Lady Mondegreen, Staple Singers, and Rumi

I’m fond of misheard lyrics. Maybe the most famous is “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” from Jimi Hendrix’s “kiss the sky.” Turns out there is even a name for this—mondegreen. Wikipedia explains:
A mondegreen is a mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase as a result of near-homophony, in a way that gives it a new meaning. Mondegreens are most often created by a person listening to a poem or a song; the listener, being unable to clearly hear a lyric, substitutes words that sound similar, and make some kind of sense. American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in her essay “The Death of Lady Mondegreen”, published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1954. The term was inspired by “…and Lady Mondegreen”, a misinterpretation of the line “…and laid him on the green” from the Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl O’ Moray”.
But what about lyrics I just don’t plan understand? Turns out the Staple Singers “I’ll Take You There” is a case in point. I knew it was a gospel transcendent going to heaven song. And I love it. But I was confused. I thought the lyrics were about being “at the races” a happy peaceful place with a holiday atmosphere. But why “ain’t no smiling faces”? I must have misheard.
Turns out, the words are:
I know a place
Ain’t nobody cryin’
Ain’t nobody worried
Ain’t no smilin’ faces
Mmm, no no
Lyin’ to the races

So although the place is heavenly, these smiling faces were hypocritical, smiling while lying about racism. And their absence is a good thing.

The truth is, every time I hear this song I think of something that isn’t remotely related but that has the same feeling. Rumi. “There is a field beyond good and evil. I’ll meet you there.”

The Staple Singers even more dynamic: I’ll take you there.

One thought on “Lady Mondegreen, Staple Singers, and Rumi

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