To Thread - Forum Home

The Mudcat Café TM
77 messages

Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'

24 May 01 - 05:21 AM (#469329)
Subject: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: GUEST,Ed

This has recently resurfaced in the Correct the Digital Tradition thread, but I think it's an interesting enough question to deserve it's own.

As I see it, there are two opposing points of view:

1. Folk songs change and evolve, therefore any change in lyrics (even as a result of a mishearing) is part of the folk process and is, as such, valid in terms of being a variation.

2. No, there are enough resources available to learn the 'proper' version, and any change in words suggest that you haven't / can't be bothered to do some basic research on the song. If you're going to sing it, at least sing properly.

Obviously, these two views are at opposite ends of a continuum, and most of us probably sit somewhere between the two.

I'm not sure where I stand on this, but as an example of the dilemma, let's take the song Benjamin Bowmaneer.

The song has a refrain of 'Castors away' which makes no sense at all. A l Lloyd, in the Pengiun Book of English Folk Songs, suggests that it might actually be 'Cast us away' To me that makes a lot more sense, and that's what I sing.

Am I wrong? Or did Mary Spence (who collected the song) mishear it?

Interested in your thoughts on any of the above.


24 May 01 - 05:46 AM (#469342)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: KingBrilliant

Just had a look in an online dictionary, which gives one meaning for castor as 'A heavy quality of broadcloth for overcoats'. So that could fit in with the tailor references OK.
So - then castors away or cast us away is probably endlessly debatable. Not having time to await the outcome of an endless debate I recommend we all just sing whatever we are happiest with.
I don't really see why anyone should need to do any research on a song unless they want to. Sing for the joy of singing, and sing what you like to sing - and bugger propriety.
So I'm definitely with the number 1 point of view.


24 May 01 - 06:25 AM (#469354)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: KitKat

I think it depends - if the songwriter is still alive and the lyrics are easily available to find as the songwriter intended, it seems perverse (and discourteous) to sing it any other way. As for traditional songs, where there is room for debate, sing what you think best interprets the song.

Where does that put me - about 1.5 I guess.


24 May 01 - 06:42 AM (#469358)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: KingBrilliant

My first posting was looking at it just for trad stuff with no living songwriter. However, I think I'd still go for the same answer even where the writer is still alive - but only for casual singers like myself - it would be a bit cheeky to change anything if you were singing more formally (I s'pose I mean where people would look to you as an authority sort of).
If a 'proper' singer wanted to change anything then it would be reasonable to approach the writer & get their permission?
I expect different writers would have different attitudes to this question. Any writers care to comment???


24 May 01 - 06:49 AM (#469360)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: SeanM

I'd say in all cases I can think of - if you're doing (and claiming you are doing) a specific version, do it right. If you're doing your own version, or if you just don't care, do it however you feel happy with.

As to lyric sources? Once again - if it's a version with a stated source, try to get them correct. If not, who's to say WHAT version is the 'correct' one?


24 May 01 - 06:56 AM (#469362)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Suffet

When I first heard Tim Hardin sing "The Lady Came from Baltimore" at the Night Owl Cafe in New York City in the 1960s, he sang, "She didn't know that I was poor, she never saw my place..." That's how Tim recorded it.

A couple of years later, Joan Baez covered the song on one of her own LPs and sang those lines as "She didn't know that I was poor, she never saw my face..." That struck me as all wrong. How could she not have seen his face? Did he wear a bag over his head when he courted her?

Cut to the chase. The next time I heard Tim Hardin, he was also singing "face" instead of "place." To me it was wrong. But hey, it's Tim's song, and if that's how he sang it, it had to be right!

--- Steve

24 May 01 - 07:01 AM (#469367)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: paddymac

I think that both views as as "correct" as anything can be in the world of folk, so long as "personalizing" doesn't change the basic story of message of the song. Languages and useages within are continuously evolving, and the "message" of a song can be lost if the wording doesn't keep up with the vernacular. Look at Shakespeare as but one example. His clever use of metaphor and the colloquialisms of his day are lost in varying measure on many of today's audiences without either (a) a prior gounding in Shakespeara's english, or (b) some degree of "up-dating" of dialogue.

And then there's the case where the "bowdlerizer's" goal IS to change the meaning of a song, while still leaving it instantly recognizeable as its former self. The limits of "art" are nearly impossible to define with precision.

24 May 01 - 08:02 AM (#469389)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Robby

After years of singing what I thought I had heard as some of the lines and chorus of "Water is alright in tay", but being uneasy with them. So, I posted an inquiry here and MMario gave me the lyrics as written by S. McGrath. Click here If I did that right you should now have a Blicky.

Anyway, my thanks for the lyrics noted that I could not believe how badly I had been mangling the lyrics. His observation was that this was the folk process at work. So I guess I'm with those who believe that if there is a definitve version, as composed by a songwriter, that should be the one to sing.


24 May 01 - 08:09 AM (#469391)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: kendall

I hate to sing lyrics that make no sense. Oscar Brand did some of that in his songs of the sea. He has obviously never been to sea. As an example, he sings..I took in all sails and cried "Way, hold up now" the right words are,.."I took in all sails and cried WIEGH ENOUGH NOW. Meaning the boat is moving fast enough, the word weigh being the seamans word for motion, or headway. Why not just do it right? Is it that much of a bother? If you are going to sing lyrics that make no sense, why not just do Rock?

24 May 01 - 08:20 AM (#469393)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: KingBrilliant

Yes, but if you don't know that they make no sense and if the majority of people listenting don't know that they make no sense, does it matter terribly much if a few people sing it wrong? Its just a mangled instance of the song, it doesn't usually do any damage to the actual song.
I used to work with a lady who sang all the time - little snatchlets of mangled songs - cobbled together as she went along. It was lovely, and I always so admire the fact that she had the urge to sing while she worked & just went ahead and ad libbed. She was actually quite shy other than that. Such a nice lady.


24 May 01 - 08:27 AM (#469400)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: GUEST,redhorse

What do you do with something like the Carter Family "Wildwood Flower"? The words as published are obviously garbled, but that's the way it's sung: should we copy the recorded version warts and all or re-interpret to make sense of it?

24 May 01 - 08:42 AM (#469411)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Abby Sale

As has been sain in a recent Chantey thread, they don't have to make sense to "work" or be effective or satisfying to the singer/autitor. I want to know what everything I sing means but I'm not a source singer or a professional - it's an intellectual, not a visceral interest.

I'm minded on a story Ken Goldstein told lo these many years back. He'd been up collecting Lizzy Higgins and she sang a song with chorus, "Here comes a Russian Jew." That phrase was complete nonsense in the context of the song. Great Hamish (who'd given Goldstein her address, etc) had primed Goldstein to request this song and given Goldstein the probable back translation to Gaelic (I can't remember) which did makes sense. That is, the song had retained its Gaelic (sensable) chorus untranslated but as the Stewarts learned to, all they had was this 'Russian Jew' mondegreen.

Lizzy agreed with Goldstein that her phrase made no sense and that he was most likely right about the original. But, she hadn't the slightest interest in changing her song either to the Gaelic or in creating a Scots translation of it. (Hamish had told Goldstein what it meant, too.)

My point is that the way you learn it - "processed," mondegreened or 'wrong' is the way you learned it and thus the right way. Ask any child - they'll fight for the right to sing it the way they learned it.

Not me - I'll often go over to Olson's pages and find an oldest (not "Right") printed version for a line or a verse to collate when I'm not satisfied with a text. But I ain't a Folk, as I said.

Here's one. Most versions of "The Keeper" (filename[ KEEPERGO is one such) as we learned in primary school are heavily Bowdlerized & leave out the last verses. You know it's a bawdy song but you can't quite get it. "Better" versions often it ends simply with 'The last one then he stopped, he kissed / Where they are now they won't be missed."

But ref. to Olson gives us that an early version was "The Five Deers" and much better. I just picked a single line and am now much happier with my own singing:

The third doe, he shot at, he missed.
The last one then, he stopped, he kissed,
And laid her down where no man wist [had factual knowledge of]
Among the leaves so green-o.

But I don't think my third-grade teacher will be teaching me that. And many autitors will say that I am Wrong, that's not the way they heard it!

24 May 01 - 08:49 AM (#469414)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Gary T

Interesting topic. In the case of "Wildwood Flower," I assume Maybelle was going from her memory of what she'd heard, as we all do in various instances. Better to sing and enjoy than to get hung up on academic perfection. Now we have access to the original, and more sensible, lyrics. I prefer them because they seem less like nonsense, but if you're singing with a group who knows the Carter version, you either go along with the gang or make it a learning experience for them. Either way, it should be made enjoyable rather than pedantic.

BUT, then you have cases like Roy Clark doing "Yesterday When I Was Young" and singing nonsensically about his house "built to last on weak and shifting sand" rather than the original and understandable "built, alas, on weak and shifting sand." What, Roy Clark can't afford to buy the sheet music and get the words right? If he chose to make the change for artistic reasons, which I seriously doubt, that's his right. But I'd bet anything it was just a matter of mishearing and not bothering to check any resources. Since the song conveys a powerful message through its lyrics, I think he did it an injustice through laziness and unnecessarily weakened it. If I were singing such a song, I'd want to put a little effort into presenting it at its best.

24 May 01 - 08:57 AM (#469417)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: GUEST,UB Dan

There is three reasons a song would be sung differently:
1. a singer could choose a song based on the way it was heard because they enjoyed it...(in one of the earlier examples, maybe "never saw my face" seemed so much deeper than "never saw my place")

2. a conscience decision to change lyrics to make them more appealing or relevant to the singer or audience.

3. a lack of knowledge of the "original" words.

Out of these reasons, I think only number 3 is bad...and then it is only bad if the singer is performing the song for others...if it is for their own enjoyment then it doesn't really matter.

24 May 01 - 09:00 AM (#469418)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: John P

I prefer it when people change songs I write to suit their own experience and performing style. It makes me think I'm writing folk music. I freely change any piece of music I learn to suit myself. It the composer doesn't like it, too bad. They don't have to listen.

As for traditional songs, doing a bunch of research is an academic pursuit. The folk process is, in many ways, the exact opposite of an academic pursuit. If no one learned the lyrics "wrong", we wouldn't have half the wonderful phrases we have. And if everyone did careful research, we would have a bunch of scholars and not much living tradition. The singer who is singing is usually much more interesting than the scholar who is researching and writing.


24 May 01 - 09:05 AM (#469420)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Geoff the Duck

If you can's sing with conviction, is there any point in singing the song at all? I have found that when a line does not make sense, I can alter the words to something which ,to me, fits the spirit of the song, and then can sing it happily. It might be an Americanism which does not translate into English, or possibly a garbled original recording.
As an example, there were some interseting discussions in a recent thread about lyrics sung by Uncle Dave Macon See this Thread . If you listen to his singing, it is sometimes impossible to decipher some of the words. Do we then totally ignore his works, or do we attempt to guess whet the words might have been, based upon the context of the rest of the song, and also any other information about his place in time, the society he lived in and its prevailing political views.
Sing what suits you best. Even songwriters alter their lyrics and sing them incorrectly on recorings.

24 May 01 - 09:19 AM (#469425)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Whistle Stop

Speaking as both a singer and a songwriter, I am firmly on the side of #1 on this. Music and songwriting are creative pursuits; I much prefer creativity to a paint-by-numbers approach, so I prefer the people who take what they know of a song as a starting point, and then make it their own. And I REALLY enjoy hearing someone excercising their creativity on one of my own songs, taking it to places that hadn't occurred to me, and incorporating their own thoughts and personality into the song in the process. The songs just have more "life" that way.

Of course, as in all things, some people do this well, and some people do it badly. I prefer to listen to the ones who do it well.

24 May 01 - 09:21 AM (#469426)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: KingBrilliant

Just another quick thought. Perhaps its not always lack of knowing the original words - perhaps there's also the effects of our old friends forgetting-the-bleeding-words and making-something-up-quick. ??


24 May 01 - 11:05 AM (#469474)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Ebbie

My cousin sang:

"My heart is withered like a banjo
Of a rose I saw dying today..."

Put me with those who have an idea of what they're trying to say!


24 May 01 - 11:06 AM (#469475)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: GUEST,

I tend to number 2....I don't believe in changing the words willy nilly. Yes if they are racist or terribly offensive, but then with footnotes saying you have. No if you want to change from a man to a woman singing. That really bugs me. Then no one knows what the original was. of course they don't anyway. But it just sounds icky if you it is a common song and you hear different words. Yes if you can even out some rough edges I guess...when the rythm is way off...

24 May 01 - 01:06 PM (#469566)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: GUEST,Les B

My sentiments are with the group that believes if you're not singing for a recording or a sold-out concert hall, why worry too much ? Suit yourself.

That said, I tend to research puzzling words and verses in songs, and assemble verses and chord structures that make sense to me.

Case in point. I had heard Mother Maybelle Carter's version of "Faded Coat of Blue" years ago, and told myself that one day I'd learn it. When that day came, and I wrote out her verses, I realized I'd always been puzzled by her singing "... he sank faint and hungry among the Spanish brave...". I just didn't associate blue uniforms with the Spanish-American war. With more research I discovered it was a Civil War song, and, when I found the original words, they were "... sank faint and hungry among the FAMISHED brave ..." obviously a mondedreen on her part. I now sing the correct words.

24 May 01 - 01:19 PM (#469575)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: mousethief

Singing a song is interpreting it. Unless you do it exactly the way you heard it, including instrumentation, verbal nuances, timing, EVERYTHING, you are subtly changing the song by singing it. In that way every singer makes a song his or her own by including it in their repertoire -- changing the lyrics is just a further step in this process, not something new and completely different from it.

So sometimes I will change a word or 2 in a song if I feel it makes the song better. Even if the songwriter is still alive. Without their permission. "Better" here may mean better suited to the audience (bowdlerizing songs for younger audiences, for instance), or aesthetically better to my ear, or whatever.


24 May 01 - 01:32 PM (#469591)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Orac

I went to see Ralph McTell last week. He was talking about "Streets of London". There is a line that is incorrect in any printed version of this song. (And he was very adamant about the correct words ... for those that say it doesn't matter) The line should be "And, held loosely by his side, yesterday's paper telling yesterday's news" ... not "Hand held loosely by his side, yesterday's papers telling yesterday's news".
So its not "hand" but "And," and "papers" should be singular.
He says that even though he has many times told the printers the correct words they still haven't put it right.

24 May 01 - 02:14 PM (#469628)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'

There is no such thing as "The wrong lyrics to a folksong"For instance," Greenland Whale Fisheries", The date is usually in the first verse, therefore it's easy to follow this one through the folk process. Anyone who thinks that time and usage don't improve on the "original" just follow this one through the process. I pretty much sing the version that starts, "In eighteen hundred and sixtty three on June the thirteenth day,our gallant ship her anchor weighed and for Greenland Bore away BRAVE BOYS for Greenland bore away."
Compare that with the earlier versions. Which one is better poetry? My contention is that anyone who would prefer the "oldest" version of this song to more current ones has his (or her) head up his (or her) ass.

You make up your own mind. If anyone complains about your choice, just tell them to "go piss up a rope". If it's a woman, this is extremely hard to do.

24 May 01 - 02:27 PM (#469644)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'

Snig snog, snaggle taggle foo botheration. Inkwarts ravel upwards on my praddling thiddums. She loves me, yes, yes, yes. La dee da dee dum dum words that make sense are easier to remember. Twaddle oddle oddle loddle twong! Fweeeeee. Mishearing is understandable. Shnoo shnoo shnooze. Righteously defending a misunderstanding as "folk process" is nonsense. Snig snog, snaggle taggle foo botheration.

24 May 01 - 03:48 PM (#469701)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: GUEST,djh

In many cases there isn't even an argument to be made for #2 many traditional songs have already been altered in countless ways by performers who came before.
Reverance KILLS. "Anything that cannot be imitated perfect must die" - Bob "the birthday Boy" Dylan. Don't put the music in some sacred untouchable shrine. It is a disservice to the form.
What is the worst that can happen- someone butchers a song, If the older version is good it will survive the transgression. If the transgression is good the tradition grows.

24 May 01 - 03:50 PM (#469703)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Chicken Charlie

Good thoughts. Here is a mediocre one to add: There are a couple of different ways to go.

Originally "Ol' 97" said, "It was on that grade that he lost his average," meaning average air pressure in the brake lines. Very, very few people would understand that, so I have no prob staying with "lost his air brakes," even though that isn't original.

On "Faded Coat of Blue," the chorus "should" end "when a robe of white is GIVEN for a faded ...." I changed that right off to "TRADED for a faded" which gives what my lit teacher Ms. Stutz would have called an internal feminine rhyme. I change a Dylan song that way too, I think it's "Just Like a Woman." It's just more effective that way.

There are indeed wrong words--"Among the Spanish brave" above is a great example. Mondegreens are wrong words. Another case of a garbled original is the Rev. Andy Jenkins' "Wreck of the Royal Palm." He's got that train racing down the curve at 40 mph, making time amid the drenching shower, when in fact Royal Palm was 'drifting' the siding when Ponce de Leon rolled through an improperly set switch. So I sing it, "Then coming round the curve, at forty miles an hour/Ponce de Leon was making time...." I also omit the verses of Engine 143 which name the wrong train crew, which is no great sacrifice given the fact that that ballad has a zillion verses and variants.

So, if have a good reason for the change (more poetic, more understandable, more correct) then change. Do whatever you do consciously, for your own reasons, and the two halves of your brain should be in sync.

PS. Isn't it, "In eighteen hundred and FIFTY-three???"


24 May 01 - 03:59 PM (#469712)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Matt_R

And I am wild river for money a year
I've drank all my money on whipplrs and sneer
And nqpwpoasjfoiajsflsmdflsdlfsuiejfl...

And THAT'S how a folk song can be wrong!!


24 May 01 - 04:13 PM (#469726)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: GUEST,Gerald Bergen

I don't think that what has been covered in discussion is when there is more than one accepted or more than one "genuine" interpretation or version of roughtly the same song, like "Lady from Armentiere". In order to use all of the verses of the song, or at least all of the one I've gleaned from the Mudcat and other sources, I'd have to sing for a half hour.

Also, musical ability (singing, instruments) should also be taken into account, at least in my case. I was not trained professionally in the use of my baritone ukelele, but from my uncle, who can hardly play either, but who has 1.)an endless supply of songs ranging from the above ballad to the Good-n-Plenty commercial of yesteryear, and 2.)rampant enthusiasm as songleader. Would E.Y. Harburg really mind that I shifted a verse in "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" in order for me to sing it adequately?

Yes, in the written form, the original words should be kept as closely as possible, but in performance, the circumstances should try and fit the intention, i.e. entertaining family and friends. To use an example, when Franz Lizst transposed Beethoven's 9th Symphony (Chorale) from full orchestra and chorus to a solo piano, I am sure he knew full well that a good bit of the drama, impact and small nuances of the work would be lost in moving to one solitary 88 keyed voice. But then, you'd have an opportunity to play the 9th in a dark, intimate lounge without resorting to the time, practice, and expense of a full-blown production and hiring a fat woman to take a solo.

I've heard both versions of the 9th, and while the staged one damn near brought me to tears, the piano recording I own has its merits as well. As should personalized versions of favorite songs.

24 May 01 - 04:19 PM (#469735)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Ebbie

Good example, Matt!

24 May 01 - 05:24 PM (#469805)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Charley Noble

I like to mess with the words, but I also like to know what I'm working from as accurately as possible and sometimes that means moving back to a longer broadside version or collected version and puzzling over previous changes. I think it is courtesy to credit whatever sources "your version" is based on. In that way you permit others to more readily admire or damn your "skillful" changes.

Of course, sometimes the song informant got it wrong, or the ethnomusicologist blundered. I remember puzzling over a line to a traditional "Wreckers Song" from South Florida which ran "Why, we will come to you on the shore, Amongst the rocks where the breakers roar." which makes more sense as "Why, we'll WELCOME you on the shore, Amongst the rocks where the breakers roar." I'm not sure who made a mistake but the line makes more sense now.

24 May 01 - 08:08 PM (#469913)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: vindelis

No, just different. I have often felt, when reading lyrics on the Digitrad, 'Oh this must be the American version'. I am making this assuption on the grounds that the lyrics are different to the ones I know. Songs are bound to change as they travel round the world; either by the 'Chinese Whisper' method, or by being adapted,deliberately,to suit new surroundings. It's called progress.

24 May 01 - 08:34 PM (#469922)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Art Thieme

I've loved the versions of my recorded songs that our own Wolfgang Hell posted in another thread. I was rolling on the ground laughing--and I mean no disrespect Mr. H. It was great. I've left entire lines out of songs--changed things inadvertantly--made up whole new lines on the spot when I couldn't remember. And if I thought the picking was so good on a particular track, I'd still use it on an issued recording---all without ever telling Sandy or ED Denson that I'd made a mistake. (I can admit it now.) ;-)

Sandy, listen to "Gettin In The Cows" and see how I pronounced the word "mow"--just like it looks. It ought to be "mau" (as in Mau Tse Tung---).

In the song "Blue Mountain" I said "...asure dee" (wrong) instead of "asure deep" (the correct way) all the way through the recorded version of the song. That's how I'd learned it. Did it right after I realized I'd been wrong. And on that same song Faith Petric took me to task (correctly) for getting other words wrong. Then I was either ignorant and/or lazy that time. Maybe both. Still am.

There's a verse missing in "East Texas Red" and also on my recent CD on the song "Jerry, Go And Oil That Car".

"Guabi Guabi"---on the Live At Winfield recording is just a total corruption of the real words.

My favorite mistake was on a song I almost (but thankfully didn't) put on the CD. It was a version of "The City Of New Orleans" I did in a Wisconsin bar the week Steve Goodman passed away. I sang...

"Passing towns that have no names,
And graveyards (instead of railyards) filled with old black men"...

But what the hell. I gnerally liked how the finished entities felt and sounded. For good or for bad, that was me. Loose, like oral diarrhea. Somehow, it paid the rent. I can live with it.


24 May 01 - 09:11 PM (#469941)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Mark Cohen

Once upon a time there was an engineer
Choo-Choo Charlie was his name, we hear
He had an engine and he sure had fun
He used Good 'n' Plenty candy to make his train run

Charlie says, "Love my Good 'n' Plenty!"
Charlie says, "Really rings the bell!"
Charlie says, "Love my Good 'n' Plenty!
Don't know any other candy that I love so well!"

There you go, Gerald! (I know that's right, because it is.)


24 May 01 - 09:20 PM (#469943)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Amos

I have been known to change the words to folk songs.

But it is ALWAYS an improvement.


24 May 01 - 09:22 PM (#469944)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)

Obviously two or three things here. 1. Mistakes- if they don't make sense- ought to be corrected. 2. Changing a song to suit a personal style or viewpoint has been done since the days of the troubadours. This does not detract from the original version. 3. Sensible songs have been changed to nonsense songs and that is time-honored also. Maybe I should add a fourth- What, me worry?

25 May 01 - 12:25 AM (#470036)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Murray MacLeod

The word that is missing from this whole thread is "respect".

I learnt my craft in the folk scene in Scotland and was soon informed if I was taking liberties with a song. I learnt to RESPECT the song to RESPECT the melody, and RESPECT the composer. Is that too much to ask?

Traditional songs were not written by a committee they didn't suddenly appear out of the blue, each one was composed by one person. The fact that we do not know the attribution of any given song is no reason to treat the performance of that song as an excuse for a cavalier free-for all. It behoves us all to perform the song as the original composer would have wished . That is the criterion.

Respect. Not a dirty word, is it?


25 May 01 - 12:38 AM (#470043)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: RichM

Respect is a good thing.

But music is like a river, like the ocean. Though it looks the same, its always changing. We all bring our personal experience , our 'ears' to the music we love. We can't help inserting nuances from our collective and individual musical experience.

In the Bluegrass "tradition", musicians often take a tune or song from another genre, and give it the Bluegrass treatment: often faster, a harder driving rythmn and sometimes the words are changed to fit the new cadences. Is this disrespectful? Maybe; but I don't think so. ALL music changes, and gets re-interpreted by subsequent generations. These generations bring to prior music, cross fertilization from other musics, and the influences of their own musical education and experience.

25 May 01 - 08:17 AM (#470177)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: John P

I am always deeply respectful of the songs I change to work better for me. Just as I am of the songs I play without changes. There is no lack of respect -- why would I be attracted to a song I didn't respect?

25 May 01 - 08:57 AM (#470195)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Dave the Gnome

Hey - good thread. Shame I joined so late. Oh well...

Anywho. Lyrics are never wrong. Just different. Just because someone looks different to me or dresses different to me does not make them wrong does it? Is it not the same with lyrics? I agree about the respecting the author bit but we are getting a lot of ifs here. IF the author is still alive, IF they hear your words, IF they are bothered, IF the audience is bothered. Too many variables for me I'm afraid.

As to keeping the tradition going. Well, tell that to Sharp, Child and the other Victorian collectors who sanitised their collections to make the suitable for the laies delicate sensibilities!

Doesn't matter at all. As long as the tune is good and the words tell a story, sing what you know.

The 'Keeper' BTW was not one of the sanitised bawdy songs but a thinly veiled telling of what happened to the wives of Henry the eigth. Or so I'm led to belive.



25 May 01 - 09:02 AM (#470199)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: IanC


Be fair. Hardly any of the Victorian collectors, least of all Sharp, sanitised their collections. They're still all there in all their glory. Published versions (in books) were, however, subject to censorship at the time so they had to conform in order to get anything published at all.

Wash your mouth out with soap & water!


25 May 01 - 09:47 AM (#470230)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Dave the Gnome

Quite right Ian - I am humbled and foaming at the mouth as we speak!

I was not really thinking it through (folk process - not my fault...;-)). The references to Sharp and Child that I first saw were in my schooldays and, of course, in school song books. It was the later publications of these collections that sufferered from the blue pencil rather than the originals. The old grey cells still play the 'first impressions' game though.

Thanks for pointing it. It was a sin of ommision (of brain cells) rather than commision though so it weresent too bad was it?

Mea culpa
Mea culpa
Mea maxima culpa

Anyone know if I am vaguely accurate with the keeper or am I still talking spherical things as usual???


Dave the suitably penitent Gnome

25 May 01 - 12:58 PM (#470366)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)

If songs were respected to the extent asked for by Murray, there would be no parodies, and no additional or altered verses to fit a new situation. There is room for the original as well as for all of the changes made through generations.

25 May 01 - 01:29 PM (#470396)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: GUEST,Chris Nixon

Well, that stirred a few up didn't it...I agree about respect to an extent; seems to me that most of us are really revivalists in one way or another who are doing our best to be part of a living tradition. One thing only is unforgiveable, and should be graven in stone: Thou shalt not, and I really mean this, change something you don't understand out of ignorance or sheer idleness. Our forbears and those who made these songs were not careless people. Go forth and damn well find out. What caught my eye was the very first message: "Castors away" makes perfect sense. A castor is a hat - take it off, throw it in the air, cheer... Keep the faith Chris

25 May 01 - 02:08 PM (#470418)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Dorrie

does any 1 konw the Great(mayb its grey?!) funnel line well i always thought that was about i poem we did at school called 'grey flannel isle' about an abandoned island with death men at a dinner table in a light house but i was arong dad only pointed this out recently dorrie xxxxxxx

25 May 01 - 02:25 PM (#470436)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Chicken Charlie

Murray-- I see your point with respect to melodies, an aspect of the topic not raised until you brought it up. I agree that the nuances of traditional melodies are quite important, and should not be sacrificed in the interest of catering to mass market, or from just plain laziness.

I don't agree, though, that any of the word changes except mishearing perpetuated by laziness deserve to be called disrespect. Hey, old buddy, I wouldn't invest so much time & money into music, instruments, research, etc. if I didn't have absolute respect for the art form. To go back to my two favorite examples--"traded" and "airbrakes"--I made those changes, etc. in the interest of making the songs more attractive to the audience, so am I "dis-ing" the originals?? I think not. If I perform "Ring, Ring de Banjo" on a fretted instrument with steel strings and a resonator, am I trashing the music or allowing it to be heard and appreciated easier?? Finally, one could parody a tune to make fun of the tune, or parody it to apply it to a modern situation, a la "urban folk." One man's "disrespect" might just be another's "adaptation."

I hope this comes across as a discussion, not an argument.


25 May 01 - 05:22 PM (#470557)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Charley Noble

Dorrie, I know you can find at least one version of Cyril Tawney's "Gray Funnel Line" by doing a "Lyrics Search" or by doing a "Thread Search" for discussion. It's a great naval ballad about feeling homesick while at sea, in service to one's country.

25 May 01 - 06:01 PM (#470593)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Snuffy

Although american warships may be GRAY, Royal Navy ships are always GREY - GREY FUNNEL LINE is in the DT.

25 May 01 - 09:27 PM (#470692)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Hawker

Traditional music was originally an aural tradition, so words did get messed about a bit, as did tunes. I peresonally am musically illiterate and therefore cannot read music, but even if I did, I have found that in different places people play tunes with the same notes and different emphasis, which can really thow you!
I'm for the living, ever changing tradition and have to say that sometimes we get very precious about things that we really have no right so to do. Many of what are now termed traditional songs were from broadhseets, and these were generally sung to one of maybe five or six well known tunes. over time these have evolved into their own tunes, which someone wrote down, it doesn't mean that this was the way it was written. And then there is the margin of transposition error, as well as the fact that Baring Gould and Cecil Sharp were not averse to cleaning up and adding to songs that they took down, or even re-writing - for example:
Songs Of The West
The Last Of The Singers
'The melody taken down from William Huggins , mason of Lydford, who died in March 1889. He had been zealously engaged that winter going about among his ancient musical friends collecting old songs for me, when he caught a chill and died. The words he gave were those of a ballad "The Little Girl Down the Lane" and were of no merit. I have therefore discarded them and written fresh words, and dedicate them to the memory of poor old Will.'
The song is lovely, but I have to question his methods and ask the question.......Is this right, to discard something because in one man's opinion is it of no merit?
The answer really has to be it happened and what we have is better than the great loss that would have been the case none had been collected and the 2 world wars that took so many of our menfolk had wiped clean our living memory of MANY of these now 'collected' treasures - THERE IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG in traditional music, that is why it is traditional!
One persons view only, sorry if you don't agree!
I'm gonna do it my way!

25 May 01 - 09:31 PM (#470697)
Subject: Lyr Add: THE CAT CAME BACK (Harry S. Miller, 1893)
From: Abby Sale

I'd be interested in commets on this one. The song was written & copyright in 1893 but went into tradition very rapidly and widely. Marais reports a Dutch South African, significantly varried version by about 1910. It is very popular and still evolving today. Still, if we prefer to sing the original...

A Comic Negro Absurdity.
Copyright 1893 by Will Rossiter, Chicago
(Words and Music by HARRY S. Miller)

  Dar was ole Mister Johnsonm he had troubles ob his own:
He had an ole yaller cat that wouldn't leave its home.
He tried eb'ry thing he jnew to keep de cat away:
Eben sent it to de preacher, an' he tole it for to stay.

But de cat came back, couldn't stay no longer,
Yes de cat came back de very next day;
De cat came back—thought she were a goner,
           But de cat came back for it wouldn't stay away

De cat did hab some company one night out in de yard,
Some one frowed a boot-jack, an' dey frowed it mighty hard,
Caught de cat behind de ear, she thought it rather slight,
When along dar comes a brick-bat an' it knocked it out ob sight—

Away across de ocean dey did send de cat at last.
Vessel only out a day and making water fast:
People all begin to pray, de boat begin to toss,
When a nodder vessel came along and took de people off.

On a telegraph wire sparrows sitting in a bunch;
Cat a feeling hungry, thought she'd like 'em for a lunch,
Climbing softly up de pole, an' when she reached de top
Put her foot upon de 'lectric wire, which tied her in a knot.

One time did gib de cat away to man in a balloon
An' tole him for to gib it to de man in de moon;'
But de b'loon it busted, sho an' eb'rybody sed
It wer seben miles away or more 'dey picked de man up dead.

De cat was a possessor ob a family ob its own
Wid seben little kittens till dar comes a cyclone.
Blowed de houses all apart and tossed de cat around;
While de air was full ob kittens not a one was eber found.

De cat it were a terror and dey said it wer be best
To gib it to a nigger who was going out West.
De train going 'round de curve struck a broken rail,
Not a blessed soul aboard de train wer left to tell de tale.

A man down on de corner swore to kill de cat at sight.
Loaded up a musket full ob nails and dynamite,
Waited in de garden for de cat to come around:
Half a-dozen little pieces ob de man was all dey found.

Little boy took de cat away, he got a dollar note.
Took it down de ribber in a little open boat,
Tied a brick around its neck an' stone about a pound;
Now dey're grappling in de ribber for a little boy that's drowned—
While de cat lay a sleeping an' a resting one day,

'Round came an organ grinder an' he began to play:
De cat look'd around awhile an' kinder raised her head,
When he played Ta-rah-dah-boom-da-rah, an' de cat dropped dead.

         CHORUS But its ghost came back to tell you all about it;
       Yes, its ghost came back, between you and I,
Its ghost came back, may be you will doubt it.
       But its ghost came back just to bid 'em all good-bye.

25 May 01 - 09:44 PM (#470701)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Hawker

What comments would you like? are you asking if the content is politically correct? or are you asking if we like it?
Personally, I think it's a great song! have always loved it, sing it how you like, I'm sure the person who wrote it won't mind! God! if my songs are still being sung regularly after 100 years, I wouldn't care if you cleaned them up, altereds them a little, well, as long as it WAS STILL MY SONG if you get my drift!

26 May 01 - 12:37 AM (#470782)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Art Thieme

Lucy, I agree with you---philosophically and actually. In trad music as in nature, there is no right or wrong---no good or evil. We stick our feelings of morality---our value judgments--- on all of it. Sometimes that's good/bad depending on what you think/feel/believe/know to be true or false---right and wrong.

Still, personally, I do hope nobody's attitudes or certitudes get in the the way of me and the life I'm living.

Art Thieme

26 May 01 - 11:02 AM (#470929)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: marty D

I know it's not a folk song, but when Joan Baez sang "So much Cavalry" instead of "Stoneman's Cavalry" in "The Night They Drove old Dixie Down" I cringed. So did Levon Helm!


27 May 01 - 02:15 PM (#471372)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Abby Sale

Lucy & Art: No, I didn't become myself clear to make. Also, you may (I'm not sure) not have actually read the text I posted of this very well-know and evolved song. I was throwing out the thought that if anyone felt a need to sing the "original" version of a song (and I sometimes do, myself) there can often be an negative surprise at just what the original was. It might be awful, eg. That is, is might be an artsy-fartsy 18th century salon tripe that later folk-processed into something really fine. Or it might contain sentiments you're not entiely sure you want to express. Or it might be better. "Cat" was just an example.

27 May 01 - 03:35 PM (#471398)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'

Folk song purists are always telling me I'm doing something wrong. For instance, On my CD "Spanning the Decades) There are several tracks where I play all the instruments and do all the singing. The first is "Farewell to Tarwaithe" I used a guitar, steel guitar, 5string banjo and Bass. OH, WHAST A HULLABULOO I got for that one. "It's a Scottish Folk Song, and Scots did not have those instruments when the song was first written


Furthermore, it is now also an American Folk song. I'm singing the thing, and I'm American. Also, I got something I hadn't planned on. The finished version of this recording has a feeling of a ship sailing over normal ocean swells. This was unexpected. But, that being what it is, this effect was caused by the banjo (with "d-Tuning" pegs") and steel guitar.


The Wagoner's Lad and the Housewife's Lament also use this melody. Does this show disrespect for the original composer? They are, all 3, excellent and very expressive songs.

Now then, Here's a bit of departure fom my cntention that more recent versions are usually better. I learned "The Long Black Veil" when I was just a kid and this was before there WAS a Joan Baez or a Johnny Cash. I think that the melody on the chorus of this song,as sung by Joan Baez , and later, Johnny Cash, is rather dreary and un interesting. Everyone seems to sing it this way, but, the older melody (on the chorus) is a lot more interesting and fits the mood of the lyrics far better. Let's see if I can give you an Idea of how it goes. In the key of "G" I'll put the note in parentheses) following each word, and the chord changes following that , like this <>, OK? I hope you can make some sense out of it. and, as I've been saying all along, make up your own mind./

<>She(b) <>walks(A) These (A) Hills (A)In (d) a (D)<>Long (e) black(G)<>Veil(B) vis-(A)its(A)my (B) Grave(A) when(d) the (d) <>Night(E) wind (G) <?>Wails (B)

The rest of the melody is the same as yo9u know it. I hope you can make heads or tails out of this

What I'm trying to say (and very badly at that) is that there are no set rules to this thing. A folk singer should sing whatever he or she likes even if it means making up new lyrics (or tunes) That is within the bounds of accurate terminology.

But, Hey, you might not see it that way. OK. that's fine with me. This is just my point of view I sing them as I like them. So Far, my audiences like the way I do them. (I guess)

27 May 01 - 06:57 PM (#471482)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Charley Noble

So far we don't have the squeaky clean Disney version of the "Cat Came Back." I'm sure the song will endure as long as children continue to respond favorably to this indestructable feline; I think they find it re-assuring that she always survives (too bad about all the other death and mayhem - trainload of passengers - but that's generally off-screen). My mother once did a children's book based on this song, facing many of the same questions that have been raised here as to which version to use, which verses, and which words, and fighting off an editor who was alarmed at what parents would think of the cat being taken up the river in a boat, and the boatman drowning (mother did change the "boy" to a "man"). Maybe I'll post my mother's resulting version. She didn't include the great Cisco Huston verse about the cat being placed in the orange crate on Rt. 66, came a ten ton truck with a twenty ton load, scattered pieces of the orange crate all down the road, BUT the cat came back...

28 May 01 - 10:52 AM (#471723)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Abby Sale

I didn't realize that was Cisco's own. Is the Cape Canaveral one his too?

03 Jun 01 - 05:04 PM (#475962)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Dorrie

Annan Waters- the russian in the clyde waters took willy(or is that billy)from his horse Since i was little i never understood why there was a russian in some water in scotland? Sorry but that always makes me laugh and thought i'd try and make u all laugh dorrie xxx

04 Jun 01 - 01:22 PM (#476015)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: GUEST,Static Chaos

Now, I'm not a singer but it seems to me that one of the major purposes of folk music is to preserve the sentiments and emotions of the past. In order to do that it is probably necessary to change some of the lyrics on occasion because the meaning and pronunciation of words is constantly changing. People of today won't hear some of the older lyrics to mean what they are were intended to mean and the song would lose its power if the lyrics are not altered to preserve meaning.

04 Jun 01 - 03:30 PM (#476182)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Mr Red

Whilst on stewarding duty an agitated Tom Lewis bemoaned about the guy on stage not singing a Stan Rogers song correctly.
Tom should know, says I to meself
however they offender was giving a workshop next day on Stan Rogers songs (more reason for Tom's displeasure)
I declined the w/s as a result however at a later stage the "offender" was telling us he had read the lyrics and listened carefully to Stan's records and they were not consistent
as our "alleged" offender said - "which side of which fence do you sit?"
trad (anon) songs have no definitive versions and the folk process goes on
even my own songs have evolved in my time, particularly the ones (most of 'em) only I sing!

04 Jun 01 - 04:31 PM (#476226)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Charley Noble

Abby, I'm not entirely sure that Cisco wrote the orange crate verse of the Cat Came Back, the Cape Canavral verse, or the one about taking the cat to the place where the meat was ground, dropped him into the hopper when the butcher wasn't around – the cat disappeared with a blood curdling shriek and the town's meat tasted furry for a week but...I have a recording of him singing these verses about 1960 and they are included in his Oak Publication, 900 Miles songbook, but no copyright, only a note that where there is no copyright the songs are adapted and arranged by Cisco Huston. Never ran across anyone else singing these verses any earlier than 1960. There's also a South African version of The Cat Came back by Joseph & Marais.

05 Jun 01 - 11:02 AM (#476767)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Fibula Mattock

This is just a wee addition to the Ralph McTell comment. Wouldn't "yesterday's papers" tell "the-day-before-yesterday's" news? But it doesn't quite scan.

05 Jun 01 - 12:32 PM (#476833)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Jenny S

GUEST,Static Chaos. You took the words out of my mouth!

I always cringe when anyone sings "the pratty pratty flowyers" (sic). Yet I have heard certain respected singers insist that those are the "correct" words.

Me? I would sing "pretty pretty flowers". I don't believe our ancesters sang gobbledygook. They sang words that made sense, in their own dialect. So why should not we?


05 Jun 01 - 12:37 PM (#476834)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Jenny S

GUEST,Static Chaos. You took the words out of my mouth!

I always cringe when anyone sings "the pratty pratty flowyers" (sic). Yet I have heard certain respected singers insist that those are the "correct" words.

Me? I would sing "pretty pretty flowers". I don't believe our ancesters sang gobbledygook. They sang words that made sense, in their own dialect. So why should not we?


05 Jun 01 - 06:04 PM (#477078)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Mr Red

Stop Press
Yesterdays papers can tell yesterdays news
It depends on exactly when the late edition was printed
then again evening papers have a whole day to be yesterday's papers and still have time to......
er... just call me a logical pedant
it's not just Ralph McTells scansion, the repetition of "Yesterday's" is very effective, echoes the age of the lonely person. The music is so fitting.
Hey, that's why he is such a good songwriter.
those lyrics were ever so right, what would the folk process do to their meaning?
Makes yer think dunnit?

05 Jun 01 - 06:56 PM (#477139)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Rollo

Be glad for every folk song altered while being sung. For that means some caring heart moves it on as good it can. Our Northern-german folk tradition is dead. There are only some well known pieces left. Printed, occasionally sung and otherwise left alone they are just a carcass resting in a museum. They will never, never change again, only be buried deeper in spiderwebs. *sob*

07 Jun 01 - 10:10 AM (#478332)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Robby

I'm sorry I've away from this thread for so long. It is a very interesting discussion. But may I ask a question?

I don't know if "Dublin in the Rare Ould Times", Pete St. John, 1977, would be considered a folk song. I found what I think are all of the verses Click here. However, how would you handle the lines in the third verse about his courting a lass and then:

I lost her to a student chap, with skin as black as coal,
When he took her off to Birmingham, she took away my soul.

In some places these lines might be perceived as racist. Especially since the next verse begins with the line that ...the years have made me bitter. Is the only solution to omit the third verse entirely? Or, would it be acceptable to use the words "his heart was" in place of "with skin"?

I enjoyed the redition of this song by the Irish Tenors in their Belfast concert and had been looking for the lyrics. When I found them at the above site I was troubled by these lines.


07 Jun 01 - 10:13 AM (#478334)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Robby

My apologies to one and all for that screw up. The entire lyrics can be found at:


07 Jun 01 - 10:25 AM (#478340)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: KingBrilliant

I think I'd make his eyes as black as coal or his hair as black as coal - if I felt the occasion needed the change. Then its still his appearance that is luring the girl.
But then maybe he was a miner with coal ingrained under the skin (by which I don't mean dirty, but I've read that coal would get under the skin and give a permanent pigment irrespective of cleansing habits). So then if that were the case would you still have to make the change? I suppose so - because you'd be being sensitive to what a listener might feel rather than any absolute meaning?


07 Jun 01 - 10:38 AM (#478348)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Noreen

Robby, you would also have found the lyrics here in the wonderful Digitrad database. I do not see any need at all to change the above words. Just because they refer to the colour of his skin does not mean they are racist. If the song had criticised him because of the colour of hois skin, that would be a different matter.


07 Jun 01 - 11:38 AM (#478395)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Robby

Thanks for that link Noreen. I found it interesting that the version in the DT is not identical to that at robokopp, and that the DT version provides no information as to the composer or writer.

Intellectually, I can agree with your observation. However, I have a number of close personal friends, as well as in-laws, who are African-Americans and who would not understand that the reference to the student's skin color was merely descriptive, and not intended to be because or critical of his skin color. So, if they are around when this song is sung, I think I'll adopt one of KB's suggestions.

07 Jun 01 - 07:49 PM (#478811)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Murray MacLeod

Kris, I don't think too many Midlands miners made it to University, and although life is tougher for them than it used to be, I don't think many students are forced to go down the mines either.


07 Jun 01 - 10:43 PM (#478938)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: GUEST,Tom Meisenheimer

Well, both my girls had their own versions of songs. Fer instance; Molly was convinced that "there was a bathroom on the right" and Hillary wanted someone (?) to "Stop in the neighborhood" While these don't qualify as folk music they illustrate problems common to thos of us who use old recordings or their "re-masters" for our sources. When I am learning from a live "folk" and I'm confused, I ask what was just sung until I'm sure I know what words were used. I also use writen sources for words but ya gotta be careful for there were (are) some anthologists who change songwords for arcane (and probably nefarious) reasons.

Boy would I like to learn the "real" words to Wildwood Flower! Where's at?

08 Jun 01 - 06:20 AM (#479074)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: KingBrilliant

Oh B*gger. See I knew there'd be a flaw in that theory somewhere. I think those student types should go down the mines though - and up chimneys. That'd learn 'em proper. Hewing the nuggets of wisdom at the University of Life.
Well - OK Murry - I have to give up and admit that it was a really really silly thought. I have loads of those I'm afraid. Never mind :>)


08 Jun 01 - 08:45 AM (#479129)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: RangerSteve

In the song "The Baltimore Fire" one line goes "Brave firemen struggled with devotion". Charlie Poole, in his southern accent sang it as "farmen". The New Lost City Rambler heard it as "farmers". What were farmers doing putting out a fire in Baltimore? There are plenty of songs about farmers, but darned few about firemen. Let's put the firemen back in the song where they belong. (I was a volunteer fireman at one time, so this is a matter of principal for me). There's also a song called "the Mermaid", where some people sing "the landlord is sleeping down below". It's really "the landlubbers sleeping down below". I guess this mistake is understandable if the person who originally changed it lived pretty far inland and wasn't familiar with nautical terms.

08 Jun 01 - 09:33 AM (#479161)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: GUEST,Brian

I fully agree with Noreen's point regarding 'Rare Old Times'. The line is descriptive not racist. If such a line should be changed in case it may offends somebody, are there any songs left that could be safely sung without heavy handed editing?

Songs from the Napolionic war would be out, in case they offended the French. Similarly, songs about English/Scottish battles. Be careful what Irish content there is in a song (Irish be careful what you say about the English). Most shanties would be out for fear of being critical about the Dutch/Germans/Chinese/Spanish etc. Where would it end?

To quote Murray - RESPECT. Respect a song for being a product of it's time. The sentiments expressed in a song may not concur with 21st century values, but that isn't an excuse to butcher the song. 'Rare Old Times' is nearly 25 years old. Values have changed in those 25 years, and that song, if written today, probibly would be written differently.

Getting back to the original point of this thread. I would probibly be a 1.9. Songs do evolve. Phasing, timing and melody, are all effected by each singer that touches a song, and each time that they sing it. However, reducing a song to, or towards jibberish brings it one time closer to the end of it's life. Eventually somebody will disgard it as meaningless.

In an early post KB said

'- it would be a bit cheeky to change anything if you were singing more formally (I s'pose I mean where people would look to you as an authority sort of).'

I have to disagree on this point. If you are singing to an audience, be it 2000 or 2 people, you are setting youself up as being the authority on the songs you sing. If they want words, or background information, it is you they will ask. Surely it makes sense to show that you are interested in your subject and able to pass on good information, rather than 'buggered propriety.'


08 Jun 01 - 02:29 PM (#479342)
Subject: RE: Are folk lyrics ever 'wrong?'
From: Songster Bob

Much earlier, someone wrote (and I'm sorry I didn't clip who did so):

<< Originally "Ol' 97" said, "It was on that grade that he lost his average," meaning average air pressure in the brake lines. Very, very few people would understand that, so I have no prob staying with "lost his air brakes," even though that isn't original. >>

Actually, the original WAS "air brakes," but the popular version, sung by Vernon Dalhart, who had to learn it from the recording by the original singer*, changed it to "average." So the "change" to "air brakes" is actually reverting to the original.

Of course, music transcribers have a lot to answer for, especially when the artist doesn't care to check the printed lyrics (the opposite of Ralph McTell's problem). To wit, Dylan's words in the songbooks produced by his publisher include "The highway is for gamblers, better use your sins..." when he's clearly saying (somewhat nasally) "... use your sense."


I tend to try to keep to the traditional "sins" when I sing, but often go back to sources instead of parroting the garbled version a trad singer may have come up with. I sing "Wildwood Flower" without the "pale and the leader and the eyes look like blue." And I've been known to sing a song as written even when the PC thing would be to change it ("She was Mex and I was white," from "Border Affair," for example), though I'm careful with audience sensitivities when I do this.

I've even changed songs written by contemporary writers, such as changing "Put to music and sing to you" (in Old Bill Pickett) to "Learn the music and sing to you," since I'm not the one who put to music the lines old Zack Miller wrote (look up the lyric if this is cryptic).

And sometimes mondegreens are hard to get out of your head, even when you don't want to sing 'em that way. From "Hello, Stranger:"

Get up rounder / Than you were when you lay down ... is HARD to keep from singing, even when I know it's wrong!


Bob Clayton

* Anyone remember who that was? My mind is mush today (and why is this day any different, you ask?).