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Saturday, Sept. 17, 2005

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Play it again, Sam . . . but with these lyrics


His name is Joe. And Joe says: "If you can't walk, dance. If you can't talk, sing. And you can't hear . . . just make things up."

Yes, Joe is an optimist, but no, Joe does not work in any of the traditional venues of make-believe -- sales, talk radio or politics. Instead Joe is an English teacher in Japan. His last name should be "Mondegreen."

To increase listening skills in English, Joe has his university students transcribe the lyrics of English songs. He assigns each student a different tune each week and lets them sit with headphones and a dictionary in the school library and take as long as they wish to produce their version of what is being sung.

The results?

First, some history. The term "mondegreen" means "misheard lyrics" and was coined by author Sylvia Wright in 1955, when she noted that for years she had believed the words, "They have slain the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green" -- taken from a Scottish ballad -- were instead, "They have slain the Earl of Murray and Lady Mondegreen."

Other well-known mondegreens include:

"She's got a chicken to ride!" (from "She's Got a Ticket to Ride" by the Beatles)

"Baking carrot biscuits!" (from "Taking Care of Business" by Bachman Turner Overdrive)

"Midnight after you're wasted . . ." (from "Midnight at the Oasis" by Maria Muldaur)

Let's take a closer look at those produced by Joe's students, after the following very necessary disclaimer.

"These kids," says Joe, "should be applauded and not teased. It's hard enough for native speakers to catch the lyrics of some songs, let alone those who use English as a second language. Song lyrics play with grammar, stress and intonation, they are often pumped full of slang and obscure cultural references, and -- while I tried to choose slower vehicles -- native-speaker-slow can still be too fast for many learners. A student has to have keen ears and perseverance to even have a chance.

"Considering all this, I am proud of my students' work. They did well. Amazingly well, at times."

However, at other times their efforts ended up rather amusing.

"Wise men," croons Elvis, "say only fools rush in, but I can't help falling in love with you." To which the student writes . . .

"Wise men say only fools are Russians . . ."

"Take my hand," continues Elvis. "Take my whole life too. For I can't help falling in love with you." And the transcript version is . . .

"Take my eye. Take my whole life too."

"He made a vow while in state prison," Frankie Lane tells us in his hit from the motion picture "High Noon," "vowed it would be my life or his'n." The student writes . . .

"He made a bowwow inside a prism." Unusual, yes, but certainly more challenging.

"Won't you look down upon me, Jesus. You gotta help me make a stand," sings James Taylor in "Fire and Rain." The student writes . . .

"Look down upon me, Jesus. You gotta help me make a stain."

"Old man, look at my life. I'm a lot like you were," sings Neil Young in "Old Man." The student writes . . .

"Old man, look at my life. I'm a farmer like you were."

Amy Grant in her song "Thy Word" sings, "Nothing will I fear, as long as you are near." Which becomes . . .

"Nothing will I feel, as long as you are near."

Patti Page sings, "I was dancin' with my darling to the Tennessee Waltz . . ." The student hears . . .

"I was dancin' with my darling to the chair that she was."

Page continues, "I remember the night and the Tennessee Waltz . . ." And the student continues too.

"I remember the night and the chair that she was."

Recognize this folk tune?

"My girl rowed the boat offshore, hallelujah! My girl rowed the boat offshore, hallelujah!" I suppose if you don't like rowing yourself, this is truly something to sing about.

A later line from that song reads, "Jordan's river is chilly and cold, hallelujah!" The student writes . . .

"Sure the river chills cherry and coke, hallelujah!"

The Kingston Trio's old tune "Hang down your head, Tom Dooley" becomes . . .

"Hang out and hit Tom Dooley!"

In "Downtown," Petula Clark sings, "When you're alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go -- downtown!" The student writes . . .

"When your real life is making you lonely . . ."

Petula adds, "Linger on the sidewalk where the neon lights are pretty." As for the student?

"Bring encyclopedias near to someone pretty."

In "Bye, Bye Love," the Everly Brothers sing, "There goes my baby with someone new. She sure looks happy. I sure feel blue." The student writes . . .

"She sure looks happy. Her shoes are blue."

Back to Elvis for the opening lines to "In the Ghetto": "On a cold and gray Chicago mornin', a little baby child is born . . . in the ghetto. And his momma cries." The student writes . . .

"On a cold and gray Chicago mornin', little baby Charlie is born . . . in the guitar. And his momma cries."

The next line from Elvis: "For if there's one thing she don't need, it's another hungry mouth to feed . . . in the ghetto."

Student try: "For if there's one thing she don't need, it's another hungry mouth to feed . . . in the guitar."

Last we have this classic from Louis Armstrong: "I see skies of blue and clouds of white, the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night. And I think to myself, 'What a wonderful world!' " The student writes . . .

"I see skies are blue and clouds are white, bright breasts at play and dogs say, 'Good night!' And I think to myself, 'What a wonderful world!' "

What a wonderful world, indeed! Hot socks to Joe's kids!

Or was that . . . "Hats off?"

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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