I don’t think I have a Southern accent… yet moving here, thirteen miles north of the Mason-Dixon line, everyone notices. Chris tells me I turn it on like syrup when I need to make a point. And I know when I get nervous, “g’s” drop off the ends of words like dogwood blossoms in a hurricane.
However, if we take the word of the History Channel’s latest special, “You Don’t Know Dixie” – I like fast cars, country music and likker. Oh, plus Jesus and a shotgun share equal billing on my mantel. Seriously, two hours prime time entertainment spent describing no Southerner I know except maybe Foghorn Leghorn. Hmmm… looking out into the rainy PA afternoon sans moonshine and actually wearing shoes, I’m wondering if there are any real differences left in this era of instant access?
Of course the low-hanging
fruits paw-paws are the amazing foods that each region brings to a groaning table. I’ve yet to experience “hogmaw,” a Pennsylvania Dutch specialty that is a local variation on haggis, but the ubiquitous side dish of apple fritters is well worth anyone’s begging for a recipe! On the other hand, I can’t find good grits anywhere – so once I get settled in my house, y’all have to come over and I’ll make some. Throw in a little cheese, toss a few shrimp with some bacon, spring onions and hot sauce – and have a fantastic low country shrimp & grits night!
Back to the accent, I was talking to a lovely couple from Ontario yesterday, and they were very curious as to why I said “y’all” talking to just the two of them. I explained that y’all is number irrelevant as a term, however if we are trying to be group inclusive or teasing the non-Southerners, we’ll throw out an “all y’all” for irony. From Chris’ perspective, “Wednesday week,” and “carry her to the store” were strange and unusual ways to say “a week from Wednesday,” or “bring her to the store.” Having heard them all my life, they never struck a discordant note for me. And who knew? According to the History Channel talking heads, my drawl is the closest representation in the modern era of the way early American colonists spoke.
So we talk differently, eat differently – but are there substantive cultural divides that I will have to overcome as I settle into my new life?
Coming in, I assume the biggest difference will be that the two cities I know most intimately down South are each around a quarter-million in population, while my new home is a town of 8,000. Presumably, size will play a larger dynamic than any inherent North versus South cultural bias. Imagine my horror at finding the nearest Starbucks is thirteen miles away, how will I get my delicious and overpriced Chai? Luckily, I’m adventurous enough to try the local coffee shops, and there are a couple of local coffeehouses with amazingly skilled baristas (I’m looking at you Ragged Edge)!
There are probably one or two assumptions that I should clear up as I settle into my “old Pennsylvania” home. First, the American Civil War had everything to do with slavery, its seeds were planted in the compromises of the Constitution. And I do like William Tecumseh Sherman and US Grant, though neither is my beloved Dorsey Pender. And I’m not a NASCAR fan, sorry. I grew up ten miles from what is now the Petty Museum, and it was a field trip destination – so I know all about the appeal. I know there are just as many north of the M-D line that appreciate its vroom vroom, it’s just not a favorite. Whenever I watch it, I hear my Daddy talking about the old-timers running bootleg (he knew some of them) and I lose interest. We can talk all the basketball you want, Tobacco Road-ACC-even a little Big Ten if you push…
In Gettysburg or “the Movie” as its referred to by Civil Wars buffs, Longstreet remarks to the English observer that “we Southerners like our men religious and a little bit mad. I suspect that’s why women fall in love with preachers.” So, going back to the History Channel presumption that we are more religious in general – I have to wonder if that can be true. Just last week I saw a gentleman wearing a shirt that proclaimed “proud white Pennsylvanian clinging to his guns and religion.” Yikes. Therefore, much as my mama taught me, religion and politics are off the table north and south of the Mason-Dixon line.
One back-home tradition I’m eager to import is that of a “drop in” world, where if you were home folks just showed up. You offered them some tea/lemonade/bourbon and something more-or-less freshly baked from the oven. You visited, ate, and after a half an hour or so, they went on about the rest of their day. It always reminded me of the Victorian custom of calling cards and “at homes,” I so loved in novels. Do they have a similar tradition up here?
Summing up, perhaps the best way to describe how I define my Southern identity comes from the pictures I see when I close my eyes. I dream of ridges of red clay dotted with lopsided pine trees, music coming from unexpected venues, and someone sliding across the words of Faulkner, O’Connor or Humphreys sounding like bourbon-slicked velvet.
Wish me luck, and as we say in North Carolina, “y’all come….”
• Dixie Storms (Lone Justice: Maria McKee’s band from the 80s, this quiet little song screams South to me)
• Rock a Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody (Rufus Wainwright: love his gravelly version)
• Pennsylvania 6-5000 (Brian Setzer Orchestra: this is a fun cover, the song was how I learned to spell PA, and to dance the jitterbug)
• The Long Way Home (Norah Jones: eventually you end up where you need to be)
• Carolina In My Mind (James Taylor: he’s a Northern Southern boy, and his easy melodies paint lyrical pictures of my red mud backroads)
• Walk Alone (the Roots: while hip/hop has urban roots, an awful lot of it can trace to the Southern gospel tradition)
• Drive South (John Hiatt: he pushes the guitar like a gas pedal as he revs this song forward)
• Up South (Regina Carter: call it a violin, call it a fiddle, she can play – google her version of Chattanooga Choo-Choo)
• Near North (Duke Ellington: jazz legend, evocative melody – can’t miss)
• Tobacco Road (Southern Culture on the Skids: quintessential Southern bar band with fantastic homegrown songs)
• Won’t Give In (the Finn Brothers: dreaming a dream forever – and making it come true)
• Southern Kind of Life (Kasey Chambers: beautiful, descriptive country anthem by a laid-back Australian roots singer)
• Dixie (the Union Confederacy: did you sing this in Elementary School? I wish it wasn’t relegated to the haters now)
• Southern Belles in London Sing (the Faint: and now for something completely different…)
• Life in a Northern Town (Sugarland: trying to find a place – sweet ballad even though I generally prefer their rock-out numbers)
• Going North (Missy Higgins: Indy rocker, with a catchy empowerment song, “where the answers fall like leaves….”)
• Girl from the North Country (Johnny Cash & Bob Dylan: self-indulgent duet between two legends)
• Daddy’s Gone to Knoxville (Mark Knopfler: bouncy, ragtime-ish number from someone who can handle just about any style)
• Dixie Chicken (Little Feat: one of the oddest songs ever written – this and fat man in the bathtub – they give a whole new meaning to pet names)
• Are you from Dixie? (Jerry Reed: it’s really just an excuse to list all the states, but Jerry and Glen Campbell’s Bonaparte’s Retreat remind me of summer cookouts)
• Homeward Bound (Paul Simon: remember that feeling of driving at night. All you see is the reflection from your headlights on the road, until finally you see that warm amber spilling from the porch waiting to envelope you in its light)
The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience –> Flannery O’Connor