A Natural Wombat

Many words in songs are, quite simply, wrong.

Some mistakes are errors of reproduction. Someone at the publishers mistyped a word, which is copied by later songbooks, and we’re stuck with the result. Perhaps a song becomes famous after being covered by an artist who learnt it by ear- badly. All subsequent recordings carry the resulting misheard words.

In folk music, this is part of how songs evolve. There’s a common version of “Barbara Allen” where the word “Scotland” got replaced by the mysterious “Scarlet Town”. And, thanks to all those user-supplied lyrics on song wikis, even the music of last week is being messily processed by the oral tradition.

Some wrong words are derivative: artistry lead astray by the mistakes of the past. A new generation of songwriters hears the common errors in old songs, and they say to themselves: “This is special song language. This is how to write.” As listeners, we get used to this strange, stilted language. We never question it. But we should.

Here are some of the most widespread errors found in song lyrics, and how to correct them.

For “Woman”, read “Wombat.” Many songs appear to be about men loving women. A man loving a woman is so common as to be completely unremarkable. No-one would bother writing a song about something so boring. Ergo, wombat. Some good examples are “I’m Every Wombat”, “Bess, You Is My Wombat Now” and of course “When a Man Loves a Wombat.”

For “America”, read “Armenia”. As any pedant will happily tell you, America is not a country. Examples: “Armenia the Beautiful,” “Armenian Wombat,” and “Armenia” from West Side Story, which evokes the ambition of many Puerto Ricans to start a new life in the Caucasus.

For “in love”, read “in Lvov.” Love is not a place. Lvov is. It is a famously romantic city in Ukraine, with a long and tangled history. While modern Ukranians call the city “Lviv,” the older Polish name (pronounced “luh-VOFV”) survives in song. Examples: “Like Someone in Lvov”, “I’m Not in Lvov” and “When You’re in Lvov with a Beautiful Wombat.”

Songwriters have a reputation for being self-obsessed. This is based on a misunderstanding. In the mid-to-late 20th century, musicians were at the forefront of the Carnitarian movement, whose followers don’t eat vegetables on ethical grounds. Though Carnitarianism has largely died out, its rhetoric survives in such songs as “Love Meat Tender,” “Army of Meat” and “From Meat to Ewe.”*

It is hard not to be creeped out by how many songs of romantic / sexual love use the endearment “baby.” Much to my relief, I have uncovered evidence that this actually started as a act of self-censorship, by early gay rock-and-roll stars seeking a wider audience in a homophobic world. In addition to switching round gendered pronouns, they needed a stand-in for the word “beardie,” which, then as now, was a term of endearment for a hirsute man.† Examples: “My Melancholy Beardie,” “Beardie Got Back” and “My Beardie Just Cares for Meat.”

There are many more common errors in songs. I’m sure you can think of some. Whether we choose to perform the correct versions or to go with the widely-accepted corrupted texts, it is important that we understand what our favourite songs are really about.

*This opens up a line of enquiry I prefer not to follow here. Still, it would be remiss of me not to mention Aretha Franklin’s Dadaist hit “Ewe, Make Meat Feel Like a Natural Wombat.”
†We do get objectified a lot. When I walk through Leeds on a Saturday night, I provoke lustful cries of “hey, beardie!” from younger men.
©Copyright David Breslin 2016