Friday, July 30, 2010

Don't do any of this

First rule: Never do no G-droppin' in your heds.

Second rule: Never, ever make an exception to the first rule just because -- well, pickin'!

That's really the point here: pickin' isn't just a gratuitous bit of dialect ostentation. It's the first thing the lame writer finds when reaching into the "bluegrass" section of the cliche toolbag. And it's the first of several signs that the writer (to be fair, let's say "the paper," so we can throw in the line editor, the rimrat and the design desk too) isn't making any real effort to observe and reproduce some event from the real world in a way that would make people think, or wish, they'd been there.

The second sign is the online version of the hed (below the print version). Allow me to suggest* that if the same pickin' is hot and cool at the same time, somebody has an adjective problem. "Hot" and "cool" often mean hugely different things when you're talkin' about music, and nobody here seems to be botherin' to relate what was played to what's bein' written and shown. The video link starts with a nicely restrained version of "The Old Home Town" (here's a take by the 1988 BGBs for comparison, though as far as I know it's a Lester tune). That's not "hot," and it shouldn't be; if your banjo player starts nudging it up toward "Flint Hill Special" range, you either need a new banjo player or a skillet with which to whack the current one upside the head. But let's proceed to the text:

"You gonna have a pickin'?" an elderly man asked Vivian Hopkins as he passed through the store's open door.

"Yes, sir," she told him.

"Good, good," he nodded.

Three direct quotes, not a "said" in the bunch, and one patently illegal verb of attribution: "nodded." The writer's overplaying. You could do this whole sequence with only the first attribution.

... It's the kind of place that thickens a Southern drawl. [What does that even mean? No, really: What would it take for this to be true, and how to you propose to measure it, and what would it mean on the off chance it was true?] The kind of place where the only things moving faster than stomping feet are the mismatched paper fans people use to waft away the summer heat. [The writer's digging into the cliche bag, not watching the crowd. If there's a no-dancing rule, as the story says later, I want to know who's "stomping" -- and how fast, because that's going to help set the pace for the paper fans. The music is going to have one tempo, and that's going to cue a lot of the feet, and if the fans are faster than ... I mean, where's the guy with the video camera?]

... The pickers' fingers moved faster with familiarity when they began to play the classic "I'll Fly Away." But voices coming from the lawn chairs nearly overpowered them.

Sigh. Same thing. I don't think you're telling me what you saw, which means I don't think you saw very well. You mean they can't hold a tempo on a straight gospel tune? Are they playing it faster than "The Old Home Town"?  Do you mean they know it better? Or did the banjo player pick up a bunch of goofy left-hand stuff from Eddie Adcock that Earl simply doesn't bother with? You're alliterating, not reporting. But the talking lawn chairs are cool.

Well, enough of that. The Observer has traditionally been distinctly inept at writing about bluegrass.** Considering that Bill and Charlie Monroe cut their first sides in Charlotte, and considering how closely entwined the genre has always been with the southern Piedmont, and considering that the Observer has long prided itself on being an honest regional voice, that ought to be embarrassing. I think that's because the Observer never thought of bluegrass (unlike jazz or blues or mediocre Southern fiction) as something people actually do. It doesn't have rules and norms and standards -- the kind of things that would cue an open-eyed writer to the ways in which the Hot Club of Naptown and "hot pickin'" might actually have something in common. It's just something quaint that you send a feature writer out to watch every few years so you can say "pickin'" on the front page.

The cousins across campus wonder sometimes why journalists are such sloppy professionals when it comes to describing the social sciences. I think it's probably because we don't have a very good handle on how we ought to describe anything -- or, put another way, that we haven't yet learned to distinguish between "observing" and "slapping in a couple of cliches."

* Again, this is technically an "Orwellian" phenomenon, since Orwell warned against it. It's not entirely original to me.
** The N&O in Raleigh, an independent competitor for many decades before becoming a stablemate, has generally been far better.

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Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I would imagine it would be the kind of place that would make southerners living away from home revert to the accents of their childhood. But that wouldn't apply here, would it?

I don't even want to think about I'll Fly Away as described here!

8:42 PM, July 31, 2010  

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