From the Archives – the First of an Occasional Series

It’s that time of year again – people are talking about holiday music – their favorites, least favorites, songs of regret and longing, songs of holiday cheer.  I’m a bit pressed for time, and I have found that searching my own archives from the old site is mostly borked (why?  We may never know), so I have decided to occasionally dip into my past output and re-run it (possibly edited, possibly not).  Therefore, I give you the post which originally ran on February 17, 2004, “The Third Bird Carnival” –


I heard a piece on NPR yesterday in which a Filipino poet explained the premise of his new book. He had apparently misunderstood the lyrics of the Johnny Rivers song, “Secret Agent Man” for years. He thought it was “Secret Asian Man,” and it struck him as particularly apt, even after he learned his mistake.

There is something profoundly human in misunderstanding song lyrics – especially when it comes to rock. It is a universal story – just about everyone seems to have their own reconstruction of some popular song and usually the misunderstood lyrics are ridiculous to the point of absurdity.  Somehow our brains seek to come up with some string of words that fit the sounds you can pick out, and wedge them in there with utterly human hubris, no matter how ludicrous the output.  It’s the kind of universal experience that makes for good standup or sketch comedy (Cf. Wayne and Garth singing “There’s a Bathroom on the Right” to the tune of “Bad Moon on the Rise”).  There is even a book: Marie once gave me this anthology of misunderstood song lyrics, appropriately entitled, “‘Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy.”  (And oh – there is a sequel as well… even, appropriately enough, a holiday edition.)

In my own story of misunderstood lyrics, I don’t even have the excuse of thumping bass or yowling electric guitars to explain the misunderstanding: instead, I have to blame two factors: youth and context. I was about three years old and it was Christmas time. Those who know me know that I sing – in the car, around the house, to the animals – but those who have known me for a very long time know that I sang long before I could read. My mother couldn’t sing me lullabies – she has a beautiful voice, it wasn’t that I was a baby music critic – the problem was, as soon as she would begin singing, I would join in and delay going to sleep.

So, imagine: Advent, 1972. I was in church with Mom, and I was singing with all my heart along with the rest of the congregation. Suddenly, my mother started laughing. I was worried: had I hit a wrong note? What was so funny? She was finally able to explain to me in soft whispers that the lyrics to the song were, “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel…” My misconstruction made as much sense to me as “Secret Asian Man” did to the Filipino poet (still does, actually – if you think like a three-year-old). I had been singing, “Free toys, free toys, Emmanuel…” I believe I thought Emmanuel might be a different name for Santa Claus.

Later on yesterday, after I had breakfasted with a friend and told her about the Secret Asian Man, we went into a Barnes & Noble. Another friend had reminded me of the existence of an omnibus edition of the works of James Thurber, and I wanted my own copy. Since I didn’t find it right away, I sought out an employee – eager to help, but not familiar with the works of early/middle twentieth-century humorists. I explained what I wanted – I told him the title and added that it was a collection of works by the humorist, James Thurber. I spoke slowly and carefully. There was no musical accompaniment, rock or otherwise. He retreated to his inventory computer and typed swiftly. Perhaps he’s a Secret Asian Man, because his search was for “The Third Bird Carnival.”


  1. Great post. Great links. I puttered on iTunes for quite a while, thanks to you ;)

  2. there are so many that i do not really get the words too…too many to list

    but nothing as cute as your story :)


  1. […] some towns in New Jersey quick!” Little did I know when I wrote “The Third Bird Carnival” that John had never read any Thurber.  I promised him this morning that I would attempt to […]