Double Joy: Myron Cope and the Pittsburgh Sound
Sounds of joy: soda pop fizz; the movement of pleated fabric; fingers cleaning record needles; things with tiny larynges, like kittens; fists balling in tubs of popcorn; hurdy-gurdies; Judy Garland; toe shoes on wooden floors; surf on sand; the clinking of pint glasses.
I was drinking in an Iowa dive bar the evening Myron Cope passed away. When the bar’s mounted television announced his death, I immediately raised my glass to him, aiming it so the beer filtered the light of the TV and turned its images watery, golden. Since the barmatrix had turned down the volume, we were audience only to a soundless slideshow of Myronic images: Cope in a trench coat, with his mouth agape; Cope grimacing on a log flume ride with Jack “Splat” Lambert; Cope teary-eyed at the 50-yard line, slump-shouldered and dwarfed by surrounding Steelers. Without the sound of his voice, Cope was only a squinty, short man who seemed fond of making faces.
The figures behind the sports desk mouthed words that coursed the bottom of the frame in a uniform, robotic font. I wondered what the caption machine would’ve produced had Cope been behind that desk, forcing the machine to transcribe the word “Yoi.” As I watched the tribute through the amber light of my raised beer, I slackened my mouth and pronounced Myron’s adopted surname the same way I’d first heard it, washing the tones in the guttural Pittsburgh O: Coehuuuuuuuhpe. An O flattened under the wheel of a trolley car. The O you hear around Pittsburgh in things like “Here we go” and “Franco” and “overtime.” The O of the city that adopted me when I was 18 and held me tight until I was close to 30.
Words Pittsburghers associate with Pittsburgh sounds: bar fight, locomotive, industry, blue-collar, yinzer, 54C, silence, rivers, voices, joy.
As I saluted Cope with his own surname, my drinking buddies, most of them Midwesterners, looked puzzled. They had no idea whom I was toasting or, further, if the sound coming out of my mouth was even a decipherable word. I could’ve mentioned Cope’s 35 seasons of color commentary for the Steelers, his place as the only football announcer in the National Radio Hall of Fame, his early success as a writer for “Sports Illustrated” and “The Saturday Evening Post” or his legendary status as the inventor of the Terrible Towel. I should have tried to explain Cope’s place in Pittsburgh as a mouthpiece for the town and its complex disposition. Instead, my first instinct was to treat the Iowans to my best Myron Cope impression, which I did, first clenching my teeth into a half-grin, half-grimace, then rattling off his catch phrases in suspenseful, haggard Pittsburghese: “Um-haaah, cope-a-nut, this is Myron Cope … on sports.”
When I let my faux-Cope loose, my Iowa friends were skeptical: Nobody really sounds like that, do they?
II. INTERROGATIVE TONAL DROP
The giddy noise of “urban fishermen” hopping fences past the Neville Island rink, sliding down muddy riverbanks to get to an Allegheny spillway where carp are likely. Surrounding factories hum their dormant weekend buzz as the deaf-mute Pittsburgh skyline, a few miles downriver, turns pink.
I once followed three daredevil sportsmen down that riverbank, panting, swearing and grinning along with them for a magazine assignment. As we trespassed, the fishermen shouted into my Dictaphone over the sounds of the river and their parkas beating the wind. When I got home, I discovered the only sound that had made it onto the tape was white noise: a breathy, rushing erasure. Who’s to say if it was water or air?
I often catch myself watching words as they fly from people’s mouths—my own dorky bastardization of synesthesia. As if spoken words are tangible objects, deflated skins waiting for speech. As if each breath functions like a tire pump, the outlines of A’s and E’s and U’s remaining limp on the ground until a body breathes life into them. As if printed words have no meaning without unique, regional breath.
Tissue, cavities and resonators are the real fonts, ballooning typeface into the pert, scrupulous O’s of the Corn Belt; the two- or three-scooped O’s of the Delta; or the lateral, flaccid O’s of those like Cope, progeny of Lithuanian farmers and amateur boxers, born and raised in Squirrel Hill, near the city’s best sledding on Flagstaff Hill, 3.3 miles from the Monongahela, 3.4 miles from the Allegheny and five miles from the Ohio.
As if voice can be a mirror for place. As if the rivers are the skin and the hills are the bones, and the life between them is the breath that yields speech.
“This is me,” each tone says. “This is what our insides look like where I come from.”
III. THE REVERSAL OF “LET” AND “LEAVE”
Who decided, at the turn of this century, that the voice of Port Authority buses should be tight-lipped, female and almost British? Better a Muppet, better a robot than her feathery soprano as those gigantic, belching accordions move down Penn and Carson and Grant streets. To this voice, downtown is a melodious diphthong; North Side, a tickling at the lips.
I preferred earlier trips, the ones that still featured the unique voice of each driver on his raspy intercom, mashing “Neville” and “Ellsworth” and “Liberty” into indistinguishable balls of speech. It was almost as if they were trying to trick you so you’d remain in your sticky seat and keep them company all the way to the bus’s terminus.
My parents drove me the 750 miles between our home in Georgia and my Pitt dorm room the week before classes began. I remember lying in the backseat of their car as we crisscrossed Pittsburgh for the first time, falling prey to its bridges and one-way streets. Outside the car windows, dozens of geographical boundaries stopped my new home from growing further. “They built their houses up the inclines of those hills,” I thought, marveling at the crooked rows of Southside Slopes. They ran out of space on the flats and kept cramming little houses, churches and storefronts upward. I imagined each home’s secrets rolling downhill, hitting dozens of other houses before running into the river from which everyone drank.
This was a landscape so much more sedimentary than the one in which I was reared, where highways had at least four lanes per direction and Atlanta threatened to bleed outward into the other neutralized sprawls of the piedmont: Charlotte, Knoxville, Birmingham, Columbia. Our accents hemorrhaged along with that expansion, marrying the South Carolina high-country I with the Georgia red-clay R and the lower-Appalachian Wh.
Yet Pittsburgh, stuck between its rivers, discouraged the homogenized 20th-century sound from entering its valley. Linguist William Labov calls Pittsburghese “the Galapagos Island of American dialects,” explaining how, the century before, an industrial revolution dumped dozens of cultures into this valley cavity at the same time. Thus, Scots-Irish verb forms and Yiddish vocabulary and Slavic vowel changes were reined in by neighborhoods and mutated in riverfront markets. Once their sound had evolved into the least likely of speech patterns, Pittsburghers united to fight the flattening of regional sound that ran rampant through the East in the 19th and 20th centuries. Together, they forced Pittsburghese to clot.
By the morning when my parents left me, my stepfather had already learned the perils of unloading his thick twang on spunky Pittsburgh waitresses, so he sheepishly pointed to his breakfast menu instead of ordering out loud. He looked both confused and excited when his salad arrived topped with French fries.
IV. GENERAL EXTENDERS
Seventeen floors below my pie-shaped, South Oakland dorm room, an old, bald man in a huge sequined sombrero would sit on a milk crate and repeat the same four words: “Aaaaanybody have aaaany change?” Depending on the time of day and how long he’d been asking, the first a could go on for several seconds.
I heard Cope’s voice within my first few months in Pittsburgh, when I was still catching hell for my own weird accent. My first group of college friends—most of them from the Allegheny Valley—spent the majority of the fall semester giggling through impressions of the way I spoke. “Fuuck y’awl,” they’d say, snorting. “Fuuuck awl y’awl.” This became their catch phrase, which they screamed into the crowd at Pitt Stadium and the fountain and Point State Park. I only pretended to be annoyed by this.
The next year, he was still on that milk crate, though he’d shortened the plea to “Have aaaany change?” His wilting sombrero also seemed to take up less space.
Every Sunday, we watched the Steelers on tiny dorm room TVs with the sound muted and the stereo cranked so we could underscore the picture with Cope’s play-by-play. “What the hell does ‘Yoi’ mean?” I asked. They died laughing. “Whut the hail!” they parroted back to me. Whuut the Haaaaail?
Around graduation, the sombrero hung down his back like a hood. “’Body have any change?” was all he managed.
During that fun, wordy semester, every one of my new friends ferried me home to the satellite towns of Pittsburgh where they were reared: Moon, Ambridge, Swissvale, Blawnox. I remember having to pay extra close attention as I met their families and friends. Pittsburgh kids spoke so quickly and with an entirely different contextual music than the voices from back home. “Their questions have no question marks,” I remember thinking.
Up until very recently, he was still there, camped out on Forbes. The sombrero had been demoted to the sidewalk, a receptacle for bills and coins. “Heavenlychay,” he said.
By the second semester, either they all stopped noticing my accent, or it stopped being noticeable. By sophomore year, I started noticing my stepfather’s when he called me on the phone.
V. THE MERGER OF LOW BACK VOWELS
Have human voices ever traveled farther than on game days? In 2004, I lived a noisy mile from Heinz Field, and Sundays, the unified voice of the stadium shot past the post office, the Clark Building and the National Aviary, straight through to my window. Is this why dozens of cultures put their life in the pibroch, the war cry?
Even the mammoth noise of the JumboTron couldn’t carry as far. The noise from PNC Park has never even come close. Three years earlier, I’d leaned against a railing on Mount Washington and watched Three Rivers Stadium explode, and that, too, felt muted in comparison.
I think about the slow decline of my own accent as a sad contrast to Cope, who, in the face of professional ridicule, not only kept his dialect but turned it into a trademark. In his memoir, Cope notes the resistance he met in the radio world, how colleagues compared his speaking style to natural disasters, excrement and violent machinery. The grate in his voice meant something to listeners, though; it confirmed his masculinity and his ethos as a Rust Belt hero. Dried up and aerated by whiskey and smokes, it was a voice of folly, hard knocks and a destructive past. Paired with these ripped-to-shit phonemes was a famous energy, a jovial underscore. Underneath his haggard vowels, each word floated on a current of enthusiasm completely unmatched by any other sports broadcaster.
This is where the action is: in the corroded joy of Cope’s tones, the childlike brightness of a middle-aged man who refused to forfeit either his schoolboy accent or his youthful susceptibility to last-ditch blitzes and Immaculate Receptions. Something about this contradiction—the buoyant music beneath the sharps and flats of his Yinzer dialect—made Pittsburghers claim Cope’s sound over both the more velvety voice boxes of the Allegheny Valley (Como, Iris, Christie) and other weird Western Pennsylvania voices (Stewart, Warhol, Weissmuller).
After all, what better way to encapsulate the white noise of Pittsburgh—a town of turbulent wealth and weather, buzzing with kinetic energy, compacted by rock and water—than with a raspy, self-made spaz, just shy of five-feet tall? There, in Cope’s smoky cords and stunted growth plates, listeners experienced the noise of their city. Piped through his lungs, throat, teeth, cheeks, lips were horns, factory exhaust, incline cars, bar gibber, even occasional birdsong. Listeners turned up their radios, took a deep breath and sighed. “Derz noe place like hoehme.”
VI. THE PUNCTUAL WHENEVER
In Shadyside, I used to mark seasons by the sounds of household goods hitting the sidewalk. Two lovers lived above me, and during their frequent fights, they’d hurl things off their balcony and onto Elmer Street. Thus, a guitar splintering on the ice became “winter.” “Spring” was a television exploding into a wet pothole; “summer,” the sound of leaves breaking the fall of a stock pot.
Like storms, the voices would start off as distant sounds, rise up into a bellowing pitch, then deceptively fade before a second crescendo of equal magnitude. At the tail end, there were other loud sounds that, though softer, held their own kind of violence.
Of all the sounds that make up Pittsburgh’s voice, the soundless moments often seem the most telling. Pittsburgh, unlike other urban places, can lift away all its trademark sounds with remarkable ease. In the death of these sounds, there’s always some kind of surprise.
On a recent trip back to Pittsburgh, I decided to take a walk down Forbes Avenue with a friend at 1:30 a.m. The elbow of Forbes and Craig, normally packed with cars, buses and construction, slept like an off-hours soundstage. The shops on Craig Street were facades we could push over with our palms. Someone had decided to project a moody silent film onto the walls of the Carnegie Museum: images of owls and antelopes and hotel rooms undisturbed by sirens or street toughs or other tones in the public voice.
It was so quiet, in fact, that my friend and I could easily hear the hum of three school buses idling alongside the Natural History Museum at this unlikely hour, their doorways agape—three sleeping elephants in the middle of Oakland, a stone’s throw away from the silent, pencil-necked dinosaur statue. Inside, their drivers were slumped over, snoring. It was then, standing in the quiet night, we saw that the lights of the Natural History Museum were still on, that its doors were open and that the guard at the front desk was sleeping, too.
As we walked past the guard and into the cavernous marble of the Museum, we heard an amplified R & B voice coming from behind a set of heavy oak doors. “It’s a prom,” my friend said. And then, as if it was nothing, we walked inside. We sauntered past the tipsy chaperones, past the empty refreshment table, right to where the well-heeled adolescents were bumping and grinding to the slow jam.
To me, the song sounded nearly tuneless. It wasn’t a love song; the low end was too heavy, the rhythm too syncopated, the singer too hell-bent on melisma to get any of his sexier points across. This sound was born long after I was, and not having grown up with it, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. In the weird six-part harmony of the synth and the unpredictable line of the bass, I felt my heart lurch a bit. How the hell did anybody dance to this?
Looking around at the prom goers, who by now had sweated through their makeup and two-hour updos (some of the gents had even taken off their shirts), you could tell they found the voice much more soothing and righteous. They’d paired off to move in that still-rocky teenage way—hips one place, arms another, hands absolutely everywhere, faces far apart—and you could tell that, for them, things were harmonious, a sonnet of a night.
And I remember thinking of Cope, who, by that time, had been dead for months. He’d never lost his accent, despite its dissonance, and his stubborn speech eventually became music to millions of people. No longer jarring or unconventional, his voice became the voice. Sports fans and Pittsburgh people danced to that voice; they put their arms around each other and lurched about. Occasionally, they even got a little funky, yielding baby Cope-a-nuts, who, like the child of the woman who called in during Cope’s final broadcast, knew within the first months of their lives to respond, “On Sports,” when the voice on the radio called out, “This is Myron Cope.”
VII. REMOVED INFINITIVES
The sound of a city stopping: One freezing day in February, Downtown tried to stand still on the warped steps of the courthouse with the mayor and the chairman of the Steelers. Each pair of hands raised a yellow piece of terrycloth over their heads and circled it, propeller style, in the late winter sleet. Instead of pairing the towel wave with the customary screaming, the crowd and the news cameramen surrounding them remained voiceless.
Their reverence made way for other Pittsburgh sounds: the cuckoo of the vacant crosswalks, the sound of blessed fabric in the air and that same air—a little brisk, a little dirty—hitting the microphone.