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Friday, July 22, 2011

Love of Place, An Appalachian Value

The Old Home Place

There are several old jokes about displaced Appalachians always trying to return home.  Probably, the best of these goes like this.  A man dies and Saint Peter is giving him a grand tour of Heaven.  They go through room after room of happy people who are enjoying all the pleasures which can be imagined in Heaven.  Then they come to a room full of people who are also enjoying good food, fellowship, and fun.  But all of them are chained to the floor with large chains and locks.  The new man asks Saint Peter, "If this is Heaven, why are all  these people chained to the floor." Saint Peter replies, "They are all from Appalachia.  They want to go home every weekend."  In "Appalachian Values", Loyal Jones tells of northern industrial supervisors who struggle to keep Appalachians on the job site who want to return to Appalachia for funerals of distant relatives.  References are also commonly made to the "Three R's of Appalachia": reading, writing, and Route 23.  

Country and bluegrass music are loaded with songs about displaced Appalachians either longing for home or giving up to go back from whence they came.  "Detroit City" is a classic of the genre and about a city which has been full of displaced Appalachians for decades.  The song is more southern than Appalachian but it is played on juke boxes every night in bars that cater to Appalachians all over the industrial north.  The final stanza and chorus say:

" I rode a freight train north to Detroit city,
After all these years I've been wasting my time,
I'll take my foolish pride,
on a southbound freight and ride,
Go on back to the ones,
I've left waitin' so far behind,
I want to go home, I want to go home,
Oh Lord, I want to go home." Detroit City by Bobby Bare.
That chorus has been spoken by thousands of displaced Appalachians who may not have even heard the song.  It captures the essence of pain in people who are forced to work in a place and a job they dislike or even hate in a locale not nearly as likable as that from which they came.  My personal favorite of the songs by and about displaced Appalachians was written and recorded by my friend Clarence Kelly, who is a displaced Appalachian himself.  The song is about a man who leaves Harlan County Kentucky for Chicago leaving a lover behind.  It is a tear jerker in the classic sense and has been recorded by numerous country and bluegrass performers.  The ballad is about a man who remains in Chicago for years always writing to the old lover "I'd like to come back home, if I ever get south of Cincinnati". He is eventually found dead in a cheap hotel room and the last stanza says "there's a slow train headed south through Cincinnati" carrying the coffin of the man who never made it home but wanted to be buried in Harlan County.  Clarence Kelly has told me he wrote that song sitting at a picnic table in his backyard in Dayton, Ohio.  How much more real can it get?

That desire to be buried in the old family graveyard is one of the key elements in Appalachian love of place. Quite often elderly displaced Appalachians will leave explicit instructions for the return of their body to the old family graveyard on property on which no member of the family may have lived for many years. I have written at length about burial customs and family graveyards in an earlier blog posting.

 Two or three other elements comprise the key pillars of this deep seated love of place.  The old home place where the displaced Appalachian was born and/or grew up is also a key element.  Old farms and rundown houses all over Appalachia are often owned jointly by dozens of individuals and two or even three generations of the descendants of the original owners.  No one may be using the property.  But someone continues to pay the taxes and no one is willing to sell the property.  These properties are held for decades in the understanding that "one of us might want to come back home sometime".  I know of several such properties within a short driving distance of my home which have not been inhabited for more than twenty years.  Yet none of them has ever been sold despite numerous inquiries by potential buyers.

Another key element of the love of place is the school to which the displaced person went as a child.  High school reunions all over Appalachia draw large percentages of the classes involved.  They may also be attended by several people who never actually graduated with their class or graduated in a different year from the same school.  Schools which have been demolished such as Knott County High School in Pippa Passes, Kentucky, which I attended, also generate nostalgia about the elements of the past which have been lost.  I recently returned to Pippa Passes, Kentucky, with two Appalachian Folk Artists whom I represent.  I actually spent time walking to and remembering the old school site which is now a parking lot, the old lunch room which is now also nonexistent, and two long gone restaurants where high school students spent time playing hooky.  Old schools are often turned into businesses and sometimes draw visitors who might otherwise never enter the particular business they became.  One former school at Sassafras in Knott County is now the home of The Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular Baptist Churches.

A great deal of emphasis is also placed on the particular county or creek where the displaced person grew up.  I have heard children and grandchildren of displaced Appalachians speak of "going home for the weekend" to the homeland of their parents and grandparents when they had actually been born and lived their entire lives in the industrial north.  The love of place gets passed down from generation to generation.  It is not uncommon for displaced Appalachians who have been gone for decades to retire and buy a small home in Appalachia to return to for the rest of their lives. 

Church also plays a large role in the love of place.  Even though most truly Appalachian denominations have spread to the industrial north with the Great Migration, this love of the church of their youth will cause Appalachians to travel home to be baptized, to actually join  a congregation, and to be buried. Old Regular Baptists from several Appalachian Associations eventually formed the Northern New Salem Association of Regular Baptist Churches which exists primarily in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois. The Little Flossie Church in this association is named for one of my half sisters, Flossie Wicker Hicks, who moved to Kendallville, Indiana, in the 1940's. 

Love of place among native Appalachians has remained strong for decades and will continue to do so.  In many ways, it is similar to the strong desire to return home which was exhibited by the Cherokee who were moved to Oklahoma in the Trail of Tears. The Cherokee did not see themselves as Appalachians and Appalachia was not a commonly spoken of concept at the time of the Trail of Tears.  But the Cherokee were returning to Appalachia and they were the original Appalachians.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Appalachia--What's In A Name

Appalachia, More Than Just A Word

The general rule of thumb in pronouncing proper names is that the owner of the name sets the rule.  In the case of place names, the rule is to pronounce the place name as the majority of residents of a place pronounce it.  We Appalachians generally pronounce the word Ap Uh Latch Uh.  Appalachian writer and song writer Billy Ed Wheeler said that his mother always said, "Billy, if you don't quit, I'm going to throw this Apple AT Cha."  Those two ways are correct.  All The Others are Wrong.  Several non-Appalachian place names provide illustrations of names which are pronounced somewhat differently than they are spelled and would include Mackinac, Michigan, which is pronounced Mack-uh-naw, and Poughkeepsie, NY, which is pronounced Puh-kip-see. The area of New York state which includes Poughkeepsie has several local place names which are Native American in origin and not pronounced anywhere near how they appear based on spelling.  There is also Apalachicola, Florida, which is pronounced Ap Uh Latch Uh Co Luh which is an amazing coincidence. Or is it? It is also interesting that the very same people who mispronounce Appalachia generally do not mispronounce Apalachicola.

Map of the Allegheny and Cumberland Plateau--Central Appalachia

Living my life in Appalachia, I have seen hundreds of outsiders, including my own Wisconsin born wife, come to the region with the best of intentions.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But, let me state for the record that my wife has adapted well to the area and learned a great deal culturally.  She has, to a degree, been assimilated into the Appalachian culture. In my post on visiting the urban Appalachians, I also quoted from an obituary by an unknown author writing in the Minutes of The Northern New Salem Association of Old Regular Baptists who had assimilated into the Appalachian culture in a very similar way.  However, this type of adaptation is rare.  Many, if not most, non-Appalachians make an ill founded attempt to change us. 

Appalachian Mountain Cabin

But back to the name Appalachia,  most times native Appalachians may not directly or immediately correct the mispronunciation of visitors or missionaries other than by pronouncing it correctly every time in the person's presence.  But they will place some degree of negative importance on a mispronunciation.  The point is that if the visitor or missionary does not care enough to learn how to pronounce the name of the region where we live correctly they generally do not care enough to matter much to us.  Visitors and missionaries will almost always put the Ap ah lay cha pronunciation on the word with a few adding an extra syllable to make it Ap ah lay che ah.  Both pronunciations are wrong, have always been wrong, and always will be wrong. The reasoning which goes into their persistent mispronunciation is identical to that espoused by the Europeans who settled America and believed they had a divine right to take the land which had been owned and occupied for thousands of years by Native Americans.  This concept is known as "manifest destiny" and is defined as:
"Manifest Destiny was a phrase which invoked the idea of divine sanction for the territorial expansion of the United States. It first appeared in print in 1845, in the July-August issue of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review. The anonymous author, thought to be its editor John L. O'Sullivan, proclaimed "our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our multiplying millions."
Manifest destiny has also been practiced in Appalachia by groups as diverse as the VISTA Program, church groups from the northeast and midwest, and outside land owners and/or mineral holding companies.  This total disregard for the free will of citizens is rarely seen elsewhere in the USA.  But it is common in Appalachia for a group of outsiders to show up driving either a U-Haul full of second hand clothes or piece of equipment for mineral extraction and to tell the locals that their actions are in our best interests.  They come mispronouncing the name of our homeland, misunderstanding or denying the authenticity of our culture, and simultaneously expecting us to believe every word they say and adapt our ways and beliefs to their expectations.  Is it any wonder that we take offense at strip mining, clear cut logging, and the way they mispronounce the name of our homeland?  Manifest destiny is also a topic I will approach in a complete blog posting at some time in the future. It has contributed greatly to the overall general negative attitude toward Appalachians and the justified anger of Appalachians toward strip mining, mineral extraction in general, clear cut logging, VISTA, and most other missionarys and missionary organizations.

It is interesting to note that when Alice Geddes Lloyd came to Knott County Kentucky shortly after the turn of the 20th century she made a  public commitment to never meddle in three issues: religion, politics, and moonshining.  Oh, how much better off Appalachia would be if all the others who followed Ms. Lloyd to the mountains had taken similar positions..

The name Appalachia is an old Native American word and has been pronounced in the region for hundreds of years in the way it was originally pronounced when the first Europeans stepped off the boat in the tidewater region.  It comes from the name of the Apalachicola tribe and actually has been translated to mean "the land of the ruling people."  My, how that interpretation has been changed over the history of Appalachia.  The mispronunciation began about the time the first missionary came to Appalachia to save us from ourselves.  It has persisted since that time.  Native Appalachians have tried to educate these people about their mistake for hundreds of years.  But it is nearly impossible to educate and correct anyone when they live under the mistaken belief that they are superior and are working to alter your life in a way to make it meet their expectations of normal.  This is what forced cultural assimilation is all about. I will, in the future, write at least one complete blog posting on the subject of cultural assimilation and ways to resist it.

Having grown up in Knott County, Kentucky, I honestly do not remember the first time I realized I was an Appalachian.  I do not recall having heard about it from my grade school teachers and I am doubtful if any of my high school teachers mentioned it either.  But I was in the first group of Upward Bound students during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations.  I also clearly remember the famous visit by LBJ to Martin County Kentucky to kick off the War On Poverty.  But when I entered the Upward Bound Program, I was exposed to several people who made lasting impressions on me and who had varying degrees of knowledge about and commitment to Appalachia.  I met Albert Stewart who founded "Appalachian Heritage" magazine and was one of the greatest poets the region has ever produced.  He was arguably one of the best writers of the modified sonnet in this country.  He also made a lasting positive impression on hundreds of native Appalachians and students of Appalachian Literature.  His commitment to Appalachia was total and lifelong. I was lucky enough to know Al and stay in touch with him until his death.  Watch for a complete posting about Albert Stewart in the Appalachian Heroes section of this blog. 

Photo of Albert Stewart, Appalachian Hero

I also met William Howard Cohen who was not Appalachian but spent much of his life in Appalachia teaching and writing at Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes in Knott County.  Bill Cohen was, to say the least, unique.  He was totally committed to abolishing strip mining in America and literally put his life, his job, and his reputation on the line dozens of times by opposing strip mining.  He was devoted to Appalachia and its preservation.  He was also generally misunderstood at best and not at all understood at worst.  He was brilliant, eccentric, and one of the finest humans I have ever known.  Watch for a complete posting about William Howard Cohen in the future.  Since he was not Appalachian, it will not be in the Appalachian Heroes section.  Bill Cohen was a non-native hero who lived and worked in Appalachia.  At this point, let me state for the record that spending some significant number of years in Appalachia does not make a non-Appalachian an Appalachian any more than my spending an equal number of years in Harlem or Los Angeles would make me African American or Hispanic.  Bill Cohen was many things.  But most of all, he knew he was not Appalachian and never tried to be.  Thereby, he avoided the most classic and egregious mistake made by the missionaries who still keep flooding our borders. Bill Cohen used that key piece of self awareness as the foundation of a long career working in Appalachia and actually being a positive influence while he was here.

During my Upward Bound days, in my first year on the Stuart Robinson Campus at Blackey, Kentucky, in Letcher County, I had the educational experience of meeting Harry M. Caudill.  I do not use the term educational in the same sense that many others refer to Harry M. Caudill.  He spoke to the Upward Bound group that summer and his best seller "Night Comes To The Cumberlands" had just come out not long before.  Each student in the program had been provided a copy of the book and it was the basic text in our summer history course that year.  Many of the students in that group, who were among the brightest in the area, showed up for Caudill's speech carrying their book and many well grounded criticisms of his low regard for his fellow Appalachians.  While he was a pretty good historian and writer, Harry M. Caudill did more to help perpetuate negative stereotypes of Appalachians than nearly any other native of the region.  His interpretation of historical and sociological data, when it referred to Appalachia and Appalachians, was nearly always wrong.  His conclusions were derogatory, defamatory, and debilitating. He was guilty of believing, expressing, and spreading most of the prejudices which continue to damage Appalachian people to this very day.   "Night Comes To The Cumberlands" is the last book anyone should ever read about Appalachia.  It should only be read after the student of Appalachia and Appalachian culture has read and learned enough to be able to see through the cultural fallacies in Caudill's work. 

Another work which is often well spoken of but has served as a millstone around the necks of Appalachians is "Deliverance" by James Dickey.  Far more people have seen the movie than have read the book.  Based on reviews by my friends in the Appalachian movement at the time, I have chosen to never bother to read the novel.  I have seen key scenes from the movie and based on their devastating portrayals of mountain people have chosen to never watch the entire film.  I am considering reversing myself and reading the book in the near future in order to write a blog posting about the damage Dickey did to the Appalachian image. 

But, to return to the stated subject of this posting, the name Appalachia is pronounced "Ap uh latch uh".  Any other pronounciation is a dead give away to natives that the speaker knows little or nothing about the  region and its people.  It is also a pretty good indicator they probably care less. If you are among the thousands of people who mispronounce the name, learn the difference and change.  Whether you are a native Appalachian or a non-native, show enough respect for the land, culture, and people of the region to learn about it, help educate others about it, and protect and defend the land, its culture, and its people.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Patriotism, An Appalachian Value

Appalachia And American Democracy

Patriotism is one of the ten basic cultural values identified by Loyal Jones in his landmark book, "Appalachian Values".  Jones says of Appalachians that:

"Appalachians have a special feeling about the flag of the United States.  This is the land that gave them freedom to be themselves, and when that freedom was threatened, they led in seeking independence." Loyal Jones, "Appalachian Values", p. 107

Jones goes on to cite several examples of how Appalachian have led the country in efforts to seek freedom from Great Britain prior to the American Revolution, how the mountains were settled by Revolutionary War veterans who were given land for their war efforts, how Union recruitment was high during the Civil War, how East Tennessee was an area of strong Union sympathy,  how both Georgia and Alabama had Union counties during the Civil War,  and how Winston County Alabama seceded from Alabama during the Civil War. 

The most awarded soldier in World War I was Sgt. Alvin C. York of Fentress County Tennessee.  He captured two German machine gun nests and marched back into camp behind 132 German prisoners in the Argonne Forest on October 8, 1918.  John Alexander Williams gives a compelling description of York in "Appalachia, A History". 

"York was never simply an American hero", Henry Shapiro has commented. "He was first and last a mountaineer because his virtues were the virtues of the native American folk.  Tall and lanky, stolid, loyal, simple, choosing duty over his Christian convictions and his pacifism, his sinewy muscles developed by splitting logs on the hillside farm, his marksman's eye trained in squirrel hunting, Alvin York was the mythic mountaineer come to life."  By practicing his mountaineer virtues as readily in France as in Tennessee, York validated the notion that these virtues derived from a culture, not just an environment.  His legend reinforced the widespread belief in Appalachian exceptionalism while at the same time confirming the essential Americanism that was at the core of the mountaineer image."  John Alexander Williams, "Appalachia, A History"; page 223.

Photo of Sgt. Alvin York

While it is inspiring to read this description of the quintessential Appalachian war hero, it is even more inspiring to visit Fentress County Tennessee, as I did in 1990.  I was, at that time, the Advance Scout for the Vision Quest Wagon Trains, a private for profit juvenile delinquency company which travels across the southeast with juveniles, horses, mules, and wagons.  I was able to secure a campsite on the old York family farm near both the grave of Sgt. York and the Sgt. Alvin C. York Historic Park on US 127 in Pall Mall, Tennessee.  During the night we camped on the farm, which is privately owned, we also screened the Hollywood film about York which starred Gary Cooper.  I was also able to meet and talk with a few members of the York extended family as we were passing through the area. 

Sgt. Willie Sandlin was an Eastern Kentucky soldier in World War I also and managed to wipe out three German machine gun nests and receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his efforts.  In addition to these two outstanding examples, hundreds and thousands of native Appalachian soldiers, both male and female, have served honorably for hundreds of years in all branches of the US military. 

Photo of Sgt. Willie Sandlin

Pvt. Jessica Lynch, a female soldier from West Virginia, was captured by Iraqi forces during Operation Desert Storm and for quite some time was the public relations face of that conflict.  She eventually left the Army and returned to a somewhat difficult civilian life in West Virginia. Her biography, "I Am A Soldier Too", by Rick Bragg is well worth reading.

Photo of Pvt. Jessica Lynch

In many ways, Pvt. Jessica Lynch represented a kind of Appalachian military volunteer upon which the media and military have fed for many years. Poor Appalachians with little formal education and poor job prospects have often joined the military as  a means of becoming self sufficient and obtaining education.  While they have fought admirably and often won distinction, they have also been used as cannon fodder, advance scouts in the jungles of Viet Nam, bomb disposal technicians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and public relations tools when they succeed. Pvt. Jessica Lynch's time as a prisoner of war and the treatment she received after leaving the military led cartoonist Mike Keefe of the Denver Post to draw the following strongly worded cartoon in 2003:

Human interest stories such as those told above are telling and generate justified pride in Appalachians.  However, researchers tend to love statistics.  The numbers of Congressional Medals of Honor awarded to Appalachians tell just as compelling a story.  John Alexander Williams, in his classic work, "Appalachia, A History" presents in graph form, on pages 384 & 385, the distribution of Congressional Medal of Honor recipients from Appalachia in contrast to the entire rest of the country and also shows figures of the representation of the total male population in Appalachia.  In World War II, 58 of 440 Congressional Medals of Honor went to Appalachians for a total of 13.2% while Appalachian males over the age of 14 represented only 12.4% of the US male population.  During the Korean War, Appalachians were awarded 26 of 131 Medals of Honor which totaled 19.8% of medals while male Appalachians over the age of 14 represented only 11.4% of the US male population.  During the Viet Nam War, Appalachians were awarded 32 of 239 Medals of Honor which amounted to 13.4% of the medals.  At that time, Appalachian males over the age of 14 only represented 8.7% of the US male population.  As of the 2002 publication of Williams' work, Appalachians had been awarded 116 of 810 Congressional Medals of Honor for a percentage of 14.3%.  The numbers of awards for valor in all categories in the US military have always been disproportionately received by Appalachian males. 

Another story of Appalachian valor in war time which is rarely if ever told involves the participation and deaths of a large contingent of Appalachian volunteers at the Alamo.  Texans hold the Alamo dear to their hearts and their history.  But to my knowledge, almost no one is ever told that Davy Crockett was not the only Appalachian who volunteered to fight and die resisting Santa Anna.  There were at least 16 of Davy Crockett's "Tennessee Boys" who also died at the Alamo. William Travis himself was from South Carolina.  But today, almost no one knows that he was not a native Texan.  Nearly a third of  the men at the Alamo have been proven to have come from the states in the Appalachian Region to join the fight for Texas independence simply because they felt it was the right thing to do and an effort worth dying for.

Photo of Davy Crockett

General Charles Elwood "Chuck" Yeager was a native of Myra on Mud River in Lincoln County West Virginia and entered the military as a buck private in the US Army Air Forces.  He became the first man to break the sound barrier after qualifying for flight training and receiving an officer's commission.  He developed a reputation as one of the best test pilots in the entire US military.  He retired as a brigadier general and was later promoted to major general in retirement due to the successes he achieved as a pilot.  He also commanded fighter squadrons during the Viet Nam War.  He was a combat ace with 11.5 official kills. He actually became an "ace in a day" with 5 kills in one day.  He was also one of the handful of pilots chosen to fly and learn about the first MIG-15 which US forces obtained via a defection.   While his individual accomplishments outstrip those of nearly all other Appalachians in the military, they are not totally atypical.  He was one of many Appalachian men and women who made the military a career and earned their way to positions of authority based purely on their individual skills. 

Photo of Major General Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager

Appalachians have fought and died in nearly ever major conflict in which this country has been involved.  In nearly every one of those conflicts, the statistical involvement of native Appalachians was highly disproportionate to their statistical representation in the population at large.  Their representation in the military continues today at levels just as high as it has ever been.  Appalachians continue to be placed in positions of greatest risk by their commanders and they nearly always justify the trust in their abilities which causes the placement.