logo The MT Mondegreens page



The idea of mis-heard or mis-understood phrases has long been explored in a general sense via the concept of the 'Gladly' - as in Gladly, my cross-eyed bear.  Its folk equivalent is the 'Mondegreen', which emerged from Kenny Goldstein's interpretation of a line in The Bonnie Earl o Moray:
Ye Hielans an ye Lawlans, oh whaur hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o Moray an Lady Mondegreen.
Ballad scholars among you will know that it ought to have been They hae slain the Earl o Moray an laid him on the green.


Having been implored to set up an MT page in which a collection of such gems could be assembled, I have done so here ... and have inserted a couple from my own experience to set the ball rolling.  The first is a favourite, told me by Dr Ian Olson of Aberdeen, and committed (perhaps intentionally?) by his Yorkshire grandfather, regarding that famous Jacobite anthem:

The second comes from the song transcriptions on the Lomax 'Portrait' album of Margaret Barry.  In the second verse of My Lagan Love we find:

There follow your own contributions, which I've now put in reverse order so you get the most recent additions first.


Chris Heppa writes: Just reading over the 'Mondegreens' page, which I love, and two things came to me.  First, when in secondary school at a Christmas concert I heard for the first time

I knew Jesus was born in a stable, but was puzzled as I knew it was in Bethlehem!

Another good source is Samuel Charters' early book on Robert Johnson.  The singer's lyrics are difficult, and Paul was one of the first to try to decipher them; here are a couple of his mondegreens:

However, Samuel got this line from Travelling Riverside Blues correct: 'Ain't gonna state no colour, but her front teeth is crowned with gold'.  Another early blues writer had put 'Ain't gonna stay round Jonesborough till her front teeth is crowned with gold'.



Jody Kruskal writes: Rod, I have spent a pleasant hour reading and listening to your MT site.  Here's another Mondegreen for you.  I was in Texas a few years ago playing at the Old Pal festival where I heard some locals singing Uncle Dave Macon's Sail Away Ladies with subversive delight...

Phil Williams writes from N.Cornwall: From Here's Adieu sweet lovely Nancy:

Jerry O'Reilly writes from Dublin: An Góilín have run a couple of walking and singing tours of The Liberties in Dublin and one of the songs sung is the Dublin street version of Lord Randal, Henry Me Son.  Colm Munnelly, Tom's son, brought his son Ronan to one of the tours and that night young Ronan was heard singing bits of the song including the line:

Gordon McCulloch writes: Following up on Claire M Jordan`s offering on Parcel of Rogues, a well-known scottish singer (best if he remains anonymous) used to sing: And one or two American songs, for example The Willowy Garden, mention 'burglar`s wine' ... bit of a mystery this one ... is it meant to be 'burgundy wine'?
 

Possibly not a true Mondegreen - but very seasonal:

Kitty Parker writes from Nottingham: Some young children came carol-singing last night on our street. In all seriousness, and with shining little faces, they sang:

They couldn't work out why I was bent double!  Merry Christmas.
 

Cherry Daly writes: As an Australian, I can tell you that a lot of Aussie kids think the name of the swagman in Waltzing Matilda is 'Andy' ...

Ray Cullimore writes: I just came across your website and enjoyed the page of Mondegreens and thought you'd like one I spotted on a website.  I couldn't recall the last verse of Hard Times Come Again No More so I Googled it and - to be fair, the translator was Japanese - I discovered the line:

Hans Fried writes: May I add these gems from Melody Maker circa 1967 which, although not strictly mondegreens, deserve honorable mention:

Derek Slater writes: Many years ago, my three young children (8,7 and 4) were routinely assigned to the front pew in church, directly beneath the lectern; a finely carved dark oak stained replica of a large bird, wings outstretched to accommodate the heavy Bible.  All this while my wife played the organ and I sang in the choir.  In those 'good old days' the children were quiet as mice in church but given to re-enactments back at home.  Such was the profound impression made by the sinister lectern, that they were quite convinced part of the Lord's Prayer to be: I see you have included the highly flavoured gravy variant of The Angel Gabriel carol.  On tour, we basses always sang 'Thou highly flavoured Lady' - relevant, graphic, economical using only one additional letter and easy to get away with, even in the most po-faced gatherings!



Doug Olsen writes from Oakland, CA: Just stumbled across your Modegreens page, for which much thanks.  I'm a bit stunned that no one has submitted a mis-heard line from Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy.  Whoever prepared the lyrics on the back of the LP had it as: Shades of the Tell-Tale Heart!  Sorry I don't remember the album or performer.  I wasn't able to listen to the LP, so cannot say what the performer(s) actually sang.



Jean Squires writes in with a lovely seasonal offering from her young daugher:

Niamh Parsons writes: A friend reminded me of a Mondegreen that never actually happened.  Apparently I was singing The Banks of the Bann (other version - As I roved out one morning down by the Hilltown) and Crawford Howard was in the audience and swore I sang: at the bank, in Strabane - instead of - on the banks of the Bann.  (I know I wouldn't have sung that - but he got a great laugh out of it and slagged me for years afterwards!)

The other mondegreen I meant to tell you was about a Kerry woman who sings The Tinkerman's Daughter - and sings of a 'Nine gallon Pony' - ... a wild gallant pony.



Steve Jones writes from Montreal: 'Pat Broaders of Bohola is a valuable source of the mystifying lyric ... here's my favourite, from the song Home on the album Bohola (3), Track 2'

Claire M Jordan writes: I too always hear in Parcel of Rogues (see below) 'false Argyle' rather than 'force or guile'.  The reputation of the Argyle family at the time was such that this makes perfect sense.

Further, I possess a decades-old cassette tape of Mediaeval French court music.  One of the songs begins:

However, the lyrics given in the notes to the songs contain a curious error.  A French-speaking friend pointed out to me many years ago that the printed text says:

Lesley Abernethy writes: Two more mondegreens, both committed by the same class of five-year-olds in a Scottish Borders primary school (which had better remain nameless!):

Simon Furey writes: Once when at a club in Tunbridge Wells, I heard a local (Kent) singer do Blackleg Miners and come out with: I asked him about this afterwards, to which he replied "well, it's somebody's gang, anyway" at which I gently pointed out that a some knowledge of Tyneside dialect (or even better, pitmatic) might help to get "divvent gan"!

Fynnian Titford-Mock writes: A good friend of mine, Isla Hughes, I'm sure she won't mind me saying so, once asked her dad to sing the 'Hairy Tongue' song - you know:

I did once involuntarily sing this, from The Lover's Ghost, or The Grey Cock (note: don't mix these names up - the Grey Ghost and the ... yes, well)

Jon Kiparsky writes: Recently I was listening to Dick Gaughan's recording of Rattlin' Roarin' Willie (the title itself is apt to provoke some misunderstandings...) and once again, though I know better, I was startled to hear him sing:



A first contribution from Ian Page: As I heard the tale, it was Ewan MacColl himself who was asked on night to sing ‘that Irish song’ he had written.  Puzzled, he asked what song and reply was that it was the one with the line: This one always pleased me because the song almost makes sense if every verse ending is heard this way.



And another from Beck Woodrow: Here's one from my very earliest childhood.  My mother used to sing Waly, Waly, and it seemed entirely reasonable to me to hear and then in turn sing:

Chris Smith chips in with a lovely one from the blues world:

Blind Lemon Jefferson - Got The Blues (Paramount 12354, mx 1053-2, c. May 1926).  In the lyrics as published in a CD booklet, the transcriber, who was undoubtedly of a nice disposition, comes up with:

Ah yes, good old noixante-sweuf.

Tim Barker writes: Reading your Mondegreens page with great amusement yesterday I was reminded of something similar to Dave Hunt's example reported on the BBC a few years ago.  Apparently a young boy was overheard singing The Battle Hymn of The Republic as:

John Roberts makes a first contribution with: Someone just gave me a couple of unsolicited sets of words, including Brendan Behan's The Old Triangle.  The second verse started:

Dick Greenhaus writes again - 'one of the neatest Mondegreens I've encountered was in the version of The Death of Queen Jane (Child 170) collected in Kentucky'.

Donald Duncan writes: In the American country song Big John, about a mine cave-in, I remember wondering about the line:
Manners were frayin’ and hearts beat fast,
And everybody thought that they’d breathed their last, ‘cept John.
I listened to it many times, and that was what I heard.  I could see how people might begin to abandon the conventions of courtesy under the circumstances, but it did seem an odd phrase for a country song.

It was some thirty years later when I heard it on the radio, and something snapped inside my head (it was almost a physical sensation, like some little part of my brain suddenly twisted 90 degrees).  I realized the line was Miners were prayin’ and hearts beat fast, – which had never occurred to me when I was racking my brain to figure out what else it might be.



Elaine Belkind writes from Berkely, CA, with a perfect 'classic' Mondegreen - involving the misunderstanding of a correctly heard line.  From Haul Away Joe:

Dick Greenhaus writes to add the splendid, and seasonal: and And tells us that the originally committed Mondegreen was first publicly noted by Sylvia Wright in an Atlantic Magazine article in (he thinks) 1952.



Jerome Colburn writes to say that, in Illinois, The Walls of Liscarroll (see below) was often called The Waltz of Liz Carroll.



Ewan McVicar makes a welcome first-time contribution with three excellent examples:

The Alan Lomax transcription in 1951 of an Edinburgh children's version of 'I am a little orphan girl' has the startling:

When transcribing Jimmy MacBeath's 1950s suspect account of the community creation of bothy ballads, Lomax transcribes: Singer Arthur Johnstone of the Glasgow band The Laggan was looking at the guitar player's set list.  "What's this song, Mountain Goat?"  "You know - the chorus starts: ... and Ewan then adds: Billy Connolly and many another Glasgow wean [kid] sang 'A wean in a manger'.



Ray Templeton writes: While listening to the Dixon Sisters' version of Farther Along, I was reminded of an intriguing Mondegreen of sorts in a version of the song recorded in the 1950s by the gospel quartet the Swan Silvertone Singers, where the chorus line is rendered - quite plausibly, I've always thought, given the religious context:

Vic smith again with: 'I have been reading the wonderful book Queen Amang The Heather written by Sheila Stewart about Belle for review in MT.  At the end of the book there are number of tributes to Belle including one from Peta Webb which ends:

I have a treasured tape of Belle singing at the National Folk Music Festival where she sang some old sentimental songs (in the company of Sheila and her grandsons Rob Roy and Ian) as well as a lively "Wish I was back in Smeraldairye."

This gives I Wish I Was Back Aince Mair in Dalry the distinction of being the first song to be 'mondegreened' twice in this column.  I noted Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger's bloomer earlier.'



Mike Yates tells me he heard a club singer the other night with the following line to Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation:

Dick Miles once again, with a version of Tramps and Hawkers, found on the internet as sung by Donal Hegarty, Co Cork:



Ian Olson returns with a 'firmly justified' mondegreen.  He writes 'A mondegreen which has been both wrongly annotated and then justified must be the best of all.  In Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger's The Singing Island [1960], containing their version of the North-East of Scotland farming song, Charlie, O, Charlie, they substitute for 'brosers' (i.e. workers who subsist on an oatmeal-based diet): a lovely mishearing which is not, curiously enough, in the Ord version they refer us to in their Notes, but which their Glossary goes on to justify firmly as follows: 'grozet = gooseberry - used as a term of derision'.'



Dick Miles makes a first entry with, from Rise up Jock: And, from Jock o Hazeldean, verse3:

Finbar Boyle writes: 'I once saw a mondegreen involving both the Irish and the English languages.  On the wall of the toilet of McGann's pub in Doolin, somebody had written 'What dead cat put me here?'  He was obviously quoting the song Casadh an tSúgáin where the words 'Cén cat mara a chas san áit seo mé?' occur.  The words 'cat mara' mean 'sea monster', but parse literally as 'sea cat'.  Our friend had confused the word 'mara' (of the sea) with 'marbh' (dead).  I'm sure it's long gone, being a graffito, but perhaps others saw it also?

And Vance Randolph, in Pissing in the Snow (not for the faint-hearted, no less respectable than me or millions of others), quotes a story which he calls The Kids Didn't Get It.  It's a Mondegreen, but ye can look it up yereselves.

In a footnote, a further footnote appears:

He does say that it's not clear whether these are actual or would-be tales.

And then there's the (verified) anecdote, in the Opies' Lore & Language of Children when children in schools in various parts of Britain spontaneously sang at Christmas 1938 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Mrs Simpson Stole Our King'.  There's a coronation mug in our house at home with a crowned King Edward the Eighth on it.  My mother reckoned it was worth a fortune because they were smashed in millions when he abdicated.'



Jeff Gillett writes: 'I can remember Jim Couza when he first appeared in this country, some twenty-odd years ago, singing a gloriously garbled version of Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning, in which the second line was: It leads me to suspect that he was actually spelling 'sons' differently in the first line, too - although how many suns there are in the average morning is not a question I've previously asked myself.  I suppose that the song, being mystical, is therefore exempt from logic and rationality in the lyric.'



Steve Gardham writes: 'The Hudleston collection book Songs of the Ridings is absolutely packed with mondegreens due to the fact that the two cowboys who were asked to edit it had no idea about folk music or the local dialect.'

This is just a sampler: Gordon & Adams' version from the song Mary, Oh Mary, Please Come Home to Me, p15, verse 2 line 7:

and the real title is Th' Owd Farmer and His Shrew, a song attributed in the book to 'an unknown singer, Leeds' - but of course we all know it couldn't really be anybody else but the famed Tommy Daniel of Batley.'



Jerry O'Reilly writes: 'As we seem to be moving along to a new phase on the mondegreens, here's one that has cropped up. From Craigie Hill: Of course we would never have known of the existence of bagels when we were younger.  The global village syndrome I suppose.'



Pete Wood writes: 'During my stint with the Ranters, a lady down south asked me to sing:

Geoff Wallis chips in with: 'In terms of misprints, nothing can be worse than Paddy Killoran's The Grease in the Bog which appears on Proper's The Irish Music Anthology alongside Barbara Mullen's The Garden Mothers Lullaby [sic].'



Terry Moylan make a first appearance with: 'On the tracklist of one of the early Columbia records Padraig O'Keeffe or Denis Murphy (can't remember which at this stage) is credited with playing: A friend of mines deliberately transforms "we kissed, shook hands and parted" into "we pissed, shook lads and farted".  This has ruined so many songs for me.

And finally, surely when the Watersons sing "Go down, go down into yonder town and sit in the gallery" in The Leaves of Life, they really mean "Go down, go down into yonder town, the city of Galilee"?'



Jim Bainbridge writes: 'I lent a Paddy Tunney LP to a good friend once, and she came back to me asking why, in the Green fields of Canada,

Fred McCormick again: 'There's a certain Irish music hall song, Irish Molly-O, I think, in which an earnest young man tries to persuade his girlfriend to marry him.  When I first heard the song, I couldn't figure out why this desired act of betrothal had to entail the young lady descending into a life of sin and degredation.  Then I realised, the guy was singing "Go on, be game", not "Go on the game".



And more record company misprints: Ray Spendley writes: 'During Kelly Harrell's recording of the fascinatingly titled song Cave Love has Gained the Day (Complete Recorded Works Vol. 2 ,Document), he actually sings , "'Caze ( i.e.'because') love has gained the day".  What a let-down!'



Fred McCormick writes: 'Since Reg Hall has started on record company misprints, I shall weigh in with: I'm sure there's many more which will suface eventually.  In the meantime, a famous English singer once had to drop Queen Among the Heather from her repertoire after singing 'ploughman's lunch' instead of 'ploughman lad'.



Reg Hall makes his first appearance here, and contributes some delightful mis-namings of tunes on record labels:

Niamh Parsons returns with something she heard from Eugene McEldowney:

Bob Rummery writes from Australia: 'More years ago than I would care to remember I was at one of the original clubs in Sydney and heard a version of The Overlander.  I was particularly taken with the lines: They bred them tough in those days!



Tom Sherlock writes: 'In Cole Moreton's engaging book on the descendants of the people who left the Blasket islands off the Kerry coast, Hungry for Home, he describes his discomfort as an Englishman finding himself in an Irish bar in Springfield, MA, where he is on the trail of some of the first generation Blasket people.  He describes a 'Wolfe Tones' type ballad band blaring out the standard 'republican' stuff and is made uncomfortable by the lusty chorus he hears: There follows a true story ... although it doesn't strictly qualify as a Mondegreen.  Some years ago I was working in Claddagh Records in Dublin.  A call came through to me from a major film studio in Hollywood asking for me by name.  The woman from Hollywood explained that she was working on a film version of Tom Clancy's blockbuster novel, Patriot Game, with Harrison Ford to star in it, and that they had been referred to me as somebody who might be able to help them with a musical query.

"I understand there is an Irish song of the same name", she said.

Trying to be helpful, I replied with the line from Dominic Behan's song, The Patriot Game, "My name is O'Hanlon, my age is sixteen."

Momentary silence at the other end ... "Well, um, thank you, Mr O'Hanlon ... Do you think we might be able to speak with somebody a little more senior in your organization?"

A Happy Christmas to you and continued congratulations on a great site.

Tom Sherlock - Dublin



Hal Hughes writes: 'I have one handed down from my mother who, being of Swiss descent, quite naturally heard the old hymn Bringing in the Sheaves as Bringing in the Cheese.



Finbar Boyle makes a first visit with: 'I was discussing mondegreens with Tom Clarke of Na Piobairi Uilleann the other evening.  He came up with one from a Belfast singer of Sean South of Garryowen:

Dave Hunt has just reminded me of something I should have remembered myself:

Vic Smith returns with a personal Mondegreen:

The first time that I recorded Jali Sherrifo Konteh was in his compound in the Gambia in 2001.  I have been listening to the recordings and looking at my notebook from that time.  For one song he recorded I have written "The only early composition of Sherrifo's that he still sings.  Written for a friend and schoolmate who died tragically early.  The song says what a happy person he was and lists his other qualities.  S is sometimes still asked to sing it by the mother and other members of the family."  I have given the title as Smiling Guy, and I remember thinking at the time that this title and the phrase in the song was Sherrifo's only use of English in his songs.

With a better knowledge of Mandinka personal names, I now realise that the title is the unfortunate lad's name ... Ismael N'jie.



Roly Brown returns: 'At risk of offending sensiblities and the memory of Sabine Baring-Gould ... some years ago, when Gabriel's Message was being sung, the chorus line came out as:

Vic Smith writes:

I’ve had a good chuckle looking through the selection that you have included so far.  It does seem to me that it is the Scots ballads and songs that cause particular problems and hilarity.  It is also particularly funny when it comes from a published source from someone who Ought-To-Know-Better.  In the original, for example, Mr Goldstein had spent a year living in households in Fetterangus in Aberdeenshire studying Scots ballads and traveller singers and really should have had the words of ballads pretty clear in that time.  Here’s another of his from the booklet notes to Lucy Stewart - Traditional Singer from Aberdeenshire (Folkways FG3519)  In transcribing her Laird O’Drum he has:

He goes on to transcribe the next verse about the marriage, but fails to twig that it is 'bridal' bread.

We would want to put Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger among those who knew something about Scots songs and places, but their study of another Scots Stewart family - of Blairgowrie, we find on page 247 of their Till Doomsday in the Afternoon in their transcription of Geordie Weir:

I know I’ve found some other howlers in this book, but I can’t remember them offhand, perhaps I’ll have a look through when I’ve got more time.

It is unsurprising that the transcriptions from the booklets of the Alan Lomax Collection series by Matthew Barton have found themselves on to this page and I would suggest that a trawl through his transcriptions would provide a rich Mondegreen harvest.  My own favourite is from the Jeannie Robertson booklet (Rounder 11661-1720-2) in The Battle o’ Harlaw:



Ernie Whalley remembers discovering folk music when working up north.  He decided to learn a new song to sing down the Pickering Arms folk club, hence: Not to mention a busker's rendition of Steely Dan's My Old School: He also recalls himself and June Tabor 'half-listening to a group at Chester folk festival.  June turned to me and said "Why are they singing about 'our elbow'?"  I paid more attention and they were indeed singing "Let's bid farewell to our elbow" (old Benbow).  I'm also convinced they sang "Good dogs of his kind they are gay, hard to find" (are gey hard to find) - obviously learned via the oral tradition from the same same source as your 'horse on Seventh Avenue'?'



Roly Brown adds another selection:

The 'moisten your eye' saga (see below) - many, many year ago, in company with Dolores Keane, we collapsed when 'mice in your eye' was the line we were hearing in Shores of Lough Bran as sung by Herself …

Other Mondegreens, on reflection, were more deliberate…conscious, perhaps…not quite Mondegreen-ish.  Thus: at Christmas, the Boar's Head carol was always introduced as The Whore's Bed and, in it, in reginense patrio sung as on Reg and Nancy's patio.

Another true carolling story …  Once, during Awake, Arise, Good Christians, when Hosanna! Hosanna! was being uplifted, in came a serving wench at exactly that moment, bearing a plateful, crying 'Smoked salmon? Smoked salmon?'  Thereafter …



Paul de Grae writes from Ireland with quite a selection: Paul adds: 'and of course, with some songs you don't even have to get the words wrong to find yourself giggling uncontrollably and inappropriately - it's been many years now since I could sing A Sailor's Life because of the startling last line, 'How can I live now my Willie is gone?'



Mike Yates returns with a line from a friend of his.  According to her, this was known to the family as The Salad Hymn:

Andy McInally and Susan McClure - two of the original conspirators - contribute the following:

From John Prine:

From Glenlogie: From Whisky in the Jar (a la Thin Lizzy/Dubliners.) From Lord Bateman:

Fred McCormick adds a couple more: 'Anyone who owns the old EFDSS LP of Phil Tanner will recall that Phil's singing of The Dark Eyed Sailor, became transmogrified by some hapless typist': 'And then there was a geezer I once knew who sang, during The Green Linnet':

While Don Petter submits yet another true classic - 'I can never eliminate my initial interpretation of a song first heard, I think, way back in those palmy days at the Favourite':

Steve Tunnicliff writes: 'As we approach the festive season all this talk of Mondegreens brings to mind that since early childhood I have wondered why anyone should request: ... unless it was to throw it against the wall.'

And now Keith Chandler donates a real classic - 'My favourite has long been a US version of Sir Hugh of Lincoln, which begins':

Mike Yates says: 'How about one that I once heard my very young daughter singing':

Which reminds me of a similar circumstance:

Niamh Parsons returns with some little snippets, which she thinks more-or-less clean her out.

Jim McFarland came up with this one last night at the Goilin - least I think it was him, there was so much laughter at the dirty ones (which cannot be printed) - but this one got through the censor:



Andy Turner contibutes this Simon & Garfunkel mishearing by a German busker - from The Boxer:

And, continuing the horsey theme, Kevin Sheils brings us - from When I was on Horseback:

John Halliday send this chaming little vingette:

Mark Wilson, editor of Rounder's NAT series, writes: 'In the late sixties there were virtually no US issues of groups like the Blue Sky Boys, but they were enormously popular in Japan, presumably as a legacy of the American occupation.  So Japanese RCA put out rather lavish sets complete with transcriptions. Now any of us who have attempted to transcribe old records will have made embarrassing mistakes, but these exceeded all bounds.  My favorites:

From Lorena - a slave mourns for a wife sent cruelly down-river.

Second example from Charlie Monroe's Boys, about the unexpected nuptials of a newsboy - it should have been:

Fred McCormick contributes the following morsel of delight:

And here are five crackers from Niamh Parsons, who was one of those who begged me to set up this page:


Correspondence:

Rod Stradling - e-mail: rod@mustrad.org.uk    Tel: 01453 759475
snail-mail: 1 Castle Street, Stroud, Glos GL5 2HP, UK

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