I moved to south Mississippi from Washington State in second grade, 1970. Hurricane Camille had blown through the previous year, wrecking the place. Hurricane Camille was just the most recent past thing that had happened here, whose memory was still so vividly felt, and whose reminders were still so visible. This was just an overlay on top of other past things still felt, still visible. It hadn’t happened to me, but it happened here, and shaped the world I grew up in to be this unique, unmistakable thing.
I was not aware of having a southern accent. I remember hearing southern accents in TV and movies and recognizing them as a stock stereotype, but not recognizing it as supposedly referencing my experience at all, not even enough to critique or reject it. It just meant a stupid man, or an old-fashioned person, or a sort of aristocrat from a bygone era, or a number of other stock southern stereotypes. It was no different to me than other types like the urban Italian American gumbah (Vinnie Barbarino), or the Jewish comic (Mr. Kotter). I actually said “Oy vey” sometimes — I learned Yiddish from Mad magazine and Mel Brooks, before I had any conception of what Jewishness was. I was half-Italian, but the stereotypical TV gumbah was so alien it did not occur to us to be offended.
A few years after we moved south, friends we knew from Washington State also moved down there. I remember them telling me I had a southern accent. I could not believe it — I could not hear it in myself. I was good with language, and could mimic accents. I spoke with good grammar, loved diagramming sentences. So being conscious of language on a level most of my peers were not made it all the more perplexing that I could possess an accent yet be unaware of it.
I traveled to Italy when I was 12. Later when I was 25 or so, returned to Italy and one of my uncles, Zio Lorenzo, produced an audio tape of me and my brothers teasing each other. I had this squeaky girly voice with the deepest south accent. “Qu-i-i-yut! Tony! Qu-i-i-yut!”. So it was confirmed: I really used to have a southern accent.
In college I know it started becoming less pronounced. When I traveled to non-Southern locales after college, I marveled at how fast people seemed to speak, and how sure they were of their assertions. Southern speech tends to be slower and less direct.
Today nobody would guess that I grew up in the south and people are usually really surprised when I tell them. I used to hate telling people this. You say “Mississippi” and this whole chain of associations is activated, and you don’t know exactly which ones, and then you have to stand there and account for it, reconcile yourself to it. In most places, that chain of associations is negative. Occasionally some people think of literature, which is better, although I am unprepared to discuss Eudora Welty or William Faulkner. Sometimes it’s a really positive association. In France, they are impressed because the south is the home of the blues and jazz and Elvis, and you are its honorary ambassador. In Italy, no matter where you say you are from, they reply, “Beau-tiful!” which is uninformed, but pleasant to hear.
But now I enjoy telling people. Rather than being threatened by their preconceptions, I am amused by them. It becomes their problem to reconcile what they think they know about the south with what they think they know about me.
Today watching films set in the south is often excruciating. Usually there’s the one actor who really nails it — he’s the best mimicker, had the best voice coach, practiced the most. Then there’s the rest of the cast, who basically just channel Foghorn Leghorn or Blanche Dubois.
Here’s a tip for actors doing southern roles: practice, dammit, people do care and can tell. You only have a dozen or so lines anyway, or a hundred, but it’s some finite number, just learn those lines with the right accent.
Here’s a tip for voice coaches and directors: guess what? Not every single individual in any particular southern locale is a born and bred native descended from slave-holders or slaves. In any locale you have a guy who move there from California, or Vietnam. You have someone from Georgia, and someone else from Jackson, and guess what, they speak with different southern dialects! They have TV and indie films and rock and roll, so you don’t just hear the blues all the time. Proud as we are of the blues, some people listen to Kraftwerk and Neutral Milk Hotel ( an excellent group from Louisiana).
The south is in flux. Echoes and memories of the past are always there, and certainly this is a motif of southern culture. But it’s constantly in flux. Every collection of personalities is every bit as diverse in the south as it is in the west or the north or the midwest.
When I watch British produced films set in Ireland or Scotland, I wonder if they treat those accents in the same way. Do they lay it on way too thick? Are the lapses in the actor’s performance obvious and grating to Irish or Scottish natives? I totally love hearing those accents.
I’m writing this on the June solstice in Northern California. It’s hot, and whenever it’s hot I start running around the house talking like Foghorn Leghorn wiping my forehead with a glass of iced tea, just to annoy my Cajun girlfriend.
In conclusion, the South will rise again! That’s a joke son, Ah say, ah say, that’s a joke.