Thursday, December 1, 2011

Mondegreen watch: The leaves are down

Today on "All Things Considered," Melissa Block interviewed novelist Ann Patchett about her favorite "winter song," which (for excellent biographical reasons) is "California Dreamin'." And as I listened, I learned that I had been hearing a mondegreen all these decades. The line that fascinated Patchett -- "Went "Stopped into a church, and I pretend to pray" -- I've interpreted, all these years, as "I began to pray."

Makes sense, right? Whatever the verb here, it should be in the past tense, not present. And nothing makes "pretend" more plausible than "began" (well, nothing I can see in the lyrics.) But pretend it is, and quite clearly enunciated, as pop lyrics go.

Moments later, as I was shaking off my long-standing delusion, Block revealed that she too had mondegreened* the lyrics. "Are the leaves all down?" she asked Patchett, who lives in Nashville. "All the leaves are down," Patchett replied. But no: It's "All the leaves are brown," to go with the gray skies (though the image of bare branches is nice too).

Will mondegreen creation dwindle when we all get our music via earbuds rather than crackly radios? Or is the listening mind just too inventive to stop making its own kind of sense, given half a chance? I'm rooting for the mondegreens; like eggcorns, they're too entertaining to be sacrificed for mere accuracy.

*I see that this verb is out there, in active and passive forms. I'll vote for active, since mondegreening is something we do, not something the song does to us. 

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the new word - I love it and its origin.

Alison said...

Well, I always thought that I began to pray!

Lisa said...

Huh. I've heard "began to pray" all these years too.

tudza said...

Same for me with pretend, missed that for years, but brown leaves I got.

I'm inclined to say "created a mondegreen" instead of making a verb out of it, but I still resist making "looked it up on Google" a verb.

Anonymous said...

I had a Paul Simon mondegreen that I still prefer to the actual lyric - it's from "Cool Cool River" on _Rhythm of the Saints_.

The lyric I heard was, "I believe in the future - I mail in my card." I thought it was a very clever and economical way to show a comically tiny level of confidence in humanity - basically, "There's enough of a chance that we'll survive as a species that I'll register this gadget I just bought and get a free extended warranty."

I also liked that when the line was echoed later in the song - "I believe in the future we will suffer no more" - it had shifted grammatically, and I'm a sucker for echoes that do that. (Nat King Cole's "When I Fall In Love," e.g.: "..the moment that I *feel that* you *feel that* way too...")

But it turns out that the "real" lyric is, "I believe in the future I may live in my car." Pretty pedestrian (ha!) - I still prefer mine.

Carolyn Roosevelt said...

Interesting! I've always heard 'began' too. And isn't it 'walked' into a church?

languagehat said...

I always knew it was "brown," but until this moment I too thought it was "I began to pray" -- and lord knows how many times I've heard the song (one of my favorites). I wonder what songs I'll be getting wrong for the rest of my days?

Brn said...

I've always heard it as "began to pray" too, but pretend does make more sense. But I've always heard "all the leaves are brown".

Also, not to nitpick to much, but the verse isn't "Went into a church, and I pretend to pray" but "Stopped into a church/I passed along the way/Well, I got down on my knees/and I pretend to pray".

And it is between the kneeling and the praying that the verse switch from past to present (after that, the preacher "likes" and "knows").

Jan said...

Of course -- "Stopped into a church." Further proof that you can't quote anything from memory. That is, I can't! Thanks, Brn -- I fixed it.

However, a shift from past to present between "[began/pretended] to pray" and the preacher's "likes" and "knows" would be normal; the actions are in a specific past, the attitudes in a generalized present. It's the shift within the past narrative that's confusing (not just to me, I'm glad to see).
And come to think of it, I also hear the opening words as "Although leaves are brown"; you know, even though the weather's bad, I've been out for a walk. Anybody else?

Brn said...

I had never heard of the generalized present before, so I had to look it up. You are probably right about that. To me seemed is as if the writer is telling this story as if we are kneeling there beside him.

My favorite mondegreen is still "Excuse me while I kiss this guy", especially since the college where I work uses Purple Haze as an unofficial anthem.

Sean said...

Incredible, I've just watched the video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=dN3GbF9Bx6E) and it took at least 5 attempts before I could even see them saying pretend! It was so fixed in my mind that they were saying began that I was watching them say it too.

I like my newly learnt word, mondegreen, is there a visual equivalent?

CaitieCat said...

My favourite has always been Depeche Mode's Just Can't Get Enough, the chorus of which I have never been able to hear as anything but "Just can't get it up", which makes the song quite, quite different.

The Ridger, FCD said...

That's funny. I've had trouble with some other songs, but "California Dreamin'" isn't one of them. "Pretend" and "brown" are both very clear to me, particularly in Cass's repetition of them.

Sue Dunham said...

I always heard 'began'.
Google the lyrics:
all the leaves are brown
and the sky is grey
I've been for a walk
on a winter's day

I'd be safe and warm
if I was in L.A
California Dreamin'
on such a winter's day

stopped into a church
I passed along the way
well, I got down on my knees
and I pretend to pray

you know the preacher likes the cold
he knows I'm gonna stay
California Dreamin'
on such a winter's day

all the leaves are brown
and the sky is grey
I've been for a walk
on a winter's day

if I didn't tell her
I could leave today
California Dreamin'
on such a winter's day x3

Sue Dunham said...

I just listened to the song, and 'pretend' is very clear. 'began' in the past tense just made more sense to me.

Andrea said...

Weirdly, the most persistent mondegreen in the lyrics hasn't even been mentioned. I believe it's supposed to be "The preacher locks the door," but no one seems to remember it that way at this point, indicating "likes the cold" (which makes much less sense) instead.

John Cowan said...

It was only a little while ago that I realized that the first line of the chorus of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" (aka "Paved Paradise") is "Don't it always seem to go" and not "Vo-de-o-de-o-do-do".