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Perkins: What’s that again? Just Google or Shazam it...

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Bill Perkins

I admit that I’m easily entertained, and among my favorite things are misheard lyrics. Few things tickle me like song lyrics that turn out to be something completely different from what I think I’ve always heard.

Most people are familiar with the concept. Some are aware it has a name – “mondegreen,” which entered the lexicon in the early 1950s after writer Sylvia Wright recalled mishearing a line from a Scottish ballad her mother read to her; the words “layd him on the green” became “Lady Mondegreen.”

Most people have heard the chestnut about the Jimi Hendrix song, in which “S’cuse me while I kiss the sky” morphed into “S’cuse me while I kiss this guy.”

Among my favorites are “Hold me closer, Tony Danza; count the head lice on the highway” from Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”; “Just let me staple the vicar” from the line “Just let me state for the record” from Sister Sledge’s “We are Family”; and, of course, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s directions to the facilities in “Bad Moon Rising.”

Church provided rich fodder, too. I still remember my sister and a neighborhood friend singing “Bringing in the sheets, bringing in the sheets; we will go to Georgia bringing in the sheets.” Apparently they hadn’t heard the one about Gladly, the cross-eyed bear. And some child told me once that God’s given name was Howard, then proved it in prayer: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, Howard be thy name…”

Mondegreen exploration isn’t quite as much fun since the advent of instant information. It’s too easy to pick up a smartphone and clear up any misunderstanding.

I’ve always been interested in music and, over time, developed what some suggested was an encyclopedic knowledge of who wrote what, who recorded what, the label to which they were attached, who particular artists had played with when and so forth. Later, after working in a record store, I had a mental reference file of product numbers for particular recordings.

Wasted gray cells, I know. But I was formidable when it came to parlor games that involved naming a tune in a few notes.

My knowledge of contemporary music was limited greatly to the things I had an interest in – a mile deep, perhaps, but only about 20 yards wide.

I realized this acutely one evening in Montgomery. I was attending the opening of a play at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and they really put on the dog. Folks were all dressed up, there was champagne flowing, and in the lobby, there were musicians – a pianist and a cellist – and I watched as they ran through their repertoire. One particularly beautiful piece haunted me, so much so that I could still hear it days later. So I contacted a friend at the Shakespeare Festival and asked her how to get in touch with one of the musicians. She gave me an address for the pianist, and I sent her a note, describing, as best I could, what the piece sounded like.

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A couple of weeks later, I found a letter in my mailbox with a handwritten address and black musical notes along the edge. It was from the piano lady, and while I don’t recall exactly what the message was, it was clear that she was thrilled that someone would write with a question about the music she performed. And she had no trouble identifying the piece; apparently having described it as “haunting” narrowed it down to one – “Bourrée” from Bach’s Cello Suite 3.

This old rock’n’roll dog was learning a few new tricks. Helping me along the way were a couple of new “friends.” Every morning on Troy Public Radio, the strains of the second movement (Adagio cantabile) of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 Opus 13, better known as “Pathétique,” would call to order Karl Haas’ Adventures in Good Music, and I would listen religiously. On particular evenings, I would make a point to listen to Marian McPartland, whose program featured a wide variety of keyboard players. Karl and Marian have both gone on to their great reward, and I appreciate their tutelage beyond the racks of the local record store.

Some of my favorite “songs” these days are classical works. Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the Pathétique, and Bourrée, of course, and countless others I recognize but cannot name. I don’t seem to have the compulsion I once had that drove me to find out as much as possible about a piece of music. I don’t care what a tune’s time signature is anymore, although I do particularly enjoy songs that have weird ones, like the song “The Collins Missile” by guitarist Leo Kottke and Phish bass player Mike Gordon on their 2002 BMG label collaboration, Clone. (I know; old habits die hard.)

But I digress. I had meant to contemplate a world without Google, Shazam, WolframAlpha, Siri, Alexa, and any of a host of computer search portals I have grown dependent on to answer life’s big questions. Such as “Isn’t the woman in that Christmas movie we keep seeing ads for the same woman in that show with the rapper woman who was in the CIA and now solves crimes freelance to the dismay of established law enforcement?” According to IMDB.com, the answer is “yes.”

I don’t want to admit how many times, in the quiet of the men’s room, I have wondered what song was playing in the background, and Shazam-ed the music while standing at the urinal. (It was “Arriving Somewhere but Not Here” by Porcupine Tree).

I suppose a quest for knowledge is healthy. I am always cheered when I am around someone who wonders aloud about something and then brandishes their phone and says loudly, “Hey Siri, how much coffee can a person drink before they suffer the consequences?”

Perhaps my favorite technological helper, though, is a translation app I discovered. It has many different languages, resides on your smartphone, and costs a pittance. Best of all, you don’t have to study a language for years to be able to communicate with the locals when you’re traveling outside the country.

Once when we were traveling in Italy, I’d tracked down an olive oil festival in Val d’Orcia, and made plans for us to go. When we got there, it was far from the beaten path, and there was little hope that anyone had English. Inside the ancient walled city, the small “festival” consisted of a handful of olive-growing families with tables on which they arranged bottles of their home-grown and pressed olive oil. Each table had bits of bread ripped from a loaf so that people could sample each batch. The offerings were spectacular, and one mom-and-pop had what I consider the best olive oil I’d ever tasted.

So I whipped out my phone, found the Translate app, and said, too loudly, I’m sure, “Y’all’s olive oil is mighty fine!” A voice from my phone recited the translation in Italian, and the couple showed immense surprise, and laughed and laughed.

I still don’t know what the app told them. I hope, for my sake, they simply misunderstood, or heard a mondegreen.

Maybe I should Google it to be sure.

Bill Perkins is editorial page editor of the Dothan Eagle and can be reached at bperkins@dothaneagle.com or 334-712-7901. Support the work of Eagle journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at dothaneagle.com.

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