Background to Songs

Songs have a history, who wrote it, why, who “stole” it. What do the words really mean and, hopefully, interesting things about what we are singing..

If you wish to find out something about a song, Google as always is a good start. Enter into the search box – [song’s-title song wiki] – the last two words, “song” and “wiki” tell Google you are looking for a song and go to Wikipedia for the information.

Mondegreen – this is a term applied to an error in the words of a song. It comes from the ballad The Bonny Earl O’ Moray who died and they laid him on the green, the village green. However some singers have misheard it and we now have two dead people, the Earl of Moray and Lady Mondegreen.

See The Bonnie Earl O’ Moray and mention of the American writer Sylvia Wright who coined the term mondegreen, at the bottom of the article.

Genius is a site that tries to present the correct wording of songs.

10 Jamaica Farewell The lyrics for the song were written by Lord Burgess (Irving Burgie). Lord Burgess was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1926. His mother was from Barbados and his father was from Virginia.

The term “Ackee” from the line “ackee, rice, saltfish is nice” refers to the fruit of a tropical tree indigenous to the Ivory Coast and Gold Coast of West Africa; taken to Jamaica in 1793. It has some poisonous properties, yet if properly prepared the fruit is quite good and is a part of the national dish “ackee and saltfish”.

13 Waltzing Matilda, the story about the song. The original lyrics were written in 1895 by Australian poet Banjo Paterson, and were first published as sheet music in 1903.

The title, Waltzing Matilda, is Australian for walking through the country looking for work, with one’s goods in a “Matilda” (bag) carried over one’s back.

21 Wild Mountain Thyme or Will You Go Lassie Go was written by William McPeake from the famous McPeake family of musicians from Belfast.

It was first recorded by McPeake’s nephew, also named Francis McPeake, in 1957 and featured in the BBC series, As I Roved Out.

However, The Braes Of Balquhidder by Robert Tannahill has similarities and the case against Rod Stewart for royalties failed because of it.

If you want a lot of variations of both songs try Comparative Video 101. This includes the Corries, The Clancy Brothers, Dick Gaughan, The Byrds and even a Scottish rock-folk group The Silencers.

Of all the songs we have, this one probably has more word variations than any other. “I will build my love a bower” (summerhouse) is often “tower”. The flowers are heaped on it, in it or round it.

The collecting of the thyme can be by pulling, plucking or picking.

The third verse about his true love, in some versions it doesn’t matter if she can’t come / go, he’ll just find someone else. Another version, she, being his true love, if she can’t come / go then he won’t be able to find another. And if she be found or not, the next line can be “Where the wild mountain thyme grows…” or “To pull wild mountain thyme…”

49 Dirty Old Town – Written in 1949. The “smoky wind” was originally “Salford wind”, the town the song was written about. The town councillors objected and Ewan MacColl changed it to smoky. The line “Springs a girl in the streets at night” sometimes puts in an apostrophe, “Spring’s a girl”. Is it the name of the girl, or is it “Spring is a girl? The line, “Saw a train set the night on fire”, refers to steam trains which would visually “set the night on fire”.

Ewan MacColl’s third wife was Peggy Seeger, sister of Peter Seeger, a well known American folksinger and with no (known) connection with Bob Seger who’s songs we have some of.

51 Boots of Spanish Leather is one of Bob Dylan’s songs that actually makes sense.

The song was written about the period, after their turbulent four-year relationship, when Bob’s girlfriend, Suze Rotolo  1943-2011 (the girl on the cover of the Freewheelin’ album) was in Italy. She was his girlfriend in the early sixties before he was signed to Columbia Records. They lived in an apartment together when she was 18 and he was 20. When he was signed, he started to get fame. She was offered the chance to study in Italy, something she wanted to do after high school but couldn’t because of a car accident. Her mother wasn’t fond of Bob and was pushing her to go and she feared if she didn’t go she would regret it. She finally decided to go and it is described in her book A Freewheelin’ Time, publisher Aurum Press.

60 Streets of London by Ralph McTell, first recorded in 1969, was originally going to be “Streets of Paris”. The market he refers to in the song was the Surrey Street Market in Croydon. McTell had often observed an old man there picking through the papers looking for a grapefruit or a carrot.

61 You Ain’t Going Nowhere by Bob Dylan dating back to 1967. The early version’s words made even less sense than later versions. The Byrd’s version contained a mondegreen “Pack up your money, pick up your tent” instead of “Pick up your money, pack up your tent”, Down the bottom of this page from Song Meanings, Zimbilly tells what the words are referring to even if they still don’t make a lot of sense.

63 Artcan by Eddie Cook, is short for Art Canterbury tells the story of art and artists in Canterbury and New Zealand, from the early artists to the more recent. It points to the things that make New Zealand art.

77 Wagon Wheel – The song describes a hitchhiking journey south along the eastern coast of the United States, from New England in the northeast, through Roanoke, Virginia with the intended destination of Raleigh, North Carolina, where the narrator hopes to see his lover. As the narrator is walking south of Roanoke, he catches a ride with a trucker who is travelling from Philadelphia through Virginia westward toward the Cumberland Gap and Johnson City, Tennessee.

Secor’s lyrics show a lack of knowledge of geography, however, as they state “he’s a-heading west from the Cumberland Gap to Johnson City, Tennessee”, whereas Johnson City is actually about 100 miles southeast of the Cumberland Gap. This mistake is also repeated in Darius Rucker’s cover version of the song, but is corrected in Jason Lee Wilson’s cover to “he’s a heading west to the Cumberland Gap from Johnson City, Tennessee” on his 2010 “Big Gun” album.

114 Nancy Mulligan – by Ed Sheeran 2016

Ed Sheeran says “Nancy Mulligan” tells the story of how his grandparents, William Sheeran, a Protestant from Belfast, Northern Ireland and Anne Mulligan, a Catholic from Republic of Ireland, met, fell in love during the Second World War and got married at the Wexford border.Sheeran said: “They got engaged and no one turned up at their wedding. He stole all the gold teeth in his dental surgery and melted them down into a wedding ring, and they wore borrowed clothes to get married, and just basically have this kind of Romeo and Juliet romance, which is like the most romantic thing. So I thought I’d write a song about it and make it a jig.”

In an interview with the Irish Times, talking about the song’s Irish roots, Sheeran said “I don’t think enough people use Irish folk in pop music… Hopefully if these songs are successful, more people will do a bit more like it.”

The music from “Nancy Mulligan” is actually the song “Star of The County Down” by Cathal McGarvey (1866–1927). The music is similar and probably comes from “Dives and Lazarus“, an old English Folk Ballad.

Star of the County Down” is an Irish ballad set near Banbridge in County Down, in Northern Ireland. The words are by Cathal McGarvey (1866–1927) from Ramelton, County Donegal. The tune is similar to several other works, especially that of the English “Dives and Lazarus“, also called “Kingsfold“, well known from several popular hymns.

The melody was also used in an Irish folk song called “My Love Nell“. The lyrics of “My Love Nell” tell the story of a young man who courts a girl but loses her when she emigrates to America. The only real similarity with “Star of the County Down” is that Nell too comes from County Down. This may have inspired McGarvey to place the heroine of his new song in Down as well. McGarvey was from Donegal.

The Star of the County Down” uses a tight rhyme scheme. Each stanza is a double quatrain, and the first and third lines of each quatrain have an internal rhyme on the second and fourth feet: [aa]b[cc]b. The refrain is a single quatrain with the same rhyming pattern.

The song is sung from the point of view of a young man who chances to meet a charming lady by the name of Rose (or Rosie) McCann, referred to as the “star of the County Down”. From a brief encounter the writer’s infatuation grows until, by the end of the ballad, he imagines himself marrying the girl.

Blackleg Miner” – An English folk song with a similar tune, of unknown authorship. Written somewhere between the late 1800s and early 1900s. The term “blackleg” is older slang meaning “scab”. There was a great hostility among the unionised miners towards anyone who chose to cross their striking lines. This song is from Richard Thompson’s 1000 Years Of Popular Music. Mr Thompson takes us through the centuries of various musical cultures.

120 Love Potion No. 9 – The song describes a man seeking help to find love, so he talks to a Gypsy who determines, by means of palmistry, that he needs “love potion number 9”. The potion, an aphrodisiac, causes him to fall in love with everything he sees, kissing whatever is in front of him, eventually kissing a policeman on the street-corner, who breaks his bottle of love potion.

In one recorded version of the ending of the song, The Clovers used the alternative lyrics:

I had so much fun that I’m going back again,
I wonder what’ll happen with Love Potion Number Ten?

The “kissing a cop” lyric led to the song being banned by some radio stations. The lyrics also have the narrator describe himself as being “a flop with chicks since 1956”; later recordings of the song have often changed the year to suit the year of recording or the age of the performer. A notable exception is the Australian alternative rock band Tlot Tlot, in their recording, leave the year in the song as 1956. It also uses the alternative Love Potion No. 10 lyrics.

132 The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
The first lines of the lyrics refer to one of George Stoneman’s raids behind Confederate lines attacking the railroads of Danville, Virginia at the end of the Civil War in 1865.
In the song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band. The word ‘the’ that signifies a reference to the steamboat rather than the general is unclear on the album version of the song, but is audible in the live performance on Before The Flood and more so on The Last Waltz. The Robert E Lee sailed the Mississippi and in the summer of 1870, the Robert E. Lee won a famed steamboat race against the Natchez, going from New Orleans to St. Louis, Missouri, a distance of 1,154 miles (1,857 km), in 3 days, 18 hours and 14 minutes. This course traverses the border of Tennessee.

138 Jolene
Jolene” tells the tale of a woman confronting Jolene, a stunningly beautiful woman, who she believes is trying to steal away her lover and begging her “please don’t take my man.” Throughout the song, the woman implores Jolene “please don’t take him just because you can”. According to Parton, the song was inspired by a red-headed bank clerk who flirted with her husband Carl Dean at his local bank branch around the time they were newly married. In an interview, she also revealed that Jolene’s name and appearance are based on that of a young fan who came on stage for her autograph.

157 Bad, Bad Leroy Brown
The song’s title character is a man from the South Side of Chicago who, due to his size and attitude, has a reputation as the “baddest man in the whole damn town.” One day, in a bar, he makes a pass at a pretty, married woman named Doris, whose jealous husband proceeds to beat Leroy brutally in the ensuing fight. In the end, Leroy Brown learns a lesson from this painful experience (“Leroy Brown looked like a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces gone”). During the lyrics about the fight, some background voices are heard quietly speaking.

In the song, Jim Croce refers to a custom Continental and an El Dorado, both of which were former luxury American car models (Lincoln and Cadillac, respectively).

The story of a widely feared man being bested in a fight is similar to Croce’s earlier song “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim“.

167 Colours
The song was obviously inspired by the old folk song “Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair” hence the opening line “Yellow is the colour…”. In concert Donovan would often sing “Yellow is the colour of my true love’s teeth. But it doesn’t matter much to me!”
See a Youtube of Joan Baez singing – Black is the Colour and Christy Moore – Black Is the Colour