By Michael E. Maloney

Max Fraser in Hillbilly Highway addresses the universe of American population movements so large that they change the worlds to which they move and the worlds they are leaving, creating new cultures in both places.  They can eventually change the culture and politics of the nation.  (Introduction pp.8-12).  Fraser feels that historians have not told this story for what he calls the “Transappalachian migration” the way they have for the Black Great Migration, or the Dust Bowl, the so-called Okies, or the mid-century movement from the Great Plains to the Far West.  For those involved with the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, this story is our story, and we read Max Fraser’s version with great eagerness.

Fraser uses the word hillbilly frequently throughout the book. He admits that this is a contested term.  He uses it, he says, “to redeem the hillbilly highway from the dustbin of history” and to reverse the trend to cast universally negative aspersions on that term.  He rejects the notion that the rightward drift of white blue-collar workers and union members can be solely due to innate conservative features of hillbilly culture or their reaction to social reforms favored by the Democratic Party, but theorizes that this history is much more complicated and had more to do with deindustrialization of the Hillbilly Highway and the industrial Midwest.

All of these topics were covered in the Introduction.  The rest of the book is divided into six chapters, each of which has a subtitle and is divided with helpful subheadings which help the reader keep track of their topical location.  Each chapter is begun with one or two short quotations which give further clues to the theme. Careful readers will find that Urban Appalachian Council founders Ernie Mynatt, Stuart Faber, and myself are quoted in the book.

Chapter One is “Changes on the Land” and the subtitle tells us it covers agrarianism, industrialization and displacement in the Appalachian South.  The agrarian population was caught in a vice grip between poverty and progress (economic development).  As the population grew, the farms became smaller until many could no longer support a family.  Mines, timber and other extractive industries drew the surplus population but many families maintained a base on the land as long as possible.  The stage was set for mass migration which was destined to peak after World War II as Appalachian industries failed or automated.

Chapter Two, entitled “On the Road,” describes the Great Appalachian Migration which took more than eight million displaced farmers and industrial workers from the Upland South to the industrial Midwest creating a transregional working class.  Massive road-building projects during the mid-20th century made this movement possible and created the physical traits as an organic and cultural phenomenon which would eventually change both Appalachia and the Rust Belt.  Fraser’s map of Transappalachia covers the area from the tip of Michigan almost to the Gulf Coast and from the Carolina Piedmont to the Ozarks.

Chapter Three describes the paradox of a population straight out of the hills of Appalachia becoming labor activists in Akron, Ohio, center of America’s rubber industry.  Fraser describes “the class experience that took shape along the hillbilly highway.” (page 101). In Chapter Four, “An Other America”, he goes deeper into Appalachian stereotypes by describing the institutional life Appalachians built the including hillbilly taverns and Baptist and Pentecostal churches we recognize in our Greater Cincinnati region.  He describes the prejudice and hatred of southern migrants in cities like Hamtramck.  He describes at length an effort based at Berea College, the Cincinnati Mayor’s Friendly Relations Committee, and the Ford Foundation that helped shape the early phases of what became the War on Poverty.

In Chapter Five, Fraser further explores the dynamics of the Cincinnati/Berea College/Ford Foundation group in developing the theory that the migrants’ problems in the cities were due to their “dysfunctional traits” such as “the clannish familism” and “fundamentalist religiosity.”  Though some cultural features, such as “an ethical code” could be assets among uprooted migrants, these were considered to be out of place and time.  The solution to migrant poverty was to provide help with adjustment to urban life and to middle class ways.  This theorizing helped shape the basis of the War on Poverty which became a reality in the 60s and 70s.

The last chapter, “Lost Highways: Country Music and the Rise and Fall of Hillbilly Culture,” uses a brief history of hillbilly music to illustrate both the enormous impact it had on the nation and how it lost its cutting edge as the 20th Century came to an end.  This section and a brief conclusion tell the story of how the hillbilly ghettos collapsed as the Midwest lost 2,000,000 manufacturing jobs between 1977 and 2000.

Hillbilly Highway: The Transappalachian Migration and the Making of a White Working Class deserves the adjective “encyclopedic.”  It tells us what happened in the 20th century to two American regions – to the land, the people, the economy, and the culture. It is in a part a story of race and class relations and of “the poverty war.”  Fraser uses storytelling which parallels Isabel Wilkerson’s masterful work, The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Black Migration.  I consider this the most important monograph on Appalachian migration since Harriet Arnow’s The Dollmaker in 1954.  It will be interesting to see how the worlds of Appalachian scholarship, migration studies, and cultural studies react to further develop the lines of inquiry this author has opened. Hillbilly Highway provides a rich resource for instructors with students from junior high to the postgraduate level in Appalachian studies, migration studies, labor history, social studies and many other fields.  It is a treasure in American studies and political science.

Mike Maloney, a UACC Core Member, has extensive experience lecturing, teaching Appalachian studies, and providing training on Appalachian culture for social workers, health providers, and educators. His work as a writer includes co-editing the Fourth and Fifth editions of Appalachia: Social Context Past and Present and the Urban Appalachian section of the Encyclopedia of Appalachia.  Mike was founding director of the Urban Appalachian Council, organized the Appalachian Area Office of Catholic Social Services and helped found the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition.  He has helped set up community service programs in Cincinnati neighborhoods and in Appalachian Ohio and has served as adviser to the National Quilt Barn Project.

Hillbilly Highway: The Transappalachian Migration and the Making of a White Working Class is published by Princeton University Press, which as of this writing was offering a 50% discount on the book.

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