Are Yankees allowed to sing with twang?

Posted: Thursday, February 25, 2010

A friend of mine in San Francisco made an observation about Alaskan Americana musicians the other day that kind of hit home. He said, "All the Alaskan Bluegrassers end up talking like they're from Kentucky or somewhere." Aside from the fact that a lot of Alaskan musicians have lived in or are from southern states, he's pretty much right on.

The ability or effort made to change one's dialect to reflect where they might wish they were from has always rubbed me wrong. White guys saying "fo' sho'!" in blues songs, and Australian women singing with a full-on Texas twang have always befuddled me. Are they really playing blues and country if they're not from regions where the music was created? Should they sing with whatever dialect they were born with, or is the adoption of linguistic characteristics an acceptable practice when singing within regional music styles?

I know that several readers of this column are now cursing my name as one of the worst offenders in dialect adoption/theft in the history of any language. I don't know what to tell y'all, I'm guilty as hell. I called my Mom from New Zealand once, and she asked me, "Why are you ending every sentence like a question?" I'm a big sucker for grabbing on to the dialectic idiosyncrasies of those around me, and how can you not accidentally throw a little twang into a bluegrass or country song? Damn! After recently spending a couple of months in Texas, you can only imagine how obnoxious I've become. Locals give me a silent, disappointed stare when I tell them I've lived in Juneau, Alaska for 17 years. Maybe even a slight shake of the head. One guy even said, "You mean Juneau, Texas?" (There is a Juneau, Texas too, by the way.)

On the inverse side of the proverbial coin, I know more than a few people from the South that have worked really hard to eradicate any trace of their native accent from their way of speaking. Virginians and West (By God!) Virginians, both kinds of Carolinians, Georgians, Tennesseeans and yes, even Texans have moved North and put the twang away for various reasons. (Ohioans, however, hold onto that twang like it's the last beer in the fridge.) I know a gal in San Francisco that's from North Carolina and talks like a surfer, but sings like the bona fide Carolinian that she is. Alaska's own Sarah Palin talks like she's from the deep backwoods of Minnesota, for cryin' out loud! The huge variety of mannerisms and dialects within the English language - even within the U.S.! - will never cease to amaze me, and are a big part of what makes America and American music fun and interesting, in my opinion.

Whether or not it's done consciously to "fit-in" and/or to present an identity to the people around you, or just as an involuntary function of the brain, tweaking one's regional manner of speaking is an ancient anomaly. As old as language itself, I would guess. I still silently disapprove when I hear people pouring on an accent that they weren't born with, even though I'm fully aware that I do it too. But I do have a little more understanding of how this is all working. It's hard for me not to twang out, but I hereby promise to try. What does an Arizona boy who's lived in Alaska for 24 years talk like anyway?

• Send dialectical advice and/or criticism to Sean Tracey via crabgrassalaska@gmail.com.



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