I guess you can say I’ve had a love affair with words almost since before I learned to talk. Since moving to North Carolina from California in 1972, I’ve learned that a “minner dipper” is a mandolin, a “scratch box” is a fiddle, and a “starvation box” is a guitar. I’ve learned that a cathead is a biscuit, a ballet is a ballad and catawampus means crosswise. I’ve met fleshy (overweight) people and those who could hide behind a straw (skinny). I’ve seen people who cootered around aimlessly while being bumfusticated, flummoxed and flustrated. I’ve been told haint (ghost) stories by knot-headed (dumb or stubborn) folks who put stuff in polks (sacks). I’ve grown and shaved a soup strainer (mustache), got hitched (married) but have yet to visit a yarb (herb) doctor or grannywoman (midwife).
The words to bluegrass songs have been a source of particular fascination to me. Back in 1965 while still living in California, I went to a bluegrass show in a small club in Berkeley, California called the Jabberwalk. On stage was Joe Val and the Charles River Valley Boys. I remember that the banjo player, Bob Siggins, joked about the lyrics of the Bill Monroe song, “Goodbye Old Pal.” Siggins suggested that instead of “to me boys it was sad,” he always thought it was “two meatballs in the sand.”
Recently, I got to wondering how other singers have accidentally mangled the words of other bluegrass songs. Come to find out, there’s actually a word for mangled lyrics: mondegreens. Who knew?
When I asked some of my bluegrass buddies, students and friends what mondegreens they have heard or sung, here’s what they contributed.
Are your varmints washed
(Are your garments washed) from “Washed in the Blood.”
With a naked horse.
(With an achin’ heart) from “Doing My Time.”
My feet stink on the mantel
(I’m feasting on the manna) from “Beulah Land.”
I fought the green creature down in the dark valley.
(I fought the grim reaper down in the dark valley) from “I’ve Lived a Lot in My Time.”
It is a whale that is hurt upon the shore.
(It is a wail that is heard upon the shore) from Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More.”
The ants are my friends, they’re blowing in wind
(The answer my friend is blowing in the wind) from “Blowing in the Wind”
Feta cheese and hair
(Faded cheeks and hair) from “Wandering Boy.”
May I walk on your lawn every day
(May I walk in your light everyday) from “Lord Have Mercy.”
There’ll be no detours in Heaven,Nora froze along the way
(There’ll be no detours in Heaven, No rough roads along the way) From “I’m Using My Bible For a Roadmap.”
Hold back the Russian menace
(Hold back the rushing minutes) from “My Baby’s Gone.”
The mandolin player ate cheese whiz.
(The man in the middle is Jesus) from “The Man in the Middle.”
They call me by a number of naughty names
(They call me by a number, not a name) from “Doin’ My Time.”
Oh beautiful and spaceship skies.
(O beautiful for spacious skies) from “America the Beautiful.”
Lonesome Light Bulb Waltz.
(Lonesome Moonlight Waltz).
Although your love was even colder, I’ll wear your underwear tonight.
(Although your love is even colder, I wonder where you are tonight). from “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight.”
Big spy camera
(Big spike hammer)
Bright day will turn to night my love, the elephants will mourn
(Bright day will turn to night my love the elements will mourn) from “The Blackest Crow.”
Can I get you now, or must the hen I take
(Can I get you now, or must I hesitate) from “The Hesitation Blues.”
She’d row t’church a Sunday, She’d pass me on by
I saw her mind was changing Bada-ol-bing on her eye
(She’d go to church on Sunday
She passed me on by
I saw her mind was changing
By the roving of her eye) from “Handsome Molly.”
That’s the way I giddy my gnome
(That way I’ll get him I know) from “Feast Here Tonight.”
Poison tomatoes are taking our loved ones
(Wars and tornadoes are taking our loved ones) from “The Family Who Prays.”
My time on earth is buttered Spam.
(My time on earth is but a span) from “A Beautiful Life.”
If you’re like me, you might find these mangled verses more interesting than the “real” ones. Big thanks goes out to everyone who contributed to this collection! If you’d like to contribute your favorite manged lyrics, by all means, send them my way!
Wayne Erbsen has been collecting and researching songs (with the correct lyrics) for fifty years. He has edited ten bluegrass, old-time and gospel songbooks plus instruction books for bluegrass banjo, clawhammer banjo, fiddle, mandolin and guitar. Contact us for a free catalog in the mail or download our catalog here.