Reading Together Blog

You Ought to Sound Like Where You Come From

Following up on my earlier post about old sayings and folklore in Ava’s Man, I want to comment on what Rick Bragg said about Southern language.

In response to his brother Sam’s comment about fish not biting “on a bluebird day,” Bragg wrote:

“Yet I could not help but wonder where that phrase, that lovely phrase, came from. Who still talks like that, I wondered, in a modern-day South that has become so homogenized, so bland, that middle school children in Atlanta make fun of people who sound Southern?"

A Southerner could be mistaken for any other American — until he opens his mouth.

I happened on a USA Today story from 2005 about a class in voice and diction at — of all places — the University of South Carolina that will wash that drawl right out of your mouth. Erica Tobolski will teach you to replace those twangs, drawls, lilts and clips with Standard American Dialect — the bland speech you hear on TV.

Erica Tobolski (AP file photo)

Here’s how Tobolksi explained it: “We sort of avoid talking about class in this country, but clearly class is indicated by how we speak,” she said.

“Many come to see me because they want to sound less country,” she said. “They say, ‘I don’t want to lose my accent completely, but I want to be able to minimize it or modify it.’”

What she means is that folk often equate the Southern accent with a lack of intelligence. Then they give you a sidelong look and wonder if your family owned slaves. And from there a whole host of other assumptions may be made about you and your momma and your daddy and all the rest of your kin. For that reason, some Southern expatriats find it’s easier to fit in by trying to speak the way the locals do.

And sometimes your accent changes because you’re surrounded by people who talk funny. Case in point: I married a Yankee, so my accent has moderated somewhat to be a tad more Midwestern. (My husband still claims that conversing with my Louisiana family “is like being at the United Nations — you have to wait for the translation.”) Contrast that with my little sister and her husband, both Southerners. Their Southern speech is more pronounced than mine, even though they live up North, too.

And just what is Southern speech anyway? You know it when you hear it, but the fact is the South is the most diverse speech region in the United States. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture has this to say: “Although the South is the most distinctive speech region in the United States, it is also the most diverse, little more uniform than the nation as a whole. Outsiders may think that all southerners talk pretty much alike, but Southerners certainly know better. Some of the most unusual types of American English are found on the periphery of the South, in areas such as the southern Appalachian and Ozark mountains … Even the well-worn stereotypes so often featured in cinematic and other media portrayals of southern speech do not typify speakers throughout the South. For example, the lack of ‘r’ after a vowel, once a hallmark of much of the region, is fast disappearing and is increasingly confined to older and African-American speakers.”

Modern times are changing accents, particularly in the urbanized areas of the South. As our world becomes more mobile and as technology further alters the way we communicate, will our accents go flat in this increasingly flattened world?

If Southerners are moderating their speech, it seems folks in other parts of the U.S. may be affecting a drawl, says Dr. Nicolas Witschi of Western Michigan University’s English Dept. He calls this phenomenon the “Southernization” of U.S. culture. Witschi says the having two Southern presidents in a row has influenced the way Southern culture is perceived. Values are attached to the South (earthiness, religion, faith, family values, tradition) stand in contrast to perceived urban (i.e. Northern) values. Dr. Witschi was a presenter at The Book as Literature program on March 26. he says this Southernization is why one might happen on a drawl in such far flung locales as Idaho or California, even when the speakers have never left home.

Unless you are bound for a career in stage or cinema, taking a college class to lose your accent seems like a shame. When asked what he thought about washing away traces of Southern speech, the author Roy Blount Jr. said:  “I just think that there’s a certain eloquence in Southern vernacular that I wouldn’t want to lose touch with ... You ought to sound like where you come from.”

Give a listen to Rick Bragg’s accent in this video.


Rick Bragg (photo by Ann States)

Hard Times Come Again No More

While we seek mirth and beauty
And music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent,
Their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more
~from “Hard Times Come Again No More” by Stephen Foster 

Recently I was privileged to be a guest on Public Media Network’s Monday Night Live with host Keith Roe and frequent visitor Gloria Tiller of Kazoo Books.

During our talk, Keith drew a parallel between the hard times featured in Rick Bragg’s memoirs and the economic conditions our world is facing right now. He’s right. The books are timely. The Great Depression figures most prominently in Ava’s Man. A few months back, I heard from a woman who had just read Ava’s Man. She told me she was comforted, encouraged and inspired by how Charlie and Ava Bundrum took care of their family under such difficult and discouraging conditions. She said she hoped other people going through hard times now would have courage.

There was the time when Charlie was unable to work for weeks after being injured in his job as a roofer. Charlie, badly weakened from the fall he took, struggled to clear brush, or cut pulpwood, or would go door to door offering to dig wells. Or he would load boxcars by hand. Ava counted out pennies to buy needles and thread. She and the girls would sew if there was no cotton for them to pick. Sometimes the only food was cornbread.

The money ran out. It got so bad they had to sell the cow to pay rent. When the landlord came for the cow, she also wanted the morning’s milk, which Ava was keeping for the children. That episode of stinginess makes you alternately sad and angry.

“The woman tried to argue. Ava, desperate, might have given in, but she had seen so much of their already meager life shaved away that she just couldn’t take any more scraping on the bone that remained.

She turned and walked into the house and portioned out the milk for her children, and watched them as they drank it. The woman huffed a little, then took her cow and left. Ava crowed about that for seventy years.” (page 113)

Charlie did recuperate and continued to look for work wherever he could find it, anything to keep the family fed. As his health improved, Charlie would hunt and fish. Hardship and hunger were constant companions, but Charlie and Ava never gave up. They played music, they bore children. They sold their cow more than once. And they worked and worked.

The Stephen Foster song “Hard Times Come Again No More” was popular during the Civil War with folks in the North and South. Its plaintive melody and bittersweet feelings are just as applicable now.


Hard Times Come Again No More

On a Bluebird Day

Rick Bragg said one of the reasons he wrote Ava’s Man was “to give one more glimpse into a vanishing culture for the people who found themselves inside such stories, the people who shook my hand and said, ‘Son, you stole my story.’”

Those glimpses into a vanishing culture make Ava’s Man read like an adventure story and cultural history all bound together. He seasons the book with old sayings, such as the one about how a snapping turtle will bite you and won’t let go until it thunders. I heard that growing up in rural North Louisiana, and I was forevermore scared of snapping turtles even though I wasn’t sure I had ever come close to one. The very idea of an animal taking hold for so long certainly elevated a creature’s power and caused children to look on in wonder at the adult — and to be very, very afraid.

Nature and its ways was often a subject of stories told on the porch or at the dinner table. And one of life’s greatest mysteries will always be what constitutes good fishing. On page 18, Rick Bragg recounts a time he and his brother Sam were fishing:

“Then he stared up at a perfect blue sky, a sky without a cloud.
“And everybody knows,” he said, “the big fish won’t bite on a bluebird day.”
I just looked at him, because I did not have a rock to throw. On the one day I outfish him, he is spouting poetry.
Yet I could not help but wonder where that phrase, that lovely phrase, came from. Who still talks like that, I wondered, in a modern-day South that has become so homogenized, so bland, that middle school children in Atlanta make fun of people who sound Southern? I found out it was just something my grandfather and men like him used to say, something passed down to him, to us, like a silver pocket watch.”

I looked into the term “bluebird day” and found it generally means a day without clouds.

If you’re into fishing, a bluebird day is sunny and clear. On that kind of day, the fish won’t bite. Clear, bluebird days usually appear after a cold front has passed through. Fishermen will tell you that fish can sense bad weather coming and will be really hungry. Once the storm passes and that bluebird day appears, fish aren’t as active. The water may be churned up, making it hard for fish to see the bait passing by. Or the fish have full bellies and don’t care to swim after the bait.

Now, if you’re in ski country and it’s wintertime, then a bluebird day is when the sky is clear and there’s fresh powder on the slopes, a fine day for skiing. The pretty little Mountain Bluebird, which lives out in the Rockies, is one solid shade of sky blue.


Mountain Bluebird (photo by Terry Sohl)

Addiction and the Family

Alcohol and its devastating effects is a theme that runs through Rick Bragg’s memoirs. The author´s daddy, Charles, died in 1975 at the age of 40, a victim of alcoholism. In 2009, it is estimated that some 350 people die every day from this disease.

 “We can no longer allow addiction to trump the family,” said author and addiction therapist Debra Jay on March 10 at First Baptist Church. “I’d like to see the day when we have zero tolerance for untreated addiction.”

The victims of addiction are not just the addicts, but their loved ones who often struggle to understand why their friend or family member continues to behave in a self-destructive manner. Jay said that one in eight people become alcoholics. One in three either lives with or is related to an alcoholic.

Debra Jay worked clinically with Hazelden before going into private practice 16 years ago. She and her husband Jeff Jay work nationally to help families of alcoholics by facilitating interventions.

She’s the author of three books: Love First, co-written with Jeff, is the top selling book on interventions, and one of Hazelden’s all-time top four bestsellers. Her most recent book is No More Letting Go: The Spirituality of Taking Action Against Alcoholism and Drug Addiction. Debra has been a frequent guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

During her talk, Debra frequently read passages from All Over But the Shoutin’, a book she praised for its honesty. Here are some key points from her fascinating presentation:

1. Alcoholics drink because they are alcoholics. The why doesn’t matter anymore. Society thinks it can come up with a reason — grief, low self-esteem, social ineptness. Those may be reasons why someone abuses alcohol, but not everyone who abuses alcohol will become an alcoholic.
2. Alcoholism is a brain disease, not a choice. No one chooses to be an alcoholic.
3. Genetics matter. Alcoholism is one of more complex of all genetic diseases, not a learned behavior. Some people are genetically predisposed to addiction. If you’re born into a family of alcoholics, you have a 50-50 chance of becoming one yourself.
4. The addicted brain is changed. It’s hijacked. The addicted brain works for the survival of the addiction. You can’t talk logic. The addicted brain atrophies. Debra showed images of brain scans. The difference between a normal brain and one of an alcohol or drug addict was startling. The addicted brain was riddled with holes, showing how drugs and alcohol cause degeneration. But when an addict stops drinking or abusing drugs, and begins engaging in meaningful conversation (such as with a sponsor or counselor or during Alcoholics Anonymous meeting), the brain will regenerate.

Debra Jay also shared what she called the “most damaging myths that stop us from helping an alcoholic.”

• You can’t help an alcoholic unless he wants help. This could mean decades of personal tragedy. The question, Debra said, is what will get him to want help?

• Treatment won’t work if he doesn’t want it. Jay said it’s not how you get into treatment that counts. It’s what happens once you’re there.

• The alcoholic must hit bottom. If this is the case, then the alcoholic will take along everyone — even the smallest children — on the trip to bottom. For Charles Bragg, the bottom was an early death.

Addicts may think they hurt only themselves, but children suffer profoundly. Little ones who are abused or neglected run a higher risk of suffering from mental illness later in life. Not only that, but children stressed by too much noise, abuse or violence will use all their brain power for survival, not for learning.

The goal of intervention, Debra said, is to “raise that bottom level,” getting the addict to want help, to accept help.

Here is a list of fiction and non-fiction books about alcoholism. From our Local Organization Database, here is a list of organizations that can help.


Addiction and the Family

March 8, 2009

We launched Reading Together on March 4 with a screening of 12 outstanding videos by the talented students in Education for the Arts Advanced Multimedia Class. The works — all inspired by All Over But the Shoutin’ — ranged from animation to live action. We’ll be adding these videos to KPL’s collection soon, and I encourage you to check them out.

Our next program is Addiction and the Family. Alcoholism is a major theme of Rick Bragg’s three memoirs. So much of the pain and suffering and death are the result of alcohol addiction. On March 10, we will explore the disease of alcoholism, its effects on families, and ways to stop the cycle of abuse. Our featured guest is Debra Jay, author and professional interventionist, who’ll give a free talk at First Baptist Church beginning at 7 p.m.

Debra Jay is the author of No More Letting Go: The Spirituality of Taking Action Against Alcoholism and Drug Addiction, published by Bantam in 2006. She has also co-authored two Hazelden Guidebooks: Love First: A New Approach to Intervention and Aging and Addiction: Helping Older Adults Overcome Alcohol or Medication Dependence. She is in private practice with her husband Jeff, providing intervention training and consultation services and has an additional specialty in older adult intervention. She previously worked as an addiction specialist for the Hazelden Foundation. Ms. Jay has regularly appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show.