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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.

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