Potato… patahto

Chris JonesIs it “Mon-ROE” or “MUN-roe”? Is how we pronounce bluegrass names important? It probably is, yet it’s not always as simple as it might seem. Do we pronounce people’s names the way they would pronounce them themselves, or do we just say those names the way we were raised to say them? It’s hard for me to answer this personally, because I wasn’t taught to say people’s names at all; I’ve always addressed all men as “Buddy” or “Bro” and all women as “Sister,” or sometimes “Ophelia.”

I’ve heard Doyle Lawson do a pretty funny imitation of the northern pronunciation of his name (with a strong emphasis on the “y” in “Doyle), but is it wrong to pronounce it that way if you’re from the north? Since that’s more an accent question than a case of silent letters or syllable emphasis, it’s hard to call it wrong, maybe just amusing (at least to Doyle).

On the other hand, I was told of a disc jockey who pronounced Bill Harrell’s name, “Bill Harr-ELL.” That is wrong, but mispronouncing names is kind of a rite of passage for a DJ or MC.

When I worked at a country station in central Pennsylvania, they had hired a few DJs with limited knowledge of country music, and the management figured that on-the-job training was best, so I heard names like “Lefty Frizzle” on the air. One evening jock, when faced with having to say Dwight Yoakam’s name for the first time (he was a new artist at the time) just opted to call him “Dwight.”

When Sarah Jarosz was still a kid, I butchered her name badly when introducing her on stage, and that was shortly after being told how to say it. It happens. “Sarah” is just not that easy a name to pronounce.

I was thinking of this problem recently when The Night Drivers and I were playing in the Czech Republic. While we were there, everyone pronounced Ned Luberecki’s last name, “Luber-etz-ki,” its correct pronunciation in the old world (both Luberecki and Jarosz are Polish names). Ned just went with it, as did the rest of us, since I guess it would seem a little funny to ask people to stop pronouncing his name correctly.

It gets tricky back home, though, when names from all over the world are anglicized (and then further bluegrass-ized), because the same name can be anglicized in many different ways. Take the Welsh name “Jones,” for instance. Okay, maybe that’s not the best example.

In the end, it comes down to the individual, whose name may have gone through a few generations of changes, to determine how that name should be pronounced. When in doubt, just ask, unless it’s someone you’ve known for 20 years, and whose name you should really know by now (like your mother). Then just quietly ask someone else who might know. It’s better than mumbling, though I’ve used that in a pinch. A mumble combined with a cough is good in an emergency situation.

With first names, it’s often just a question of nuance, syllable emphasis, and accent. Is it “Ez-rah” Cline or “Ez-ree” Cline? Is it “Sahn-ya” Isaacs or “Sone-ya” Isaacs? Is it “Rahlf” Stanley or “Rafe” Stanley? Only they and their families can make that call.

Then there’s the issue of song titles. Do we say the words in a title the way that would come naturally, or do we say them the way they would be sung, within the meter of the song? For example, is it “Banks of the O-HI-o, or is it “Banks of the O-hi-O,” as it is in the last line of the chorus?

What about “Sweetheart You Done Me Wrong”? Is it “SWEETheart You Done Me Wrong,” or is it “SweetHEART You Done Me Wrong,” as it’s sung? And if it’s “SweetHEART You Done Me Wrong,” then shouldn’t it also be “Angeline the BakER”?

This problem is easily solved by just singing the titles of songs instead of saying them. They are songs, after all. Just don’t spend too much time picking a key, then hunting around for a capo, when you’re just casually mentioning the name of a song in a sentence. This makes for very stilted and awkward conversation.

Getting back to people’s names, just keep in mind that if your name is at all unusual, or you have any kind of unconventional pronunciation of an ordinary name, it will be messed up by DJs, MCs, telemarketers, and just about anyone saying your name over a P.A. system. Better get used to it.

– Chris Jones (pronounced “Zhone-es,” if you don’t mind)

  • James Field

    Ralph Rinzler always said that back in Kentucky, where Bill was from, his name was pronounced MUN-roe.

  • janice brooks

    Did not know you worked this close to me. I’m in the true middle of Pa.

    • Chris Jones

      It was in my Whetstone Run days. I worked at WGMR in State College. I think it has different call letters now, but I’m not sure.