Changing the Words

Posted: May 9, 2012 in Music Therapy

One of the things I struggle with in using popular music is making it appropriate.  You may love a song, love listening to it and dancing to it, but you don’t always think about the words.  And some of those words are just completely inappropriate for the therapeutic setting.  I’m not just talking about profanity, but other subjects will come up that make me feel uncomfortable.

Back when I was doing my internship, I was working with an elementary school class of kids with behavioral disorders.  I brought in a silly song called “The Bear Song.”  It’s a call and response song about a guy who meets a bear, gets chased by a bear, and escapes up a tree.  The third verse is “He said to me / Why don’t you run? / I see you don’t / Have any gun.”  As soon as I sang that, one kid raised his hand and said, “We’re not supposed to say the word ‘gun’.”  Oops.  That made me a lot more sensitive to controversial topics in songs.

However, rather than eliminate songs from my repertoire, I’ve tended to make small modifications in the lyrics, especially if the lyric is not really important to the theme of the song.  Is that censorship?  I don’t think so – I’m not suppressing any freedom of speech, I’m just changing some things to make myself more comfortable.  Some examples:

  • Let’s start with The Bear Song.  I’ve changed that particular lyric to “He said to me / Why don’t you flee? / You seem to be / Much smaller than me.”  No reference to guns, and the idea is still the same.  The word flee isn’t the best – I have one guy who always seems to think I’m saying sleep, so I may tweak it again.
  • Brown Eyed Girl.  A sweet and romantic song with a line in the third verse about “Making love in the green grass / Behind the stadium.”  For this one, my work was done for me.  Back when the song was first out, there was a radio edit that replaced the making love line with “Laughing and a-running”, a line cut out from the first verse and spliced in.  That was the version used on Van Morrison’s greatest hits album, and that’s what I use.  It’s such a sweet song, it doesn’t really need a sex reference.
  • Tubthumping.  This is a song about drinking.  “Pissing the night away” has a different connotation in Britain than it does in America, but still, I’d like to use the song without feeling like I’m advocating getting drunk.  So I changed it to “Dancing the night away”, and changed the drink list to a list of dances.
  • Joy to the World.  This one has all three.  The singer shares fine wine with Jeremiah the bullfrog, expresses his love of “the ladies” and his desire to make love to someone, and calls himself a “straight shooting son-of-a-gun.”  My alterations – “I helped him drink his wine” became “And we always had a mighty fine time”; “make sweet love to you” became “give my love to you”; “You know I love the ladies” became “You know I love the weekends”; and “son-of-a-gun” became…actually, I haven’t come up with a good replacement for that one yet.
  • Puff the Magic Dragon.  Nothing potentially offensive in this one (I am NOT in the hidden drug references camp for the song).  I do cut out the depressing ending, however.

There are more, but those are the ones I can think of right now.  If I was going to be doing an in-depth lyric analysis of these songs, I probably wouldn’t change anything, but for day-to-day singing, I don’t feel as weird about singing the songs with my changes.  Thanks for reading!

-Jesse

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