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Have difficulty understanding lyrics...

Jason Xion Wang 15 Apr 14 - 10:45 AM
Marmdad 15 Apr 14 - 10:52 AM
Leadfingers 15 Apr 14 - 11:11 AM
Leadfingers 15 Apr 14 - 11:11 AM
Edthefolkie 15 Apr 14 - 11:17 AM
GUEST 15 Apr 14 - 12:53 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 15 Apr 14 - 12:54 PM
Elmore 15 Apr 14 - 03:21 PM
Jack Campin 15 Apr 14 - 03:44 PM
Jason Xion Wang 16 Apr 14 - 09:09 AM
GUEST,Grishka 16 Apr 14 - 09:50 AM
Lighter 16 Apr 14 - 11:30 AM
Lighter 16 Apr 14 - 11:31 AM
GUEST,Grishka 16 Apr 14 - 12:59 PM
PHJim 16 Apr 14 - 01:31 PM
GUEST,Grishka 16 Apr 14 - 02:08 PM
Thompson 16 Apr 14 - 03:25 PM
Lighter 16 Apr 14 - 04:18 PM
GUEST,Grishka 16 Apr 14 - 05:11 PM
Gurney 16 Apr 14 - 05:45 PM
Lighter 17 Apr 14 - 09:04 AM
GUEST 17 Apr 14 - 09:32 AM
Gurney 17 Apr 14 - 05:59 PM
Lighter 17 Apr 14 - 06:27 PM
Jason Xion Wang 17 Apr 14 - 10:18 PM
GUEST 18 Apr 14 - 10:27 AM
Lighter 18 Apr 14 - 11:09 AM
GUEST,Grishka 18 Apr 14 - 06:31 PM
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Subject: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: Jason Xion Wang
Date: 15 Apr 14 - 10:45 AM

I can still remember when I first began to post a request on Mudcat seven or eight ears ago - by the time I can barely speak any English! I didn't know how to use the word "please" then, so it's a real shame looking back on those old threads. I must have offended some people here because of my poor English, sorry about that!

Thanks to my interest in English songs, my English has improved a lot during the past few years. But still I'm from a non-English-speaking country, so problems always arise when I try to understand the lyrics.

Some problems are caused by American culture, like the coined word "Pentagonorrhea" used by Chad Mitchell Trio in the intro to "Draft Dodger Rag" - And I never tried to understand a Tom Lehrer song...

But there are also some non-cultural difficulties - caused, I guess, simply because my English is not good enough! There are some phrases or terms I can't understand or find in the dictionary. For instance:

Draft Dodger Rag - "I got the weakness woes, I can't touch my toes". I know "weakness" and "woe", but what does "weakness woes" mean?

What Did You Learn in School Today - "I learned that murderers die for their crimes, even if we make a mistake sometimes". I found that song also perfectly suitable in China if I replace "Washington" with "Zhongnanhai". But I just can't understand that line!

Violets of Dawn - "Come watch the no colors fade, blazing into petaled sprays of violets of dawn... Whirling twirling puppy-warm before the flashing cloaks of darkness gone". That entire song is obscure, but I found these two lines hardest to understand of all.

And there are some ambiguities as well. Like the line in Dave Van Ronk's classic, Luang Prabang: "Mourn your dead land of the free". It can also be punctuated as "Mourn your dead, land of the free". Is the word "dead" an adjective or a noun? Depending on the punctuation, the meaning of that line would completely switch.

Since I've had so much difficulty understanding lyrics, I always wonder if folks in English-speaking country would also have difficulty understanding lyrics sometimes. Would you?

Thanks,
Jason from China


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: Marmdad
Date: 15 Apr 14 - 10:52 AM

Yes!


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: Leadfingers
Date: 15 Apr 14 - 11:11 AM

A lot of Song Lyrics are written from a poetic slant , so that the 'sound' of s phrase matters more than the literal meaning
If you read the threads here enough you will find plenty of queries regarding the meaning of lyrics from people who have spoken English all their lives .


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: Leadfingers
Date: 15 Apr 14 - 11:11 AM

A lot of Song Lyrics are written from a poetic slant , so that the 'sound' of s phrase matters more than the literal meaning
If you read the threads here enough you will find plenty of queries regarding the meaning of lyrics from people who have spoken English all their lives .


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: Edthefolkie
Date: 15 Apr 14 - 11:17 AM

Jason, your English is extremely good!

Re Dave Van Ronk's song, I think "Mourn your dead land of the free" may have been meant to be ambiguous.

Although most US and British people speak English, I suspect that it's easier for Brits to understand American songs than the other way (a)round. This is because American popular culture has increasingly dominated over the past 100 years. I'm not being offensive, it's simply a fact of life.

There are times when it's difficult to understand songs. Especially when they are learnt from records. For instance, I and many others spent a few years deciphering Richard Thompson's lyrics on his first solo record. Mainly because his voice was mixed pretty far back, but also because he was, I guess, trying out a new "old fashioned" way of writing.

So yes, native English speakers have problems too!


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: GUEST
Date: 15 Apr 14 - 12:53 PM

'"I learned that murderers die for their crimes, even if we make a mistake sometimes".'

That was a remark about how capital punishment can sometimes kill the wrong people. (For instance, a man is convicted of murder. He is hanged. Later, new evidence shows his innocence.) Thus, we have a 'backhanded' argument against capital punishment.


Jason, we all have troubles understanding lyrics and/or their meanings from time to time. Don't feel like you're alone with that :-)


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 15 Apr 14 - 12:54 PM

I can see that some expressions need translation for someone whose first language is not English.
Some is just poetic excess, or an unusual way of expressing a simple idea.

Your examples (probably understood by you now)
Weakness woes- I feel weak. Read 'woes' as problems or troubles.
Murderers die..... even if we make a mistake..... Sometimes a man is wrongly convicted, and dies for a crime he did not commit.

Violets of Dawn- "the no colors" is too poetic for me (or just bad expression).
"Puppy warm"- the eyes? Makes no sense to me.
The composer calls it a nonsense song- and it is.

Dave Van Ronk (and others). See which fits best when the whole verse is considered. Moreover, sometimes an event or person is referred to cryptically that the composer thinks his audience knows about- If one doesn't know, the line causes confusion.


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: Elmore
Date: 15 Apr 14 - 03:21 PM

Irony gets lost in translation.


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: Jack Campin
Date: 15 Apr 14 - 03:44 PM

What Did You Learn in School Today - "I learned that murderers die for their crimes, even if we make a mistake sometimes". I found that song also perfectly suitable in China if I replace "Washington" with "Zhongnanhai". But I just can't understand that line!

The whole song is ironic - it's about children being lied to in school by their teachers. In this case, they're being taught the lie that capital punishment is just.


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: Jason Xion Wang
Date: 16 Apr 14 - 09:09 AM

Thanks so much, now these examples make sense!

Children are always lied to in school by teachers - That may well be a worldwide problem!


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: GUEST,Grishka
Date: 16 Apr 14 - 09:50 AM

"I learned that Washington never told a lie" refers to President George Washington - this legend is a staple of US American national mythology. "Mao Zedong" may be a Chinese counterpart, not the locality of Zhongnanhai.
Children are always lied to in school by teachers - That may well be a worldwide problem!
Absolutely so. In authoritarian countries, most people know that schools serve the state rather than the truth; democratic countries need a Pete Seegers to remind them from time to time.

There are three kinds of lie from state authorities: those that are believed, those they get away with, and those they do not. The proportion varies between countries, and can be changed by good writers (- provided they pass censorship -) and an attentive public. -

Yes, poetry is often hard to understand and to appreciate; nobody does it perfectly.


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: Lighter
Date: 16 Apr 14 - 11:30 AM

Poets can lie too. But nobody much cares, because only a relative handful of people take poetry seriously, at least where I come from. (Rhyme makes them like it better. That's why so many greeting cards are in verse.)

Movies lie even more. And many, many people take them seriously.

But now to the questions:

"Weakness woes" make sense as "physical woes caused by physical weakness." As he says, he's too stiff to touch his toes.

The off-hand tone of "Even if we make a mistake sometimes" suggests that people generally don't think or care much about the "mistakes." They're too busy with their own problems. It's a form of verbal irony, since the writer pretty clearly thinks they *should* care.

"The no colors" undoubtedly means the blackness of night that fades into the violet color of dawn. White light contains all wavelengths of color, but complete blackness is the absence of color.

"Puppy-warm" is just plain bad writing. English-speakers love dogs, puppies especially. Puppies are famously warm. Red and yellow (but not usually violet) are called "warm colors." So the colors of dawn are "warm as puppies." But to compare colors of light to the cuddly warmth of a puppy is way too far-fetched and sentimental ("Awww! Puppies! So cute!") for me. Some will disagree.

I suppose it's the colors of dawn that are "whirling twirling." What else could it be in context? But I've never seen that happen. I suppose whirling and twirling imply the excitement the guy feels about daybreak. Maybe he's been looking at Van Goghs.

> A lot of Song Lyrics are written from a poetic slant, so that the 'sound' of a phrase matters more than the literal meaning.

In other words, some lyrics are nearly meaningless. Or meaningless to everybody but the writer. (By ordinary standards, that means meaningless.)

That has only been true in English for the past hundred years or so. Before that, the words *always* counted for more than the sounds. The sound was supposed to aid the sense when possible, not to replace it.


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: Lighter
Date: 16 Apr 14 - 11:31 AM

By the way, the older you get, the clearer this stuff becomes.

Unlike many things.


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: GUEST,Grishka
Date: 16 Apr 14 - 12:59 PM

Lighter,
The off-hand tone of "Even if we make a mistake sometimes" suggests that people generally don't think or care much about the "mistakes." They're too busy with their own problems.
Not quite as I understand it. The irony lies in the fact that ideology insist on its truth in spite of obvious contradictions. More bluntly: "Murderers deserve their death penalty even if they are innocent." This is called "dialectics" (or "doublethink"); Jason may know even more about it than Pete Seegers did.


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: PHJim
Date: 16 Apr 14 - 01:31 PM

Jason Xion Wang said, "Children are always lied to in school by teachers - That may well be a worldwide problem!"

"ALWAYS lied to by their teachers"?????? This is quite a generalization isn't it?

I was told many truths by my teachers. I had some bad ones, but many super ones who remained my friends for all their lives.
I taught school for many years and can not recall consciously lying to my students.
You would be just as (in)accurate if you said,"Children are always lied to by their parents," or "Children are always lied to the police," or "Children are always lied to by politicians," or "Children are always lied to by newscasters," or "Children are always lied to by their peers," or "Children are always lied to by their doctors," or "Children are always lied to by...


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: GUEST,Grishka
Date: 16 Apr 14 - 02:08 PM

PHJim, I think Jason has a better understanding of English than you have; in particular, he understood Seeger's message. Of course not all teachers lie to all their pupils all the time, but it is well conceivable that every school child in the whole world and history has been exposed to ideology. It is the institutions that "lie", whether or not teachers realize it.

We are mainly talking about subjects like history, civics, literature, and religion. The song gives some examples that are still valid in principle, others have arisen since. Even a subjects like computing can lose their innocence, given those many spying scandals. Moreover, schools generally form a training ground for obedience and conformal behaviour (and thus may "lie" about the pupils' best interest), even if teachers preach the opposite but must give marks at the end of the term.

Total refusal of formal education is no good alternative, of course. Those who try it are deceived all the easier. We just have to be critical.


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: Thompson
Date: 16 Apr 14 - 03:25 PM

"I got the weakness woes, I can't touch my toes" - this is a joke about the fitness tests given to men being drafted into the US army. He doesn't want to be drafted, so he pretends that he's terribly weak, and so unfit he can't touch his toes.


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: Lighter
Date: 16 Apr 14 - 04:18 PM

> "Murderers deserve their death penalty even if they are innocent."

But consider: Does any sane person believe that? And if not, why complain about it in a song?

The lyrics say pretty clearly that some innocent people are convicted of murder and get the death penalty (because the jury has mistakenly found them guilty). But the death penalty continues in spite of those mistakes. Why? One good reason is that the public in general isn't concerned enough to demand the abolition of capital punishment. Seems pretty obvious to me. (Recently they've successfully demanded recreational marijuana in Colorado and weak gun laws just about everywhere: because those are issues they really care about.)

"Dialectics" isn't even related to "doublethink."

Marxist "dialectics" means the supposed absolute power of materialism to shape events. The "Hegelian dialectic," on the other hand, is the process by which conflicting ideas ultimately resolve into a new idea that's closer to the truth.

Before Hegel, "dialectics" simply referred to logic, and that's why both Hegel and Marx use the word.

"Doublethink," on the other hand, is George Orwell's word for smugly and incoherently believing two contradictory things at the same time. For example: "He's completely innocent *and* he committed murder! He committed murder *and* he's completely innocent! Awesome! What's for dinner?"

Just reverting to my teacher mode.


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: GUEST,Grishka
Date: 16 Apr 14 - 05:11 PM

Lighter,
> "Murderers deserve their death penalty even if they are innocent."

But consider: Does any sane person believe that? And if not, why complain about it in a song?
It is my own satirical formulation, designed to be obviously and bluntly self-contradictory. The truth behind it is that everybody knows about mistakes (and, worse, about intrinsic injustices), but many people manage to block out this knowledge actively when it comes to matters they deem vital for the foundations of the system. Your characterization of "doublethink" illustrates it well. (The connection to "dialectics" is that this word was officially used by self-declared Marxists as a euphemism for that effect; Orwell had been one of them in the Spanish Civil War and knew the mechanism from inside.)


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: Gurney
Date: 16 Apr 14 - 05:45 PM

Jason, English has an enormous number of words, as you will be aware, more than the next two biggest languages together, and getting larger every day.
A poet or songwriter is often using the language as an art-form, saying something in a beautiful and artistic way, or sometimes like Tom Lehrer, in a sarcastic or bitter or humourous way.(Any combination of the three.)
Sometimes, blunt language is used because the song or poem has a message that the writer and performer wants no mistake about.

I've sometimes said to people from China who are studying English that we use the language as an art-form, just as they use beautiful handwriting in an artistic way.
I hope that you have the free WordWeb dictionary on your computer.


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: Lighter
Date: 17 Apr 14 - 09:04 AM

> We use the language as an art-form, just as they use beautiful handwriting in an artistic way.

Oops. You undoubtedly offended them with your familiar Western stereotypes. And odds are they'd have been too polite to do anything but pretend to agree with you.

The Chinese have been writing poetry for three thousand years.

Chinese literature is about a lot more than "beautiful handwriting," and every Chinese person knows it. In fact, Chinese techniques of using "language as an art form" were a big influence some English and American poetry of the 20th century.


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: GUEST
Date: 17 Apr 14 - 09:32 AM

Good essay on just that. Ezra Pound was first into my mind.


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: Gurney
Date: 17 Apr 14 - 05:59 PM

Lighter, I merely meant that it is common in Chinese homes to have a framed piece of calligraphy. Are you saying that they see no merit in the visual impact, and only regard the message as important?


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: Lighter
Date: 17 Apr 14 - 06:27 PM

Obviously I'm not.

> I've sometimes said to people from China who are studying English that we use the language as an art-form, just as they use beautiful handwriting in an artistic way.

Perhaps unwittingly, your words suggest that, unlike us, the Chinese do *not* "use language as an art-form" but appreciate calligraphy instead.


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: Jason Xion Wang
Date: 17 Apr 14 - 10:18 PM

> "I learned that Washington never told a lie" refers to President George Washington - this legend is a staple of US American national mythology.

Oh yes, thanks for reminding! I remember this story, it's so widespread that I believe I've also learnt it in school when I was around 9 years old. And, if I remember correctly, in our Chinese textbooks, it was an apple tree that Washington chopped down!


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: GUEST
Date: 18 Apr 14 - 10:27 AM

http://mountvernon.patch.com/groups/editors-picks/p/did-george-washington-chop-down-a-cherry-tree

Hi, Jason. There are many made-up stories about historic people. That link will help set a few things straight concerning Washington :-)


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: Lighter
Date: 18 Apr 14 - 11:09 AM

Cherry-tree.

The story was published after his death to suggest the adult Washington's excellence of character, about which there is little dispute.

Supposedly it was told by a "distant relative."

Painter Grant Wood caught the spirit of the story in his amusing   "Parson Weems' Fable" (1939). It shows the writer Parson Weems, who published the story, drawing aside a curtain (with the hint of a smile) to reveal an unnaturally colorful and symmetrical but pleasing scene. And six-year-old George has the face of the grown-up President!


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Subject: RE: Have difficulty understanding lyrics...
From: GUEST,Grishka
Date: 18 Apr 14 - 06:31 PM

The verse runs
I learned that Washington never told a lie.
I learned that soldiers seldom die.
I learned that everybody's free.
And that's what the teacher said to me.
School mythology does not only idealize Washington's personal qualities, but interprets them as a metaphysical foundation of a morally and physically invulnerable nation. This would be a "lie" even if G. Washington had been a true saint.

Besides, never lying and being a morally good person are two different things. For example, the fictitious character Hannibal Lecter "does not deign to lie" - many real-life cynics served as models for him.


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