It was my freshman year of college, and someone on my dorm floor had the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” cranked up to a nice respectable level. Bobbing my head and looking quite suave, I belted out the opening lyric: “Cocoa slave ship, avocado fields…” Those within earshot cracked up, and I couldn’t understand why. It took someone bringing out a collection of Stones lyrics to reveal my shame to me: the line actually went, “Gold coast slave ship, bound for cotton fields.”
This got a bunch of people on the floor talking about misheard lyrics of their own. To this day I remember two of them – a girl who thought that the Phil Collins song “One More Night” was “One Walnut,” and another girl who swore up and down that she thought Stevie Winwood’s “Bring Me a Higher Love” was “Great Big Italian Moth.”
These mishearings are a very common thing – so much so, in fact, that there’s a website called kissthisguy.com dedicated to archiving them. (The site’s named after the legendary mishearing of the line “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky” in Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”) You’ll find my “cocoa slave ship” story submitted here. I maintain that it makes perfect sense – certainly far more than another mishearing, “Old Joe Stacy found a pot of beans.”
When an event happens enough times, the decision comes to create a term for it, and there is indeed a word for a misheard lyric. That word is mondegreen. It was coined in a 1954 essay by the writer Sylvia Wright, who as a child heard a verse of ancient English poetry that went, “Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands / Oh, where hae ye been? / They hae slain the Earl Amurray, / And laid him on the green.” She thought the last line was “And Lady Mondegreen.” It may not have been, but now it’ll always be remembered that way. Mondegreens show up on Twitter a lot – you’d be surprised how many people say “Midas whale” instead of “Might as well” – but today we’re going to stick with song lyrics that manage to persuade you that John Fogerty’s trying to warn you that there’s a bathroom on the right.
One of the fun things about mondegreens, to my mind, is how long they can take to discover. No matter how goofy the lines are, your brain finds a way to make sense of your understanding of the lines, and it always takes a second party, be it a person or an article, to point it out. The famed rock critic Lester Bangs once wrote, “From the time it was released until about six months ago [ten years or so – ed.] I thought Brian Wilson was singing “She’s giving me citations” (instead of the factual “excitations”) in “Good Vibrations,” I thought the song was about a policewoman he fell in love with or something.”
Sometimes, though, the misheard version is an improvement on the actual lyric. Maybe it makes more sense, or perhaps it’s more poetic. In the past few years I discovered a couple personal mondegreens that to this day I far prefer to the original, and not because it’s a little wacky.
The first is from “California Dreamin'” by the Mamas and the Papas. The second verse goes like this:
Stopped into a church
I passed along the way
Well I got down on my knees
And I began to pray
Only it doesn’t – the last line is actually “And I pretend to pray.” (Don’t believe me? Listen for yourself here.) Which makes no sense – why change verb tenses in the middle of a sentence? Also, beginning to pray is in fact the very first thing someone in a church does after he gets down on his knees. Perfectly reasonable, right? Far more than making the effort to go into a church, going so far as to kneel, and then faking your way through the rest of it. Yep, my way is better, no question.
The other one I discovered to be something other than what I thought it was comes from Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue.” Talking about the end of a relationship, he sings:
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best
Those are the lyrics, as confirmed by Bob’s own website. But for ever and ever, I had thought he was singing, “Split up on the docks that night.” Isn’t that more evocative? Doesn’t that conjure up a picture? Of course it does – far more than “a dark, sad night.” How many nights do you know that aren’t dark? (The Alaskans among you need not answer that question.)
Sometimes a mondegreen becomes so ingrained it actually becomes the official version. For instance, did you know that on the fourth day of the Twelve Days of Christmas, the true love originally gave four colly birds? They were changed to calling birds sometime around the start of the twentieth century. Speaking of Christmas, the songs of the season have some of the most mondegreened lyrics around, perhaps in part due to learning the songs at a very early age, when vocabulary is much smaller and sounds are taken most literally. Thus, you have Olive, the other reindeer who used to laugh and call Rudolph names (that bitch!); Round John Virgin, who was with mother and child on a silent night; Barney, the King of Israel mentioned in “The First Noel.” For more where that came from, check out this Snopes page and join me in singing, “Joy to the world – the Lord has gum!”