Wednesday, August 27, 2008

more on accents: Northern CA and Marvin Gaye

I just got back from Northern CA and was struck there by how much better the people in France understood my French than the people in CA understand my English. Every time I went into a store, if I had a question, WITHOUT FAIL the clerk would have to ask me to repeat myself, usually more than once. I decided in some cases it was because the clerks had not grown up speaking English and the only English they had ever heard was CA English, that smooth, delicious laid-back well-modulated English of Northern CA. Beautiful stuff. Pied Piper English. In France, I perhaps kept my phrases more compact, no chance for misunderstanding. Only the woman at the counter of the patisserie made me repeat after her the name of one delicacy until the word flowed off my tongue precisely. And she did this with kindness, not confusion, not flummoxed by what I had originally uttered.

Of course, while I was in CA, the Olympics caught everyone's attention. We could not help ourselves and had to stay in the hotel a couple of nights catching Micheal Phelps win the gold. Again. But what affected me more than Phelps' performances were the Nike commercials with a snippet of Marvin Gaye's performance of the national anthem at the 1983 NBA All Stars game. I had not heard it since 1983, but I had never forgotten it. Never. I had heard it only that one time, but I had played in my mind 100 times the way he had sung the lines like poetry, and I could actually hear in my mind the way he had delivered the words, the syncopated beats and chord changes he implied with "land of the free and the home of the brave." I had wanted to hear this for a very long time and (this is the pitiful part) did not realize all I had to do was go to You Tube!

There are better posts all over the internet for this, actual people who were present at the game, sitting just feet from Marvin as he sang, listening to the drum machine, feeling the audience grow more and more excited and inspired. All I can say is this: in a cold farmhouse in Virginia on a small Sony TV screen, Marvin Gaye sang to my heart in a way few poets have. James Dickey reading the last lines of "Cherrylog Road" at the Folger Shakespeare Library stage in D.C. on a Halloween night comes close.

Marvin could have sung the ingredients list off a ketchup bottle and made me understand levels I'd never guessed or dreamed possible. The ultimate accent that trumps them all.

Pound perhaps said this best when he said "music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance: poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music."

To see Marvin sing, key word search "Marvin Gaye" and "national anthem". It's the You Tube video with Marvin standing by himself on the wooden floor, right before the game.

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