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Wednesday, March 19, 2014


LORD, I'm 500 miles away from home!

Following the end of World War II hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and military support people returned home with no clear plan of employment and not a lot of jobs available.  This was especially true in the Appalachian South.  This precipitated one of the largest human migrations in the history of the United States.  Thousands upon thousands of native Appalachians left Central and Southern Appalachia to go to the industrial Midwest and north.  Many of them, along with their descendants,  still remain there today.  In many ways, both subtle and obvious, they changed the history, culture, and sociology of the regions to which they moved.  I have mentioned in other posts that they brought their churches, foods, habits, music, and arts with them and transplanted those elements along with themselves into the sometimes resistant soil of their new homeland.  I have also written one post about Dead Baby Music, A Subgenre Of Bluegrass and, in part, that music is also the music of a displaced people.  I also wrote a post about visiting my own relatives in Kendallville, IN, a town which was forever changed by this migration.  That post can be found at  Visiting The Urban Appalachians

In the area of their music, they made an impression not just on the area in which they were living but on the entire country.  This was especially true of country music, bluegrass, and to a a lesser degree, jazz and blues.  Just as the book "The Dollmaker" became a part of American literature, the music of these transplanted Southern Appalachians became an integral part of American music.  Songs such as "Detroit City", "South of Cincinnati", "Times Is Gettin' Harder", and even Johnny Cash's "One Piece At A Time" were the music of a displaced people working in America's factories to make the products of a country.  

Just as "The Dollmaker" was the story of a people living a life they disliked in a place they had no desire to come to love, songs like these were the musical tears of a people who had come to a cold, distant, and different land in order to make their way.  And in spite of how much they may have disliked the lives they were leading, they came to many forms of success just as Joseph did in Egypt.  The musical structure of these works held diligently to the music of Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and the rest of the Appalachian Mountains.  Their lyrics were the wails of displaced people who longed to see the hills of home.  And, without belaboring this aspect of it, this music was a manifestation of the Appalachian Value Love of Place about which I have written so much.  

These songs told stories about the lives of displaced people in very many ways.  The absolute classic among them is Bobby Bare's "500 Miles Away From Home"  part of the lyrics of which state: "well I didn't have to pack.  I had it all right on my back.  Well, I'm 500 miles away from home."  That is a typical story of thousands of native Appalachians who mustered out of the military or simply graduated from high school and immediately left for what my high school sociology teacher Wallace Niece used to call "Dayton, Detroit, Middletown, and all points north."  They found a town with jobs, sometimes with the assistance of a relative who had gone on ahead and already had work.  They took what little money they had and began walking from door to door, factory to factory seeking work until some hiring agent who knew the traits of this group of people hired them.  Then they went to work and soon bought a car, a house, and sometimes became trapped by their possessions and related debts.  But life didn't always go well and sometimes they found themselves doing without, drawing unemployment, and unable to return home if they wanted to.  The Bobby Bare lyrics go on to say: "I know this is the same road I took the day I left home.  But it sure looks different now.  And I guess  I look different too cause time changes everything.  I wonder what they'll say when they see their boy looking this bad."  And in situations like that, many of them never even made the attempt to go back home.  

My bluegrass song writing friend Clarence Kelly told this part of the story in a way that is rarely equaled in country or bluegrass  with his classic song "South of Cincinnati".  It is a love story gone wrong but that love story involves both a couple and the love of the mountains.  The song is about a man who left Harlan County Kentucky to go to Chicago to work after telling the woman he loves he will be back someday.  But he never comes back and eventually dies in a "cheap cow city motel" and the last stanza finds "a slow train headed south through Cincinnati" carrying him back to the hills of Harlan.  

And, of course, not everything went well for these people just as it did not go well for Gertie Nevels in "The Dollmaker".  She lost a child.  These displaced Appalachians lost children, divorced, became unemployed, drank too much whiskey, and lost their way at times.  And to the good fortune of the rest of us, they often put those losses into lyrics and music.  One of the most poignant and powerful of these songs is "The Rolling Mills Of Middletown" by Tom T. Hall, perhaps the greatest of the Appalachian lyricists.  In this story, his protagonist marries the wrong woman, moves to Middletown Ohio and goes to work in a steel mill where the "rolling mills of Middletown roll on, roll on, roll on".  As the story progresses, the man is sent home from work early one night but decides to stop for "a good cold beer at a little bar.  His woman and some day turn guy were dancing closely there."  And the man simply turns and walks away to end the story in a bone chilling manner which is Tom T. Hall at his best.  

"Some say they saw him near the tracks at furnace number one with heat so hot the hubs of hell would seem just barely warm.  Well they never saw my friend again. Did he do something wrong?  The rolling mills of Middletown roll on, roll on, roll on."

Not all of these stories of displacement and relocation ended in such a strongly negative manner.  Many thousands of these people succeeded admirably and went on to wealth and fame.  And the combination of success and failures; births and deaths; marriages, divorces, and wedded bliss led to the creation of some of the best music in American country, bluegrass, jazz, and blues.  The people of Appalachia who had gone north to attempt to make their individual marks on the towns they found collectively left a far greater mark on the music of the common people of the entire country. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Reflections On The Death Of Pete Seeger

If I Had A Hammer, I'd Hammer In The Morning
Pete Seeger, a genuine America hero, is dead.  I never knew Pete Seeger but we had one friend in common, the Appalachian poet and social activist Don West.  Pete Seeger and Don West had a great deal in common.  Both were hauled in front of the Senate Un-American Activities Committee which was chaired by Wisconsin's right wing radical Senator Joseph McCarthy.  Both Pete Seeger and Don West stood up to Senator McCarthy and his right wing minions with unflinching persistence and refused to be cowed by a classic example of a small minded, black hearted, egocentric man who had managed to accumulate far more power than he was capable of handling in a responsible manner.   Both Pete Seeger and Don West walked out of the McCarthy Hearings with new, ironclad determination to exercise their right to free speech and to dedicate their lives anew to the causes of the poor, minorities, elderly, infirm, and the working class.  Both men faced persistent problems throughout the rest of their lives due to this work for good, right, just causes.  They were frequently defamed, belittled, and pilloried by the forces in America which have always fought to prevent just causes from being successful.  But neither of them ever gave up on the fight and went to their graves after speaking about injustices as long as it was physically possible for them to do so. 

Pete Seeger was a shining example of a public figure who knew how to use his fame to help others.  He spoke out in songs, speeches, and written prose on nearly a daily basis for more than seventy years.  Since his death, I have read quotes from him as recently as 2011 in which he was still seeking to right wrongs, repair injustices, and change the world for the better.  Don West did the same until his death at age 86 in 1992. I was also lucky enough to meet two others who were interrogated and  pilloried by the McCarthy Committee, Florence and Sam Reese, and to spend one day in their company in November 1974 at a workshop at the Highlander Center in New Market, TN, which was co-founded by Don West.  Sam Reese was a union member and organizer during the UMWA strikes in Harlan County Kentucky during the 1920's and his wife Florence was a songwriter and singer who wrote the classic union song, "Which Side Are You On", during those union efforts.  Just like Pete Seeger and Don West, Florence and Sam Reese never stopped speaking out against injustice and working to right wrongs and improve living conditions for the working class, the poor, minorities, ill, and elderly.  They also travelled the country as long as it was physically possible for them to do so and Sam  Reese was actually in poor health when I met the Reese's but he was still working and speaking out to the best of his ability to do so. 

I have learned a great deal from knowing Don West, knowing the work of Pete Seeger, and learning for one day at the feet of Florence and Sam Reese.  The most important thing I learned from them all was that freedom of speech is a sacred right given to us by the founding fathers and should never be abridged or endangered and should also be exercised at every opportunity especially in the presence of those like Senator Joseph McCarthy who would seek to impair, endanger, or infringe upon it.  I learned that there will always be people like Joseph McCarthy who are willing to ignore and even run roughshod over the constitution in order to promote their own interests and opinions.  I also learned that speaking out in support of the best interests of the poor, minorities, elderly, infirm, and working class can be an expensive and painful habit.  But I also learned that there must be those of us who are persistently and unceasingly willing to speak out and to suffer whatever consequences might occur in order to promote the truth, to fight injustices, and to seek to make the world a better place for all who live in it no matter how vocal, venomous, or virulent the opposition may become. 

It is particularly interesting that Pete Seeger died in these current times when a particularly vocal, venomous, and virulent group of people have risen to some serious levels of power in this country and are totally devoted to destroying the rights and lives of those less fortunate than themselves.  A Right Wing Radical Fringe of the Republican Party is once again holding sway with millions of attentive listeners and they are working to impair voting rights; destroy trade unionism;  reverse important gains such as minimum wage, overtime pay, health care reform, gay marriage, and women's rights.   This group is led by several members of congress including, but not limited to, Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, Representative Paul Ryan, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and a handful of other slightly less vocal and virulent public figures.  These are particularly dangerous people and these are the most dangerous times for human rights and free speech in America since the McCarthy Era.  This group of public figures have managed to gain the support of several hundred thousand to a few million Americans and to promote a number of various assaults on voting rights, free speech, universal religious freedom, health care accessibility, and a plethora of lesser social contracts which have been forged by voters and workers over the last 50 to 100 years. 

There has never been a more important time for socially responsible individuals to stand up, speak out, and work to promote the best interests of all Americans.  I ask each of you who reads this piece to spend some time in reading, study, and observation in order to prepare yourselves to support the common good just as Thomas Paine and the founding fathers did.  Work to develop the unceasing and unflinching fearlessness Pete Seeger and the others I have mentioned developed in the face of Joseph McCarthy.  Stand up, speak out, and never cease to do so until the day they bury you just as Pete Seeger, Don West, Florence Reese, and Sam Reese did.  

Monday, January 6, 2014

101.1FM, WSGS Radio, My Favorite Places In Appalachia

I have mentioned in other posts once or twice the fact that I grew up listening to radio on a couple of stations in Eastern Kentucky.  But the station I have mentioned most frequently and the one I consider to be the best radio station in Appalachia is WSGS FM 101.1 in Hazard, KY.  Their excellent website can be found at WSGS Radio . The station was one of the first to be licensed in Eastern Kentucky and one of the first 100,000 watt stations in the area also.  At the time, Hazard was a small town and waiting for the coal boom which made it famous.  Earnest Sparkman, a native of Knott County and a former University of Kentucky basketball player, along with a couple of partners obtained a license and opened the station.  Over the course of time, Earnest Sparkman managed to buy out all his partners and his descendants still operate the station today.  They play an eclectic mix of country, bluegrass, mountain music, and a bit of other genres sometimes accidentally and sometime on purpose.  They are available over the Internet and have a loyal following of former Eastern Kentucky people all over the world.  Their website is also very well managed and takes a strong interest in history, both their own and that of the local area. 
WSGS is exactly what a small town radio station should be and yet, with 100,000 watts of power and a broadcast tower located on one of the highest mountains in Kentucky, they boom their signal out over portions of five or more states.  You can listen to them all the way from Southern West Virginia to Western Kentucky and from Southern Ohio to Western North Carolina and a large chunk of East Tennessee.  They still run a local advertising base with most advertisers being businesses located in Perry County and the surrounding counties.  They run one of the best bluegrass and classic country formats in the entire southeast and regularly play songs from the early days of radio.  They also have recently resurrected their swap shop show which had been off the air for several years.  They broadcast University of Kentucky men's basketball and a plethora of local and regional high school games.  They are also one of the longest running broadcasters of the Kentucky Sweet Sixteen Boy's Basketball Tournament in the entire state. 
But the best, most unique, and most entertaining part of their regular broadcast schedule is known as The Faron And Scott Show, a wide ranging, free wheeling half hour of conversation, country music, telephone requests and bizarre slices of life which comes on each weekday morning at 9:35am.  The show is run by the station manager, Faron Sparkman, and a regular member of the broadcast crew, Scott Napier.  It is the continuation of what began as The Faron And Bob Show or The Excellent Adventure.  The show was renamed after the death of long time station engineer, Bob Hale, who passed away in his early 60's on the 60th anniversary of the station after having been the man who held equipment together and cohosting the show for many years.  The Faron And Scott Show is very difficult to describe but it is a throwback to all the little radio stations in the southeastern United States when new station owners and broadcasters were first trying to find out exactly what that new fangled thing radio was all about.  They allow call ins and have a regular cast of callers from around the area who might call to talk about anything from the death of Ray Price to the ongoing effort to catch an irritating rooster running loose in the city limits of Hazard. One of the more hilarious recent call in requests was for the country classic song "Make The World Go Away" by Eddy Arnold for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in light of his recent political fiasco with the lane closure on the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey.  The show begins with a minute or so blend of short sound clips gleaned from radio, television, old commercials, and news shows that will initially make no sense whatsoever to the new listener.  I am certain that nearly every weekday at least one or two people driving through the area hear the beginning of the show and believe they have wandered into the Twilight Zone and rapidly choose to miss out on one of the most unique and interesting radio shows in America today.  But for the thousands of regular listeners and hundreds of regular callers, the show is a mandatory part of daily life in Appalachia.  The show might feature an interview with a new performer or band who are on the road promoting a new release or  a tribute to some radio legend who has passed away recently.  The unlimited surprises of life on the radio are what make the show well worth your time. 

Over the 65 years that WSGS has been in operation, they have survived floods, a major fire, and the onslaught of canned radio on satellite.  Their listeners are loyal and never desert the station.  The management also has managed to preserve thousands of hours of priceless tape including founder Earnest Sparkman broadcasting from the scene of the Floyd County School Bus Wreck; live music performances by The Singing Miner, a pro-union disc jockey and former coal miner; sports broadcasts by famed basketball announcer Cawood Ledford; and hours and hours of Earnest Sparkan playing Santa Claus and a character known as Greasy Creek Bill who still delivers taped one liners on the station long after the death of his creator.

WSGS is a throwback to radio as it used to be and a harbinger of what radio could be if station owners had more in mind than just selling advertisements and pleasing whatever statistical slice of the community which spends the most money.  It is a place where a poor, isolated, Appalachian of little or no means can feel comfortable calling in to share human contact with a disc jockey who will provide that contact with respect, humor, and appreciation.  WSGS is well worth spending some of your time either driving in your car, or listening on the internet in order to enjoy a slice of life in the Appalachia of both today and yesterday.  It is one of my favorite places in Appalachia.