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  • If You Can’t Go Home, Take Some of It with You: Twentieth-Century Appalachian Migration and the Music of Renfro Valley

In early October 1943, Mrs. J. E. Ward sat down in her Louisville home to write a letter. About 120 miles away, in the foothills of the eastern Kentucky mountains, a radio-program host was collecting artifacts of the state’s rural past for a new folk museum. John Lair, amateur music historian and the creator of the Renfro Valley Barn Dance and other radio programs, encouraged listeners to send him items for his collections. This was a hallmark of the efforts by Lair to connect with his listeners more directly as the emcee of various radio programs. He was undoubtedly surprised by what Mrs. Ward sent. She wrote, “This is a lock of my mother’s hair when she was young, altho she has very much changed. Eighty one years of hard work and tender care for five children has turned it now to gray but she is just as precious to us all as she was in those days gone by.”1

The lock of hair never made it to the folk collection, but instead [End Page 589] sits in an archival collection of many similar letters, pressed inside a folded sheet of paper, in the old and now yellowed envelope in which it first reached Lair. Still brown, the short snips were likely cut many years prior to being sent in 1943, but, nonetheless, Mrs. Ward thought that this piece of her mother’s hair would interest the radio magnate. What compelled this woman to send an heirloom, likely held for decades, through the mail to a radio program? Why did she think John Lair would be interested in that family heirloom? Undoubtedly Mrs. Ward felt a connection to Lair, despite not knowing him personally. Lair’s radio programs were aimed at a rural-minded audience, including migrants from southern Appalachia who moved to the urban South and Midwest. Such programs helped to create a community of listeners and allowed for rural migrants to reconnect to the places they had left.

Although life in the new urban environment often proved difficult, radio offered a means of escape and relief for many who left the region. Scholar Kristine McCusker has noted that listener responses to radio programs show how fans “embraced radio performers as friends and neighbors, carving out an emotionally satisfying place for themselves,” whether in a new urban landscape or listening from rural homes.2 Lair often cited examples from listeners in his programs and the idea of “community” became an integral part of his overall presentation. He blended his presentation of a folk culture with the rise of urban living and provided an opportunity for migrants to reconnect to their former homes. As historian Lawrence Levine has argued, people “refashion the objects [and cultural productions] created for them to fit their own values, needs, and expectations.”3 Regardless of Lair’s intent, which can be debated, people could hear [End Page 590] what they wanted. The listener responses to his programs display how radio consumers used Lair’s work in personal and profound ways to suit their own needs.

“Destroy the Bridges to Kentucky”: The Appalachian Migrant Experience in Cincinnati

The history of the twentieth-century South is in many ways a tale of mass exodus. In a first wave of migration, from 1910 to 1940, over three-million people left the region. After World War II, a second exodus occurred, in which an additional twelve-million people migrated out of the region by 1970.4 The vast majority of migrants from southern Appalachia came from the coal regions of southeastern Kentucky and West Virginia.5 For many in these areas, the economic outlook was grim, and, as a result, they sought opportunity elsewhere. Appalachian migrants settled in cities in the South and Midwest, including Louisville, Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, and the major cities in Ohio.

Appalachian migrants faced overt and subtle forms of discrimination upon their arrival in the urban South and Midwest. The transition proved difficult for some and connections to home were severed in very explicit ways. The...


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