got into the reverse mondegreen winner’s circle in 1970 with the hit, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). The lyric is actually a vernacular pronunciation of, Thank You For Lettin’ Me Be Myself Again.
Every boomer recalls mishearing lyrics, only to be corrected by a peer. Sometimes we’d still not believe that we were wrong and were now being given the correct lyric, and would play the record over and over, sometimes at 78 rpm to slow down the 45 in order to dissect each syllable.
Mondegreens persist today, though Mister Boomer questions what the future holds for the idiom. We are in an age of constantly being corrected as we type on our phones, in our e-mail programs and on our computers and tablets by “intelligent” agents. While that won’t stop us from mishearing a song lyric, our peers will be quick to note our ignorance since an Internet search is now only a few keystrokes away, at any time and in any location. Mondegreens don’t have much of a chance of reaching monumental status when the ants aren’t blowing in the wind … they’re already here.
What memories do mondegreens conjure for you, boomers? What’s your favorite mondegreen?