In the early 1940s, my maternal grandfather, Rudy Williams of Cobbtown, had a favorite radio program called, “Renfro Valley Days.” The announcer declared that it was coming from beautiful Renfro Valley in Kentucky, the place where time stands still. It was music, folk music that sounded much like that which Scotch, Irish and Scotch-Irish settlers brought with them to the mountains and back-country of the South. I regard it as the real country music and it is still performed in sold-out concerts at Renfro Valley.
Time had not stood still there in 1942. The place had electricity, broadcast facilities and a way to deliver the program to radio stations outside of the mountains. Among the musical instruments used were banjos, developed by slaves from Africa but widely adopted by other rural people because they were easy to build from common items that served as sound boxes, even gourds. Music was and is an important area of cultural blending among people from widely differing backgrounds.
Rural southerners have often been portrayed as congenitally backwards, slow to change and lacking many of the amenities of the rest of the world. Check out “Lil Abner,” “Snuffy Smith,” even “Hee Haw,” which featured country musicians but often portrayed them as bumpkins. In isolated areas, change did, in fact, come slowly, in part because of limited transportation, trade and communication. People living by a mostly subsistence economy lacked money to buy innovations and fashioned needed items from harness to bed covers from resources at hand.
Here is a social economic fact: People who have little are reluctant to risk it for a new way of doing things, a new crop or a new tool. Historically, most farmers live and work from year to year, regularly at risk of losing all they have to one bad weather season or one serious illness. Thus, they tend to farm in the same way, do most things in the same way repeatedly — even though returns on effort are small — rather than risk their everything on something which is untested or unproven. They can be pushed into something new by harsh circumstances, like the boll weevil invasion or the Great Depression. They can be drawn into innovation by clearly demonstrated advantages, like the introduction of tobacco growing in South Georgia or the provision of various types of loans by federal agencies.
In truth, southern Georgia has undergone several dramatic changes that were almost revolutionary. The first change agent is transportation. River roads along larger streams were conduits for travel and commerce. River boats on major streams provided access to markets for up-river farmers, a flow of desired goods back to them and local businesses in river towns like Augusta and Dublin. Then came railroads and highways, about which I'll write more later.
Massive, national economic change deeply impacted the South. Many farmers lost their lands and homes during the Great Depression, forcing them into the citrus groves of Florida, the cotton mills of the Carolinas and the automobile factories in Detroit, where they became “hillbillies” like their cousins from southern Appalachia.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” a dramatic restructuring of the nation’s economy, impacted poor southern farmers in countless ways: jobs, new houses, farm credit, food for lunchrooms, demonstration education for farmers and farm wives and much more, particularly rural electrification through member-owned cooperatives.
Perhaps it was World War II that brought the most revolutionary changes to South Georgia. Georgia’s long-serving members in Congress had seniority — thus clout — in the placement of military installations and southern Georgia got its share plus: Hunter, Stewart, Harris Neck, Glenco Naval Air Station. Bomber crews trained at a base in Vidalia. Add Columbus, Albany and Cordele. Georgia was full of bases. South Georgia farmers were forced off their land, but got paid cash money.
Then there were jobs in construction of the bases themselves, ships in Savannah, etc. With able-bodied men swept up in military service and a war-driven economy booming everywhere, there was full employment, including unprecedented opportunities for women. Young African-American males were drafted and even survivors elected not to return to the life of a sharecropper or turpentine worker. Plentiful jobs in the North made it possible for other African-Americans to migrate.
Everything was in high demand, including farm products: cotton, tobacco, livestock and lard. There were government price ceilings on some of these but demand was such that prices never were low and prices on things needed by farmers also were controlled. Barring bad seasons, profits were assured. Some families received the largest checks they had ever seen when a son was killed in action, the saddest prosperity imaginable. At least for a time, pervasive, systemic poverty disappeared.
New last names joined the roster of familiar Smith and Jones families as local girls married Yankee boys assigned to regional military bases or involved in training activities all around. Some of the young women wound up moving away to join the families of their husbands, but many were “homebodies” and anchored themselves and their husbands “close to home.”
The second half of the 20th century saw even greater changes, mostly as the South was caught up in movements of national, even international scale. Examples include urbanization, expansion of post-secondary education and technological innovations that were and are truly revolutionary. Farmers have tractors that cost a king’s ransom but can be programmed to cultivate a huge field while the operator supervises in a dust-free, air-conditioned capsule. Most people who live in the country are not farmers (commuters, retirees). The agricultural and mechanical schools of the early 20th century, intended to better equip rural youth for “modern” farming or industry, now offer instruction in engineering and technology. Georgia Southern is an obvious example.
Future columns will revisit some of the changes noted earlier. They fit better in the “back then” theme. For now, I am reminded of the truism that goes, “The only constant is change.” It now comes from so many directions as to approach chaos, often at nanosecond speed.
“Nowadays the world is lit by lightning. You can blow out your candles.” -- Tennessee Williams, “The Glass Menagerie”
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.