Dialect Recordings

Posted by Jim Johnson on November 06, 2012 0 Comments

I’m on the road again, in the midst of another dialect gathering trip. This time my main focus was Detroit, though I’ve been hitting lots of dialect recording opportunities along the way.

Every time I cross a state border, for example, it tends to take me an hour. Driving from Illinois into Indiana, I’ll cross the border and stop at the state’s welcome center to try to record the people who work there. Then I drive on to the next exit, and head back toward Illinois, hitting that state’s welcome center. Then I have to go on to the next exit and finally head off towards where I was going originally.

There are a number of challenges with getting good dialect recordings.

One major issue is technical: I have to find a fairly quiet place to do the recording. If there is background noise, I have to hold the mic closer to the interviewee, which also makes it all the more intimidating…

I also have to find a willing soul, who is a good example of the accent (haven’t moved a lot, for example), and they have to have the time to chat! Thus, welcome centers are often a perfect place to stop. It’s their job to be nice to me! (Though I occasionally get the grumpy people… I’m looking at you, woman at the north-bound rest stop just south of Bowling Green, Ohio! But most are wonderful.)

Sometimes I get truly grand receptions, such as what I got at the Ozark Folk Center or just this past week at the D:Hive in Detroit. People who do this really make me want to move to these places!

Similarly, I find that some cities that have a not-so-good reputation are often filled with people who really want to talk about where they’re from, like my great experience last year in Pittsburgh, or this recent Detroit jaunt. People have such bad attitudes about both of these cities, but the open, friendly people there make me think, “I could hang out here!”

One thing that I have had to do is to get over my fear of approaching people and asking the stupid question: Can I record your accent?

I sat on Venice Beach in May 2012 with this sign - "Can I record your accent?" - and it worked! This Turkish woman stopped to talk to the weird guy with the sign.

Last year, I began to make a goal when I was out on my heavy duty recording trips: I need at least five no’s, and then I can take a break. But I kept finding it hard to get five no’s in a row! I think my odds are better than the kids in white shirts and ties, riding their bikes around as a part of their Mormon missionary service.

I’ve always been a fairly shy loner, so it’s good for me to get out and engage like this, and I think I’ve grown a lot from doing all of these interviews. Last summer a woman in Baltimore leaned over to me and said, “You’re a good interviewer” when she caught me between my attempts to catch the accent of the waitress at Hon’s. She was a reporter and said that not only were my questions good and open-ended, but my listening was helping them to answer more openly and with longer replies.

I’ve learned a lot from pursuing this all so adamantly the last few years. There’s a whole lot that I love about what I do. I’m glad the recordings end up helping so many other people, too. That’s what gets me through all of the editing process for the recordings, which is a long, rather unpleasant ordeal… I just spent three pretty solid days editing what I picked up so far in the trip. I’m ready to take a break and go get some more!

Chicago, here I come!

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