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“What’s he sayin’?” Phrases and lyrics we never really heard

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By BEN OLSON/For The Herald  —  If there is any edification in today’s ramble it would be the origin of the word ‘mondegreen’.  The term mondegreen is itself a mondegreen. In November 1954, Sylvia Wright published a piece in Harper’s where she had admitted to a gross childhood mishearing. When she was young, her mother would read to her from the “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry”, a 1765 book of popular poems and ballads. Her favorite verse began with the lines “Ye highland and ye lowland/ Oh, where hae he been/ They hae slain the Earl Amurray/ And the Lady Mondegreen.” Except they hadn’t. They did in the poor Earl and “laid him on the green.” He was alone.


Ben Olson, musician and Oakridge Resident, with his standup bass Ben Olson photo

By virtue of this article, the term used to describe the mishearing of the spoken or sung words is called a mondegreen. Many popular songs have lyrics that are determined by the listener to be something other than what the singer was trying to say. Shocking as it was at the time, when Jimi Hendrix sang “scuse me while I kiss this guy”, it really made more sense than the actual lyric, “kiss the sky.” 


John Fogarty of Creedence Clearwater Revival was well aware that in his song “Bad Moon Rising”, people heard him sing, “there’s a bathroom on the right.” In many of his post-CCR concerts he sang those misheard lyrics and pointed toward the location of the restrooms.


Tony Danza was years away from being a well known actor when Elton John released his song “Tiny Dancer.” Sometime in the 80’s, though, people started hearing Elton sing “hold me closer Tony Danza” as the chorus of the song rolled around.


Johnny Nash was clearly singing, “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,” but many people heard, “I can see clearly now, Lorraine is gone.”


Dobie Gray did the original “Drift Away” and it was covered years later by Uncle Kracker. Many of their fans heard lead singer Matthew Shafer croon “give me the Beach Boys and free me soul, I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away.”


In the Eagle classic, Desperado, the song’s protagonist had been “out riding fences, for so long now”, yet many people heard that he was “outright offensive, for so long now.”


Only after they got older did Kiss fans seem to think they needed some occasional rest when they sang “I want to rock and roll all night and part of every day.”


Bon Jovi in their rocker “Living on a Prayer” sang “it doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not,” but a lot of fans heard them sing, “it doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not.”


And please remember, “the ants are my friends, they’re blowing in the wind.”

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