My girl is at a school that is very big on music. Seriously, at least twice a year they have Official Events at which they play ALL THE THINGS, then a couple of times more they have small events at which they play even more things. At last count she was in five different musical groups and attending the rehearsals of a sixth, which her best friend is in.
It is the latter group that is currently rehearsing a rather funky arrangement of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. For those of you not around in the 70s, it goes like this:
In the chorus of this song, Elton sings that he is giving up the so-called high life (characterised as ‘The Yellow Brick Road) and is going back to his plough. Then he says that he is going back to something in the woods and will be hunting something something toad.
Since 1973, I have been singing along to this song and have never got closer to knowing what these words were than that. True, I inserted a completely spurious cabin into the woods, because it seemed a likely thing to be going back to, but I guess I always knew it wasn’t right. It doesn’t scan. To fit with the music, it would have to be a cabin-o (which is, indeed, frequently what I sang) and even Elton, in his most outre glasses days, would not have inflicted a cabin-o on an unsuspecting public. I also doubted that even the most disenchanted would leave the high-life for the dubious pleasures of hunting toads. But I chose not to go into that too closely. I was young, in the 70s, and there was a limit to what I wanted to know about alternative lifestyles.
My daughter, who clearly listened more closely than I did (or who, perhaps, scorned a cabin-o) sang that he was going back to the Haligo Daligo woods. She, too, felt this was unlikely to be correct, but there are many woods in the backblocks of the USA and who is to say that his plough was not domiciled in the Haligo Daligo woods? It did, at least, scan.
It turns out that the actual lyric is ‘back to the HOWLING OLD OWL, in the woods, hunting THE HORNY-BACKED toad.’
I take it back about what Elton was willing to inflict on an unsuspecting public. If ever a line was written to fit a gap in a song (and to rhyme with road) this is it. Do owls even howl? I mean, I know they can make many noises, but I’m not sure howling is among them (cue a deluge of info from owl-fanciers about their cries). Although, to be fair, it is all real words (no cabin-o) and it does, indisputably, scan.
But it made me wonder just how many things are misunderstood, not just in songs, but in stories, and what effect it might have on the reader.
I, for example, dearly love a ‘saying’. I enjoy colloquialisms and I use them fairly freely in my writing. I sometimes run afoul of editors as a result. In the novel that I had published last year, I took one out, because my editor didn’t understand it, only to see exactly the same expression used in a novel I read just a few weeks later.
I am all for writing clearly, but I think colloquial language injects colour and potential amusement – within reason of course, one doesn’t want to drown in dialect – and should be left in. But I suppose it does raise the potential for ‘Haligo Daligo Woods’-style misunderstandings. I generally think unfamiliar words and word usage can be worked out from context, but I wonder, though, even if it does lead to misunderstandings, whether it matters?
So I guess my question is, do you think you should leave out the quirky speech in favour of clarity, or leave it in and let the misunderstandings fall where they may? Or should you, as one historical writer I know does, include a glossary at the back?
Horned Owl photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net