5

In two songs I've listened to recently, "River of Jordan" by The Carter Family (1929-1932) and "Wayfaring Stranger" by Doc Watson (1992, but was almost certainly first played much earlier), the word "Jordan", in the context of biblical reference to the River Jordan, is pronounced more like "Jerdon"/ "Jerden" than how we might typically pronounce it as in "Michael Jordan".

As a native British English speaker, this pronunciation jumps out to me as being quite unusual and distinct from the normal pronunciation.

They don't seem to pronounce any other words differently. Both Doc and Maybelle Carter are from a similar part of the U.S.A (from my European standpoint); North Carolina and Virginia respectively.

Is there a historical reason for why it is pronounced this way, and why the pronunciation has changed in modern times?

9
  • Pronounciation in songs is often influenced by trying to fit the tune. Did you try using what you consider the "modern" Jordan pronounciation with the songs? Commented Aug 12, 2022 at 11:29
  • @KillingTime yes, the word 'Jordan' isn't rhyming with anything and in modern versions of Wayfaring Stranger, like Johnny Cash's version from 2000, he pronounces 'Jordan' in the 'modern' conventional way.
    – user438383
    Commented Aug 12, 2022 at 13:03
  • Do they mispronounce other words? I wonder if it was common to use a distinctive pronunciation for Biblical terms, maybe to indicate the often-unusual diction of preachers (or maybe of African American spirituals or some other forms of speech or singing). I certainly can't find any evidence of changed pronunciation of Jordan (e.g. there are no alternative spellings).
    – Stuart F
    Commented Aug 12, 2022 at 14:50
  • 1
    This sounds like a regional accent.
    – Barmar
    Commented Aug 12, 2022 at 16:15
  • 4
    In the era of President Jimmy Carter and his contingent of advisors from Georgia, one prominent figure was Hamilton Jordan. It was widely reported in contemporaneous news sources that he and those around him pronounced his last name "Jerdon." This lends circumstantial force to Barmar's comment above that the pronunciation may be standard in some regions (such as Appalachia or the U.S. South).
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Aug 12, 2022 at 17:26

2 Answers 2

4

As for The Carter Family, the "Program for the Sixtieth Annual Festival of the Worcester County Musical Association," published in 1917, seems to provide the answer in an essay starting on page 70 of "The Fourth Concert" section.

"I stood on the River of Jordan" started out as a so-called "Negro spiritual," part of a genre of gospel music associated with (typically enslaved) African-Americans. At that time, "the colored people" (as the essay states) would pronounce "Jordan" as "Jerdon." In the African-American English of the day, this resulted in "I stood on the river of Jordan" being pronounced as "I stood on de ribber ob Jerdon."

While The Carter Family sings most of the song in a traditional white "old Southern" accent, they appear to have deliberately preserved the original African-American pronunciation of "Jordan." This may be because the song wouldn't have been recognizable otherwise. But it's also likely relevant that this wasn't really about the river in the Middle East. As Wikipedia notes:

Before and during the Civil War, the Ohio River was called the "River Jordan" by slaves crossing it to escape to freedom in the North via the Underground Railroad. More escaping slaves, estimated in the thousands, made their perilous journey north to freedom across the Ohio River than anywhere else across the north-south frontier.

As for the Doc Watson song, this blog post by James Anderson states that the original song ("I Am a Poor, Wayfaring Stranger") may have had a similar origin:

If the song arose among enslaved Black people, the text takes on an additional layer of meaning. As scholars have noted, spirituals often contained coded language. “Heaven” or “the promised land” referred to the place of rest for the Christian, but also to the freedom of the North. The “Jordan River” might be an allusion to the Israelites’ journey in the Old Testament (notably, as they were leaving their own slavery), but also could refer to the Ohio River, which separated slave states from free ones. References to trains (as in “This Train Is Bound for Glory”) provided a hidden reference to the Underground Railroad.

The pronunciation of "Jordan" as "Jerdon" is thus likely of a similar origin: again the song started out in African-American communities where the "Jerdon" pronunciation was common, particularly when used to refer to the Ohio River, and that pronunciation was preserved by later white singers.

This may not be the whole story; as in the case of Hamilton Jordan cited in one of the comments above, the "Jerdon" pronunciation may also have been established independently among white speakers. But the above suffices to explain its occurrence in the two songs cited.

2
  • Fascinating, thank you.
    – user438383
    Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 21:46
  • I ended up spending like an hour going down this rabbit hole. But it was fascinating! Thanks for the question.
    – alphabet
    Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 22:32
-2

In the Carter Family song saying Jerdon it is not used to rhyme with something. Auburn football coach pronounced his name Jerdon.

3
  • 1
    This doesn't answer the question of why do some folk songs from 1930s Appalachia pronounce the word 'Jordan' as 'Jerdon'? Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 17:10
  • The Auburn football coach whose surname was Jordan also spelled his first name/nickname 'Shug' but pronounced it 'Shoog' (as in 'sugar'), I believe.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 7:24
  • Please cite your sources on this extending beyond one football coach and explain why you know it is relevant to the song.
    – alphabet
    Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 2:49

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.