Folk Music and English Accents

I’ve lived in Cornwall for eight years, and I’ve gotten used to the gap between, on the one hand, Wild Thing’s and my accents and on the other the accents of pretty much everyone else we know. Most of the time, I don’t hear the difference. Even when I listen to the other Americans in the village, I don’t notice their accents. I’m listening to words, not what they’re wrapped in.

Except for the times when I do, of course, when it’s like being hit on the head with a rock. A small, soft rock, but still a rock.

I was at Singers Night at a nearby pub last week when out of nowhere I heard my accent. Whack: small, soft rock to the side of the head.

Irrelevant Photo #2: Bude Canal in the late evening light. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Irrelevant Photo #2: Bude Canal in the late evening light. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Singers night is a wonderful, unpredictable gathering of mostly amateur singers, although one professional shows up regularly, for the sheer love of singing. In the summer, the place gets crowded, with some of the visitors singing and others listening and occasionally taking pictures, which is strange since they’ll go home with pictures of a bunch of people in chairs, with their mouths open. But who am I to judge? This particular night gathered in a strong group singers, and any song with a chorus sounded great—rich voices, good energy, harmonies. I admire the hell out of people who can harmonize spontaneously.

G. had started a song whose chorus repeats the line “Didn’t I dance?” and we must’ve sung the words three times before I heard myself: dahnce. My accent had melted into the accents around me instead of sending that good ol’ American A up my nose to spin itself so flat you could use if for a plate.

Dahnce? I thought. Dahnce? Who the hell am I turning into?

Some people pick up accents when they move, but I’m not one of them. To lose my accent, or even modify it, has always seemed like a much larger loss, as if I’d be losing some part of who I am, or hiding it behind a cardboard cut-out of a personality. I lived in Minnesota for decades without picking up more than a bit of shading on the O. Or so M.’s friend, who’s a dialogue coach, tells me. I’d have sworn I still sounded like the purest of New Yorkers, but she has an ear for accents, so I’ll have to take her word for it.

I’m not claiming my attitude’s better than anyone else’s, and to demonstrate how little sense it makes, I’ll tell you that I’m not bad at picking up accents in other languages. In my head, that’s a matter of respect—for the language; for the people who speak it. In English, though, I count the same act as disrespect.

To make even marginal sense of this, I have to mention the toxic history that imitating other people’s accents has in the U.S. When I was a kid, whites imitating African-American or Mexican accents did it badly and to make fun of them. It was skin-crawlingly awful. These days, I know white kids (okay, they used to be kids; you turn your back for ten minutes and they grow up) who adopt African-American accents because they like them and want to blend in. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I don’t suppose it matters, because it’s not my feelings that count.

My point here is that there’s a do-not-cross line in my head that keeps me from picking up accents in English, but there I was, singing dahnce.

Every language, and every accent within a language, is a song. I’d love to claim credit for that insight, but I heard someone say it in a radio interview. Unfortunately, I haven’t a clue who it was. A woman, I think, so that narrows it down a bit. Whoever you are, I apologize for not crediting you. But to illustrate your point, whoever you are, when I was still living in the U.S., I heard a recording of kids playing in a schoolyard, and without being able to catch a single word I could tell they were English. The song of their accent rose free of the words. And that’s what swept me along in that chorus: the song.

British singers often sing in American accents. It drives the purists nuts, and they blame it on American rock music. If you listen to enough of it, the accent pours itself on top of the notes and you may not even notice that you’ve picked it up.

Unfortunately, picking up an accent doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get it right. You’re likely to revert to your own accent at any time. Sometimes a word is so firmly stuck in your head that you don’t notice you’re reverting: Michigan comes out Mitchigan; Houston comes out Hooston. The line that tickles me is from a hard-luck, down-and-out folk song with the line “I can’t go back home this a-way.” Only it was an English singer, and it came out as cahn’t. “I cahn’t go back home this a-way.” Hard-luck, down-and-out meets silver-spoon. Cahn’t isn’t limited to a silver-spoon accent here, but put it in an American song and it sure sounds like one. And that’s one of the problems with singing in accents that aren’t your own.

Me? I avoid songs that demand an accent transplant. Most of what I sing is American folk music, and the U.S. is a long way from here, so if I end up singing songs I can’t lay claim to by right of either geography or heritage (and I do; they’re fantastic songs), from this distance they don’t sound as absurd as they would if I were back home.

To the extent that I sing English songs, I keep my accent in place and avoid anything I know is going to sound ridiculous. And if anyone who’s heard me wants to warn me off some particular song because I do sound ridiculous, just throw a nice, soft rock at my head. It would be a kindness.

4 thoughts on “Folk Music and English Accents

    • I’ve read that the Appalachian accent is close to the accent of Shakespeare’s time, so apparently they preserved the accent while around them everyone else, on both sides of the Atlantic, changed it. Which only adds to the mystery.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Interesting. For me it depends to some extent on how I first heard a song sung. If a word sounds completely alien to me I’m likely to change it–“hussyfskep” to “housewife’s work,” e.g. If it sounds exotic but understandable, I’m likely to sing it the way the person from whom I learned the song did. I most often say “can’t” with the same flat A I use in “flat,” but in some songs I learned that the word is “caint” and in some it’s “cahnt.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your comment about changing words that sound completely alien reminds me of a story my father told me. When he was a kid, they had to memorize a poem–apparently one they’d heard, not read–and he recited it as, with great feeling, as “I titter tatter tenson down.” It was supposed to be, “Aye, tear her tattered ensign down.” I like my father’s version better.

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