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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Appalachian Blues on Hillbilly Highway

Jack Lynch

As you read this article, I will be traveling down Interstate 81 in Virginia with my father to attend the Dr. Ralph Stanley annual Hills of Home Memorial Weekend Bluegrass Festival and celebrate the music of my heritage in the mountains of North Carolina. My own son, five years old, is growing up under the influence of these sounds of acoustic aural identity – "Dad, don't let them hear that – they'll think we're crazy!" But he really loves it, rocking in the backseat as the banjo's ring out. Whenever he gets in the car now, he asks for bluegrass on the satellite radio.

I spent a lot of time living with extended family in the mountains of North Carolina – they had been there generations - while growing up inside the beltway, I regularly spent summers and holiday seasons in that subsection of the larger American south – so Appalachian values come native, as they say…and the recent national media fascination with the Appalachian region's rejection of Obama appears to me to say more about the mindset of the press and the culture than it does about the supposed hillbilly aesthetic I know.

Neither native son, John Edwards, nor the great American salvation candidate, Barack Obama, have much effect on the mountains of Appalachia - even as they espouse common man values and identification with the downtrodden – the New South is a wary bird, its plumage more effect, and its reality too honest in its evangelical beliefs, to take distraction and become swayed by the sort of blather laid down by the suited millionaires seeking the keys to an earthly kingdom.

"You should never be hungry," Obama told a cheering crowd …, "you should never be homeless, you should never face the threat of poverty, ever!" - and "For too long Washington has ignored their struggles. For too long, they've been told, 'there's nothing we can do to help you.' – Edwards added in announcing his support. Link

It sounds like a message that might reach Appalachia – but it falls on empty ears – places where the three crosses placed on hills along the interstate by a lottery winner have more credence – the social justice of Appalachia has never been handouts or government support – in fact, within my family and friends, those eligible virtually always rejected such offers – except when there was no breadwinner at home, and the commodities of cheese and canned beef were handed out.

I've tasted those commodities meals, and the cornbread and pinto bean lunches, along with squirrel and rabbit and even bear from the hill hunts. One difference between that kind of poverty, and what is more normative in our more economically developed areas – is that you could grow enough to get by on, on your own plat of land.

The story of southern adaption and inheritance of African banjers, and light fealty to blues taught to early country music artists by black workmen, the first guitar lessons of Hank Williams and Doc Watson – would seem to fare well for Democratic political identity. But a recent New York Times article, Skirting Appalachia, reminds us of the conservative heart of the hardscrabble life and poverty, its seeming inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies – and its humor at the rest of the country.

Loyal Jones described the unique characteristics of the region in his book, Appalachian Values - independent, self-reliant, proud, neighborly, hospitable, humble, modest, patriotic - …Appalachians hang the US flag in public places, on their houses, on their cars, wear them on their clothing and even decorate the inside of their homes in Americana.

At the University of North Carolina, I studied writing under Fred Chappell, whose wonderful little tall tale tome I Am One of You Forever, sums up the feeling of the diaspora Appalachian, in the end, a ghostly dream voice asks, "Well, Jess, are you one of us or not?" and the boy answers with the books title. But often the greatest state export has been people looking for work – as an old joke goes, "Why did the Governor of West Virginia resign? …because, Ford called the workers back."

So what are the politics of Appalachia that rejects the now presumptive Obama as the Democratic nominee? – exactly the kind of cultural and community identification that Obama lacks and seems to disregard in his own multi-cultural life – for no true Christian man can be truly universal, even while his belief may be universal, the proof is in the details, in the ordinary and the mundane and the reality of time and person and place – most importantly, place – and Obama has proven rootless in his place in the Appalachian eye.

At least one blogger has suggested that an antidote to Obama's Hillbilly Blues would be to take Virginia's Jim Webb as a Vice presidential running mate. There is hardly anyone as verbally Scots-Irish and combative as the Appalachian mountaineers who took on the power of the nascent Federal government in the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791. It's recalled in the annals of moonshiners. Webb is also famous for snubbing President Bush's handshake at a White House reception soon after being elected when Bush inquired about his son's stint in Iraq. He would certainly be a bold and saber rattling compliment to Obama nice guy coolness. White blue collar American's would certainly take notice – if not offense!

Webb wrote what may be Hillary Clinton's Appalachian Spring, "…[his father laid out] ``the eternal ground rules for street fighting,'' which now find their echoes in the last days of the Clinton campaign: ``Never start a fight, but never run away, even if you know you are going to lose. ... And whomever you fight, you must make them pay. You must always mark them, so that the next day they have to face the world with a black eye or a cut lip or a bruised cheek, and remember where they got it.'' Link

It is very much place, but more so land that defines the Appalachian clinging to a different world view and politics – the old verities are farm and home and family – there was always a sharing – of food, of work, of music and laughter. In the old country the kingdom meant subservience and overbearing power – our heritage is to fight on.

America is not much like that anymore. Now global, it hangs in the balance between overwhelming richness of resources and purchasing power – and the hungry hordes without clean water and land and a stake in a community, besides sustenance and strict obedience to dictators. The story of American freedom is not about law but active resistance to government shackles – the revolutionaries were a vocal minority risking lives. They were more Appalachian than not.

The hope would be that a bridge between these worlds can lift us above our current national course, making us recognize ourselves in global populations struggles, and make us all more Appalachian in our values. It is something that would be good for Obama and Edwards to hear and learn about as they whistle stop through American life, after all the least among us are said by our preachers to rise one day.

As Obama talks about clean coal, green coal, excuse me? Mountaintop removal, under laws rewritten directly by President Bush's executive agency order of the Clean Water Act, is going forward in West Virginia. Neither of our candidates have gone far enough to blast the destruction of poor Appalachian communities, or the way of life of Appalachia, to appease this unrepentant hillbilly, on the highway, bound for a bluegrass love fest in the shallow end of the gene pool.

Without my education, I'd still have family and community – without family and a close community, I'd be left a totally different person, in my opinion rootless and bootless. I'd like my candidates to understand that about the people where I come from, in Appalachia, and to really care about it.

I expect Appalachia will be ignored again after the election, as it nearly always is, it was on the top 100 fascinating things list in the late sixties, probably because of George Wallace – but once any possible southern strategy by Republicans fades this time in their disarray and failure – the hillbillies can go back to Nascar and the beauty of the mountains, to be left alone – and they like that mostly.

The country, and the world, may face Appalachian economic realities between energy costs, the war and recession – it needn't trouble Edwards or Obama.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great read.