Listening to the Music in the Words
When I was younger, I used to enjoy the colloquial expressions found in the writings of Robert Service, William Saroyan and Mark Twain. Later it was the phrases of the Beats – Kerouac, Gary Snyder – and the lexicon of language of the jazz players “got me man!” But it was colloquialisms of the country blues players that really set my head spinning. Even simple phrases like “Better come in my kitchen cuz it’s bound to be rainin’ outdoors,” or “Walk 32 miles of barbwire, use a cobra snake for a neck tie,” seemed magical and mystical to me and from another time and place, which of course they were. What was a “nation sack” or “mojo?” The mysterious use of mysterious local phrases had the effect of distilling the language and lifting it up to an enchanting level. “Distilling” is the perfect word because, like the process, the language was enriched by these phrases like moonshine. The use of a tight phrase like “got a thirty-two twenty, cut your half in two” was a chapter in violence and misogyny for me.
As I listened to the singer-songwriters pouring out of New York in the early 60s I realized that they had been listening to these sources as well. As it turned out, they were mostly listening to the Harry Smith collection of American folk songs subsequently collected by the Smithsonian Institute. For example “Goin Up the Country” by Canned Heat is almost identical to the original (including flute solo). It was all enchanting to me. Our friend, Bob, became a master of the colloquial summoning up Woody Guthrie – imitation being the best form of flattery. That Bob had the nerve to sing at Woody’s bedside in “His” voice remains remarkable to me.
In the mid-70s it was the patois of Jamaican reggae that hit me, once again the colloquial phrases that you could understand or not understand – the play of language. “I’m a steppin’ razor, don’ you watch my size, I’m dangerous!” intoned Peter Tosh – and I ”ran to the rock for resuce!”
I could not understand most of what Burning Spear was talking about, but it was so powerful, perhaps for the very reason that I couldn’t understand it. The power the language had over me was not dissimilar to the power and mystery of country blues players of the early twentieth century. Every tribe, whether it be surf culture or Rastafari, has its own exclusive language that defines its tribalness and exclusivity, but as well, the words are linguistic shortcuts for the initiated to the heart of the particular culture or subculture. As songwriters, it is essential that we are aware of as many of these cultural distilleries as possible but also when it is culturally appropriate to use or not use them.
Last week, I was playing in Minden, ON in the heart of Halliburton. Haliburton can be found on the less ostentatious side of Muskoka, but it is similarly populated by cottagers in the summer months. However, it empties out in the fall, leaving a district of high unemployment, low income and an aging population with a lot of time on its hands. It also reveals in these off months a subculture quite specific to Haliburton, a subculture that is obscured during the vacation season but one that can be seen once cottages have been closed for the winter. I spent an hour listening to the conversations and accents of the regular folk of Haliburton at a local family restaurant, complete with bad coffee and too many pancakes. It was fascinating listening to the cadence of speech, the phrases, and the topics of conversation. The accent was similar to the Upper Ottawa Valley in its twang, but without the Irish in it. It also had a bit of Farm Point in it but not so tight-lipped. Though not so deeply tribal and phrased as in some cultures, the folks of Haliburton have got their own way of talking, and it was fascinating listening in. If I was to write a song about Haliburton, I would want to bring in a few of the local phrases, or perhaps some of the “swing” of the local language. I would not seek to be pandering or sycophantic but just familiar enough to bring a smile to the listener’s ear, walking the fine line that threads specific and vague.
“Me and Uncle Tommy was out in the boat
My grandfather too, he come along
South of Cape Chidley we was huntin’ seals
The summer after all of this was done. “
In this song, I was trying to approximate the phrases of the Labradorian Inuk who was telling me this story. I do not think I was culturally appropriating. I was seeking some authenticity in the phrases. There are a number of grammatical errors in this verse that would have had my English teacher in a knot, but they are colloquial phrases of the area that conversationally ring true. It is humourous that even as I write the phrases, the program in this computer tells me to correct them. Though this verse is not the same as the distillation of phrase found in a Robert Johnson, it does, however, hopefully hold true to the speakers of a specific place and time, and, in doing so, confirms and holds on to the illusion expressed in the song. I used a similar technique in the song “The Ballad of Mark Jarareuse.”
“Yeah – I think she done ‘em good
The whales were here last spring
No. They’re gone, and they won’t be comin’ back
No, we weren’t out on the land; my uncle took the boat
And my dad, he’s gone to Halifax.”
I think it is a delicate balance how you use turns of phrases and colloquial sayings, but when used well, they can lift up a song to a new level and have it read with greater intention.
“Juliet says, ‘Hey it’s Romeo, You nearly gimme a heart attack
He’s underneath the window singing, ‘Hey la my boyfriend’s back’
You shouldn’t come around here singing up at people like that
Anyway what you gonna do about it?” – Mark Knopfler – “Romeo and Juliet”