How’s that go again?

The world of rock and roll is renowned for its misunderstood lyrics. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s line “There’s a bad moon on the rise” being heard as: “There’s a bathroom on the right” is one of the more infamous lines that comes to mind.

This isn’t a surprise, because, after all, rock and roll singers are not the best enunciators of lyrics, and in some cases the consonants of words are being drowned out by distorted guitars.

We should be honest with ourselves, though, and admit that most bluegrass singers—with Charlie Waller being a notable exception—are not the clearest of enunciators either. How often have you heard the “Poor Ellen” of “Poor Ellen Smith” sung not just as one word, but as a one-syllable word, sounding something like “Poeeehh.” As a result, we have more than our share of misunderstood lyrics in bluegrass music too.

One thing that troubles me, though, is the possibility that a lot of people don’t know the right lyrics to bluegrass songs because they don’t actually care what the words are. I’ve had a theory that a startling number of bluegrass music fans today aren’t actually listening to the words of the songs. It’s all more or less scat singing to them. The philosophy is: if it sounds good melodically, does it really matter what the lyrics mean? It’s time for the banjo break anyway.

If that’s really the case, it’s easy to see how the line of Out in the Cold World (or Wandering Boy) that goes: “Tell him it’s mother with faded cheeks and hair” could easily be sung as “Tell him it’s smothered with feta cheese and hair” and no one would notice or care.

I base this disturbing theory on numerous listener phone calls I’ve fielded in my work at Sirius XM. For example, I had a caller once request the Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver song Julie Ann (written by Randall Hylton), saying “That’s just a happy song! You can’t listen to a song like that without smiling!” And I thought to myself “Okay, this is a song about a guy whose woman wants to leave him, and he has so little pride left he urges her to go out and drink and dance with other guys, but come home to him afterwards, if it means he won’t lose her completely. If you find that irresistably happy, you might also find All The Good Times Are Past and Gone with that sunny first line: ‘I wish to the Lord I’d never been born, or died when I was young’ pretty darned jolly too.”

No, it was clear that what this caller had actually heard when he was listening to Julie Ann was something like this:

“Dress yourself in silk and satin, blah blah blah blah blah

Dee dee dee de dee dee, da dee da dee dee dee

Go and have your night of dancing dum de dum dum dum dee songs

Blah blah blah blah blah ble blah blah Julie Ann….

Blah blah home”

 

Naturally this is kind of disheartening for any songwriter and/or singer, because bluegrass songs are supposed to mean something. The lyrics can tell a happy story, but often they tell tragic tales of life and love. A songwriter somewhere put a lot into those words, and a good singer will do all he or she can to convey those lyrics with heartfelt emotion. It’s more than just some white noise in between the fiddle and mandolin breaks.

Because of my belief that lyrics matter, I’ve tried to reform the way some bluegrass standards are sung these days. For example, I want people to return to singing “When I die won’t you bury me in the mountains” in Blue Ridge Cabin Home instead of the usual “..won’t you bury me on the mountain” because those are the original lyrics and they make more sense. I understand the mistake, because sometimes Lester Flatt and Curley Seckler sang together in a way that made vowel sounds kind of interchangeable, so “in” could as easily be “on” if you don’t listen closely. In any case, I’ve had no success in this campaign.

I also wish people would sing “I sit on the shore to grieve and to cry,” in The Lonesome River, because that’s what Carter Stanley wrote, instead of the redundant “…to weep and to cry,” but I’ve had no luck there either.

Rather than continue to rant about those somewhat subtle differences, however (“Let it go, already!” my friends are starting to say), I thought it might be better to start the process of getting people to pay closer attention to lyrics, by correcting some of the more egregious misinterpretations of lyrics in songs. Below are the correct lyrics to some well-known bluegrass songs, followed by some of the “variations” I’ve heard through the years. It’s a start anyway.

From Goodbye Old Pal:

Correct: “A cactus blooms o’er his grave, to me boys it was sad

Incorrect: “A cactus blooms o’er his grave, two meatballs in the sand

 

From It’s Mighty Dark to Travel (this song is not about an old girlfriend of Bill Monroe’s with an exotic-sounding name):

Correct: “To me she was a little angel, sent down to me from God above”

Incorrect: “Temishi was a little angel, sent down to me from God above”

 

From Down the Road:

Correct: “Down the road about a mile or two, lives a little girl named Pearlie Blue

About so high, her hair is brown, prettiest thing boys in this town.”

Incorrect: “Down the road about a mile or two, lives a little girl named Pearlie Blue

Bounce so high with Harry Brown, prettiest signal in this town.”

 

From Rank Strangers:

Correct: “..where in youth’s early dawn I was happy and free”

Incorrect: “…where you surly dog I was happy and free”

 

From Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’:

Correct: “Don’t get above your raisin’, stay down to earth with me”

Incorrect: “Go get a bug and raise it, stay down to earth with me”

(Apparently, some people thought this Flatt & Scruggs song was all about encouraging entomology)

 

Wrong lyrics to gospel songs can be particularly inappropriate. Here are some I’ve heard:

From the Louvin Brothers’ The Family Who Prays (second verse):

Correct: “Wars and tornadoes are taking our loved ones…”

Incorrect: “Poison tomatoes are taking our loved ones…”

 

In the third verse of another Louvin Brothers song called Whispering Now, which I recorded several years ago, instead of:

“Wandering home on this path that I trod, willing to work for the Lord,”

someone thought I was singing:

“Wandering home on this path that I trod, willing to work for the door,” a very different meaning.

From A Beautiful Life:

Correct: “My time on earth is but a span

Incorrect: “My time on earth is buttered Spam

 

Also, contrary to what I’ve been hearing in some festival jam sessions, there is no “If I was a golfer…” verse to Working on a Building.

I don’t think anyone is too sure about the words to the third verse of Old Home Place (maybe Dean Webb can straighten us out), but I think the words are:

“Well the girl ran off with somebody else, the taverns took all my pay”, though Tony Rice sang what sounded like “the tariffs took all my pay,” which introduced a whole free trade vs. protectionism element to the song that I never understood. Still others have sung variations ranging from “the sheriff took all my pigs” to “the terrorists took all my hay,” and I feel sure that those aren’t right.

Next week I want to deal with screwed up song titles, but for now, I hope this discussion might lead you to listen closely to the words of the next bluegrass song you hear and try to take in the true meaning of the song. That is, unless the next bluegrass song you hear is Hot Corn Cold Corn, in which case you should relax your mind and let the words wash over you like a warm rain (that tastes just a little like moonshine) until it’s time for the banjo break.

  • Elizabeth Loring

    It’s my experience that a lot of guys are only dimly aware that there are words to a song, and think the verses and choruses are there to provide handy places to try out ideas for their upcoming breaks.

    Great collection of bluegrass mondegreens! Here are some of my faves, and I am not making them up:

    “I’ve got a pink comb and a pen…”
    (“I got a pig home in a pen…”) from “Pig in a Pen”

    “Her parents took all my pay…”
    (“The taverns took all my pay…”) from “Old Home Place”

    “Late in the evening, the bats come down…”
    (“Late in the evening, about sundown…”) from “Uncle Pen”

    Ask Chris Stuart about the one he heard when some other performers were covering his song “Thibedoux”–I can’t remember it exactly, but it was a good one.

    • For the answer to that question, please send $14.95 to the Misquoted Songwriters Rehab Center.

      I’m just as guilty as anyone. For years I sang the line in Poncho & Lefty that should go “Lefty’s living in a cheap hotel” as “he left his linen in a cheap hotel.” And in the same song I heard “The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold” as “The desert’s quiet, it’s clean, it’s cold.”

      I’m definitely singing “feta cheese and hair” now in Wandering Boy. That’s the funniest line I’ve heard in a while.

  • My sister thought Skaggs was singing “Don’t get a fuzzy raisin” when he cut the song.

  • Lisa Jacobi

    The problem begins early in life when singing along with Christmas Carols. Take for example the problematic verse in Silent Night, I maintain that it is, indeed:

    “Fun Young Virgins, Mother and Child”

  • Chris Jones

    Chris Stuart, I love “left his linen in a cheap motel”. I also thought it was “..and your breast’s as hard as kerosene.” I don’t know if you learned “Pancho and Lefty” from Emmy Lou Harris’ version of the song, but I think anyone who learns a song from an Emmy Lou Harris recording should be automatically excused for any lyric mistakes (not that I don’t love that version).

  • Shannon Wade

    When I was a little girl I thought the words to “Old Home Place” were “why did I leave my flower in the field” because I thought it was a term of endearment to his lady-friend 🙂

  • Dick Bowden

    My old favorite is the opening line to Blue Ridge Cabin Home — “There’s a well beaten calf on that old mountainside…” Didn’t think country people liked veal that much.

    For years I thought Tony Rice was singing “and upon him Scotty lay” in the final verse of “Home from Forest”. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    Chris, you should get the writer of the year award strictly for “IN the mountain” and “GRIEVE and to cry”. Or at least the listener of the year award. People would be bound to mispronounce “ear of the year award” I’m afraid.

  • Tom Feller

    There is a side of this that can be considered a “cute” misinterpretation. As a lad, my favorite bluegrass song was my uncle Aubrey Holt’s “You Can Mark It Down”. The old Boys From Indiana song, recently re-cut by the Grascals, states “you’re on the road like a travelin’ woman”. My 5 year old interpretation was “you’re on the road, like a travelin’ walnut.” This was sort of a family joke for years, and is still laughed about, from time to time, at the occasional get-together. Very entertaining story, Chris!

  • Chris Jones

    Thanks, Dick. I forgot about the “well-beaten calf.” Yeah, I think Vince Gill sang the wrong words to “Lonesome River” one time, and we’ve never been able to get it back.

  • Shawn Cramer

    It took me years to figure out the line from “Salty Dog Blues” I know your parents don’t like me, ok that one was easy, They drove me away from your door, yep got that one too, but then the next two lines stumped me, so I just kind of mumbled something with the right syllables and called it a day! Lester Flatt singing “if I had my life to live over, I’d never go there anymore?” was hard for me to get. And there was a country song by Doug Stone with the line “and she sat down, just three desks down” that I was sure he was singing “and she sat down, just straight a**ed down”. LOL
    Great commentary Chris
    Shawn

    • Shawn Cramer

      So after rereading my post I realized that I had a case of dumbass when originally writing it. LOL. While sitting here thinking the words to “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” I inadvertently typed “Salty Dog Blues”. I would not have been offended if one y’all had pointed out this blatant error! Please accept my apologies for the synapses not firing correctly at the time. I wish I had a great excuse like I was drunk at the time, or a beautiful woman interrupted me while typing, etc. Unfortunately only my short attention span is to blame.
      Shawn

  • Mark Sahlgren

    Back in the 1960’s, my very young son would say, “Daddy, play ‘My Long Dirty Home'”. Might have been a reflection on our housekeeping abilities.

  • Orin Friesen

    When J.D. Crowe & the New South recorded Merle Haggard’s “In My Next Life,” they sang “I spent this life behind the plow and hay row,” instead of the correct “plow and harrow.” Most people also sing the wrong words to “Christmas Time’s A-Comin’.” They usually sing “home’s where the wind blows” instead of “homeward the wind blows.”

    • Lisa Sorrell

      Orin,
      Yes, thank you for mentioned the “plow and harrow” line. That one drives me crazy every time I hear it!

  • Gregg Turbeville

    “the Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver song Julie Ann (written by Randall Hylton)”
    I believe Julie Ann was written by Pete Goble and Leroy Drumm. As Randall would say, on behalf of Pete and Leroy, “What kind of deal is this?”

  • Mark Sahlgren

    I’ve always loved the Blue Ridge Mountains. In 1967, my buddy, Smitty, began singing “My home’s across the Drewry’s Mountains.” I looked at him, furrowed brow. I’m glad I quit ‘drinking’ long ago!

  • Dennis Jones

    EVERYBODY sing along…”Big Spy Camera”!!!

    Or The F&S classic “I’ll Wear Yor’ Underwear Tonight”.

  • I’m Gonna Sleep With One Iota From Now On

  • Zeke Buttons

    Chris Stewart is correct on the author of Julie Ann, Pete Goble and Leroy Drumm wrote it.

    On singing ‘incorrect’ lyrics, the one that always bugs me is the JD and New South version of Rock Salt And Nails when Tony Rice says “if the ladies were blackbirds, if the ladies ‘WORE’thrushes..and to this day when Ricky Wasson sings it, he says the same thing..lol..But it’s such an awesome song I reckon it has to be ok because they aren’t going to change it.

    Because I believe that song writing is another talent, I think that song writers should get the credit for their work. It doesn’t happen as much today as it use to but in the ‘old’ days Monroe and many other band leaders of his era took credit for a lot of songs that they had little or nothing to do with writing. Band members would write songs [sometimes the lyrics and the melody] but the band leaders got credit for it. Even record companies sometimes gave credit on the albums to band leaders instead of the true authors. A good example is “Ramblin’ Letters”. This song was not written by Carter Stanley, he and Ralph made it famous but Carter didn’t write it, N.Nathan, Gene Redd and Ray Starr were the authors.

  • Randy Gregg

    I once looked online for the lyrics to “Noah Found Grace in the Eyes of the Lord”, recorded by the Statler Brothers.

    For the line “Get Ham, Shem and Japheth and build yourself a boat”
    I found “Get a handshave and shave that and build yourself a boat”.

    Evidently the person who posted that had no knowledge of the story of Noah and his three sons.

  • Justus Waldron

    I think my favorite is 9 pound hammer, which can either be “9 pound hamster” or my favorite: “These 9 pound Pampers are a little too heavy buddy for my thighs”

    Also of course “You can’t see the lens upon my Big Spy Camera…” Which was already mentioned

  • Lisa Sorrell

    I once looked up the lyrics to “Okie From Muskogee” and read the words “Okie from Muscovie.” I’m not sure where Muscovie is, and I’m pretty sure whoever posted it doesn’t know where Muskogee, Oklahoma is either.

    A friend of a friend used to enjoy singing “This Little Light of Mine” in church when she was young because of the line “Hide it under a bush…HELL NO!”

  • Buddy Zincone

    I certainly agree that words are sometimes garbeled but in the “Old Home Place” the word “tariff” makes perfect sense. Any professional economist would recognize that, in addition to meaning a tax on imports, it also means, although a little archaically, a tax in general. A look at your paystub might give an insight into the real meaning of the line.

  • Randy Gregg

    Lisa,

    When I was little I thought that line was “Hide it under a bush… oh no!” (very similar to what your friend thought). It was years later when I finally learned that it was really “Hide it under a bushel… no!”

    I grew up on a farm where a bushel was a *quantity* of something, not the container itself, so I never made the connection. (We called the container a “bushel basket”, but the physical container…capable of hiding anything…was the basket, not the bushel.)

  • Chris Jones

    Quite right about Pete Goble and Leroy Drumm writing “Julie Ann”. Sorry, Pete. It’s not the first time I’ve made that mistake. I think it goes back to that era when the Country Gentlemen and Doyle Lawson were recording a lot of songs by Hylton, and Goble and Drumm. I suppose I could actually take the time to look stuff like that up before writing it down. I’m told you can do that on the internet now!

  • Tom Feller

    Who can forget Doyle Lawson’s version of the Redeemed are Coming Home, with Lou Reid’s erie recitation “In the mist…..is the THING”? I was always confused as to how the Creature from the Black Lagoon could lend his likeness to those beautiful 4 part harmonies, in this classic bluegrass-gospel piece.

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