Don’t let old Satan hold your hand, Steve

Chris JonesLast week I urged you to celebrate Musical Illiteracy Month. My hope is that by now, you’ve hidden and found your musical illiteracy eggs, and placed tablature under the children’s pillows to be replaced by monetary gifts in the middle of the night, courtesy of the “Tab Fairy.”

Before you start celebrating too enthusiastically, though, I should probably bring up another aspect of this learning-by-ear month that may be less popular than the shunning of written music: the architects of Musical Illiteracy Month also urge celebrants to toss their lyric sheets aside this month too.

I can already hear the cries of “What?! How do you expect me to ever get through The Hills of Roane County? I’m guaranteed to leave out that whole ‘scorching hot sands of the foundry’ part.” I’m afraid the answer is simple: memorize the darned thing, like you’re supposed to.

Like musical notation and tablature, written lyrics are an important tool. I have used lyric sheets when singing a song in the studio, if it’s a song I had never performed live, and I know this is very common. I’m amazed, though, by the number of people I see who remain tied to written lyrics in almost any situation, including singing in the shower, in spite of the obvious practical problems it presents.

There are multiple issues with printed (or on-screen) lyrics: the first is that staring at the words in a stage situation keeps you from engaging with the audience or your fellow band-members. This is why, except under unique circumstances, you almost never see it in a professional setting.

Reading lyrics in a jam session environment, also keeps you from interacting with your fellow pickers, and can affect your timing. Also, how are you going to give the bass player a dirty look for playing the wrong chords, or the mandolin player for rushing?

Memorization of anything is, in some ways, considered a thing of the past. No one memorizes passages of literature or parts of historical speeches in school anymore. It’s just so easy to look up anything on the spot, that people don’t consider it an important aspect of education. If you can commit your ATM pin (“1234”) to memory, or–a real challenge–the internet password you just had to change because of that “heart worm” thing, or whatever it’s called, that’s considered enough memorization for one adult to handle.

Remember, though, the lead singer of the band you just saw play four sets in a bar had all those songs committed to memory. There wasn’t a hidden teleprompter.

The other major problem with relying on lyrics, especially in the internet era, is the lack of accuracy of most of the available lyrics. People with no official connection to the song’s publisher just post their best guess at what the lyrics are, or they’ve consulted someone else’s inaccurate lyrics.

I know for a fact that the second line of Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt’s Little Cabin On The Hill is “it seems there’s a longing for you still,” not “it seems Sarah’s longing for your still,” yet there it is on an internet lyrics site for anyone to access on an iPad and sing in a jam session.

The internet’s not entirely to blame either, it has just led to the proliferation of and easy access to wrong lyrics. I remember consulting an unofficial, commercially available songbook and seeing this line in Handsome Molly: “I saw her in church last Monday . . .” I knew this wasn’t a good source for lyrics.

It’s true that public domain songs have been passed down through the generations, and it’s hard to call something right or wrong in that case. If you alter Ground Hog a little (just making sure the word “whistle pig” is in there somewhere), who’s going to quibble?

Songs like Little Cabin Home on the Hill, however,  are relatively modern songs that we know the writers of. We owe it to them to get their words right, and with sources like, or, it’s not likely to happen.

Officially published lyrics are no better, it turns out. I have a Bill Monroe songbook published in the ‘40s, which I love for the pictures, but it contains some severely botched lyrics.

The first line of The Old Cross Road is the  stern “Oh my brother take this warning.” This official Bill Monroe songbook, on the other hand, has it as, “Oh my brother said this morning.” Just like that, a song of sobering personal reflection has become nothing more than a light conversation between brothers over breakfast. “Don’t let old Satan hold your hand, Steve. Say, could you pass the sugar?”

Meanwhile, It’s Mighty Dark to Travel fares no better. The second line of the first verse (in the 1947 version) is, “Was on the day that I first met her that I told her of my love.” The songbook publishers thought Lester Flatt was singing “Was on the day that I corn fed her that I told her of my love(I know you think I’m just making this up, but honest I’m not).

How does that even happen? I pictured in my mind a conversation in the publisher’s Beverly Hills offices between two executives (I imagine that all Beverly Hills music executives of that era look and talk like Mr. Drysdale from The Beverly Hillbillies, and maybe in this case I’m not far off):

Mr. Drysdale: “What do you think this line is in Mighty Dark to Travel?”

Other Mr. Drysdale: “Oh, I don’t know, Bob, all these hillbilly songs sound the same to me. Just put down anything. People will still buy it, I’m sure.”

The lesson here is to listen to the original recordings themselves, write down the words if you need to, then commit them to memory. You’ll be amazed at how much you can actually hold in your head, and you’ll hear some great music in the process.

After you do this with enough songs, if you don’t want to sing them yourself, you can always start your own internet lyrics site.