Jim Crow and the Soul. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in Soul Music During the 1960s and 1970s

Bachelor Thesis, 2016

43 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Background to the study
2.1 Social implications of AAVE
2.2 Reference studies
2.2.1 Phonology
2.2.2 Grammatical Variables

3. Analysis
3.1 Remarks on selected artists/songs
3.2 Motown
3.2.1 Phonology Word-final consonant clusters Word-final single consonants Postvocalic /r/ Glide weakening/monophthongization of /aɪ/ DRESS/KIT merger
3.2.2 Grammatical variables Multiple Negation Suffixal –s absence Zero Copula be
3.2.3 Conclusion
3.3 Stax Records
3.3.1 Phonology Word-final consonant clusters Word-final single consonants Postvocalic /r/ Glide weakening/monophthongization of /aɪ/ DRESS/KIT merger
3.3.2 Grammatical variables Multiple Negation Suffixal –s absence Zero copular be
3.3.3 Conclusion

4. Interpretation of the results

5. Conclusion


Jim Crow und Soul: Afroamerikanisches Englisch in der Soulmusik der 1960er und 70er Jahre. 42

1. Introduction

When assessing soul music, the focus often lies on the typical arrangement of that genre: a combination of traditional black gospel music and the distinctive call and response between the lead vocalist and the chorus. However, soul is a story of not only an entire generation of African Americans and their efforts to express themselves musically, but of their call for a growing social consciousness in the United States and later responses through uprisings against racial injustice. After World War II, a thriving optimism began among many African Americans who moved from the South to northern cities to begin a new life. The ongoing discrimination of blacks in the southern states, the resistance to any rights for them, and a persistent segregation in northern cities, however, led to a counter reaction of many African Americans. Until the mid 1960s, a new self-awareness of an entire ethnic group was growing that increasingly dissociated itself from the white American mainstream and “grouped around the more nationalistic sounds of soul” (Ward 1998: 3). Just like many African Americans, the term soul called for a clearer definition and the ability for serving as an object of identification. Amiri Baraka was specifying a key essence of soul when he defined the “necessary and sufficient condition” as being “authentic blackness” (Rudinow 2010: 10). Soul is therefore regarded as having recreated some of the black unity that was partly ruptured, due to the mentioned migrations to cities outside the South (cf. Ward 1998: 7).

What came with the reunion of a common black consciousness during the 1960s were many influences of some decades of urbanization in northern cities that African Americans brought into the soul culture. One essential result of the common musical point of reference in combination with regionalized urban, black identities was the founding of two separate black record labels: Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee, and Motown in Detroit, Michigan. Memphis was, at that time, one of the central southern cities for soul music and, together with Alabama and Macon, Georgia, often referred to as the “southern soul triangle” (Rudinow 2010:12, cf. Hughes 2012: 5, Robinson 2014). Especially during the most successful period of Stax Records from 1961 until 1969/70, Memphis could be regarded as the center of the southern soul music industry as most of the records of that time were recorded in this city (Bowman 1995: 285). Contrary to the southern soul was Motown with its Detroit-based sound, mainly initiated by the African American songwriter and Motown founder Berry Gordy. Unlike Stax Records in Memphis, Motown was designed to produce records “that the emerging audience of young suburban white people would want to hear over and over” (Rudinow 2010: 16). In an interview, Radio 2 disc jockey Paul Gambaccini was referring to the Motown sound as being “not the sound of black America, not the sound of negro America, it was the sound of young America.”1 Ward (1998: 13) completes this thought when he speaks of Gordy and Motown having subordinated “racial concerns to their personal economic interests.”

This early development of two separate subgenres of soul music led to the attempt of clearly marking soul with geographical boundaries. Peter Guralnick, author of the highly regarded study Sweet Soul Music, tried to draw this geographical line of the ‘real’ soul music and other influences – i.e. northern impacts on soul music and the entire industry:

[W]hen I speak of soul music, I am not referring to Motown, a phenomenon almost exactly contemporaneous but appealing far more to a pop, white, and industry-slanted kind of audience. (…) Soul music is southern by definition if not by only geography (Rudinow 2010: 11).

In this sense, soul as part of the contemporary popular culture did not only raise the issue of social equality in America of that time (cf. Ward, 1998: 10), but also of a common black identity in cities such as Memphis and Detroit that was seen in contrast to a white identity or white society, respectively. Whereas soul music can be seen as having marked a first breakdown of racial segregation issues as many white consumers were attracted to this new genre, Nelson George “identifies soul music with the resegregation of popular music culture” (Rudinow 2010: 15). Soul was therefore the expression of a contrary movement, away from the white mainstream such as rock & roll, towards a – at best – ‘pure’ black genre. The fact that Ward (1998) criticizes the assumption of the existence of ‘purity’ in black music, being “the classic dynamic hybrid” (Ward 1998: 11), only shows how ethnically charged the debate of soul was at that time. Music labels such as Motown and Stax Records were located in between these conflicts of being commercially successful on the one hand, but also being relevant as an ethnic and musical reference point for many African Americans on the other hand. However, both of these forces cannot be seen as opposing each other. Instead, the commercial success is seen as being influenced by soul music serving as an object of identification as black – as well as white – consumption was often motivated by racial, political, and social implications (Ward 1998: 5).

This identification was, besides the musical arrangements and artists themselves, mainly focused on the content of the lyrics and the interpretations of the artists. Lead vocalists of soul music during that time were very likely aware of the extent to which they were using language in a musical context. Being meant as an almost exclusive genre, soul dealt not only with the instrumental arrangements, but to a certain degree with language choice, i.e. dialect choice. Berger (2003: ix) speaks in his introduction “The Politics and Aesthetics of Language Choice and Dialect in Popular Music” of questions that musicians constantly ask themselves: “Which (…) dialects will best express my ideas? Which will get me (…) a bigger audience?” A term that he introduces is “language ideology” (Berger 2003: xiv), referring to meanings that are associated with certain dialects. With regard to commercial success, musicians were often influenced by their record label to fit into ‘their sound’ – one of the main reasons why authors such as Guralnick (see above) did not regard Motown as producing and being soul. Furthermore, Berger speaks of regional dialects being a “powerful affirmation of identity for their singers or listeners” (2003: xiv). Therefore, the use of social dialects serves as a central aspect for a common identification within a social group – in this case the identification of African Americans with their dialect, hereafter referred to as African American Vernacular English (AAVE)2. Wolfram & Torbert (2006: 231) support this thesis when they speak of a growing sense of ethnic identity associated with AAVE over the second half of the twentieth century. Just as the emergence of soul music can be regarded as a result of looking for an opposition to the white mainstream music, the development of AAVE as a superregional and ethnical variety of English can be seen as being part of finding an “’oppositional identity’ in which behavior with strong associations with white norms is avoided” (Wolfram & Torbert 2006: 231).

The fact that AAVE could serve as a common object of identification implies the mostly homogeneous character of this dialect across the US. This makes indeed sense, as a regionally charged dialect usually separates instead of uniting social groups – the distinction between the prestige of Southern American English (SAE) and other varieties in the US is only one example (cf. Montgomery 1997: 5f., Wolfram & Schilling-Estes 2006: 42). AAVE, in this respect, offers a less regionally charged, but a far more ethnically based character (Wolfram & Torbert 2006: 231). Accordingly, it is not surprising that features of southern AAVE can still be found in the speech of northern African Americans. Edwards (1997: 76) notes that African American Detroiters show linguistic variables that hardly occur among working-class northern whites. He traces these still existing features back to when African Americans migrated to the North from several southern cities.

Therefore, African Americans were exposed to a number of different forces of identification. Their prospect of a better integration after World War II could not be fulfilled due to a lasting segregation in northern in southern cities. According to Meyerhoff, contact between different social networks can lead to “wider variety of other speaking styles” (2006: 196). The social networks that are of interest for this thesis are white and black Americans. However, regular contact between those two networks were the exception, rather than social reality. AAVE could therefore serve as a common feature among members of this speech community. Above that, the identification through soul music as a mostly African American form of music was becoming increasingly important through the course of the civil rights movement in the 1960s as another part of African American identity. The intentions of the artists were, of course, diverse as not all of them were participating in political activities and were partly “cautious about publicly associating themselves with formal Movement activities” (Ward 1998: 14).

The question that will be addressed in this thesis is whether dialect choice in soul music from Memphis and Detroit was, with regard to commercial success, stronger than the mostly homogeneous character of AAVE across all regions of the US. A detailed linguistic analysis of a selection of songs from Motown and Stax will try to investigate the extent to which that artists from Detroit did adapt their language habits to their surrounding white fellow citizens. This might be even more interesting for northern blacks who moved away from their dialect roots in the South. With respect to a separation from the white population, which can at least be assumed for the artists’ childhood and early adulthood, it appears necessary to look at certain features that were either kept or lost. In addition, the analysis will try to connect the commercial success of all included songs and artists to the language habits of the performers.

First, some background for this paper’s study will be provided, including the social implications of AAVE and the reference studies for the analysis. Then, the relevant phonological and grammatical variables will be listed and explained. These variables will be, with regard to the Motown and Stax data sets, analyzed in detail. Finally, the interpretation of the results will try to find an answer to the thesis of this paper.

2. Background to the study

Before I will begin with the linguistic analysis and give an explanation for the selection of songs that will be included, it seems necessary to provide a background on the implications that AAVE as an ethnic dialect brings with it. At first, the social relevance of this specific dialect appears to be a key note for the assessment of the analysis as the perception of AAVE often correlates with certain prototypical characteristics of this dialect that will be dealt with during the analysis (cf. Thomas & Reaser 2004). It is this distinction between different ethnic varieties that allows AAVE to build a reference point for identification (cf. Thomas & Reaser 2004: 3), but at the same time gives a reason for discrimination because of dialect features that are regarded as non-standard. In this regard, the meaning of racial segregation during the 1960s needs to be mentioned as it is often seen as a main reason for the homogeneous character of AAVE (Wolfram & Torbert 2006: 231). Secondly, two reference studies (Wolfram 1969 and Williamson 1968) that form the base for the analysis of this paper will be summarized as they provide necessary data of AAVE from Detroit and Memphis in the 1960s.

2.1 Social implications of AAVE

In his famous Harlem study, Labov speaks of the problems that a “black dialect” (1973: 242), i.e. AAVE, implies when he provides the reader with the following statement:

Many features of pronunciation, grammar, and lexicon are closely associated with black speakers – so closely as to identify the great majority of black people in the northern cities by their speech alone (Labov 1973: 242).

Therefore, even though some AAVE features are of a stereotypical character, this categorization leads to an often correct identification in most cases and therefore allows the existence of AAVE in the social reality of many regions in which the dialect is spoken by the African American population. Thomas & Reaser (2004) summarize data from the second half of the twentieth century that prove that the success rate of an identification of AAVE in contrast to European American dialects often lies higher than 70 per cent. Neglecting the partially stigmatized perception of AAVE for a moment, the assumption that there is indeed a measurable difference between AAVE and Vernacular White English (VWE) seems imposing. What is mostly undoubtable nowadays is the theory that AAVE was established in the South of the United States, more specifically in the rural South (cf. Wolfram 2008, Wolfram & Torbert 2006, Thomas 2007, Smith 1974, Rickford 1999). As a reaction against the so-called Jim Crow laws – Jim Crow “meaning to denote the subordination and separation of black people in the South” (Litwack 2004: 7) – many African Americans migrated to cities outside the South, mostly to northern cities (Thomas 2007: 452). With this Great Migration emerged a discussion over the idea that AAVE and VWE might be either converging or diverging (cf. Wolfram 1987). Following the idea of convergence, Labov introduces the term Diffusion, meaning the effect of contact between speech communities and “the transfer of features from one to the other” (2007: 347). However, he mentions that in contrast to a clear geographical distinction, e.g. North vs. South, there is a sharp separation of white speech communities from, among others, African Americans in the same cities (cf. Labov 2007: 369). Accordingly, it can be stated that during the first two decades after the Great Migration African Americans lived in relatively isolated communities (cf. Wolfram 1969). In the introduction to his Detroit study he remarks that [t]he speech patterns in some of these communities differ greatly from the existing speech patterns of the white community. It has been noted, however, that within the Negro population there is a considerable range of differences between speakers, i.e. from those whose speech approximates the local variety of standard English to those who speak a variety sometimes referred to as “Nonstandard Negro English” (Wolfram 1969:1).

Thomas (2007: 452) notes the existence of a certain degree of dialect levelling as soon as formerly southern African Americans were introduced to northern speech communities. As already mentioned in the introduction to this paper, the role of AAVE needs to be seen as a central part of African American identity within an urban community. Being part of the individual community therefore implies the “’talking like’ other members of the group” (Wolfram & Schilling-Estes 2006: 41). Members of such groups have, according to the authors, to choose between “’fitting in’ and ‘talking correctly’” (41), which is also a choice between being stigmatized by the mainstream, i.e. the white speech community, or not. Due to the eventuality of associations of dialect features with individual traits, the already mentioned aspect of dialect choice for the individual speaker of AAVE needs to be included in the basic assumptions of the analysis. It is then that the artist – or, to be more specific, the singer – needs to decide between success among the white mainstream or their group affiliation. However, what needs to be specified at this point are the traits that can be considered to mark AAVE as the ethnic dialect.

2.2 Reference studies

It is beyond dispute that, with regard to dialect choice, an interpreter or singer cannot be seen of equal status with a normal speaker as the artist is placed into an artificial context of language, i.e. the lyrics that they sing are in contrast to spoken everyday language. This context includes motivations that other speakers do not have to deal with, for instance restrictions by the record label or the goal of commercial success. For the purpose of this study, however, the selected features of AAVE in Detroit and Memphis will be applied to the sung performances of each artist and are made comparable to each other as only these performances are included. Further explanations on the selection of artists and songs will be provided before the analysis. At this point, the relevant linguistic features for this study will be listed. The studies that provide the basic reference data for the following analysis of this study are Walt Wolfram’s Detroit study (1969) and Juanita Williamson’s phonological and morphological study of AAVE in Memphis (1968).

According to Wolfram (1969: 28), the African American population in Detroit was, at the time of the study, highly concentrated in the inner or central city area. Besides the residential concentration, he mentions the relative isolation of many African Americans and assumes an effect on the speech behavior. What is even more important for the speech behavior is, also with regard to Labov’s language diffusion (2007: 347) and Thomas’ term of levelling (2007: 452), the amount of interaction with white peers in Wolfram’s study (1969: 30). According to the data that he provides (1969: 31), the informants had almost no contact to white peers and can therefore be seen as highly isolated from the white population in Detroit – an interesting fact with regard to soul artists from Detroit at that time who were likely to at least grow up under same or at least comparable conditions. By referring to Labov, Wolfram (1969: 48f.) gives several criteria that are essential for the selection of linguistic variables for a quantitative sociolinguistic study that were later used for finding additional variables that were not included by Wolfram.

2.2.1 Phonology

The reference to Labov and Wolfram allows a list of phonological variables that are relevant for the analysis of this study:

(1) reduction of word-final consonant clusters;
(2) deletion of word-final single consonants in syllable codas: [t, d, n, m];
(3) absence of postvocalic /r/ in (a) presconsonantal and (b) word-final position;
(4) glide weakening/monophthongization of /aɪ/, e.g. words such as mine, hi, or slide would be realized as [ma:n], [ha:], [sla:d];
(5) merger of the DRESS and KIT vowel, e.g. pin and pen would both be realized as [pɪn];
(6) KIT and DRESS vowels raised and diphthongized to [ɪi].

Wolfram considers (1) as one of the most important variables in AAVE (1969: 50). Consonant clusters that will be included in the analysis are the monomorphemic [ft, ld, nd, sk, st] and the bimorphemic [nd, zd, st, ʒd, vd, kt] as the other consonant clusters that Wolfram included did not occur in the Motown or Stax data or were of too little relevance for quantitative measurement.

With regard to (2), Wolfram only includes the voiced stop /d/ in his study (1969: 51). However, both Rickford (1999) and Edwards (2008) mention other word-final consonants that appear to be relevant for a detailed analysis of AAVE. Edwards, for instance, names the deletion of /n/ (and other nasals) in word-final position (2008: 186). The reason for including this phoneme in the analysis of this paper is the fact that this feature is, according to Edwards, not shared with southern white vernacular dialects. Rickford (1999: 4) agrees with this and also includes the absence of word-final /t/ as in [kæ] for cat and the possible realization as glottal stop.

The absence of post-vocalic /r/ (variable 3) is one of the most described features of AAVE. Whereas the unconstricted realization of this phoneme has long been associated with Southern White Vernacular English (SWVE) (see McDavid 1948, Feagin 1990), the tendency of restoring the post-vocalic /r/ in the South, especially among whites (Feagin 1990: 129), led to the fact that an unconstricted postvocalic /r/ is now regarded as being most frequent in AAVE (Edwards 2008: 186). In this respect, it is even assumed that in states such as South Carolina the unconstricted realization of /r/ had originated among black slaves and was then adopted by white SWVE speakers (cf. McDavid 1948). For Detroit, Wolfram speaks of the social significance of the complete absence of post-vocalic /r/ among African Americans as white speakers have consistent constriction of this phoneme (1969: 52). For Memphis, Williamson identifies the realization of /r/ as being replaced by an unsyllabic [ə̯] or as a constricted mid-central sound [ɚ] (1968: 23). Moreover, she specifies the complete absence of /r/ in final positions after weakly stressed vowels.

As for the vowels, no feature could be taken from Wolfram’s Detroit study as he only included consonants in his analysis. Nevertheless, it appears necessary for the purpose of this paper to include vowels for a broader picture of AAVE and its phonology. The fact that glide weakening/reduction or monophthongization of the PRICE vowel (variable 4) is regarded as “the most stereotypical vocalic feature of SWVE” (Thomas 2007: 460) and is shared with AAVE is the reason for further analysis in this paper (see also Rickford 1999, Edwards 2008). Thomas further differentiates between two forms of glide weakening: First, the glide might be weakened or lost unless followed by a voiceless consonant – he calls this PRIZE/PRY glide weakening and sees it as being predominately associated with AAVE, with the weakening being strongest before /r/ and /l/. Second, the glide might be weakened in all phonetic contexts – PRICE/PRIZE/PRY weakening. The data from Memphis by Williamson suggest similar results: She finds a lengthened monophthongal [a, aˑ] for /aɪ/ in syllable final positions, apparently most frequently before voiced consonants (1969: 13). Furthermore, [aˑ] often occurs before [ə̯] in words such as fire or wire. With regard to the strong glide weakening before /r/ and /l/, Williamson states the same results with no instances of /aɪ/ before final or presconsonantal /r/. Whereas she also speaks of the monphthnongal character of the stressed pronoun I, this word is, due to the high frequency, not included in the analysis of this paper.

Finally, the merger of /ɪ/ and /ɛ/, i.e. the KIT and DRESS vowels, is of interest for the analysis of AAVE and is also frequent in SWVE (Thomas 2007: 461). Edwards (2008: 184) uses the same restriction as Thomas does when he specifies a concentrated merging before nasals. Edwards then continues with the possibility of a raised or diphthongized DRESS and KIT vowel to [ɪi] in words such as kids, since, when, or head and refers to the Southern Vowel Shift (Fig. 1) in accordance with Williamson (1968: 8) who also mentions the seldom occurrence of /ɛ/ before /n/ (1968: 13). For the purpose of comparable environments, other consonants that might follow the DRESS or KIT vowel are also included in the analysis.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig. 1. The Southern Shift (Thomas 2007: 462).

What appears intriguing in this respect is the difference between the Southern Shift and the Northern Cities Shift (Fig. 2). A possible process of Diffusion as cited above by Labov can be examined through comparing the connection between AAVE in Detroit and either the Southern or Northern Shift.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig. 2. The Northern Cities Shift (Gordon 2008: 82).

2.2.2 Grammatical Variables

The grammatical variables that will be included in this paper are the following:

(7) multiple negation, e.g. I don’t bother nobody;
(8) suffixal –s absence with further distinction between (a) third person singular present tense –s (He stand on his hind legs), (b) possessive –s (He was really my grandfather dog), and (c) plural –s (I wish I had a million dollar);
(9) zero copula be absence with further distinction between (a) predicate nominal (Dolores Æ the vice-president), (b) predicate adjective (She Æ nice), (c) predicate locative (He Æ at northwestern), (d) verb –ing (We Æ going Friday night), and (e) intentional future (It’s something you Æ gonna have) (cf. Wolfram 1969: 52ff.).

As for (7), Wolfram further distinguishes between certain forms of multiple negation. For the purpose of this study, however, and due to a lack of instances of multiple negation, all forms are included in the data.

The absence of suffixal –s in AAVE is mentioned by Wolfram in the environments (8a)-(c). Rickford (1999) also speaks of the absence in all three environments. However, he remarks that (8c) were much less frequent than (8a) and (8b) (Rickford 1999: 7). For Memphis, Williamson (1968: 33) names several environments in which the absence of a suffixal –s is more likely to occur. For instance, she mentions that for singular forms that end in /-st/ or /-sp/ (post, wasp) the deletion of the word-final consonant might lead to the subsequent deletion of the plural –s (8c). Environment (8b) is not covered by Williamson. Regarding (8a), she has results that relate to Rickford’s.

Concerning (9), Rickford (1999: 268) cites these categories that were introduced by Wolfram. Therefore, including (9a)-(9e) appears legitimate for the purpose of the study of zero copula be in AAVE as both authors regard them as relevant for further analysis.


1 Interview in the documentary “The Motown Effect – Short Documentary, Motown and Civil Rights”, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnRfyVQS_iA>, retrieved September 9, 2016.

2 Thomas (2007) further distinguishes between AAVE and African American English (AAE). The latter includes middle-class speakers and often lacks more stigmatized morphosyntactic variants. For this paper, the term AAVE will be used in order to not socially categorize all artists’ speech in the data of the analysis. Above that, this term appears to be still the the most frequently used term in the literature.

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Jim Crow and the Soul. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in Soul Music During the 1960s and 1970s
Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel
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jim crow, soul, music, aave, african-american vernacular english, african-americans, sociolinguistics, linguistics
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Patrick Husfeldt (Author), 2016, Jim Crow and the Soul. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in Soul Music During the 1960s and 1970s, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/550889


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