28 April 2012

The girl on the hat-shelf

A couple of weeks or so ago, when I enthused about song as meme, Ray Girvan rightly reminded me that it is “...a very mutatable one, unless continually reinforced by knowledge of some canonical version. The very tendency to fit misheard lyrics to known words (even if semantically ridiculous) is part of that process.”

It will not be news to anyone who is a fan (and perhaps of Woodstock vintage...), and of no interest to those who are not, that Joan Baez is on tour in Europe. Having just heard her sing for the first time in many years, my partner and I fell to discussing her songs, and discovered a disagreement between us over the meaning of a particular line from the third stanza of Diamonds and rust: “The girl on the hat-shelf". One thing led to another and thence, inevitably, to one of the many lyrics websites ... where we discovered that for more than thirty five years we've been mishearing the line. It's not "hat-shelf" but "half shell".

[Edit: as Ray has subsequently pointed out, in a comment to this post, the "half shell" probably refers to to Botticelli's The birth of Venus ... an interesting iconographic extension to the Marian image of "The Madonna" on the previous line. My assumption before this had been that "the girl on the hat-shelf" was Baez's position as a lover taken down and put back at Dylan's convenience.]

Unable to believe this we searched further and, eventually, alighted on Baez’ own web site which confirmed our mistake ... but not before (in our certainty that we were right) we'd done a web search for "the girl on the hat-shelf". That search netted us just one hit: a Harry Potter fan fiction site. It seems that Harry Potter fan fiction makes frequent use of lyrics from this song; but I'll stick with this one instance by Morag X Henegev because, apart from replicating our own mishearing, it introduces several others (I should point out that it would seem Henegev is not a native English speaker, which greatly increases the difficulty of transcription).

Here are the two versions of that stanza...

As Baez sang itAs Henegev heard it
Well you burst on the scene
Already a legend
The unwashed phenomenon
The original vagabond
You strayed into my arms
And there you stayed
Temporarily lost at sea
The Madonna was yours for free
Yes the girl on the half-shell
Would keep you unharmed
Well, you burst on scene
Already a legend
A young, washed phenomena
The original beg-a-bong
Heading straight into my arms
And there you stayed
Temporarily lost at sea
The Madonna was yours for free
Yes, the girl on the hat-shelf
Could keep you unharmed.


Ray Girvan said...

Just so. Baez's lyrics are clearly a reference to the birth of Venus ("on the half-shell").

But I've done similar. For many years I thought the words to The Seekers' Georgie Girl were "It's time for jumping down from the shell" - when it's "the shelf".

Felix said...

Good to hear somebody else remember Georgy Girl!

I loved it at the time, and bounce to the tune on hearing the name still.

Geoff said...

Dusty Springfield sang, as I heard it, "You don't have to love me just because I'm fat"
Desmond Decker kept singing that his ears were alight! and there is a Wham song "I'm Your Man" in which Heidi hears the words "you halfway" as, "I'll take your handbag 'round the world!

Dr. C said...

Makes you think of Freud and his "parapraxis." Since I clearly heard "girl on the half shell" there must be something in the British subconscious that altered the hearing. Mussel-phobia?

Ray Girvan said...

The lyric ...

Well you burst on the scene
Already a legend

... does relate to Venus. As in the painting, the deal with with the half-shell was that she was born as adult.