In Other Words
April 30, 2016
A few idle thoughts – well, almost idle. I have conducted no research, and I’ve no idea if anyone has already written on this topic. So what is it? Hard to put into a simple phrase, but here goes:
It concerns song lyrics and how differences between British-English and American-English affected British singers of the past, and how changing times accommodated these differences.
Where to start? How about at the movies? Anyone who has watched British films of the 1930s and 1940s will have noticed a certain sameness in the accents used by many of the actors. Also, it often appears that they are using an assumed accent, replacing the accent they had either from birth or acquired during education. (Accents require a digression into British class divisions and education, especially in the relevant decades, but that needs – and deserves – a lot of space and is, anyway, irrelevant here.) Of course, there are always exceptions in those old films and supporting actors might appear who speak in Scottish or Welsh or Irish accents, although not too many regional English accents. I should mention here that there are also variations in accents depending upon region in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, but in many instances these are difficult for a non-native to differentiate with any degree of certainty. In those early films Cockney accents are quite frequent, again usually among bit part players, and here again there is often a considerable measure of artificiality, suggesting that the accent might be assumed by actors not born in London and who are certainly not Cockneys. (For the benefit of non-British readers, a Cockney is someone born in a specific and quite small part of London; another irrelevancy.) Why would actors seek to lose their accents? Perhaps because the stage-acting tradition, which had its own accented English, was carried over into the film industry and through training, or perhaps simply in order to find work, actors found it beneficial to lose their original accents.
Aside from films, accents heard on radio broadcasts of the same years, especially the 1930s, also have a certain sameness. On radio news broadcasts and current affairs programmes were heard many examples of what might be described as middle-of-the-road accents that have no obvious regional leaning. This was accepted BBC-speak, although some changes took place during World War Two when a few identifiable accents were heard on news broadcasts, a change in policy that coincided with previously anonymous news readers giving their names. (This was a policy undertaken by the BBC to assure listeners that they were hearing the real thing and not a propaganda broadcast by the enemy.) These wartime changes apart, the accents heard in films and on radio in those years were noticeably “better” than those in which the average listener might speak. Even more striking was the often rigid adherence to received-English pronunciation of words, the absence of elisions and colloquialisms, and the almost complete avoidance of contemporary slang.
In this last sentence can be seen the problem faced by British singers of the new popular songs coming from America and which contrasted strikingly with British songs of the same period. When singing, many of the British singers of the period displayed accents similar to those of actors and other broadcasters and like them used similarly rigid pronunciation. When singing songs by British songwriters this presented few problems because the lyrics were often written by those with an ear for the same language, but when these singers sang songs written by the new wave of American songwriters it quickly became apparent that the bonds of language that surrounded the lyricist and the singer were drastically weakened. A reason for this lay in those differences between British-English and American-English.
These differences had long been apparent to audiences in Great Britain, both in spelling and in the colloquialisms and slang used on the screen, in particular the hugely popular westerns and gangster films. Despite this familiarity, generally speaking the people on the streets in Britain did not try to speak in this way, but audiences were hearing on records and on radio the new popular songs and they wanted to hear these from popular British singers of the day. That many of these songs were filled with those elisions and colloquialisms and slang terms that most avoided in everyday speech was an obstacle. This might be the moment for a small, personal (but relevant) digression. I was born into a working class family in an industrial city in the North of England, a city that has a distinctive local accent. Although educational facilities were limited, I was luckily a member of a family that read avidly and listened endlessly to the radio and records and there was a cinema just around the corner (the last time I was there it had been demolished and had become a car park). Perhaps unsurprisingly, I developed addictions to books and films and popular music. Thus, I was constantly bombarded by language, written, spoken and sung in both British- and American-English; but, of course, it was all being absorbed randomly and with no real understanding of the inherent complications. What I did recognize, even if I didn’t understand why, was that I preferred hearing American singers singing American popular songs. Reflectively, I suspect that I was somehow aware that most of the British singers I heard didn’t sound comfortable when singing this material. I wonder if this was in part because some of the singers were encountering a problem similar to one that I faced with my own family. If I used a word or expression that the family considered to be inappropriate, someone would immediately remonstrate. Thus, slang, colloquialisms, elisions, contractions, were out. To use any of these was to commit the offence of sounding “common”.
So what did all this mean? So far as slang is concerned, while some British slang of the time did not sound bad, American slang spoken in a British accent sounded just plain silly (and, of course, the opposite was true). Colloquialisms were similarly dependent on origin and did not cross the Atlantic very well (in either direction). Among the songs that many enjoyed in those years – and which they continue to enjoy to the present day – are those that have become a part of what we now call the Great American Songbook. These songs struck chords not only with countless listeners but also clearly resonated with singers. But increasingly more and yet more of these songs contained elements that did not travel well unless the original accent was retained. When American-English pronunciation was changed to British-English pronunciation it simply sounded wrong. Consider one of the masters of American song lyrics, Johnny Mercer, who, perhaps more strikingly than any other songwriter, seamlessly absorbed colloquial language into his art, turning it into contemporary poetry. It was language those of us who were soaked in American films knew well but if we used ourselves was fraught with problems. Again personalizing these thoughts, if in conversation with my family I had used “ain’t”, “gimme”, “gonna”, “haveta”, “kinda”, “wanna”, “whatcha”, “wouldja”, “ya”, for some examples, I would have been corrected instantly; in the classroom use of these words might have brought a rap on the knuckles (a frequent happening in those days). Yet Mercer, and other songwriters of his time, used words like these in a manner that often touched upon and sometimes fully embraced and accelerated the Americanization of the English language.
In our book, Singing Jazz: The Singers And The Styles, Mike Pinfold and I considered this topic, observing that “The form of English spoken by Americans has different speech patterns, pronunciations, intonations, inflections and rhythms.” When sung by an American singer in an American accent, the skill and frequent beauty of lyrics like those of Mercer is apparent. But if a British singer sang these Amercanisms in a British accent, they sounded – well, I used the word before and here again it fits – they sounded just plain silly. It wasn’t hard for a singer to decide what to do to overcome these problems, all that was necessary was that they should use an American accent. But easy though that decision might have been, getting an American accent right when the speaker’s original accent was not only British but regional British was beyond the grasp of many. Hence, those performances that somehow never rang as true as when the same songs were sung by American singers.
There were gradual changes over the years and although outside the scope of these notes I will mention them briefly.
Hollywood, like it or not, the dictator of many Anglo-American and American-Anglo beliefs and attitudes, sometimes hired British actors to play British roles in American films. While that might seem like the obvious thing to do, it was not always so and British roles in some Hollywood films might be played by American actors attempting an impersonation or by actors from Australia or New Zealand. These might have sounded British to American filmmakers and audiences but to British ears they sounded (that word again) silly. Apart from being wrong at the root, there was also the apparent assumption by many that the British all spoke like Cockneys and this accent appeared in all sorts if unlikely settings. (Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, often regarded as the notorious nadir of this trend, is far from being alone and mis-casting continues to this day.) From the 1950s onward there were changes, too, in popular music and there was soon widespread awareness among American audiences that the British accent had regional variations. This came forcibly when Beatlemania struck America. All of the Beatles were from Liverpool and spoke (but did not sing) with that city’s distinctive accent. Perhaps for the first time, a real “ordinary” British accent was widely heard by the nationwide American audience; whether or not this audience knew that the Liverpool accent is decidedly parochial is another matter.
So, are things better today? Well, they’re certainly different. In the main, this would seem to be a side-effect of the gradual accretion of Americanisms into the language used by the British. This appears in all walks of life, at all class levels, and popular music is no exception. Many British singers have developed the ability to sing songs using a believable American accent – at least when heard on record where there is only the singing. In concert, it isn’t quite so easy as Tina May pointed out when Mike Pinfold and I interviewed her for Singing Jazz. Tina observed that hers is a “purish English-sounding voice and I’m quite proud of that; after all jazz in the 1990s is such a world music. . . . My dilemma would be – how do you sound between songs? Do you have to have an accent all the way through? Then you become a completely different character.”
Today, singers of many nationalities comfortably sing pop and jazz song lyrics written in English by American writers. Some of them have discernible accents, but many do not and blindfold tests would probably catch out the majority of listeners. Jazz and pop singing, like the music itself, has indeed become international. Has anything been lost through this loss or merging of accents? I don’t think so, because this serves to meet the demands of the music and especially the lyrics. As Claire Martin stated, when interviewed for that same book: “Jazz singing is American music and you slip naturally into the accent when singing.”
Where am I with these idle thoughts? I’m not sure – certainly not at any sensible conclusion. So I’ll bring this post to an end and think of it as Part One so that I can return to the subject when (or maybe that should be “if”) I decide where I’m going.