Southern conversation and country music mimic Dixie’s vernacular

  • Thursday, March 13, 2014

Southerners have an overwhelming proclivity toward verbosity. Simply said, most of us talk way too much! We speak in multiple tangents and parenthetical phrases. Our conversation takes on a tree-like structure with many branches.

I was reminded of this recently when I went by my pastor’s office to share what I intended to be a single thought with him. Almost an hour later, I realized that I had informed him well beyond his interest. I had said, “Blah, blah, blah” when a single “Blah” would have sufficed. I apologized because I knew he needed to have been about more important discourse.

If you don’t think Southerners are inclined to speak beyond the fundamental point of reasonable discussion, just ask one of us a simple question. In all probability, you will not get a simple answer. Instead, we will blend the conversation with a little verbal salt, a dash of pepper and perhaps a dab of barbecue sauce to enhance the occasion. And conversation is truly an occasion for those of us who live and thrive in Dixie.

For instance, ask one of us for directions to anywhere. What you will probably get is a detailed description of your prospective journey. You may ask, “How do I get to highway 52?” Our answer will more than likely involve a little geography, sadness, family, pathos, hard luck, history and perhaps a bit of philosophy.

We will probably reply something like this,” Well, you go about a mile down this road and then turn left just past the forked pine tree – not forked at the base but at the top – never did understand why that tree grew that way. You will come to the curve where ole Jasper Jones was driving drunk and killed himself ‘bout three years ago. On the left, you’ll see a house painted a gawd-awful pink. That’s where Wade lives. I never for the life of me understood why he chose that color. Wade, by the way is my second cousin -- twice removed. Did you ever know his daddy? He was a good-hearted fellow but he came back from World War II all messed up. Got a Purple Heart in France. Of course, it would have gone better for him had his wife not acted up like she did. They both were Baptists but that didn’t seem to help none. Old Wade turned out OK though. I forget. Now where was it you wanted to go?”

Yes, indeed, we have an inbred tendency to drone on and on in our conversations. I have to remind myself of that more and more as I move further into my retirement years. I tend to forget that working folks don’t have the time to wander through superfluous conversation like we retired souls do. Even with my writing, I have trouble from time to time with editors who insist, “John, you have got to write shorter.” I am less likely to bore readers than listeners. Readers can just turn the page but Southern listeners are less inclined toward impoliteness. They just sit there and endure. (Sorry about that, preacher) Like St. Paul, I try to tell myself to stay away from my carnal predispositions but the flesh wins out every time. I just keep on talking in spite of my good intentions.

Our Southern propensity toward wordiness is something that probably developed in our cyclic agrarian heritage. In between sowing and harvesting crops, we often had little else to do but talk. And talk we did. Southerners became consummate story-tellers. That’s why the fields of American literature are littered disproportionately with great Southern writers.

This inclination toward verbal durability folds over into the domain of country music as well. All of the first and great country music writers and musicians can point proudly to Southern roots. That held true until this business of “crossover” country music took hold a few years back when folks from other climes joined in the chorus.

If you took a map of the United States and pasted a red sticker on the hometown of every country singer, song writer and musician, the entire Southeast – especially the Carolinas, North Georgia, Blue Ridge Virginia and east Tennessee -- would be blood red.

Country music lyrics reflect much of the same things I have discussed about Southern conversation. All good old-time country songs are about tragedy, family, lost love, trucks, Mama, death and the inevitable somebody-done-somebody-wrong component. If most of these subjects are not touched upon, the song has little chance of making the charts.

During my movie-making days, years ago, I knew a fellow by the name of David Allen Coe. Now in his seventies, he never quite made it to the Johnny Cash country-music-legend status but he was quite successful as an “outlaw” country composer and singer. He still shows up on television and the Internet from time to time

A friend of his wrote a song, which David recorded, entitled “You don’t have to call me darlin’, darlin.” His composer friend claimed it was the ultimate country song. David disagreed and said it couldn’t be the perfect country song because it didn’t lament about pickup trucks, drinking, bad weather, prison, trains and Mama. The composer wrote another verse just for David that goes like this:

“I was drunk the day my Mama got out of prison.

I went to pick her up in the rain.

But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck,

She got runned over by a dang old train!”

Now that’s the perfect country song. It also adequately addresses Southern conversation.

John Brock is retired and lives in Georgetown County. He can be reached by mail at this newspaper, or by Email at: brock@johnbrock.com

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