The dreaded gender switch in song lyrics

Chris JonesLast week, I experimented with changing lyrics to some of our time-honored murder ballads, and most agreed with me that the results were less-than ideal, even though some lives were saved in the process.

Some would even suggest that it’s never appropriate to change the lyrics or story line of any classic song. In truth, though, we do it more than you might think. In the case of the murder ballads, these songs have been passed down through generations, and in some cases sent across the Atlantic before turning into the versions we’re most familiar with. A lot of lyric changes have taken place between then and now.

Take Down in the Willow Garden, for example. In the song, which, as I pointed out last week, involves poisoning, stabbing and drowning (the murderer was too exhausted at that point, otherwise he might have thrown in shooting and strangling, just to be sure), there’s a reference to giving her “burgundy wine,” and everyone’s sometimes-reliable historical source, Wikipedia has this to say about the wine:

“The lyrics refer to a poisoned wine, usually as “burglar’s wine” or “Burgundy wine,” sometimes as “Berkeley,” “burdelin,” “buglers,” and earlier as “merkley wine;” this may refer to drugged wine, or possibly to “burgaloo wine,” burgaloo being a type of pear (from the French, virgalieu)”

If you say so.

Word to the wise: the next time someone offers you “burgaloo wine,” whether or not it’s from the French “virgalieu,” I would pass and make a run for it. Based on the above, I think we can safely say that historians have no idea what kind of wine he was serving when the song was first written. I’ve even heard it sung as “snergelly wine,” but I think that was the Dr. Seuss version.

Another way in which songs are changed is when someone decides to do a gender switch. This is done so the singer can better identify with the character in a song sung in the first person.

It’s really a phenomenon of the last 50 or 60 years (feel free to blame television or the invention of the frisbee). In earlier times, everyone was comfortable with singing from the point of view of the opposite sex, or even writing from that point of view; witness Bill Monroe’s True Life Blues. Men also sang I Never Will Marry (“I never will marry, I’ll be no man’s wife . . .”)  long before the marriage equality issue landed in the courts. Changing it into third person would be interesting, but awkward:

“She never will marry
She’ll be no man’s wife
She expects to live single
All the days of her life”

Anne Murray was the queen of the gender switch in country music, sometimes at the expense of the rhyme. Her cover of the Monkees’ Daydream Believer changed the internal rhyme in the line, “You once thought of me as a white knight on a steed” to “I once thought of you as a white knight on a steed.”

Rhonda Vincent once chose to change the gender of the train in her cover of Bluegrass Express: “Louisville, Lexington, he’s southbound” (note of caution: it is now legal to discriminate against transgender trains in at least two states).

Pete Wernick, who started the discussion about pronoun switches with me, giving me this idea, pointed out that some songs are more difficult than others to change around. He cited The Louvin Brothers’ I Wish You Knew as a prime example, and boy was he right. Just try it yourself sometime. This is the first verse:

If only half the things were true you said about my heart
That I could have forgotten you since we’ve been apart
You said I forced my lips to kiss you when we said goodbye
You even said I forced the tears that came into my eye

Try to switch it around so it’s sung from the other person’s point of view, and you get this:

If only half the things were true I said about your heart
That you could have forgotten me since we’ve been apart
I said you forced your lips to kiss me when we said goodbye
I even said you forced the tears that came into your eye

But wait! Then there’s the chorus:

You wish I knew
How hard you tried to tell me
How hard you tried to get me off your mind
You wish I knew
How hard you tried to sleep at night
Since you know that I’m no longer yours
Since I let another beat your time

Speaking of the Louvin Brothers, I’ve never been able to sing I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby (a great Autry Inman song) with the original pronouns, let alone attempt to change them around. I always got bogged down in the “you looked at me, he smiled at you” part, or was it “I looked at him, you looked at you”? Come to think of it, I could probably swap the pronouns around and no one would notice, myself included.

The point, such as it is, is that gender swapping and pronoun switching in songs should be undertaken with the greatest of care, and should maybe require a license. The fact is that changing lyrics to accommodate a gender switch–or just for the challenge of it–can often harm the poetry of the song, and it would often be better to sing it in its original form, and let people use their imagination. There are centuries of precedent for that approach.