Bluegrass Speak

        I guess before I write any more, I’d best clue folks in on bluegrass speak.  If you share my fear that mass media might someday extinguish colloquialisms and regional expressive language, take heart.  As long as the bluegrass community is alive and well, individuality will never die.

        While I am deeply entrenched in the bluegrass community, I am not a professional musician.  This is quite evident to me in the area of bluegrass speak, as it can be very complicated.  Take a guy like Frank Wakefield.  Anyone who closes an interview with “Zhat read soundable?”  is an undisputed pro.  His “backards talking” is more convoluted than what a doc can follow, and he would make an excellent interview subject for someone with more formal linguistic training, such as the English Professor. 

        When you sit backstage and pick music with a guy like Lucky Strikes Gregory, the logic gets so twisted around a man could get lost if he ain’t careful, so I thought it might be instructive to start working on this project. 

       I have a good handle on our local lingo,  and I am going to address this shortly.  However, even though I am an expert in the bluegrass speak of our locale, my doctoring has kept Neuse River tethered to a hundred mile radius over the years, so I have much to learn, as most of my exposure to the outside world has either come from bluegrass groups touring through the County or doctor books.  (I don’t much care for television.)  Language is in constant evolution, so as you hear new wrinkles, I hope you will update me. 

        Last year, I was in Roanoke, and ran into (literally) a banjo player in the lobby of the hotel.  We were getting in the elevator, and I was toting Marfar’s doghouse (bass for non bluegrassers), and got the thing cross-ways to where the door wouldn’t close. 

          “Got her caddy-slunch-ways there Doc?”  The banjo man offered his assistance, and we reeled her in. (The bass, that is, not my wife- she was already to the room.)

          Now, that’s Virgina bluegrass (Southern Virgina dialect, I believe) for caddy-whompus.  (Eastern N.C.)  You see, he didn’t even need to introduce himself.  Of course, I met him in a jam session the night before, but that non-withstanding, I knew he was from Virginia just by the way he talked.  I think this is a good thing. 

        Now, here in the County, if someone was to say to you, “NTW,” what would you think?  No, they ain’t cussing you, they are telling you not to worry.  (Warning:  Bluegrass folks don’t worry ’bout much of nothing.)   See, that one was easy, and if you have been reading this forum, you got it right off.

        There are a number of abbreviations like that we use all the time.  NAP, for example, means not a problem.  Again, classic bluegrass, ’cause when you are playing music, there ain’t no problems, at least in the moment.

        GG, or good grief, is ubiquitous, and has now made it’s way into the general population.  I heard it was gonna be in the next version of the Merryman Dictionary, an indication of acceptance that will see the decline of its use in the bluegrass community.

        Oh, there are a bunch of them, like HTS, meaning have to see, such as when Blue Highway is in town.  (Example- “Them Blue Highway boys are HTS.”)  My daughter wore a Blue Highway shirt to middle school, and the other kids wondered where that was, but I counseled her to never make fun of children who were not as fortunate in their raising.  Miss Marie is now involved in a Tobacco Triangle U. study to improve access to health care for the underprivileged; I am very proud of her.

        Also, I must warn you that the use of short-speak is discouraged in higher circles.  The Government’s National Bureau for the Extinction of Abbreviations (NBEA) frowns on it, although I don’t understand why, ’cause we just use them to save time for picking.

        Most of our abbreviations are self-explanatory, so if you hang out with us just a little while, you’ll pick up on them easy enough.  More complicated though, is the custom of multiple verbal duplicity.  This is the practice of using one word, such as SHABA, to express multiple meanings, depending on the context of its use and the inflection in one’s voice.  For instance, SHABA, when you are loading up the Neuse River converted school bus to head out for Galax, is an expression of enthusiastic anticipation, whereas SHABA, by the end of the week, is a weary confirmation of exhaustion and dread of a long drive  home.  If fact, at that point, SHABA for the Moose would mean, “I’m whupped, better let Doc drive.”  See, you’re catching on.

        This aspect of bluegrass language can prove difficult to interpret, and will require deep immersion in the culture to fully understand.  Even to this day, I find it difficult.  Shoot fire, it can often be harder to figure than what colors them office ladies are talking about when they use words such as taupe or fuchsia.  

        The Eskimos are sort of the opposite of this concept.  In other words, they have eighty-seven different words for snow, ’cause if they are planning on surviving, they better understand every nuance (that’s French there) ’bout that white stuff if they are planning on seeing spring thaw.  About the only way I know to tell you to interpret bluegrass speak is to think reverse Eskimo talk, polar opposites so to speak, ’cause in bluegrass one word, such as SHABA, can have eighty-seven different meanings.

        The only time this gets confusing is when you run into bluegrass picking Eskimos.  We had one come through the County last year, a fine bass player from Juno, but had little difficulty with translation.  When that happens, usually you are picking rather than talking, so we can communicate just fine.  

        You gotta understand, though, that just ’cause all this might seem confusing to those outside the bluegrass world, we can talk to each other just fine.  It even helps me in my doctoring.  It’s like Raymond, the fiddler for Neuse River said one day, “I took old lady Lloyd’s English class with Tommy, and I didn’t understand a word she said, but I don’t have no trouble talking to Doc- he’s looked after my people for years.”

        There is much more to say on this subject.  I can’t cover it all today, but I’m glad I could at least clear up this much.  As I write, if I accidentally use an unfamiliar colloquialism, I hope you tell me so I can further clarify.  I wouldn’t want to mis-communicate.  I want to respect the  International Language of Music at all times, and old Doc still has a lot to learn.

Dr. B

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2 Comments on “Bluegrass Speak”

  1. RubyShooZ Says:

    Hello my new friend,

    I must say, I thought I knew a thing or two about bluegrass colloquialisms since I grew up sort of immersed in much of that sort of fashion but you’ve certainly taught me a thang or two here today.

    Yes, I’m a yankee from New York (not the city, out in the country where our nearest neighbors are cows and coyotes) , but somewhere along the way I picked up this “y’all” thang that just fits me fine. I think it musta been that time I spent living down in Austin, TX that did that for me.

    Dr. B., I must tell you, I’ve been enjoying your blog and I hope you keep on writing, keep on sharing because it’s a joy for me to read, truly.

    My folks used to take us camping every Memorial Day weekend up in Canada with a couple of other families and spent most of the time around the campfire singing old folk music – lots from England and Scotland and I sure miss those days. The closest I can come to anything like that around these parts is about an hour from here in Ithaca, NY where there’s lots of good bluegrass and folk music playing and singing going on. They’ve also got a Sunday morning bluegrass several hours on the radio that is like going to church for me – much better actually!

    There is some gospel included of course and it’s …. well, it’s music to my ears since that’s something else I was raised with – even in the Unitarian church we sang lots of hymns when I was growing up.

    Thanks for the language lesson today and thanks for the fond memories.

    Peace, love and understanding.

    ~ RubyShooZ ~

  2. drtombibey Says:

    Miss Ruby,
    The golf people have a saying- I think it was from the great teacher Harvey Penick- “If you know golf, you are my friend.” Same is true in bluegrass. I have a post I am working on that speaks to bluegrass above the Mason Dixon line. Is is due out in a week- I think you will enjoy. Before that, though, I gotta tell ya about my wife’s bluegrass birds.
    Thanks again- you and the English Professor deserve credit for waltzing me into cyberspace.

    -Dr. B


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