Sing a song of Baltimore 'Balmoron' pokes gentle fun at city's speech Tom Keyser

June 26, 1992|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

Dave Lowe's grandparents always put their dishes in the "zink." They went shopping "down da avnew." And if it wasn't something like this, it was "sumpin like gat."

So one day recently Mr. Lowe, a 27-year-old local musician, took his guitar, paper and pen to his grandparents' house. He asked them to start spouting all the Baltimore words and expressions they could think of.

"All these words just kept coming out -- po-lice, zink, Hollantown," Mr. Lowe says. "In two or three hours I had it all written down. It was done."

What was done was "Balmoron," a tuneful ditty about things Baltimore sung in that peculiar, nasal, sing-song dialect known as Baltimorese.

Mr. Lowe recorded the song and made 1,000 cassettes. He sent tapes to local radio stations, and several have played it. A couple have had him in for interviews.

"As soon as I heard it I said: 'We've got to get this on the air,' " says Robert Benjamin, program director at WHFS-FM (99.1). " 'People have got to hear this.' "

"I thought it was one of the funniest things I'd ever heard," says Ron Benton, who is Dave Marcum's morning sidekick on WGRX-FM (100.7). "It hit the nail on the head for a lot of people. Everybody who grew up in Baltimore, even if they don't talk like that, knows somebody who does."

Mr. Lowe didn't grow up in Baltimore; he grew up in Randallstown. But his grandparents, Kate and Howard Wilson, and an aunt, Marian Lepson, lived in West Baltimore, and his uncle, Vernon Lepson, grew up in Pigtown.

Mr. Lepson, 74, says that when he went into the service during World War II the other soldiers made fun of the way he talked. That was the first time anyone accused him of butchering the English language.

"I didn't know no difference," he says. "That's how everybody talked in Pigtown."

This one soldier from Pennsylvania gave him an especially hard time -- after Mr. Lepson said he was from "Balmore."

"Hell," the soldier snarled, "you don't even know where you're from. Say it again?"

"Balmore."

The soldier wouldn't appreciate Mr. Lowe's song, either. Here's one verse:

"On Saturday nights we all go bowin down in Hollantown. Do our cookin wit dat Ol Bay, cause it's the best a-round. The fishes are hookin and the crabs are a-cookin, so break out the National Boh. Tomorrow're goin on down the ballpark to root for dem dere O's."

And the chorus:

"I'm a Balmoron. Yes a Balmoron. You can surely see. B-A-L-M-O-R-O-N, that's the name for me."

Mr. Lowe says the song isn't meant to be derogatory -- "just to be funny, especially to people who talk like that."

He even dedicates the tape to "all who make 'Balmore' Charm City. Never change."

Mr. Lowe heads the band Class Act, which plays a wide range of music from the last 40 years. But he played all the instruments himself and recorded "Balmoron" in the studio where he works during the day.

He works with his father, Herb, who owns Cassette Systems Inc. in Woodstock in southwestern Baltimore County. The company duplicates tapes. So Dave Lowe made 1,000 copies of "Balmoron."

On what you might call the flip side he added "Spellin Tess," a clever routine including such words as "wooder," "Marlin" and "Naplis."

Then he sent tapes to radio stations and persuaded Recordmasters, Record Theatre and Record & Tape Traders to sell it for $3.50. You can also buy it directly from Mr. Lowe by writing to the Balmoron Fan Club, 10037 Davis Ave., Woodstock, Md. 21163.

And sometime over the weekend, 500 cassettes will be available at various Sam Goody stores, says Larry Geidel, Sam Goody district manager for the Baltimore area. "I've been getting requests," he says.

"This song will never go national, or even regional," Mr. Lowe wrote in his letter to the radio stations. "It's just a simple song that makes us 'Balmorons' feel good."

That's B-A-L-M-O-R-O-N, as in: "That's the name for me."

The vague origins of 'Baltimorese'

Where did Baltimorese come from? There seems to be no definitive answer.

Gordon Beard, a retired Associated Press reporter and native "Balmoron," wrote two guides on the subject: "Basic Baltimorese" in 1979 and "Basic Baltimorese II" in 1990. He wrote:

"Linguists and scholars have argued for years over its derivation and have suggested various blends of Virginia Southern, Pennsylvania Dutch, Brooklynese, Allegheny Mountain English, Irish and British Cockney."

John Goodspeed, author for 16 years of "Mr. Peep's Diary," a local feature in The Evening Sun that often dealt with language, says Baltimorese is an odd mixture of Cockney, Pennsylvania Dutch and "a little bit of Southern thrown in there, too."

Every now and then a scholar of some sort would ask him about the dialect. "The first thing they'd say when they interviewed me was that I'm all wrong about it," he says. "But I've never seen any other explanation."

The best one may be from Lou Panos, a former Evening Sun columnist, whom Mr. Beard quotes in his guides:

"It requires a delicate blend of nasal and guttural tones which can be evoked only by one whose sinuses and pharynx have been conditioned since birth by breathing air laden with the brackish spray of Chesapeake Bay backwaters and by ingesting huge quantities of highly seasoned back fin lumps of steamed crab meat and a sufficiently soothing volume of beer right from the bottle or can."

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