What’s a few characters among friends?

| October 10, 2012 | 13 Comments

We’ve spent some time here discussing altered and erroneous song titles and lyrics, mostly blaming the mistakes on good old human error.

Human error, though, can at times be matched by the computer, the “smart” phone, and yes, the satellite radio display. In a previous column, I pointed out my phone’s predictive text feature being unwilling to acknowledge “bluegrass” as a word, suggesting “bludgeon” instead. Computerized word-generators and spell-checkers aren’t always equipped to deal with the arts in any form, so we in the bluegrass music community shouldn’t feel unfairly singled out in this matter.

My satellite radio makes alterations in names of songs, bands, and artists that are a little more subtle than my know-it-all cell phone does.

The radio on which I receive my Sirius XM service is at this point an antique, but it’s an antique with great sound, and controls that I can operate without consulting a user guide, so I’ll be sad on the day I have to replace it. There’s a problem with the way it displays the names of songs and artists, though, and it’s one that isn’t unique to its brand and model, or in fact even to satellite radios.

The problem is one of the limitation of allowable characters, i.e. how many letters it’s willing to display of an artist’s name or a song’s title, before it says “I’m sorry, but I draw the line at ‘Jim Bob Cornelius III and His Rambling Constituents, Featuring Fiddlin’ Geronimo Wallenburgerheim and Glenda Jean’.”

Anyone with a long name already knows about this problem of the computer age from bulk mailings which omit one or more letters of their name, which is why I say that this is not limited to satellite radios. My full first name is Christopher, which is apparently one letter too long for many penny-pinching companies and cash-strapped state and local governments, so I get a lot of mail addressed to “Christophe” (I think it has a nice European flair or something to it, so I don’t complain much). I don’t know if there was a study done somewhere that discovered that keeping the characters in a name limited to ten, saves enough on printing costs to be able to finance one more bulk mailing each year, or what, but ten characters seems to be the limit.

I’m not sure why a radio’s display has to have character limits, but most do. Someone I’m sure could explain this to me, and I’d try very hard not to glaze over during the explanation.

In any case, the result of lopping off even one character can be striking. It’s not so much a problem with artists’ names. When I read “Alison Kraus” or “Russell Moor.” I’m pretty sure I know who’s name it is, but the problem becomes a lot more serious with band names.

The first time I noticed it was with “Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time.” Minus one character, this band suddenly became a duo: “Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Tim” (I’m told that Larry and Tim have since parted company, and Larry’s back with the full band).

Likewise, J.D. Crowe’s early band was also transformed into a duo: “J.D. Crowe and the Kentucky Mountain Boy”.

As you can see, when it comes to band names, that last letter can carry a lot of weight. Without it, you get “Mountain Hear,” “Balsam Rang,” “The Steep Canyon Ranger,” or the cryptic “David Peterson and 194.”

Some of these changes can be downright disturbing: Here’s one that suggests the outlawing of bluegrass music in Nashville: “The Nashville Bluegrass Ban” (by the way, some music row heavyweights actually tried to institute such a ban in the 1960s).

The meaning of song titles can also be severely altered by the mere omission of a letter on the display. I first discovered this on a Gospel song that my radio tried to tell me was called, “I’ll Trade the Old Cross For a Crow” (I’m pretty sure that isn’t biblical, or even a good idea).

Some friends and I started thinking of some other gospel songs whose message or theology would be badly transformed just by skipping the last character. Some examples were: “Jesus is Whispering No” (from the Louvin Brothers song “Jesus is Whispering Now”), the wildly inappropriate “Everybody Wants to Go to Heave”; and, similar to the ban on bluegrass music imagined above, the forbidding of all celestial beings, in the tragic “Angel Ban.”

Secular songs are by no means immune, and the omission of a letter can be just as damaging, if not quite as disturbing.

I imagine a mother asking her children whose dad has recently remarried: “Will You Be Lovin’ another Ma.” Then there’s Bill Monroe singing about a guy named “Kentucky Walt.” or bidding farewell to his aging father in “Goodbye Old Pa.” 

Jim and Jesse once again prove that they were always ahead of their time with the hip hop-esque lyrics in “I’ll Love Nobody But Yo”

I’ll be looking for this song in a future James Bond movie, possibly a duet, sung by Bond and Moneypenny: “The Bluebirds are Singing For M.”

Things start to get even more surreal when A.P. Carter starts writing songs about trendy hot beverages, as in “Gold Watch and Chai” (I suppose if he were alive today, he’d be frequenting the Bristol Starbucks the same as everybody else).

This is only the result of omitting the last letter in these songs, so you can imagine the possibilities if you lose two or more letters from the end. I’d love to delve into classic pieces like “Summer Wag,” “Wheel Ho,” and even “Nine Pound Ham,” but I think we’ve destroyed enough song titles for a while, and, honestly, I just don’t have the tim.

Chris Jones

Chris Jones wears many hats in his bluegrass career. In addition to leading his own band, with whom he tours and records, Jones is an award-winning broadcaster and songwriter.

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