December 06, 2006

Speaking of Not Making Sense

This list of misquotations (found while looking for the "Now is the winter of our discontent" speech for a discussion of Hedda Gabler) gives (AOTW):

"It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing"

* Although this is the correct quote from the song of the same name, its meaning is often misinterpreted by those not familiar with it. It is first assumed to mean "the song is worthless without the swing," but it actually means "you don't need the swing to make the song."
* This meaning is better portrayed when the quote is accompanied by the next line, "It don't mean a thing, all you have to do is sing."

Eh? I can see how the title line can, out of context, be interpreted as "It don't mean a thing whether it has that swing" -- though then there shouldn't be a comma. And you could even say that the third line, "It makes no difference if it's sweet or hot" bolsters this interpretation; but that is clearly intended to modify the fourth line, "Just hit that rhythm, give it everything you got," which is an injunction to swing no matter what style of music you're playing. Admittedly this leaves the second line a bit unclear, but I think it can comfortably be interpreted as an injunction not to worry about the deep meaning of whatever song you're singing, but just to sing; in, of course, a swinging manner.

The intro to this Cab Calloway version (ignore 'hard' for 'hot', that's silly) seem to clinch the case, but those words weren't actually included in the original Duke Ellington recording; they may have been included in later renditions. If you're going by original intent, however, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing" was originally a saying of (Ellington's original plunger-muted trumpeter) Bubber Miley, and he certainly intended my reading.

("Doo wah doo wah doo wah doo wah"s omitted from lyrics for clarity. Note also that this post was infinitely more worth my brain-time than the last one.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at December 6, 2006 09:30 AM

Some of the discussions of "misquotations" in that list are far too niggling. If they're going to split hairs about EXACTLY what Freud or Karl Marx said, what words in what order, shouldn't they notice that Freud and Marx wrote in German?

Posted by: Matt's mom at December 7, 2006 12:11 PM

Boy, that reading of "it don't mean a thing ..." never once occurred to me before reading this post. But I am far more weirded out by "I woke up this morning and got myself a beard." [!?]

P.S. The saying oft attributed to Emma Goldman seems to be missing from that list.

Posted by: Anders Weinstein at December 8, 2006 12:22 PM

Unclosed parenthesis alert!

Posted by: ben wolfson at December 10, 2006 02:48 PM


Posted by: Matt Weiner at December 10, 2006 03:50 PM

I woke up this morning and got myself a beard.

Yeah, that's completely ridiculous. The most poetic two lines Morrison ever wrote and Manzarek has to deface them.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at December 10, 2006 03:52 PM