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At the Dying of the Music

it used to drive me batty, waiting for a point yet to come, but my God how I mourn its loss

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, May 17, 1995.

Thirty years ago, I went to college in the middle of Florida. Hot. Bad school then. Fell in love. The usual. I had a band, played folk and bluegrass. And, having come from New England, I encountered, for the first time, along with the Klan, bigotry, lynchings, and the residue of Southern prejudice, the grace, poise, and beauty of the South. I have unbelievably lovely memories of the Deep South, and all it takes to bring it back is a southern accent.

I now work at a business where I call all over the United States, and I actually smile when I see a Southern area code pop up. I had a young woman on the phone today whose grace and warmth actually had me prolonging the call. She had the southern drawl, with the pleasing habit of increasing the pitch at the end of the sentence, “You know, how the sun swells and settles?” In my voice, or ninety-nine percent of the English speaking world, it sounds like a whine, a grating screech. But in the larynx of ancient Georgia, it’s a seduction to warm nights and stolen kisses. I would have proposed, but I’m old. And in jail, of course.

And it makes me sad. Our accents are vanishing. Bangor Maine sounds more like Encino every day than “Bert and I”. Nashville sounded more like Texas for two decades and still moving west along their musical lights, past Amarillo and closer to Phoenix, to the Record Plant. Even Brooklyn is mellowing out, know what I mean?

I used to have a theory about - bear with me here - food and place. I used to be a picky eater. But I was shipped off to places where you ate when others decided and what was served. It was hard for a spoiled kid. When I worked in Europe, you couldn’t have burgers and coke and cold milk whenever you wanted it. So, confronted on a hot day with a chunk of equally hot cheese and butter less bread and warm wine or goats’ milk for lunch, basic things needed to change between you and your stomach. But, accompanied by dulcet French and a 16 year old waitress whose throaty laugh and smile put me in a fever, it slipped down easy and won me to European daily cuisine. In short, time and place directly affect understanding, taste, and acceptance. A great deal of place is sound, and much of sound is provided by other people. So, if future generations are going to enjoy grits and okra, can we afford to lose the accents that accompany them? To meet southern cooking at the pace and hands of someone who could be from Iowa won’t do at all. The long, relaxed explanations to vocal music are required.

But from 602 to 305, the area codes of “Why, yes sir” and “Pardon me, would you repeat that?”, the lilt is dying, the homogenization by television is very near complete. Like the rebel yell, the accent is going, and in a generation or so, only tape recordings will suggest the South spoke a different language. In a way, they did.