I’ll admit to being a stickler for correct lyrics, probably to an annoying degree. Or at least I’m that way about lyrics for which there’s a known author. For songs that made their way across the Atlantic in the 19th century, like Barbara Allen or Pretty Polly, there’s no way any of our bluegrass versions are faithful to the English or Scottish originals, anyway, whatever those might have been, so the “close enough” approach works fine there. Just make sure there’s a “Willie” or “William” in there and have somebody die and it should all work out. If a song was written by Carter Stanley or Bill Monroe, though, and we have the original recordings of these songs, I’m for taking the care to sing them as they were written, unless you’re just particularly troubled by a specific line or something, and want to alter it so you’ll feel better about singing it. For some reason, a lot of people have a problem with these lines from Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen:
They hung up his fiddle, they hung up his bow
They knew it was time for him to go
Perhaps they feel Uncle Pen wasn’t quite ready to go and was feeling pushed into it. This explains why some people sing:
Hang up his fiddle? Did Pen say so?
Let’s give him the choice to stay or go
I’m no less fussy about standard Christmas lyrics. In fact, I might be worse about them, perhaps because there’s so much tradition attached to them, and many of these songs are beautifully written (Wham’s Last Christmas could be one of a few notable exceptions). When I hear someone singing I’ll Be Home For Christmas, I want them to sing “you can plan on me,” not “you can count on me,” and I want those presents “on the tree” (as impractical as that might be in real life) not “neath the tree,” “under the tree” (which doesn’t even meter right) or anywhere else. That’s where the writer wanted those presents, so on the tree they go, as far as I’m concerned.
In Tex Logan’s bluegrass Christmas classic, Christmas Time’s a-Comin’, I want the lyrics to be:
Holly’s in the window, home where the wind blows
Not, as I so often hear it now:
Holly’s on the front porch, did you bring a small torch?
If you’re going to just go your own way with Christmas lyrics, why not just commit to making them completely your own and as free-form as you feel like. In an earlier column, I experimented with writing band promotional material using my smartphone’s predictive text. Those are those words you see (often three choices) under the body of your text after you type in a word. The results were interesting, and sometimes as good as some of the press releases that are sent out in mass emails on a regular basis. If you don’t really care about a Christmas songwriter’s lyrical intentions, you could always rewrite Christmas standards like this.
Below is what I came up with using the first few words of the original song for each line, then letting my phone suggest the rest. Note that your phone’s text suggestions are somewhat catered to you based on words and phrases you use more often, but that simply helps you personalize these songs that much more. For example, when I write “Blue,” my phone suggests either “Chip” or “Moon,” whereas yours might offer up “corn” or “Monday.”
Here you go. I did my best to make choices that would still be compatible with the original meter, so in theory you could actually sing these like this (though I don’t recommend that).
Frosty the Snowman
Frosty the snowman
Was the best thing I could have
With a corncob or a skating rink
And the girls were doing well
Oh Frosty the snowman
Wasn’t too bad for the snow
But it’s not too late for the Whippoorwill (I can’t explain the random capitalization)
To be there in the next week
There must have been some issue
With the article on this
Cause when you get to your office
I can call your mom and ask . . .
Christmas Time’s a-Comin’
Christmas Time’s a-comin
Christmas is the best thing
Christmas is a good day
And I’m sorry I don’t know
Snowflakes are holding
My friend is coming
Oh yeah you know that
Christmas time is ready
Can’t you hear them bells on your phone
Joy and I miss my life
When it’s not too bad for me
I just got the mail
Christmas time’s a-comin’
Christmas cake for Christmas
I just got back in from
The airport hotel
The Christmas Song
Chestnuts roasting on the kitchen floor
Jack Frost is a good idea
Yuletide Carol’s of the hens and the ducks
And folks who have a chance to talk
Everybody knows that you’re not really looking for
Anything for me to say
Tiny tots with the small side of fries
Will make you feel good for a while . . .
They know that Santa Claus is in
The process of sending them to church
And they are not sure what the plan will be
For tomorrow night or Friday night or so . . .
Or you could just sing the original lyrics.