Press & Reviews

Fresh and valuable… The Moundsville film, by Miller and Bernabo, presents the results in a way different from most other documentaries I’ve seen… worth watching. — James Fallows, The Atlantic 

An “excellent oral history” that unfolds “like a non-fiction novel” reminiscent of Errol Morris’ seminal 1981 film, Vernon, Florida. — Jonathan W. Hickman, Times-Herald

“Deeply humane and has it all: postindustrial decline, race, fracking, the carceral state, paranormal activity. I recommend it.” — Alec MacGillis, ProPublica

Summarizes the core problem that many small cities and towns face in 21st century America. — Matt Stroud, Postindustrial

This sort of entrepreneurial revival is “one thing that’s happening in Appalachia that is not talked about enough,” says Miller. “There are young creative people doing different kinds of things, and building a new kind of future. And we’re not going back to the past. One thing the mound reminds us of is that civilizations and cultures do eventually move on, and change is inevitable.” — Bill O’Driscoll, WESA 90.5 (NPR)

The city’s rise and fall will be familiar to many who grew up in small, rust-belt towns — yet there’s something distinct about Moundsville, named for the ancient burial mound in the center of town. The Grave Creek Mound Burial Site — which dates so far into antiquity that little is known about the native Americans who built it — provides a physical and spiritual backdrop for the film. — Sean Collier, Pittsburgh Magazine 

Moundsville isn’t just a sad story… The film, indeed, presents the city in pleasant light. – Nora Edinger, Weelunk.com

Miller became fascinated with how a town built on coal mining and steel would recover after the factories closed and its residents found themselves out of work. — Sherry Greenfield, Hagerstown Herald-Mail

Any hard conversation about America’s future needs to start with a shared understanding of our past and present, free of myth and easy narrative. When you’re trying to accept and understand change, the truth always helps. — John W. Miller, Buzzfeednews.com

“Since the 2016 election, the tension on main street between storyteller and subject has polluted public discourse and trust during a difficult and vulnerable time. Getting the story exactly right is always hard.” — John W. Miller, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“A gripping look at a fascinating West Virginia town wrestling with its past and fighting for its future, with lots of surprises along the way.” — Joe Barrett, Wall Street Journal 

“This film succeeds by allowing people to tell their own stories – with moments of nostalgia and pride interspersed with flashes of frustration and grief – just like real life. It’s hard to predict the future, but as a viewer (or reviewer, as the case may be), it’s impossible to deny that I’m rooting for Moundsville. These are good folks who certainly deserve a win.” — Tony Montana, United Steelworkers

“I feel energized by the thoughts that this movie has provoked. The way the story is told is brilliant. Communities throughout history like to think others’ success is the reason for their own woes. Rather, they need to look within to figure out how to have their own rebirth. This movie is a step in the direction of understanding.” — C. Donald Brasher, Jr., President, Trade Data Monitor, Inc.

“A lot of stories about the Heartland are depressing, bleak, hopeless — or angry. It’s more complicated than that, and this movie finds a path between the extremes that gets you closer to reality. Everyone should take the trip to Moundsville.”– Joe White, Reuters

“Fantastic! A great job showing the multiple forces driving Appalachian thinking and acting.” – Dr. Jason King, St. Vincent College, Latrobe, PA

“A beautiful, thoughtful, and respectful documentary about my hometown of Moundsville, WV.” – Tracey Whorton, drummer from Moundsville

“Gets to the truth of the place by leaving Trump out of conversations.” Bob Davis, Wall Street Journal

“I highly recommend this absorbing and enlightening documentary about a small West Virginia town and its travails since the halcyon days of the 1950s.” — Paul Blustein, former economics reporter for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, author of “The Chastening” and other books about global trade

National Family Anthem: Lady Gaga’s Grandpa Was a West Virginia Crooner — Manchin Grabs Gaga Selfie

Lady Gaga’s stunning national anthem performance, and gold brooch of a peace dove, at Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration drew another round of reminders that her mom grew up in Glen Dale, WV. That’s near Wheeling, and the twin town of Moundville, the subject of Moundsville, our PBS biography of a classic American town.

Sen. Joe Manchin led the charge, grabbing a selfie of Gaga and chatting about her West Virginia roots.

People in West Virginia are still proud of the family, even if Gaga’s mother Cynthia Bissett decamped the region for New York City in the 1970s, part of a wave of emigration described in our film. And Gaga herself has spoken of her roots in the region, including during a campaign stop in Pittsburgh the day before the election.

Gaga has made frequent trips to visit her grandmother in West Virginia. A lesser-known tale concerns her grandfather, a man named Paul Bissett, Sr. who was a legendary West Virginia amateur crooner in the 1960s, singing at weddings, birthdays and public events.

Gaga gets her golden voice from him, people in Moundsville and Glen Dale like to say.

A woman named Mary Butler emailed me to tell the charming story of Mr. Bissett singing at her wedding.

Not only was Paul Bissett a State Farm Agent, he was gifted with a beautiful voice.  He sang in the McMechen Methodist Choir, but also in the McMechen Mens Chorus.  The chorus was directed by Ray Ponzo, bass player in the Wheeling Symphony, band director at Union High School in Benwood and later for Shadyside High School.  The chorus sang at many events around the Ohio Valley.  Paul sang The Twelfth Of Never at my wedding.  My uncle, Earl Summers, Jr. played the violin, making it a very musical wedding.

Gaga grew up in New York City. As a child, she visited her proud grandparents. Sometimes, they would take her to talent shows, another reader wrote.

When Mr. Bissett died in 2013, his obituary noted that he was a “a very well known singer throughout the [Ohio] valley.”

Among his survivors, the obituary mentioned “his loving wife of 63 years, Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Ferrie Bissett”, and four grandchildren, including a woman named Stefani Germanotta — also known as Lady Gaga.

John W. Miller

New Film About Portsmouth, OH Inspired by ‘Moundsville’

Dave Bernabo and I made Moundsville, now on PBS, to attempt a different kind of conversation about American industrial towns. If we could tell a deeper, more human story, we thought, we could help rebuild parts of the shared narrative America needs to grieve deindustrialization, heal divisions, and move forward.

When Amanda Page, a writer living in Columbus, saw the film, she decided she wanted to create something similar about her hometown, Portsmouth, OH. We started talking last year. I’ve been informally advising Page, and Dave has agreed to co-direct the film, titled “Peerless City”, which will premiere at a literary festival Page is organizing next spring.

Page told me she wants to “highlight our resilience and ability to support people in and through recovery, therefore creating recovery in people and the place.” What she doesn’t want, she added, are “poverty tours” or “elegies for anything.” Amen.

Portsmouth is a town of 20,000, 180 miles down the Ohio River from Moundsville. Its history has had a similar arc. Once bustling with a prosperous community, it’s lost thousands of factory jobs, and now has an economy anchored around low-wage service jobs.

People who’ve stayed behind do the best they can. There’s suffering, and grief that needs to be acknowledged. But, as in Moundsville, in the empty spaces, there is opportunity and renewal. People are starting new businesses and getting after it.

A brief sketch: The Hopewell people lived in the area over 2,000 years ago, leaving behind earthworks. In the 19th century, white settlement arrived, sprinkling the seeds of industrial development. It was also an important stopping point on the Underground Railroad, for slaves fleeing the South.

In the 20th century, Portsmouth became a manufacturing hub, with over 100 factories. The Ohio River was once of the world’s mightiest manufacturing arteries. A factory for the world. Portsmouth made bricks, shoes and steel. The city hummed. Life was good. Around 1930, population peaked at over 40,000, twice its current level.

Page has obtained a grant from Ohio Humanities, and is currently raising other money. The team will shoot this May to July, and follow up with a final shoot in the fall. If you’d like to make a donation to help the project, you can do it on Facebook here.

John W. Miller

‘Night of the Hunter’: Rise and Fall of an American Con Man

In the 1955 thriller Night of the Hunter, Harry Powell, a classic American con man posing as an itinerant preacher, settles in Moundsville, WV. He seduces, marries, and kills Willa, a bank robber’s widow. He then charms the pants off the entire town while hunting Willa’s escaped children and $10,000 their father had hid with them.

Dave Bernabo and I weren’t the first to shoot a movie in Moundsville. With its classic gothic penitentiary, wide Ohio river views, and cozy streets, the West Virginia town has hosted bundles of films and TV shows, including Fools Parade, Out of the Furnace, Mindhunter, and Castle Rock.

But no Moundsville movie is as celebrated as Night of the Hunter, considered a true masterpiece of 1950s noir. Directed by English actor Charles Laughton, it stars Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. Importantly, it’s based on a novel by Davis Grubb (1919-1980), Moundsville’s most celebrated writer, who drew on the true story of Harry Powers, a serial killer who lured women through lonely hearts ads. There was so much public interest in the case that Powers was tried in the same theatre where we premiered Moundsville in 2018, before he was hanged in the Moundsville prison.

Parts of the movie, mostly background elements, were filmed in Moundsville. An August 27, 1954 item in the Echo reported that “actual shooting of background scenes for the forthcoming movie, ‘Night of the Hunter’ was scheduled to get under way in the local area this afternoon.”

It’s a simple story, which you can listen to while watching clips from the film in this thrilling reading by Laughton, which I recommend. After killing the widow Willa (Winters), Powell (Mitchum) chases the children up, down and around the Ohio River, often on horseback. The film is drenched in gothic symbol, and clanging with the sounds of good clashing against evil. The photography is shadowy, the script heavy with Bible quotes and stories, and the soundtrack hums with haunting hymns.

The movie starts with a Sunday school lecture: “Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits”.

It’s a lesson the town takes too long to learn. Preacher Powell is an evil, sadistic, manipulative, misogynistic, cunning, charismatic, charming con man, and people love him and his rhapsodic street sermons, especially the one where he explains the “HATE” tattooed on the fingers of his left hand and “LOVE” on the fingers of his right. Life, he explains as he rolls his clenched fists in circles, is a battle of good against evil.

Like an emperor, the preacher struts sidewalks and markets, drawing adoration and praise. Nobody sees that he’s a sociopathic liar. It’s only Willa’s son John, and Rachel Cooper (Gish), a kind old lady who takes in him and his sister Pearl, who see that Harry is, in fact, a false prophet. “It’s a hard world for little things,” says Rachel, speaking for all the vulnerable. She protects the children from Harry.

In the end, Rachel shoots Harry, chases him into her barn, and calls the state troopers. Once Harry is caught and shamed, the town flips and, of course, forms a mob to chase him to prison.

The book was Davis Grubb’s first novel, and it was a best-seller. “As we read this brilliant novel we live in a world where all human decency is lost through the character of the Preacher,” wrote Herbert West in the New York Times. “But human nature is redeemed by old Rachel Cooper… One comes to the satisfying end of the story with a profound sense of relief.”

Both the film and novel close with Rachel reflecting on resilience:

Lord save little children! For each of them has his Preacher to hound him down the dark river of fear and tonguelessness and never-a-door. Each one is mute and alone because there is no word for a child’s fear and no ear to heed it if there were a word and no one to understand it if it heard. Lord save little children! They abide and and they endure.

Film directors are gaga for Night of the Hunter. The Coen Brothers have drawn on its religious language and symbolism for many of their own scripts. The Dude abides!

America abides.

John W. Miller

The Polish and Ohio Valley Origins of Hall of Famer Phil Niekro (1939-2020)

This blog promotes the PBS film ‘Moundsville’, and publishes stories about West Virginia and Appalachia.

The obituaries for Phil Niekro, who died of cancer at age 81 on Dec. 26, focused on his legendary knuckleball. In the Ohio Valley, the Appalachian mining country southwest of Pittsburgh where “Knucksie” grew up, the Hall of Famer is also remembered as a loyal friend, enthusiastic booster, and son and grandson of hardworking Polish coalminers who lived a thrilling American dream.

This immigrant’s fable that ends with a celebrated millionaire athlete conquering America for the Braves and Yankees begins in 19th century Poland, where Phil’s grandfather, Jozef Niekra, was born in Slodkow, so-called “Russian Poland”. He emigrated to West Virginia around 1901, and strapped on shovel and axe to dig for coal underground. He married Magdalena “Maggie” Mieszegr, from Blinow, Polish Russia, only a few weeks after her arrival in America, according to Tom Hufford’s excellent essay for the Society for American Baseball Research.

Phil Niekro, Sr., name now Americanized, was born in 1913. Both his parents died before he turned five. After minimal schooling, he also went to work in the mines, when he was 15. He married another Polish immigrant orphaned young, Henrietta “Ivy” Klinkoski. They had three children — Phyllis, Phil, Jr., and Joe, and settled in Lansing, Ohio, seven miles west of Wheeling, WV.

That’s where Phil, Jr. and Joe starred for Bridgeport High School in the 1950s. When he wasn’t slogging away in the mines, Phil Sr. pitched in the Mine Workers League, the kind of amateur baseball that used to proliferate all over America. A coworker showed him how to throw a knuckleball, which he taught his sons. Phil, Jr. practiced with his childhood friend John Havlicek, the Boston Celtics Hall of Famer. “The only things I could ever do better than John was catch fish, shoot squirrels and throw the knuckleball,” Niekro said.

Amazingly, Niekro threw his knuckleball for Bridgeport High. In the only game he lost, he gave up a homerun to future Pirates Hall of Fame secondbaseman Bill Mazeroski, which is crazy because it feels like Maz belongs to the 1960s and Niekro to the 1980s. At 19, he rocked up to an open tryout for the Milwaukee Braves with 150 other kids on a place in the Ohio River called, simply, The Island. He got $500 to sign. The year was 1958.

Phil made the majors in 1964. Over the following 23 years, mostly playing for the Atlanta Braves, he pitched 5,404 innings, won 318 games, and struck out 3,342 batters. In 1997, baseball writers chose him for the Hall of Fame. You can read all about it in the obituaries. He was also a very funny man, appearing on Dave Letterman twice.

The story I’d like to retell here happened on October 6, 1985, when Phil Niekro pitched one of the most remarkable games in baseball history, for the New York Yankees against the Toronto Blue Jays. It’s available for free on Youtube, and I recommend watching as a snapshot of 1980s hardball, portrait of Reagan’s America, inspirational sports movie, and primer on pitching strategy, guts, and guile.

For weeks, Niekro had been chasing his 300th win, after capturing his 299th on September 8. He was 46 years old, so it wasn’t clear he’d ever get there. In Wheeling, WV, 72-year-old Phil Sr. was in a hospital fighting for his life. The hospital put the game on the radio. In Toronto, Joe Niekro, who also pitched in the Major Leagues and had just been traded to the Yankees, kept tabs on Phil, Sr., with help from manager Billy Martin and owner George Steinbrenner.

In the stands, childhood friend Gordie Longshaw was thinking about a conversation at dinner the night before. “The Yankees had just gotten eliminated,” he said, “and, according to Phil, Billy Martin got so drunk he passed out on the trainers’ table, and [baseball great] Al Oliver [of the Toronto Blue Jays] came by the table, and Phil said, I’m not going to throw you a single knuckleball tomorrow.”

Longshaw, a 73-year-old retired educator and county commissioner who now owns City Advertisers in Bridgeport, OH, grew up with the Niekros. “My dad worked in the same coal mine,” he told me. “Phil was quick-witted, and Joe was more moody like their mother.”

I love watching this 1985 Niekro game against the Blue Jays. Sure, it was a meaningless game. Both teams were exhausted from the season and almost certainly hung over. The strike zone is a billboard wide. “They better be cutting and slashing from the time they leave the dugout,” says Phil Rizzuto on the telecast. But still. The Big Leagues.

And Niekro pitches a shutout, concluding with his only three knuckleballs of the day. “An astounding switch in strategy and style,” Murray Chass called it in the New York Times. He throws the craziest mix of junk I’ve ever seen — curves, slurves, eephus pitches, slow, slower and slowest. Just watch. It’s a thing of beauty.

In the 9th, Billy Martin sends Joe out to catch his warmup tosses. After the game, Joe comes out to congratulate him and tell him their dad is feeling better. “The nicest feeling of the whole day was right after I came off the mound Joe told me they took my dad out of intensive care,” Phil said. “I’ll go home tomorrow. I’m going to take him my hat and give him my baseball. He was as much a part of these 300 wins as I was.” 

After a pit stop in a midtown bar with Martin — “Billy wouldn’t let me just get on the plane,” said Longshaw, “he said, this here is a 300-game winner, you have to celebrate with us” — the coalminers’s sons fly to Pittsburgh, and drive to Wheeling to present Phil, Sr. with the game ball from the shutout. He would live three more years. Longshaw flew with them. “It was all very special,” he said. “Phil was a special guy. He always had a fun story to tell about George Steinbrenner.”

Together, Phil and Joe, who died in 2006, would win 539 Major League games, a record for brothers. (Phil Niekro, Sr.’s tombstone in Saint Anthony’s Cemetery in Blaine, Ohio has a baseball on top inscribed with the number “539”). When he beat the record set by the Perry brothers in 1987, while pitching for Cleveland, Phil joked that “you can’t find good polka music on a Tuesday night in Cleveland. If it had been Saturday, I’d have raised some hell!” Both brothers are in the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame.

In the 1990s, Phil and Joe coached the Colorado Silver Bullets, an all-women’s baseball team. “Women should have every opportunity to play competitive professional ball,” said Phil. He died as the greatest knuckleball pitcher who ever lived, and one of seven Hall of Famers to pass away in 2020, along with Al KalineTom SeaverLou BrockBob GibsonWhitey Ford, and Joe Morgan.

In the week after his death, local stations celebrated Phil Niekro as “a man that never forgot where he came from,” Bridgeport High School Athletic Director Greg Harkness told WTOV-9. “Whether it was the golf scramble in his name that benefitted the school or helping with the fieldhouse, Phil was a great contributor to the youth of Bridgeport.”

Phil and his wife Nancy retired to the Atlanta area, where their three sons live. The family, like millions of others, has left the Ohio Valley, an aging slice of the Rust Belt that has lost thousands of factories and millions of people, a story chronicled in Moundsville.

But Phil grew up in a different world. He once took Braves teammates Bruce Benedict to visit. Niekro “showed me the fields where he used to play ball,” Benedict told Steve Wulf of Sports Illustrated in 1984. “His mother is the best cook in the world—we had stuffed pork chops and cabbage roll. We went over to the Polish Club, and those guys put down a shot with every beer. Before I knew it, I got floppy-legged.”

When “Phil drove through the Wheeling tunnel, he’d say ‘I’m home’,” Gordie Longshaw said. “He never forgot his roots.”

John W. Miller

Downriver from the Moundsville Prison Graveyard: Story of a Lyric

This post has been updated to include information from an email from Mark Kozelek.

When singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek was a teenager in the 1980s, he used to visit Moundsville prison. “We’d sit on a curb outside of a residential neighborhood and watch guards enter and exit the front gate,” he wrote me in an email. “They always looked so brooding. We were amazed that spooky old prison sat right in the center of a neighborhood.”

It was those visits, part of an Ohio childhood, that were the ingredients of his 2013 song “You Missed My Heart”, which Phoebe Bridgers covered on her 2017 debut studio album Stranger in the Alps. The tune ends with the singer repeating, as if chanting a religious mantra: “Downriver from the Moundsville prison graveyard.” I’ve seen the lyric popping up lone, especially on Twitter.

A mention of Moundsville by one of the brightest young musical artists in America — Bridgers’s eloquent songwriting, soulful storytelling, and “frank anxious music” have earned Grammy nominations and comparisons to Bob Dylan — caught our attention here at the blog promoting the PBS film Moundsville.

“You Missed My Heart” is a long (over 6 minutes) first-person murder ballad, narrated from the grave by the killer. It’s a story about not hitting your mark: The murderer stabs his old flame’s new lover in the wrong place, just as the ex tells him he didn’t love her right. “You missed my heart,” she says. And, after “the priest read my last rites/And just before everything went dark, I said, He missed my heart.” The narrator is probably talking about the guard who killed him, but couldn’t pierce his love. He could also be referring to the priest failing to connect him to God.

But what’s “downriver from the Moundsville prison graveyard” is not the scene of the crime, or where our antihero is buried after being “shot down by a tower guard” trying to escape. Instead, the graveyard is a place from the past, a geographical marker of the memory of “a childhood scene, night sky, moon beams/Fishing with friends, sittn’ in the wild reeds/Watching the Ohio River flow at night/Waitn’ for the bullheaded catfishes to bite/Downriver from the Moundsville prison graveyard.”

As Gene Saunders points out in Moundsville, “there’s great fishing” on the Ohio River. “My friends and I did do a lot of fishing along the Ohio River in West Virginia – but from my memory – it was in Parkersburg,” Kozelek wrote in his email. In the song, the narrator nostalgically recalls “driving into Wheeling, showing her off/Backyard barbecues and reunions in the park.”

The “Moundsville prison” is actually the former West Virginia state penitentiary, located in town across the street from the old Native American burial mound the town is named after. The prison, which opened in 1876 and closed in 1995, housed thousands of convicts, including Charles Manson’s mom, and was used to shoot famous movies like Fools’ Parade and Night of the Hunter. For generations, the pen was a part of the fabric of the town. Residents walked there to watch baseball games inside. Prisoners decorated a Christmas tree atop the Native American mound.

The Moundsville prison, not to be a confused with a smaller, much more modern regional correctional facility in town, is now a tourist attraction, luring visitors to see the electric chair, “Old Sparky”, and paranormal investigators hunting ghosts, one of the main draws for a postindustrial town. And it does have a graveyard, which Kozelek told me he’s not visited. It’s off the beaten path, a few miles from the grounds framed by the Gothic castle structure, in a secluded area. I visited with Fr. That Son Ngoc Nguye, a Catholic priest from Vietnam based in Moundsville. “I like to go and pray for the souls of prisoners buried there,” he told me. “They were lonely in life, I imagine, and God loves them, too.”

Father That Son Ngoc Nguye at the Moundsville prison graveyard

I reached out to Bridgers, who is from Los Angeles, but didn’t get a reply. I’d love to know if she’s visited this segment of the Ohio River, where Lady Gaga’s mom grew up.

Kozelek, the songwriter, and chief vocalist of the indie band Sun Kil Moon, is from Massillon, Ohio, which is not on the Ohio River. It’s close, however, so it makes sense that he visited Moundsville when he was young. (Kozelek has been the source of controversy recently, including accusations of sexual misconduct, which he’s denied.)

In a 2018 interview with Bridgers, Kozelek said the song came from a bad dream:

The first part of the song was literally taken from a nightmare that I had in a hotel room in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. In reality, I was frustrated with a repair man and then dreamed that I pulled a knife out of a drawer and stabbed him and that he turned to me and said “you missed my heart”. The song was written in that moment. I don’t recall how much time I spent writing it, but not long.

“You Missed My Heart” is an old-fashioned murder ballad, reminiscent of Pretty Polly, Delia’s Gone, and Frankie and Johnny. But in its painful, nostalgic longing, it’s also a taste of Ohio River summers, when the beer was cold, the factories hummed, and going to see a new movie in Wheeling was the greatest thrill on Earth.

John W. Miller

How Moundsville is Celebrating Christmas in 2020

David Seum, a Moundsville, WV resident we’ve profiled on this blog, walked around his Ohio River town this week taking pictures, and put together this lovely photo essay.

Decorating your home in the same way you dress up a Christmas tree is a great American tradition, taken up in towns large and small, from sea to shining sea. When I was growing up in Belgium, I never saw holiday homes decorated like they are in the U.S., as open-hearted manifestations of festive public cheer. It’s a cool thing to see, and, you can tell, Moundsville has a special Christmas spirit.

In our movie, Moundsville, now playing on PBS, we relate the story of how prison inmates used to decorate a Christmas tree on the mound that could be seen across the Ohio River. The tree was taken down decades ago, given sensitivities to the mound’s character as a sacred burial mound. It’s a story that shows America’s shifting debate around culture and cultural appropriation. The town around the mound, of course, went on celebrating Christmas as hard as it could.

To the residents of Moundsville, especially those who shared their stories with me for the blog this year: Thank you, God bless, and Merry Christmas!

John W. Miller

PS: If you’d like to add photo of homes ornamented for Christmas to this slide show, email your pictures to jmjournalist@gmail.com

West Virginia’s Neil Diamond Imitator Wants to Heal America with ‘Porcupine Pie’ (and Visit Moundsville)

The Moundsville blog promotes the movie ‘Moundsville’, now on PBS, and collects writing about Moundsville and West Virginia.

Neil Diamond turns 80 on January 24, and of course Theron Denson is planning a gig on the great man’s birthday. Denson, who calls himself “Black Diamond”, is one of this country’s great tribute singers. He grew up in West Virginia, the son of a military veteran, and the descendant of African-Americans who moved north to work in mines and mills.

Denson is in his twentieth year of impersonating Diamond, which he’s done more or less full-time since he was fired from a Marriott hotel for singing on the job. Highlights have included opening for the Village People and performing on Jimmy Kimmel after a producer discovered him singing Sweet Caroline in a Charleston pizza parlor.

The Black Diamond learned his destiny as a teenager, he told me, “when little white ladies in church tapped me on the shoulder and said I sounded like Neil Diamond.” Based in Charleston, WV, Denson has learned pretty much every song in the Brooklyn Bard’s catalogue. “I’ll ask for suggestions, and somebody will yell out Porcupine Pie, and I’ll sing it, and of course the person who suggested it knows Porcupine Pie, so that’s a special moment.”

Porcupine pie, porcupine pie, porcupine pie
Vanilla soup, a double scoop please
No, maybe i won’t, maybe i won’t, maybe i will
The tutti fruit with fruity blue cheese

Given America’s painful racism, I wondered if Denson’s ever been criticized for singing the oeuvre of such a classically white artist, or if he himself is consciously flipping the minstrel narrative on its head. “I don’t overthink it,” he said. “I really do just love this music.” Black audiences, he added, “have embraced” his act, “although in the first years, I got a lot of side-eyed glances.”

Denson has never met Diamond, although he did talk to the singer on the phone once, “for six minutes and 32 seconds”, after which Diamond FedExed his entire catalogue of CDs to Denson’s Charleston apartment. His three favorite Neil Diamond songs are “Song for Life”, “Forever in Blue Jeans” and “I’ve Been This Way Before”.

Over the years, Denson has performed all over West Virginia, but not in Moundsville. “When I was a kid, [in the 80s], my dad took me and my brothers to the penitentiary in Moundsville for a ‘scared straight’ program,” he said. “Prisoners would yell at us, saying we’ll be there soon.” That scared him because he was “a good kid”, but he’d like to conquer that fear now, especially that the old pen is shuttered.

One reason I loved talking to Denson is that I’m a secret Neil Diamond nut. I am the child of American immigrants in Belgium. I went to school in French and didn’t have a television. My dad played German and Italian opera on the piano for a living. In my childhood home, a handful of Neil Diamond records my parents carted over from Maryland were one of the cultural affirmations of Americanness.

When Neil Diamond sang “Far/We’ve been traveling far/Without a home/But not without a star”, I could close my 10-year-old eyes on a rainy Belgian night, and imagine my future when we might migrate “Home, to a new and a shiny place” to “Make our bed, and we’ll say our grace/Freedom’s light burning warm.”

At 17, when I moved to Maryland to attend college, I cued “America” on my Walkman headphones as the plane landed at Dulles airport. Cheesy, overwrought, and a bit foolish, yeah, but how could I resist? America! (Years later, for my 40th birthday, I drove to Cleveland with three friends to see Neil in one of his last shows before he retired from touring due to Parkinson’s Disease. After 50 years of performing, he could still bring it.)

The reality of this country, as even teenage Neil Diamond fans must learn, is complicated, an onion of Top 40 tunes layered with racism and baseball and crushing poverty and great universities and a million other things. Denson, who calls himself a patriot, said he’s been wrestling with America. “I’m an optimist, and even I’m worried,” he said. “Last time I checked, this is the United States of America, and instead what’s being amplified are voices of hate and division.”

We’d all be better off listening to more Neil Diamond. “That’s the fabric of America,” he said. He described a recent concert where a transgender woman got up to dance to “Forever in Blue Jeans”. Denson walked over to dance with her, he said, “and all of sudden, all these people in the crowd were also dancing, like it was infectious.”

John W. Miller

10 Reasons Appalachians Love ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ (Even if Critics Hate It)

Hillbilly Elegy, on Netflix, has joined The Shack, See No Evil Hear No Evil, and Saw V as films audiences love and critics hate. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film scores 26% with critics, and 86% with audiences.

The split seems to reflect “the two Americas”, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has suggested, but it’s also likely the critical disdain is a continuation of the backlash against J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir. As the reviews poured in, some critics went against the early pan cascade to say that maybe this wasn’t such a bad movie after all. The movie is “an earnest depiction of the most dramatic parts of the book: a lower-middle-class family caught in the throes of addiction,” Lisa R. Pruitt wrote in an analysis for 100 Days in Appalachia, a startup regional news site. “The crummy reviews ultimately evince this profound and persistent disconnect between those who write the reviews and “regular” folks.” She explained:

Many viewers will relate to “Hillbilly Elegy” simply because addiction is such a shockingly common phenomenon, one that touches many families and every community. Others will appreciate the film because it presents J.D. Vance achieving the “American dream.” It’s an ideal many find irresistible in spite of the fact that – or, indeed, because – upward mobility is more elusive than ever.

The dynamic flipped the script of 2016, when, as it’s easy to forget, Hillbilly Elegy enjoyed a hot minute as a fashionable read for coastal critics. The book fell from grace as Appalachian writers pointed out that Vance’s was but one white man’s story, and did not represent a sprawling, complicated region of 13 states and 25 million people.

I moved to Pittsburgh in 2011, and although I’ve spent a lot of time in Moundsville, WV for my PBS movie with Dave Bernabo, I’m still learning about the region. I am curious about why Appalachian audiences like Hillbilly Elegy, so I spent a couple hours this morning reading comments about the film on my favorite regional Facebook group, Appalachian Americans. Here are ten reasons (including many points argued by Pruitt) people there say they love Hillbilly Elegy.

  1. It tells the truth about drugs. Michelle: “As someone who is a mother, a grandmother, and a woman who was born and raised in Kentucky then moved to Ohio, I found it difficult to watch. Lots of truths to all of this. It touched my life in more ways than one. I have walked through hell on earth with a family member using heroin. Praise God that member has been clean for several years. The choices made are hard on the children. There will be fallout for years to come. The movie was good. It touched me in many ways.”
  2. It’s about a loving family. Cami: I just watched “Hillbilly Elegy.” I read the book a year or so ago. The book was excellent and the movie was very good as well. I love the way the story shows the strength of family, the love, loyalty, and sacrifice the family shows for even its weakest members.”
  3. It celebrates regional pride. Phyllis: “It was a great story that told about a family leaving the hills to have a better life. If you listened at all he told of a time in life and how he enjoyed going to Kentucky to be with family. It simply tells a story about a person who struggled to grow up and them made it in life . I never lived in the hills but my family is from Tennessee and as a child we spent a lot of time there. Great memories and I’m not ashamed of my heritage.”
  4. It pushes back against prejudice against the Appalachian poor. Deborah: “Many don’t like the word hillbilly, but that is what people called us. There was a lot of discrimination and oppression. There is a deeper story that needs to be told. My family’s 3rd generation are corporate executives, school administrators, medical doctors and healthcare professionals, as well as business owners. Some still struggle as in most families. I didn’t see it as being about eastern Kentucky but about a social system not accepting of those who are different, keeping people in their place.
  5. It’s an accurate account of emigration. Kay: “I watched the movie and enjoyed it, a good depiction of the struggle of making change. My husband and I struggled with the decision to leave West Virginia when we were expecting our first child, we moved to Indiana. It wasn’t too far away from home. I hold tight to my heritage and when asked, always answer I was born and raised in West Virginia.”
  6. There aren’t that many other movies about Appalachia. Robert: “This was an improvement over that last great movie about Appalachian people, Deliverance.”
  7. It has great acting. Sonja: “I watched the movie last night and thought it was good. It caught my attention because of the people in it, not because I wanted to judge a geographic area. I thought Glenn Close and Amy Adams were great.”
  8. It’s faithful to the book. Donna: “I loved the book and liked the movie. I don’t think the book was ever meant to be a story of Appalachia; it’s one man’s story of his life in the area. He obviously loved his mamaw and like a lot of us would fight for the honor of his family name. He is calling himself a hillbilly and it’s his elegy. In the movie he defends one lawyers snide comments about hillbillies… I’m not understanding why some people are insulted when the book is an autobiography, it was never about you. I don’t mean to be confrontational, I just don’t understand I guess. I’m happy to be called a hillbilly and I’m proud of my family.”
  9. It’s inspirational. Eric: “I think this young mans journey in life is a PRIME EXAMPLE that you can either succumb to the ‘Product of Your Environment’ or rise above it. You can cry about no jobs and this and that and so on, or you can step up and establish goals and achieve those goals. That young man took a military path to then go to one of the top law schools in the country. That is an accomplishment in itself.”
  10. They cheer J.D. Vance. Em Jay: “I read the book and saw the movie. The movie does leave a lot out however my opinion is both were good. The acting in the movie was also good and watchworthy. The book, which came first, was simply on JD’s memories and HIS thoughts about HIS life. Hence the term memoirs…. Good for him for personally making himself successful.”

John W. Miller

West Virginia Officially Loses All 4 of its Minor League Baseball Teams

Moundsville’ is a PBS movie about the history of a small town on the Ohio River, and this blog collects articles and essays about the town, and West Virginia.

Major League Baseball made it official today: West Virginia, a state with a rich baseball history, is losing Major League Baseball affiliation for all four of its minor league clubs.

It’s a sad day for West Virginia, and Appalachia. Baseball is an essential American institution, and minor league baseball affiliation has been an important cultural bridge between Appalachia and the country’s richer cities. Fans in tiny West Virginia towns saw Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken play before they got to Baltimore. Cheering for those players brought rural and urban Americans together. For West Virginia, this is another example of capital and talent fleeing the state, and MLB’s move won’t do anything to help heal the country’s urban and rural divisions.

MLB, eager to save money and spend more money per player on development, has announced that Princeton and Bluefield will compete in the wooden-bat Appalachian League for rising college freshmen and sophomores. The Black Bears in Morgantown will play in the MLB Draft league, for draft-eligible rising college seniors. The Charleston, WV-based West Virginia Power, a Seattle Mariners affiliate in 2019, are still without a league for the 2021 season.

Theoretically, the new amateur leagues mean that minor league towns will still be graced by the presence of future MLB stars. But it’s unclear how many top amateur players will want to play in these leagues. Prospects, especially pitchers eager to minimize pitch counts and not get hurt, are spending more and more of their offseasons training with highly specialized coaches.

Clubs are happy to cut their ties with aging communities and rusty ballparks. It’s become problematic to justify sending high-priced prospects to places like Bluefield, where Bowen Field was originally built in 1939 as a WPA project, and only rebuilt after a fire in 1975.

That’s why the Pittsburgh Pirates chose to base their so-called High-A team in Greensboro, North Carolina instead of Morgantown. Under political pressure, MLB tried to persuade the Pirates to stay with the offer of money to help a new stadium. To no avail. “The player development system is always going to be critical to our future success at the Major League level,” said Pirates president Travis Williams said in a statement. “It is more important than ever that we partner with affiliate organizations that share in this commitment to our players and facilities.”

The contractions are part of MLB’s plan to eliminate a quarter of its 160-some affiliate minor league teams. The list of squads getting whacked is heavy with smalls towns and Rust Belt and Appalachian names, places like Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Frederick Maryland, and Lexington, Kentucky, where minor league stadiums have become community pillars.

West Virginia has rich baseball past, with affiliated pro teams going back over a century, with a pre-TV era of leagues involving factories, firehouses and even prisons and now including American Legion and men’s leagues. More than 120 Major League Baseball players were born in the state, including Lew Burdette, Bill Mazeroski and Toby Harrah, and a couple of 19th century greats, Jack Glasscock and Jesse Burkett. George Brett was born in the Moundsville area.

The West Virginia state legislature has condemned MLB, noting that 226,000 fans attended minor league games in the state in 2019, and that minor league baseball offers “paychecks to dozens of full-time and hundreds of part-time employees in our state” and generates “millions of dollars in economic impact.”

John W. Miller

Why This Educated Millennial is Staying in West Virginia

The brain drain from America’s hinterlands to the cities has shaped American economics and politics this century as much as the tech revolution, the opioid epidemic and the war on terrorism. In the last 50 years, as manufacturing has dried up in rural America, millions of Americans have migrated toward brighter lights, an exodus chronicled in our Moundsville film, now playing on PBS. Any attempt at rebalancing the urban-rural split in America rests on the shoulders of people like Brianna Hickman. For Moundsville, WV, pop. 8,400, she’s an example of brain gain.

The 28-year-year-old moved to Moundsville two years ago after growing up in a different part of the state, around Grafton and Fairmont, south of Morgantown. Hickman works as the development director of the Community Foundation for the Ohio Valley, a non-profit with over $55 million in assets that funds everything from arts programs to health centers. After serving at an appointee on city council this year, where, among other things, she helped the town make Juneteenth an official holiday, a progressive victory in a conservative town, she was defeated in November. She wants to stay involved. Politics at the local level are gentler, even between Republicans and Democrats. “We all want a thriving, growing Moundsville,” she told me.

The conversation over Hillbilly Elegy, a story about a man leaving his Rust Belt town behind for coastal wealth, has highlighted how this country’s biggest division is opportunity. For many in small towns, the choice boils down to staying behind with a bad job or leaving home and family for a good one. (It was only after he got rich elsewhere that J.D. Vance, the author of Elegy, moved back to Ohio to help run an investment firm focused on Appalachia and the Midwest. One of its projects is the Kentucky-based tomato grower AppHarvest, which employs hundreds.)

One reason Hickman decided to stay in West Virginia, she said, is that she found an affordable house in Moundsville. “The same property, probably without a yard, would have cost a sizeable chunk more in Wheeling.” You can easily find a nice three-bedroom house in Moundsville for around $100,000 or below. In Moundsville, Hickman’s favorite things to do are hiking at Grand Vue park and dining along the Ohio river. “Contrary to what some people like to say, there actually is something to do here,” she said.

The time it takes me to drive to work every morning is the same amount of time it took while I did live in Wheeling. If I want to go hiking on an unpaved trail, I can drive five minutes to Grand Vue and feel like I’m completely out of town. When I take my dog on a morning run, we run through the morning mist in front of the Penitentiary and think about all of the history there, only to turn to the other side of the road and see the tallest conical burial mound in the United States. Events like the Jefferson Avenue Saturday sidewalk sales and the free events that the Arts & Culture Commission puts on are exactly the type of things that young people are looking to do. We have so much potential in our community. We just need to make sure that we’re not the only ones who know that.

Unlike many who stay, Hickman has degrees, a JD, a master’s in public administration and a bachelor’s in political science.

Hickman doesn’t have cable and gets her news online. She doesn’t pay for anything but follow the “Associated Press, New York Times, Mountain State Spotlight, AFP News Agency, BBC, and several individual journalists and organizations.” Without strong local newspapers, people should rely on the city for local news by getting the City of Moundsville app and following its Facebook page, she said. More and more local governments are publishing their own news, a win for information flows but a loss for watchdog journalism.

In 2020, Hickman ran for county because she “wanted to give back to the community that welcomed me as its own.” She had been appointed in February 2020 to fill a seat for an unexpired term, “and I have loved every minute of serving since then.”

In the election in November, Hickman did not win a seat. She hopes to help Moundsville change with the times, a dynamic showed by the Moundsville movie on PBS, which “showed what a lot of small towns throughout the country look like – the recognition of a thriving industrial past, a stagnate present, and a desire to move forward.”

We have to be open-minded and adaptable. For so long, we’ve been focused on re-living the past and bringing Moundsville back to “the good ol’ days.” Well, in the good ol’ days, one person could work 40 hours a week and provide a living for a small family. Women weren’t encouraged to work, and when they did, they were paid drastically less than their male counterparts. That’s not the world we live in today. We have to look for new opportunities for Moundsville, ones that include all of our community. We also have to be more involved and engaged. We need regular town halls or community forums so that we’re hearing from everyone, not just those that attend council meetings.

Moundsville is currently struggling with Covid-19. “We’ve seen an increase in demand at the food pantries and food drives, too,” she said. “Everyone is worried, and justifiably so. We’re a resilient community though, and we will continue figuring this out, together.”

Hickman said her generation has a sense of realism about structural changes to the economy. Chain stores, for example, “are seen as a necessary evil” because they create jobs and “without Walmart, Kroger, or some of our other corporate chains, we would essentially live in a food desert.”

And millennials understand that factories aren’t coming back.

My generation dreams of being able to buy a home, to have a career, and to not be saddled with ridiculous debt. My generation is the first in American history to not be considered better off than their parents were at the same age. We want to see jobs come back to Moundsville, but we also want to see jobs that stay here. We see it all the time at the state level with corporations coming into the area, staying for a few years, and then leaving. If we want to see long-term prosperity, we need to invest in jobs that are here for the long haul and invest in our economy.

How to make that happen is a puzzle for 21st century American citizens and policymakers. But nobody doubts that small towns need people like Brianna Hickman to buy homes, and build something.

John W. Miller