Friday, March 7, 2008

Saturday, January 23, 1960: Dead Ants Are My Friends, A-blowin' in the Wind

Dead ants are my friends, a-blowin’ in the wind
Dead ants are a-blowin’ in the wind

According to (one of many internet sources where one can find the definition), a mondegreen is "the mishearing (usually unintentional) of a phrase as a homophone or near-homophone in such a way that it acquires a new meaning." A banal example of a mondegreen can be found on an old Korean laser disc I own of Sam Raimi’s film Army of Darkness, in which the date, “1300 A.D.” has been (mis)translated in the subtitle as “1380,” an understandable mistake by a non-native speaker of English. Most of us are familiar with figures such as the Necker Cube and the “duck-rabbit” (pictured), ambiguous figures used to illustrate the idea that the perception of visual phenomena is not only a matter of the eye recognizing the stimulus, but also the mind. The picture of the duck-rabbit is an example of an ambiguous image, or graphic amphiboly. At least one theoretical implication of the duck-rabbit for cognitive psychologists is that it reveals the role of expectations and experiential knowledge in the act of perception: what one sees is more often more accurately understood as what one thinks one sees. A different theoretical implication of the duck-rabbit is the role of unconscious desires in the act of perception, as illustrated by the use of Rorschach (“inkblot”) Test.

When it comes to mondegreens (an aural ambiguity enabled by the homophone), some wonderful ones have been created by the mishearing of popular song lyrics. Hence my motive for writing this blog: I’d originally intended to write about Johnny Horton, an interesting popular singer not much remembered anymore, but as a consequence of my wife Becky and I reminiscing about her mishearing the lyrics to Horton’s “Jim Bridger” as a little girl, I changed my focus to the mondegreen. Here’s what Horton sings:

He spoke with General Custer
And said listen yellow-hair
The Sioux are a great nation
So treat ‘em fair and square
Sit in on their war council
Don’t laugh away their pride
But Custer didn’t listen
At Little Big Horn Custer died.

Here’s what Becky, at about age six or seven, heard:

He spoke with General Custard
And said listen yellow-hair
The Sioux are a great nation
So treat ‘em fair and square
Sit in on their war council
Don’t laugh away their pride
But Custard didn’t listen
At Little Big Horn Custard died.

Although not as amusing, my Johnny Horton mondegreen occurred by mishearing a lyric in "North to Alaska," a song I played over and over and over as a small boy. What I heard was, "They’re goin’ North, to the Russian zone," rather than "They're goin' North, the rush is on." Who knows why I heard it this way? Perhaps because in kindergarten we’d been studying about Alaska, which had recently achieved statehood, and which, geographically speaking, we’d learned was very near Russia. I simply don't remember, but I suspect this actually might be the reason, thus illustrating the role of subjective expectations in perceptual (and aural) cognition.

Among the more famous mondegreens that have occurred through mishearing the rock music lyric is, of course, the one from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” in which, “’scuse me, while I kiss the sky” was misheard by some as, “’scuse me, while I kiss this guy.” (Does this mishearing reveal what was perceived by some as a sexual ambiguity in Jimi Hendrix, or, alternatively, homophobia--or repressed homoerotic desire--in the listener?) Apparently, so I’m told, having heard of this mondegreen and found it amusing, Hendrix began singing the lyric the "kiss this guy" way during live performances.

But I believe my favorite mondegreen is derived from The Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda” because it is so wonderfully surreal:

The Beach Boys sang:
Well since she put me down I’ve been out doin’ in my head

Well since she put me down there’ve been owls pukin’ in my bed

Speaking of The Beach Boys, here’s a wonderful one:

Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul
--Dobie Gray, Drift Away

Give me the Beach Boys and free my soul

Are American listeners inclined to misread (mishear) the lyrics of rock and roll songs more so than the lyrical content of other popular music for paranoid reasons? Dave Marsh observes in Louie Louie (Hyperion Books, 1993):

Rock lovers and rock haters both assume that great rock ’n’ roll songs are, or ought to be, dreamed up on the spot. Rock fans think this proves the music’s tremendous spontaneity and dedication to amateurism. . . . Rock bashers promulgate rock-on-the-spot because it reinforces their sense of it as throwaway garbage made solely to generate big bucks and/or gonadal excitement, with an underlying purpose either cynical or Satanic. (10)

The charge of Satanic influence was a later development in the history of rock, but ever since Elvis the lyrical contents of rock songs have been under suspicion. Dave Marsh uses “Louie Louie” as an illustration of the way the inherent ambiguity of rock lyrics raises paranoid suspicions, but it’s nonetheless true that the lyrical content—predictably—of rock and roll lyrics has often been filled with sexual innuendo, perhaps beginning with Elvis’s popularization of “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” For instance,

I'm like the one-eyed cat peeping in a seafood store

has to be one of lewdest lyrics in rock history; I do not know whether Elvis recognized the innuendo, but he nonetheless performed it, and got away with it, on American national TV in 1956.

Of course, lyricists have deliberately exploited various forms of linguistic ambiguity, which only encourages the listener in practice to "hear" all sorts of fantastic possibilities. For instance:

Amphiboly (grammatical ambiguity):
I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man and so is Lola
--The Kinks, Lola

Fallacy of Accent:
She’s my girl Bill
My, my girl Bill
--Jim Stafford, My Girl Bill

Paraphrasis (Song titles):
Turning Japanese; Pictures of Lilly (guys)
I Touch Myself; She Bop (“I’m picking up good vibration”) (girls)

One can’t avoid deliberate subterfuge of lyrics, either, meaning the deliberate (intentional as opposed to unintentional) misreading of lyrics, as my friends and I did to the lyrics of the following song, in order to transform into a song about fetishization (which doesn’t preclude that some, in fact, did mishear the song as we consciously transformed it).

The Rain, the Park & Other Things

I saw her sitting in the rain
Raindrops falling on her
She didn't seem to care
She sat there and smiled at me

Then I knew (I knew, I knew, I knew, I knew)
She could make me happy (Happy! Happy!)
She could make me very happy


I saw her shitting in the rain
Raindrops falling on her
She didn’t seem to care
She shat there as she smiled at me

Then I knew (I knew, I knew, I knew, I knew)
She could make me happy (Happy! Happy!)
She could make me very happy

But others were transformed by someone having made a simple Freudian slip (thus activating an unconscious but absolutely appropriate repressed meaning):

Don't Pull Your Love Out

Don’t pull your love out on me baby,
If you do, then I think that maybe
I’ll just lay me down, cry for a hundred years


Don’t pull your love out of me baby
If you do, then I think that maybe
I’ll just lay me down, cry for a hundred years

No wonder, then, that Eric Burdon pleaded--in vain:

Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood

But while one indeed may be a soul whose intentions are good, one can still, alas, be misunderstood:

Oh Lord, Peace, at least my Bemis understood.

1 comment:

Tim Lucas said...

Thank you, Sam, for adding "mondegreen" to my vocabulary.

My return gift to you comes by way of Creedence Clearwater Revival:

"There's a bathroom on the right."

A famous mondegreen, and I've been told that John Fogarty has actually taken to singing "Bad Moon Rising" with this line on his current tour!