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Clifford Murphy

The Maryland States Arts Council's state folklorist talks about Baltimore's Appalachian influx

Long Journey Home

Posted 5/5/2010

From Mountains to Maryland: The Appalachian Out-Migration to Baltimore

May 8 at 5:30 p.m., The Creative Alliance at the Patterson

For several decades following the Great Depression, thousands of Appalachians poured into the industrial North, looking for work. Many of them stayed, forever altering the cultural fabric of their new homes. This weekend, as part of a series on the relationship between Baltimore and Appalachia, the Creative Alliance at the Patterson presents "From Mountains to Maryland: The Appalachian Out-Migration to Baltimore." The program includes excerpts from Long Journey Home, a 1980s documentary by an Appalachian media collective about one family that came to Baltimore and eventually left. After 17 years in the city, James Hardin says he "still hasn't adjusted to it." So he moves his family from Highlandtown back to Appalachia, to a house with no running water, where they must pull their furniture up the mountain by donkey.

Following the screening, Clifford Murphy, a state folklorist at the Maryland States Arts Council, presents a talk about Appalachian migrants such as the Hardins: why they came here, what their lives were like, and the legacy they left behind. Murphy, once a professional alternative country musician, now spends his days seeking out and documenting cultural traditions throughout the state. One of his projects involves the descendants of country musician Ola Belle Reed, who migrated from the mountains of Appalachia to Cecil County during the Depression. City Paper recently caught up with Murphy by phone. (Andrea Appleton)

City Paper: What years was the migration from Appalachia to Baltimore at its peak?

Clifford Murphy: It would have hit its peak sometime during the Depression and through World War II and the early 1950s. So from the early to mid-1930s to the early to mid-1950s.

CP: And was Baltimore a particular draw?

CM: It was really a Rust Belt phenomenon. Baltimore happened to be one of the more intense areas of migration and one of the better known, just because it wound up in songs, and singers like Hazel Dickens came out of the migration. So people are more aware of it than the migration to, say, Akron.

CP: What started the migration?

CM: The Depression definitely had a pretty crippling effect in the mountains. The region was fairly economically depressed already, and with the arrival of a lot of New Deal-era jobs and of World War II, there were big opportunities in manufacturing for people who didn't have work. You have this early migration where people just started moving here for opportunities. Land was cheap, there were jobs, and they encouraged families and friends to follow them--the normal pattern of migration you see whether the people are from India, Italy, or Appalachia. Then, things got pretty intense. I've heard stories from people who migrated here about buses that munitions factories would send down to the Blue Ridge Mountains to recruit people to work.

CP: Where did people end up working?

CM: Baltimore had an incredibly diverse manufacturing base, and I think people worked wherever there were jobs. Especially during the war, things were booming. Steel plants, chemical plants, munitions plants, mills.

CP: It struck me in watching the film excerpts that it wasn't long after the Appalachian migrants arrived that industry took a nose dive in Baltimore.

CM: That's one of the depressing things about American labor history. You have companies that recruit all these people to come and work and times are good, and then industry pulls up stakes and moves somewhere else. And then what do you do?

CP: In the film, a family that had lived here for 17 years goes back to Appalachia. Was that common?

CM: My window into all of this is music. And one of the things that's interesting to me is that you have people who move to this area who feel intensely disoriented and are proud of where they came from, but make an active choice over a lifetime to remain here. And you have songs by people like Hazel Dickens and Ola Belle Reed that never would have been written if they hadn't left. They have a perspective on community values in the mountains, life in the mountains, that they wouldn't have had if they hadn't left.

CP: Do you think you can still see the Appalachian influence in Baltimore?

CM: I think you can hear it to a certain extent. Baltimore--and the Delaware/Pennsylvania/Maryland tri-state area--is a place where these musical traditions hang on pretty intensely whether in bluegrass or gospel. From a musical perspective, prior to this migration, people played the banjo totally differently than they do now. I don't think people are necessarily conscious of that, but the area has been transformed, even if people have lost the memory.

CP: How did coming here change mountain music?

CM: Bluegrass music didn't exist until people left the mountains. It's an urbanized version of rural music. It's played in a style that draws from urban influences and a lot of the songs are about missing the old home place or about working in factories. The music and the scene that surrounds bluegrass has really changed since the heyday of the migration. It was embraced by the folk revival and TV. So you have The Beverly Hillbillies and you have folk musicians, college kids who embraced it as traditional music. It became more of a festival-driven business, as opposed to a bar-driven business.

CP: Is there anything you want to add that I didn't ask you?

CM: I think that one of the things, too, that I'll hope to do is just to talk generally about the ongoing relationship between the city and the mountains. I'm interested in the power dynamics between the cities and the mountains, whether it's the location of prisons in the mountains that are mainly housing urban residents or power companies that are manufacturing power in the mountains and supplying it to cities.

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