06 June, 2006

Green Pastures

Near ever'thing 'bout The Green Pastures is funny, yes suh, mighty funny. In short, it's a retelling of famous Bible stories with a cast of rural black Southerners from the 1930s. Written by a white New Yorker. How could that go wrong? Leaving aside its marvelously wayward theology, the film gives us, c. 2006, a renewed English vernacular. The language of po' Louisiana Negroes shines not only in the rich and varied music of the speaking voices, but also in the expressions themselves, offbeat but so natural, an echo of an era now all but forgotten. George Reed's Sunday-school teacher explains to his young charges about the emptiness of the Beginning:
There wasn't nobody in New Orleans,
on account there was no New Orleans.

There wasn't nothing on Earth;
on occasion [of the] reason there wasn't no Earth.

This boy Cain was a mean rascal,
on account of 'cause he killed his brother.
We can expand the first and third phrases to 'on account of the fact that', but the second is more peculiar—and a googling turns up no appropriate hits. A troublesome boy in the class is told by Reed, 'Content yourself!', which has since become a favourite with Mrs. Roth and myself. A more subtle exchange occurs between De Lawd and Gabriel after the flood, standing on the Ark and looking out over the ruined Earth:
Lawd (smiling): Well, it's dead.

Gabriel (impassive): So I see.

Lawd (taken aback): Don't seem to set you up much.

As with the Rastafarian vernacular, listening to this speech awakens something older, a harmonic in the body, as if hearing Hendrix play All Along the Watchtower for the first time, or catching Bing Crosby duet with Rosemary Clooney on the familiar Brazil. Here, again, is that creative spirit, the beating anew of words and phrases on the linguistic anvil. I wasn't around in 1930s Louisiana, so I have no idea how accurate this rendition is; but it doesn't matter. Fictitious or genuine, this is a joyous, even a religious, presentation of the English language.

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