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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Southern Writers- Backwoods Malitia and The Birth of a Vernacular


"We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again" is the famous motto of General Nathanael Greene, who sent Cornwallis packing north to Virgina unable to capture and destroy the Southern Army of backwoods militia.

The American Revolutionary War turned in our favor at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781. American Brigadier General Daniel Morgan lead some 700 militia against Banastre Tarleton's legion of 1,100 dragoons, 17th Lancers, regulars and loyalists. Only Tarleton and about 260 British troops escaped. We suffered only 73 casualties (12 dead and 61 wounded). Our backwoods militia men shot the goddamned hell out of the British. We were just that much tougher and superior rifleman.

Just as a reference and to get a feel for the particular kind of men our militia were comprised of, here are a few of the names off the Anson County North Carolina Militia roster: Shadrick Bagget, Joseph Isgate, Humphry Delyard, Tubal Cain Hicks, William Slaughter... They were all Scotsmen and Irishmen. That's who inhabited the mountains of North Carolina. That's where our vernacular came from.

The sound of our speech at that time, revolted in a remote and far off land, must have been pretty strong sounding. Imagine the time, distance, and inhospitable enviorment, mangling the language and the folks who spoke it. The effect is like distilling. It makes for a certain efficiency and allows for particular perversions and peculiar twists. The vernacular from this region is the strongest sounding and therefore the most influential despite its small population of speakers. Because of it's strong sound, even when one colloquial phrase crept into an outsiders mouth and traveled around, it had boo coo influence on the words either side of it.

Sometimes people think Southerners speak slower because we're Lazy or think slowly. Not so. We speak slower because our love of words is so great that we can't stand to part with them. We care deeply about things and fit a word for it's purpose like a tool for a job or a garment for an occasion. We coin a phrase and linger on it, admire it, swear at it, and make love to it before we're willing to let it go.

We as Southerners will take the appropriate phrase or word from where ever we find it and own it without contention. The appropriate use of a word or phrase indicates ownership. It has to be delivered with complete conviction and casualness to be appropriate. You have to own it to use it. It's a matter of taste. If you've got bad taste don't even try it. It has to taste good in your mouth and you have to be able to handle it, like eating softshell crab or pickled okra, like holding a straw of sweet grass in your mouth or a chaw of tobacco. It takes dexterity to spit a line without making it sour or bitter.

I'm not trying to give a goddamned history lesson here. I'm drawing you a little stick figure hangman on a cocktail napkin as we have a couple of Jack and Cokes and watch the cargo ships come and go in and out of Charleston Harbor while we listen to Otis Redding sing Sittin' On A Dock of The Bay on my little transistor radio.

Here's what i'm getting at; All you have to do is go to Oxford Mississippi and you're there. Home of the greatest writers the world knows. I mean c'mon, William Faulkner and Mark Twain. How 'bout Tennessee Williams or Margret Mitchell. Or Harper Lee, James Dickey or Flannery O'Connor. Hell, how about Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe or Cormac McCarthy. The list goes on.

Don't get me wrong. I'm completely moved by Brendan Behan, i don't know his plays well but The Hostage was great and his published letters are fuckin' incredible. I know more of the stories about him than i do his work. Of course Walter Scott is just the damned creme too, Ivanhoe, my God!

So yeah, "we fight, get beat, rise, and fight again." It's the lack of bitterness that makes us who we are. Oh well, to hell with it, i don't give a goddamned about it.

1 comment:

  1. That's some ornery shite right there. I was working w/ this agent in hollywood & she had this boyfriend, a famous Irish pop singer. He got real jealous and called me a redneck in his blog & I fired this post back & he had a nervous breakdown. Poor Guy... thought I was a redneck...shoulda known better 'an to cross a coonass!

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