Route 23
by Dan Taylor

“They learned readin', writin', Route 23
To the jobs that lay waiting in those cities' factories
They learned readin', writin', roads to the north
To the luxury and comfort a coal miner can't afford”

Neo-liberalism, the post industrial economy, and the Appalachian diaspora: Dwight Yoakam as the Prophet of late period Capitalism.

The year was 1988, the end of Reagan’s New Morning in America, the dawn of neo-liberalism and the free trade era, and the belly of the beast for the working class of the so called “heart land.” Route 23 was at the center of it all. Stretching from Jacksonville, Florida and running North to the former industrial center of Detroit. Passing through rural Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and on to the coal mining hub (and home of Dwight Yoakam), Eastern Kentucky. Dwight, as a child, followed this road north with his family, like many others, to Columbus, Ohio. Often dubbed, the “Hillbilly Highway,” Route 23 has a storied history, intimately tied to the coal mining economy, the industrial economy, the political economy of the day and global capital in general of our present time.

According to Wikipedia, “Many West Virginians and Kentuckians (e.g., from Magoffin County) migrated to the industrial cities of Ohio, for jobs in rubber and steel.[18] Industrial towns in Southern Ohio, including Dayton and Cincinnati, were favorites for migrants from Eastern Kentucky because they remained close to home.[19] Some Ohio companies (including Champion Paper Company, Lorillard Tobacco Company, and Armco Steel) reportedly recruited their labor force from specific counties in the mountains, and gave preference to employee’s family members when hiring new workers, making out-migration from rural Appalachia easier.”

While relatively close in distance, transportation concerns and workplace issues, among other things, still led to much emotion strain on those involved in this massive outmigration, and much cultural confusion. Dwight writes (a thing he learned well) in the song,

“Have you ever seen 'em
Put the kids in the car after work on Friday night
Pull up in a holler about 2 A. M.
And see a light still shinin' bright
Those mountain folks sat up that late
Just to hold those little grandkids
In their arms, in their arms
And I'm proud to say that I've been blessed
And touched by their sweet hillbilly charm.”

But, things were hard in the holler and pure charm did not pay the bills. Crack downs on unionization, black lung and other health and safety concerns, job killing mechanization and the rise of alternate fuels like oil. All of these phenomenon and more drove people North only to confront these same issues again in the 1980’s and 90’s, as Dwight sang this song. Deja Vu for working people as the global economy and neoliberalism crept north, dismantling the Rust Belt and sending those jobs overseas. Unions, which helped drive up wages in the North to make them previously higher than in the South, were under attack. Industry was fleeing for so called “free trade zones”, into the global south, or eventually back to the U.S. south, complete with tax breaks and poverty wages. An excellent book which chronicles the fight back in Dixie is Eva Weinbaum’s “To Move a Mountain: Fighting The Global Economy In Appalachia.” The book is “...an inspirational account of how a group of Appalachian men and women, politicized by the disaster of local plant closings, became unlikely activists in the Tennessee statehouse and the protests in Seattle. With striking portraits of managers, workers, organizers, and local officials, the book uncovers a government and economic leadership whose policies show little regard for the workers they leave behind. Yet despite the repeated defeat of the workers, an astonishingly fiery economic justice movement sprung up in Tennessee as factory workers transformed themselves into activists.” Dwight’s people struggling and fighting back, refusing the common narrative that he laments in his song.

So, the same struggles follow these Appalachian workers, but also the same fight and determination for a better future. Bringing the spirit of the coal miner’s union to the rust belt and beyond, and coming full circle with the fight against corporate globalization there as well as the South, these workers have learned much more than just reading, writing and Route 23, they have learned the value of collective struggle to overcome global capital. They have learned solidarity through the diaspora and maintaining a culture of loyalty but also independance. So, they keep learning, keep analysing and fighting, and keep on the road North, hopefully towards a better future beyond neo-liberalism. But, in the meantime, the work continues and we continue to move. To a new economy and to a new day.

18. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillbilly_Highway#cite_note-18 (return)

19. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillbilly_Highway#cite_note-ReferenceA-19 (return)