The Passion of Appalachia

“Life is passion and action and each man (woman) must take part in the passion and action of his (her) own times at peril of being judged not to have lived.”   Oliver Wendell Holmes

Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Old Days) by the Judds twanged the strings of my heart in 1987. As it did for many, winning the Grammy award for Best Country Song and Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal.

Sometimes it feels like the world’s gone crazy still echoes in my mind. Today, it seems truer than ever. We continue to lose faith in our leaders, question our moral beliefs, and, in spite of the progress made in Civil Rights, our society is still segregated between black and white, between rich and poor, and, unfortunately, also between the ideal of America and the reality.

Perhaps it’s time we rediscovered the passion of Appalachia.  Passion brought into the mountains by our ancestors, those early pioneers who had so recently fought and won the American Revolution. My own family in the Kentucky Mountains can list the names and service of fifteen of these passionate souls who put their blood and guts into the founding of America.

For their descendants to “grow up with this stigmatized image of the place where they live” (Rudy Abramson, a former journalist and coeditor of the recently released Encyclopedia of Appalachia, reviewed by Amy Green and Arian Campo-Flores in the April 17th copy of Newsweek) is not just a loss to the Appalachian people, but also to the nation.  Green and Campo-Flores close their review with “Perhaps with the help of this book, that won’t be true for long.” 

Unlike the song, I don’t want to go back to the “good old days.” They weren’t so good; back-breaking labor, women and children dying in childbirth, abject poverty (of course poverty is still with us, especially in the inner cities and up the hollers).

Yet “the good old days” was also a time when the line between right and wrong didn’t seem so hazy.  As a people Appalachians still uphold the values of our Revolutionary ancestors: love of God, love of country and love of family. When my dad died in 1947 leaving eight children, the older siblings took on the responsibility for the younger ones and finished rearing us (one of them, only sixteen years old, went to work in the coal mines). They not only provided us with food and shelter but also taught us to be self-reliant, encouraging us younger children to find and create our own place in a changing world.

Grandpa, everything is changing fast. We call it progress, but I just don’t know.  When the country went soaring off into the future, into the three-piece suits and skyscrapers, the industrial and then the technological revolutions, a beautiful new world came into being, with a higher standard of living than the world had ever known. We kicked the dust of early America from our heels and it no longer mattered where we came from, but only where we were going. 

Except perhaps in Appalachia, where the past, and the passion, from those early times, still lives on.

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