The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

23 August 2005

And then along comes Harry

Fûz wonders if there's a technical term for "gender-changing the lyrics of a love song so the other sex can sing it without suggesting same-sex love."

If there is, I'm not aware of it. On the other hand, not all love songs lend themselves to such treatment. "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," for instance, despite a lyric written by a man (Gerry Goffin), is for cultural reasons almost exclusively a feminine point of view:

[A] woman who is not sexually active is pitied, while a man who is not sexually active is mocked and ridiculed. (Which may be one reason why very few men — Frankie Valli is one who did — ever recorded this song.) "Tell me now, and I won't ask again" turns out to be a variation on a theme by Scarlett O'Hara: "I'll think about that tomorrow."

I suppose a guy could pull this off if he were your basic 40-year-old virgin, but there aren't a lot of those around.

On the other hand, some folks don't seem to care about potential homoerotic subtext. Bryan Ferry (on These Foolish Things) cut a perfectly straight, so to speak, reading of "It's My Party" without any gender changes, though with Ferry it's impossible to tell if he was serious or just going for a dollop of postmodern sexual confusion. And towering above all these examples is "House of the Rising Sun," historically a place that had been the ruin of many a poor girl, which didn't stop Dave Van Ronk (and later, Dylan, and later yet, Eric Burdon) from putting his male self into the protagonist's role. (Van Ronk, according to his memoirs, eventually found out that the house originally described in the song was not a brothel at all, but the women's lockup in Orleans Parish, which detracts not a whit from the impact of the song as sung.)

Maybe there is a descriptive term that applies here. All I know is this: if I'm singing along with a favorite record, I'm not going to edit it on the fly just because my hardware doesn't happen to match that of the singer.

Posted at 10:14 AM to Tongue and Groove


The gender-bending of song lyrics isn't limited to love songs, of course. [remembers Joan Baez singing, "Virgil Cain is my name..."]

Posted by: McGehee at 11:02 AM on 23 August 2005

It's a folkie tradition to ignore such considerations, which may or may not have motivated Van Ronk. (On the other hand, Judy Collins is definitely singing "Maid of Constant Sorrow.")

In the pop era, often the result was an "answer" record set to the same tune.

Posted by: CGHill at 11:14 AM on 23 August 2005

Dylan and Burdon didn't treat the "House of the Rising Sun" lyrics the same way, though: while Burdon sang "many a poor boy," Dylan, on his first (Columbia) album, sang "many a poor girl." With his not-so-feminine voice. Gender bending indeed.

Posted by: Craig at 11:21 AM on 23 August 2005

Which goes back to that folkie tradition of ignoring the gender differences. Van Ronk, at least once I can recall, also sang it as "poor girl." But the fact is, most people who stumble across this are going to be most familiar with the 1964 Animals recording with Eric Burdon.

Posted by: CGHill at 12:01 PM on 23 August 2005

I did not kow that about "House of the Rising Sun". The last line of the third verse now makes way more sense - "I'm going back to New Orleans to wear that ball and chain."

Posted by: Lesley at 7:11 PM on 23 August 2005

Being a young 'un, I wasn't sure, growing up, what Burdon was carrying on about. I thought that the House was a casino, and he was broke but going back anyway.

Posted by: Nightfly at 11:33 AM on 24 August 2005

One side note: When MGM issued "House of the Rising Sun" as a single in the States (K 13264, 1964), they cut it down from four and a half minutes to just under three. The subsequent LPs (and later CDs) all used the full 4:30 track; the US 45 version has almost entirely disappeared. And since it was a truly sloppy editing job, this is one of the few times I'm glad to see a "long" version enshrined as the default.

Posted by: CGHill at 1:26 PM on 24 August 2005