In first grade back in 1958, Sister Eleanor Marie was teaching us all to sing the traditional devotional "Immaculate Mother," which we all thought of as "The Ave Maria Song." Many of us were still struggling to read words like "cat," much less "immaculate" (which my mother hurriedly defined for me as "no spots") so rather than pass out song books she would sing it first and we would repeat after her, verse by verse. No big deal. But after a few go-rounds, I became aware that Ray Krysch, in the desk beside me, was singing the refrain as "All day, all day, all day Maria! All day, all day, all day Maria!"
There were 49 kids in the class and we were in the last row. The acoustics (not to mention the voices of our classmates) were not world class. So what the heck (excuse me, Sister) if you canít hear the song you sing, you sing the song you hear. (And what does "ave" really mean, anyway?)
There is a word for this, as there is a word (in English, anyway) for almost everything: Mondegreens, coined by writer Sylvia Green in The Atlantic in 1954. A mondegreen is a word, phrase, line of poetry or song lyric that you hear incorrectly. My little sister Gretchen Duntemann Roper used to sing, at Christmas time, "Good King Winter Brussel Sprouts are always crisp and even." She was perhaps four, and hadnít taken Medieval Polish History yet, but (unlike me) always ate her vegetables. So it made perfect sense to her.
Now Gavin Edwards, associate editor of Details Magazine, has collected about 275 mondegreens from friends, correspondents, and band leaders, and combined them with some wonderfully whacko cartoons by the estimable Chris Kalb. Edwards points out that most mondegreens involve (in order) food, sex, animals, and clowns, which must say something about how we process information behind our eyes--though we might be better off not knowing exactly what. The title is a mondegreen from the Jimi Hendrix song "Purple Haze", which actually reads "ĎScuse me while I kiss the sky."
I donít want to spoil any of the gems in the book demonstrating how much fun this is, so Iíll pass along my own favorite, which one of my high school friends confessed to me in 1968: That he heard the refrain of the old Sandpipers piece "Guantanamera" as "Don Juan Rivera, Iíll see ya Don Juan Rivera..." The same song was misheard by my neighbor Sue Thurman as "Once on a meadow, Iíll be there once on a meadow..." My hearing must be better than most, and Iíve come up with only a few genuine mondegreens in my time. One worth mentioning is a violence my subconscious did to the title line in the Police song "We Are Spirits in the Material World," which I heard as "We have spirits delivering material." Picture if you must a ghost in a jumpsuit trucking down the street with a bolster of tweed over one shoulder; thatís certainly what Chris Kalb would do with it. ĎScuse Me While I Kiss This Guy actually has a better mondegreen than mine for this particular song, (and a wonderful Kalb cartoon) but Iíll leave that for you to discover. The book is full of them. My only caution is that the mishead lyrics come heavily from "hard" rockíníroll of the past twenty years. Iím sorry, but most of that canon sounds to me like somebody lobbing a grenade into a hardware store. Still, if youíre up on your Def Leppard, Gin Blossoms, and Sex Pistols, you will truly laugh yer butt off.