Deliberately modified or accidental mondegreen?

(October 03, 2014)

Folk music thrives through the content of its lyric. The narrative folk style has always told tales and if the human condition can rely on one element of its make up, it’s the desire to relate and hear stories. It’s the listening to and sharing of tales that gives so much longevity to the narrative folk genre. The stories themselves do however evolve and develop – sometimes not for obvious reasons and sometimes in unexpected ways.

Since people first sang songs, and long before they were written down, lyrics passed from person to person by word of mouth. People sang songs to make a point, relate their condition, protest about injustice or simply to tell tales, in doing so other people heard them and in sympathy with the content, remembered them as best they could and carried them forward. The transformation of these songs became based on what people heard or what they thought they heard, related to their own experiences. So, folk song lyrics learned by repetition, often morphed into something that perhaps struck a more relevant chord with each new set of listeners and those people that re-imagined the original lyric. Time and again the song lyrics were seeded with references to make them flourish in multiple regions and countries, even though the elements of the tale may change.

The only downside to this seeding and flourishing is that sometimes the message becomes lost in the lyric. Perhaps not intentionally but often the ‘latest’ version of a song has a tendency to miss out crucial words or phrases that originally gave the song its true meaning. These lyrics can present disjointed stories about abandoned lovers, murderous families, ghostly apparitions, fearsome witches, all of which somehow make some sense with their adulterated form. However, when a folk lyric, allegedly telling a historical tale or referencing immigration and emigration, fictional or otherwise, is comprised of odd half-remembered verses or modified out of all recognition all it can create a weird, almost meaningless mongrel.

Separating the ‘evolved lyric’ from the ‘mondegreen’

Rife through sacred and secular music, from traditional to modern, the misheard lyric or mondegreen, deliberately or otherwise appears within such examples as: ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’, ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and ‘Oh Danny Boy’, to ‘Over The Hills and Far Away’, ‘Good Ship Kangaroo’ and ‘Fairy Tale of New York’ – everyone has a quotable favourite.

Beside the accidental mishearing, the mondegreen also reached a point where the ‘mishearing’ was deliberate to create a funny/obscene/ offensive lyric. In the modern parlance this includes such hoary old chestnuts as: “Rock salmon” replacing “Roxanne” in the song of the same name by The Police, and the dubious but oft-quoted: “′Scuse me while I kiss this guy” replacing: “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky" from ‘Purple Haze’. Arguably, the most-quoted modern mondegreen: "wrapped up like a douche” from ‘Blinded by the Light’, is actually "revved up like a deuce" (‘Deuce’ being American slang for a 1932 Ford coupé hot rod).

Does the mondegreen appear within folk music? Of course it does. The tradition is crammed full of songs with multiple versions depending on hearing or mishearing and interpretation or derivation. There are many folk artists who made, and are still making a practice of deliberately altering lyrics in a misheard fashion to create the previously mentioned funny/obscene/ offensive. Many are hilarious, some mildly amusing and a few downright pathetic.

One then returns to the question, are there any pure folk songs with unadulterated lyrics? In all probability the answer is no. The further back one researches and the wider one spreads the net geographically the more multiple versions of the same song and tune appear. Interestingly, in many cases each claiming, sometimes against the ‘flow’ of history to be the undoubted original.

So how does one find the elusive ‘original’? The sources for research are relatively easy to locate if you’re interested. Worthwhile stops include the Roud Folk Song Index online at the English Folk Dance and Song Society website, the Cecil Sharp Librarynow called Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, the Child Ballads, the works of folklorists such as Janet Blunt, Lucy Broadwood, George Butterworth and Anne Gilchrist, and the many books referencing broadside ballads, shanties and working songs.

You may also consider more recent renditions of poetry into folksong as ‘pure’ and largely unchanged because the ‘source’ is written down and has been reprinted many times. The work of such worthies as Pope, Keats, Chatterton, Clare, T.S Eliot and Kipling have all made fine songs, either in their entirety or through sampling verses or chorus. These too become modified once created, but then again, who should hold the folk pedigree banner and dictate which is pure and which is not? And in reality does it really matter?

In my view, the only point at which it becomes difficult to accept the many folk mongrels is when the content no longer has any real meaning. When that happens it’s reduced from narrative as such to a collection of words and phrases flying along in close formation and masquerading as a song.

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