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."