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.