Popular Music in Dialect

by justindburton on October 12, 2011

In a recent Slate piece, Robert Pinsky discusses the use of dialect in Edgar Guest’s poems, and he slips in a single paragraph about music:

What does it mean that, in a process accelerated long ago with the marriage of R & B with country, nearly all American popular music seems to be written in dialect? To my inexpert ear, some older stars, like Bruce Springsteen and Mos Def, still perform in language similar to how the performers actually speak. Springsteen’s working-class characters are moving partly because he does not exaggerate their speech. In contrast, many white British singers of the blues sound far more black and American than Junior Wells or Buddy Guy. Across a range of genres, in the arcane subdivisions and niche variations of “hip-hop nouveau” and “retro country,” dialect seems to rule. In great-grandpa’s day, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra sang so much the way they spoke that you can hear New Jersey in his singing, and maybe a touch of Yonkers in hers.

The hypothesis that most contemporary popular musicians sing in an affected dialect seems to require some testing. I’m not sure that there are a great number of examples that are as exaggerated as Guest’s poems.


justindburton October 12, 2011 at 2:47 pm

In the post, I objected to the idea that most music is produced in “dialect,” but I’m also skeptical about the exceptions Pinsky mentions to this idea: Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” seems like an obvious example of the use of dialect in the Boss’s oeuvre.

KarlHagstromMiller October 13, 2011 at 12:58 am

Hey Justin, Interesting post and comment. Pinksy seems out of his depth. For me, he runs into trouble here, and in the larger essay, by failing to define what he means by “dialect.” The term is historically troubled and slippery. It can refer to both an authentic voice and an artificial–often derogatory–caricature. Many white commentators in the early 20th century, of course, refused to distinguish between these two interpretations. Minstrel dialect was an act taken for the real thing. Pinsky seems to do the same thing here when he does not distinguish between these two meanings of the term. “Popular singers from American (or British) cities…perform in the dialect of rural Tennessee or the Mississippi Delta(!?)” White blues singers “sound more black” than black performers? Does that mean that they conform to dialect caricatures or to Pinsky’s personal conception of what authentic “black” singing should sound like? I would guess he means the latter–though his interpretation is shaped by the former. Buddy Guy would be quite surprised.

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