Entry 33: I’m Supposed To Be- The Bonny Earl o’ Moray is a 17th Century Scottish ballad. Its fourth line has given rise to a phenomenon of the 20th and 21st Centuries called the Mondegreen. Coined in 1954 by American writer Sylvia Wright in a Harper’s Bazaar article she explains its origin: When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques, and one of my favourite poems began, as I remember:/Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,/Oh, where hae ye been?/They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,/And Lady Mondegreen. The actual fourth line is “And laid him on the green”. Wright explained the need for a new term: “The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original. “Her essay had already described the bonny Earl holding the beautiful Lady Mondegreen’s hand, both bleeding profusely but faithful unto death. She disputed: “I know, but I won’t give in to it. Leaving him to die all alone without even anyone to hold his hand–I WON’T HAVE IT!!!”
We substitute what we think are the actual words, through a mishearing of the original word or phrase. In March, 1966, I bought Substitute, a single by the group, The Who and would sing it lustily on the bus on the morning run to school. The line, My sharkskin suit is really made out of sack, which I’m sure I heard on the original, elicited the question from my school mates, What’s a sharkskin suit? To which I responded with the universal don’t know, don’t care shrug and grunt of the teenage boy. It isn’t even a close homophone of the lyrics, which I later found to be, My fine linen suit is really made out of sack.
For whatever reason, I substituted sharkskin for fine linen. And I still think it a better reading of the line. Townsend’s lyrics went beyond the usual cliches of popdom, I’m a substitute for another guy/I look pretty tall but my heels are high/The simple things you see are all complicated/I look pretty young, but I’m just backdated, yeah. Later that year, Townsend continued his exploration of illusion and reality and how roles define us in the song I’m a Boy.
The mother won’t accept that her son is a boy and instructs his sisters, Put your frock on, Jean Marie/Plait your hair, Felicity/Paint your nails, little Sally Joy/Put this wig on, little boy. Not suffering from gender dysphoria, little boy laments, I wanna play cricket on the green/Ride my bike across the street/Cut myself and see my blood/I wanna come home all covered in mud. Sadly, his mother remains adamantine to the pleas of the chorus, I’m a boy, I’m a boy/But my ma won’t admit it/I’m a boy, I’m a boy/But if I say I am, I get it.
Discontent is woven into the human condition, is it not? Edwin Arlington Robinson, whose parents had wanted a girl and held off naming him for six months, wrote about a man uncomfortable in his milieu in one of his best known poems, published in 1910, Miniver Cheevy,
Miniver cursed the commonplace/And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;/He missed the mediæval grace/Of iron clothing./Miniver Cheevy, born too late,/Scratched his head and kept on thinking;/Miniver coughed, and called it fate,/And kept on drinking.
But wealth alone cannot shield one from existential discontentment as Robinson demonstrates in Richard Cory, if anything even more well-known than Miniver Cheevy. Richard Cory is wealthy and well-mannered, debonair, educated and the object of admiration and envy among the townspeople who struggle to make ends meet.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,/And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;/And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,/Went home and put a bullet through his head.
The seemingly crushing difficulties of the lives of the people are trumped by the meaningless daily round of Richard Cory.
Which leads me to the song I’m Supposed To Be. Four years in the heat of North Queensland and I was slowly going troppo. Outward trappings of success, a commission to write a musical play put on in the local commercial theatre, confident and assured as the head of English at a pleasant school, and I was sinking. Friends and acquaintances, family, excursions to the Whitsunday Islands, fishing trips and holidays on Magnetic Island- none of these rescued me from the world of Substitute where the north side of my town faced east and the east was facing south.
Unlike the young protagonist of the song, I was approaching my mid-forties, within the zone for an occurrence of the mid-life crisis, although empirical research has found no evidence for it and questions its validity as a human condition. Wouldn’t that be a bummer for so many writers in so many genres who mine this particular seam for considerable profit- if they were to allow something so inconvenient as the truth to intrude: