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

When the Hillbilly Shot the Filmmaker: The Genius of ‘Stranger with a Camera’

We’ve been fighting over hillbilly elegies for a long time.

Amid the buzz and furor over the Ron Howard movie, I watched Stranger with a Camera, a 2000 doc by Kentucky filmmaker Elizabeth Barret.

The Appodlachia podcast team, John Isner and Chuck Corra, published an anthology of books, movies and podcasts about Appalachia, and included the film, available for free here. (I’m grateful they also included my PBS movie about Moundsville, West Virginia.)

Stranger is an American treasure, and should be watched by every journalist, activist, politician, preacher, and professor. The movie is about our nightmare, source shoots storyteller, and is a deep meditation on the charge of “poverty porn” leveled at Hillbilly Elegy (which I wrote about for America Magazine.)

In 1967, a Kentucky man named Hobart Ison murdered Hugh O’Connor, a Canadian filmmaker surfing a wave of journalists, documentarians and activists sweeping into Appalachia in the 1960s, spinning poor white people stories. These hillbilly elegists were inspired by a 1963 book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, and by President Lyndon Johnson’s martial focus on the spectacle of Appalachian indigence.

The murder of O’Connor, recounted in Stranger with a Camera, is a shocking, and surprisingly rare, case in the history of journalism and documentary filmmaking, although violence is a reasonable fear when the president calls reporters enemies of the people. (I was worried when we premiered Moundsville in Moundsville.)

In Kentucky, it happened. Ison pulled the trigger. The case was famous. Calvin Trillin wrote about it in the New Yorker.

What makes Stranger with a Camera remarkable is that the filmmaker, Barret, is from near the scene of the crime in Kentucky. She tells the story while relentlessly questioning herself and viewers on the deeper questions surrounding this random act of violence: Who should tell the story of a poor community? If it’s an outsider, how should they tell it? What are every storyteller’s responsibilities? Barret herself had the experience of living in an area while seeing the “poverty pictures on TV”, movies like Appalachia: Rich Land, Poor People.

O’Connor was working on a movie called US that aimed to show the fragility of the American dream. Eastern Kentucky, one of the poorest regions in the entire country, attracted outside chroniclers. O’Connor and his crew were filming coal miners and their families. After stopping by a rental home in Jeremiah, KY, they were ambushed by the family’s landlord, Ison. He walked up and fired several shots with a .38-calibre Smith&Wesson, killing O’Connor. Ison’s family had owned the land since the 1890s. He was later sentenced to 10 years in prison, and released on parole after one.

O’Connor, by all accounts, was an empathetic actor, experienced at traveling and interviewing people all over the world. “He was there for the underdog,” his daughter says. A good guy.

In her twin roles as storyteller and neighbor, Barret felt called to probe what had happened more deeply. “As a filmmaker, I felt that O’Connor’s death had something to teach me,” she says in her voiceover. “What can I learn from this story now that I have stood on both sides of the camera?”

There is another side. While Barret condemns the killing, she criticizes the exploitation. Some outsiders, she says, “mined the images the way the companies had mined the coal.” An army of pen and camera-wielding storytellers storming the hills were consistently heading straight for the most rundown places they could find. Poverty porn, a tradition dating back to slumming in 19th century New York. Barret felt insulted, she says, when filmmakers “focused only on the deprivation and didn’t look past it the lives that are the real wealth of the culture.”

What does this have to do with Hillbilly Elegy?

As the movie drops on Netflix this week, we’ve been on another frenetic ride into the story space of Appalachia, poor whites and so-called Trump country. The incoming administration of president-elect Joe Biden is drawing up strategies for reaching out to disaffected and disconnected America. There’s a Marshall Plan for Appalachia in the works.

Barret’s movie poses the right question at the right time: “What are the responsibilities of any of us who take the images of other people and put them to our own uses?” Hobart Ison was wrong to kill, she concludes, “but the filmmaker’s job is to be true to the experiences of both Hugh O’Connor and Hobart Ison, and in the end to trust that that is enough.”

John W. Miller

‘America Lost’ Finds Humanity and Redemption in Youngstown, Memphis, Stockton

Church or state: How do we rebuild America’s left-behind communities?

NOTE: America Lost is currently available for free here.

The 2016 and 2020 elections had different outcomes, but this in common: neither magically reboots America’s diseased neighborhoods. The work of rebuilding, and surviving in, communities crippled by globalization, white flight, crime, drugs, income stagnation and the collapse of civic institutions and local journalism goes on, away from Washington. Whoever governs America in the future would do well to acknowledge the lived human experience of people in struggling places like Appalachia, Baltimore and the Ohio Valley. (And Moundsville, WV, as portrayed in our PBS film.) Their wages, health care, schools, safety, streets, parks and pools matter.

In America Lost, an 80-minute documentary playing on PBS and available on Amazon, director Christopher Rufo has made a film that adds to the important work of dignifying these left-behind hoods, hovels and hollers with complicated and enlightening humanity. It’s the kind of movie you need to watch if you want understand the full reality of America, including the presidency of Donald Trump and its aftermath.

Rufo spent five years filming people in three damaged urban areas, Youngstown, OH, Memphis, Tenn., and Stockton, CA. “Big city journalists and elite media think a poor coal town in Appalachia, an African-American neighborhood in Memphis and a Latino ghetto in California are completely different,” Rufo told me in a phone interview. “It couldn’t be further from the truth. The experience of these people is different, but what they’re going through” is similar, he said.

America Lost doesn’t offer broad theories about the causes of American decline, but notes a crumbling of institutions that bond people together in hard times, especially family and church. In his current job as director of the Center on Wealth & Poverty at the Discovery Institute, a right-leaning think tank, Rufo has positioned himself as a conservative thinker and writer — to the displeasure, he says, of many of his creative and film friends — but his movie, in my view, is more a great work of reporting than a position paper or sermon.

Rufo, 36, grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Sacramento, and worked for over a decade as a documentary filmmaker. Filming America Lost, he told me, nudged him toward conservative orthodoxy. He came to see liberal anti-poverty social programs as almost useless, and salvation in the strength of individuals knitted together by healthy institutions, especially churches. The argument over trusting church or state for salvation is an old one, and Rufo’s work enriches it by shining a light on what’s actually happening to people’s lives.

There’s a temptation, when reporting in places like Appalachia, to define people by their connections to national political parties, companies, or trends, instead of fleshing out the intimate details of people’s life. America Lost doesn’t do that, focusing lovingly on its subjects. And, like Moundsville, it leaves national politics and Trump out of the picture. “The issues in the film transcend partisan politics,” said Rufo. “If the film took on those issues, it would be immediately polarized—and stop communicating with half the country. I focused on issues, not partisan politics.”

It’s a wise choice. Even if it’s important to understand, Trumpism usually stops more conversations than it starts. In screening Moundsville last year, my favorite part was the conversations after the film running toward stories about people and communities and jobs, and away from Trump and Washington gossip.

Another temptation for outsiders is to offer utopian solutions. Tax cuts will make factories rise from the ashes! Universal basic income will make us all happy and free! Instead, America Lost and Rufo suggest, we might work harder to start by simply accepting the truth that wide swaths of America have, for now, become markedly poorer, that there are no easy answers, and that people in those places deserve our respect, support and understanding. “The people I met in America’s forgotten cities are searching for purpose, meaning, moral order,” says Rufo.

I do wish that, instead of vaguely castigating “bureaucracy”, America Lost acknowledged U.S.’s most obvious public policy failures, especially the country’s outrageous health care costs and incomplete coverage and care. It’s hard to focus on finding meaning and purpose in your life when your teeth are aching. Why can’t we have church and state?

My favorite parts of Rufo’s film are his beautiful camerawork and illuminating selection of characters. For example, Todd, our on-screen guide in Youngstown, is a former steelworker turned scrap merchant, making a business out of melting down America’s former prosperity and turning it into metal for future projects. In this century, scrap has been one of this country’s biggest exports. We have literally been exporting our past.

Youngstown, Rufo tells us in a voiceover, is a city that “failed to make the transition from the modern to the postmodern world.” And, while, on the surface they’ve lost the factories, “but deeper than this they’ve lost the human bonds that once held people together.” Despite periods of economic retrenchment, this is the first time there’s been this kind of collapse of institutions, says Rufo.

The decline reported by Rufo has been well documented. We bowl alone. The tricky questions are around what to do about it. Should we let cities without good companies and jobs turn into ghost towns? How can we rebuild? Do employers beget a virtuous, hard-working labor pool or vice versa?

“There are no easy answers,” Rufo said. “On an individual level, if you want to be upwardly mobile and want a middle class life you should probably leave and go to Pittsburgh or Cleveland.”

For those staying behind, he found, there is usually work, even if it can’t afford a big city lifestyle. “In Memphis, there were warehouse jobs paying $15, $16 or $17 an hour, and I saw apartments there renting for $300 a month,” he said. Those are familiar economics for the millions of Americans who work jobs for less than $15 an hour with minimal benefits at places like CVS, WalMart and Chipotle.

The challenge is how to cope with that reality. “We’ve demolished the old social order but found nothing to replace it,” he says in the film.

That’s not true everywhere. As James and Deb Fallows report in their Our Towns book and film, there are pockets of entrepreneurship and investment rejuvenating small towns across this land, and that local business development helps build community in new, different ways.

Rufo finds answers of his own in the film’s last chapter, in a Latino neighborhood in Stockton, CA, where his hero is a pastor helping men, some former gang members, find and keep work, and function as good husbands and fathers. “Even those at the bottom can lead meaningful and dignified lives,” Rufo concludes. “We all have the capacity to make life a little better.”

In its admonitions against social programs and prescriptive embrace of the role of male leaders, families and pastors, America Lost is more ideological than Moundsville, but, in talking to Rufo, I found, in many ways, a fellow traveler. His film is vivid, authentic, intimate work, and a rich contribution to chronicling the pain, joy and hustle of this country’s hurting communities. No matter what your politics, that is the right place to start.

John W. Miller

Lady Gaga, Star with Roots in Appalachia, Campaigns in Pittsburgh — Mom from West Virginia Town Left for NYC, Part of Rural America Brain Drain

A divided Moundsville watches: “She should wear a Steelers jersey.”

On one level, Lady Gaga’s appearance in Pittsburgh tonight with Joe Biden, on the last night of the 2020 election, is a classic celebrity endorsement. Gaga is a globally famous pop star. Politicians seek out props like Lady Gaga all the time.

On another, Gaga’s appearance in Pittsburgh, Paris of Appalachia, is a reminder of the changing geography and economics of America, as depicted in our film, Moundsville, available on PBS or on this site.

Moundsville, WV (pop. 8,400), is a nearby town, built around a 2,200-year-old Native American burial mound, that once housed some of the world’s mightiest factories, including Fostoria Glass and Marx Toy Plant, maker of Rock’em Sock’em robots.

Lady Gaga’s mom, Cynthia Louise Germanotta, grew up in the Moundsville area in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, like millions of Americans, she left for bigger cities, in her case, New York. Factories were closing, destroying millions of good, middle-class jobs, destroying people’s dreams of any future in the area, and helping places like New York City rebuild. Lady Gaga’s grandmother stayed behind, part of the aging populations in the Rust Belt who helped elect President Trump in 2016.

These regions are not going to rebound until they can figure out ways of drawing young, talented people back to them, which, as James and Deb Fallows report in their excellent Our Towns book and upcoming HBO movie, is in fact happening in a lot of places. (Yes, Pittsburgh is one of them.) Lady Gaga could help America by making rebuilding small towns sexy.

Affirming her connection to Appalachian Trumpian good ole boy culture, Gaga posted a video of herself in camo in front of a pick-up truck. “I’m voting for America,” she tells the camera. “Which means, I’m voting for Joe Biden.”

“And if you live in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, Florida or Arizona,” Gaga continues, “I encourage you to vote. And if you have a friend that lives there, tell them to vote. I’m going to be in one of these states tomorrow. Guess which one I’ll be in. Hint: I used to live there.”

She drinks from the beer can, squeezes liquid out it, then slams it on the ground. “Cheers,” she declares, “the 2020 election.”

The state she’s referring to is of course Pennsylvania. In Moundsville, just over an hour away from Pittsburgh, Gaga is still popular, even if her politics leave people just as divided as the 2020 election. That beer, truck and camo video is funny, but it probably isn’t swinging that many votes in the end; West Virginia is a lock for President Trump.

“People are very opinionated,” Rose Hart, founder of the Appalachian Outreach charity, told me. “Strong supporters of Trump, or they can’t stand him and are going to Biden because of him.”

Playing in nearby Pittsburgh is “a good move for Biden, and her fan base,” said Steve Hummel, owner of Moundsville’s Archives of the Afterlife, a paranormal museum. “Politics is business.”

There are ways Lady Gaga could bring people in Appalachia together. “She should wear a Steelers jersey,”said Alex Martinez, who works at the Acapulco restaurant in Moundsville, “or an all-meat uniform.” (Gaga wore a meat costumer at the MTV awards in 2010.) The Steelers, currently 7-0, are wildly popular in West Virginia.

“She has her own opinion, but she should keep it to herself,” said former Moundsville mayor, and Trump supporter, Phil Remke. The town is still proud of her, he added. Lady Gaga, he said, “is allowed her own opinion.”

John W. Miller

Moundsville Craves Stories in a News Desert — Local News Helps Citizens ‘Intercept the Same Reality’

Review of Ghosting the News, by Margaret Sullivan

When 37-year-old CVS cashier David Seum decided to run for Moundsville, WV town council in 2020, he hired a Wheeling-based public relations firm called Folkore. Its director, Nathan Daniel Blake, the son of a coal miner, worked for a local paper but left for PR because “it paid McDonald’s wages,” he told me. He manages communications for a tire company, but started Folklore with his wife in 2019 as a community-oriented agency that focuses on stories they believe in. It now has a staff of seven.

In July, Blake wrote up a press release (“Seum believes strongly that Moundsville’s best days lie in the future”), and sent it to local TV stations, and newspapers including the Moundsville Echo and the Wheeling Intelligencer.

Nobody picked it up. Welcome to politics in a news desert.

“It’s really hard to get newspapers to engage these days,” said Blake, who emphasizes how much he loved newspapers growing up. “I hate to say it, but when it comes to marketing in small towns, you’re better off spending money on Facebook than trying to get something into the paper.” Seum said he’s tried to compensate by “knocking on more doors” and “posting more on social media” than his older rivals.

As a neophyte, and not part of Moundsville’s elite dominated by older residents like former mayors Gene Saunders and Phil Remke (both featured in our film, Moundsville, now on PBS), Seum needed a newspaper, not necessarily to endorse him, but simply to hold up his candidacy to the light. Because it wasn’t, his odds of winning a seat next week are diminished, at the expense of citizens, who should know about fresh candidates challenging the old guard. (NOTE: Seum did not won a seat.) And there is interest: My story on this blog about Seum has been read over 1,500 times, and was picked up by The Daily Yonder, an online magazine covering rural America.

The decline of newspapering in small towns like Moundsville, set off by the internet’s decimation of ad revenue, is a national crisis that threatens American democracy. As Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan writes in her impeccable new book Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, the decline of local news “takes a toll on civic engagement—even on citizens’ ability to have a common sense of reality and facts, the very basis of self-governance.” (Sullivan has written a terrific book, and I especially love its title. So much of America’s current crisis, as our film shows, is about wrestling with the ghosts of a past perceived as infinitely more glorious. Moundsville is a town that, literally, markets ghosts.)

The 2016 election turned places like Moundsville into vote clusters for national reporters to mine for political intelligence. And without local newspapers to anchor them, it was easier for residents to get swept up in conversations about Donald Trump. They could find a ready audience repeating what they had heard on TV. Instead of bringing up the story reported in the local paper about how the coal company bribed the mayor, morning coffee squads across the country sunk their teeth into anything related to Trump, and online conspiracy theories with little relevance to their lives.

What we tried to do with our Moundsville movie, was to show that each small town has its own, rich story, free from the national narrative.

The more residents can live in that story, the more anchored in reality they’ll be, and the healthier society we’ll have. Voting “becomes more political polarized when local news fades,” according to a 2018 study in the Journal of Communication cited by Sullivan. She also quotes from a Pope Francis 2019 speech: Local news helps citizens “intercept the same reality” and “transmit to a wider horizon all those values that belong to the life and history of the people, and at the same time give voice to poverty, challenges, sometimes urgent issues in the territories, along the streets, meeting families, in places of work.”

At first, I kept this blog alive to publicize the film, but over time, I realized that it had become, on days when I made phone calls, read documents, checked facts, and wrote up a story, a local newspaper. My tales about the local bakery, preparing for the coronavirus pandemic, and Lady Gaga’s mom, who is from the Moundsville area, have notched over 100,000 total views. (Moundsville has around 8,000 people.) A negative review of our own film I published got over 2,500 reads. People yearn for authentic conversation about and around where they live. That hunger for local stories has enabled the rise of a network of 1,300 fake local news sites that sell targeted stories clients with political or commercial goals, quite the opposite of journalism. For $2,000, for example, on one site, you can buy “five articles and unlimited news releases,” according to an investigation by New York Times reporters Davey Alba and Jack Nicas.

Since the 19th century, local newspapers “have bonded communities,” said Victor Pickard, author of Democracy Without Journalism?, another new book on the local journalism crisis. “That cultural memory is still there, and even conservatives who say they hate the media have warm fuzzy feelings about their community paper.”

To be sure, in Moundsville, local TV stations like WTOV9 and WTRF cover city council, the weather, crime, and football games, but they don’t offer deep investigations, or intimate day-to-day engagement with the lives of fellow residents. They’re not Sam Shaw.

Margaret Sullivan worked at the Buffalo News for 32 years, before moving to the New York Times. She finished in Buffalo as managing editor, and maintains her passion for the power of local journalism as a vehicle for community-building and holding the powerful to account. Buffalo is where she learned, she writes, that “a newspaper’s purpose isn’t only to keep public officials accountable, it’s also to be the village square for an entire metropolitan area, to help provide a common reality and touchstone, a sense of community and place.”

The newspaper’s place as the pillar of the village square has come crashing down. You could once become one of the world’s richest people by owning a paper. Warren Buffett bragged about the 30% profit margins at titles he controlled. Now Buffett predicts newspapers are going to “disappear.” From 2004, to 2015, over 1,800 print outlets in the U.S. closed, according to a study in the Newspaper Research Journal quoted by Sullivan.

So without a newspaper to cover long-shot candidates like David Seum, what hope is there for local news in a place like Moundsville?

Blake, the journalist-turned-PR entrepreneur, told me the solution is private investment in local storytelling, including by companies and advertisers. “They’re involved in selling goods and services to people, so they see the stories firsthand,” he said. “Tell those stories. People care far more about that than endless advertising about how great you are.” Best to include video and audio in story packages “because not that many people read anymore.” (That point helps explain why public radio is doing well.) A big challenge at the local level, of course, is guaranteeing editorial independence. At the local level, “if you have somebody who spends the money, that person is going to want some clout in how stories are portrayed,” he said.

Sullivan’s book, and a similar work by Victor Pickard, Democracy Without Journalism? highlight promising initiatives, including the prospect of public subsidies, ProPublica and Report for America’s cooperation with local news organizations, public radio, and start-ups like the East Lansing, Michigan’s East Lancing Info, a nonprofit launched by a citizen journalist and a network of friends and local residents. Wheeling has a similar venture, called Weelunk. The Daily Yonder, edited by Tim Marema, covers a wide range of issues impacting rural America. The trick is getting people to filter out all the online garbage and find their way to these sites.

In West Virginia, the Mountain State Spotlight, a collaboration between ProPublica, Report for America, and veteran West Virginia journalists like former Charleston Gazette-Mail executive editor Greg Moore, and Pulitzer Prize-winners Eric Eyre and Ken Ward, Jr., is producing A+ reporting on critical issues like health care, poverty, and voting. (I recommend Lauren Peace’s recent series on the closure of a hospital in Wheeling.)

The resurrection of local news might require public subsidies, anathema to many Americans. “But we wouldn’t let public schools die because they’re not profitable,” said Pickard. “And it should be done by professionals, we don’t let just anybody become a public school teacher.”

The hope, said Blake, is that people in his area will demand “real community” and “storytelling that changes the narrative of the Rust Belt and Appalachia.” His generation, he said, “has moved beyond the commodity mindset where all you care about is what’s cheapest.”

Sullivan writes that her “research for his book, combined with my decades in journalism, has left me with a great deal of sadness about what is happening and what is to come.” Still, she says, “I am not without hope.”

For the sake of democracy, she concludes, “we need to save as much as possible of what remains, bringing the traditional strengths fully into the digital age. And, at the same time, we must energetically support and foster the newer models that are forging the local journalism so necessary for today and tomorrow.”

John W. Miller

Lighting Up West Virginia’s Native American Past After Suppression

11,000 people in WV claim Native American ancestry — Couldn’t own property until 1960s

In Moundsville, Native Americans are present through the stories of the Adena people and the mound they built over two thousand years ago. We couldn’t find anybody in town with Native American ancestry to interview, but in West Virginia, there are still some 11,000 people who claim ancestry, out of a population of 1.8 million.

In the 18th century, white settlers and explorers, including George Washington, found a land of rivers and valleys dotted with settlements, sometimes villages in the thousands, and tribes that included, among others, the Shawnee, Mingo, Cherokee, Delaware, Seneca and Mohawk. Humans had lived in Appalachia for over ten thousand years, forming some of the oldest settlements on the continent after trekking from Asia. The town of Wheeling’s name comes from a Delaware word that means “place of the skull.” Famously, white settlers battled Native Americans in and around the Ohio Valley. The Battle of Point Pleasant, in 1774, “eliminated Native Americans as a force on the frontier for the first three years of the American Revolutionary War, clearing the way for peaceful settlement of the region,” notes the state’s official history.

In the 19th century, as the United States of America thundered westward, the government forced Native Americans to relocate to reservations outside West Virginia, or assimilate and list themselves as “white” or “colored”, a process that continued into the 1950s. We talked to people who grew up next to Cherokees born in the 19th century, segregated in the same part of town as African-Americans. It wasn’t until Civil Rights legislation was passed in the 1960s that Native Americans could own property in the state.

Although West Virginia was founded in 1863 during the Civil War as, essentially, Virginia without slavery, it was still segregated, “and Indians didn’t legally exist,” Wayne Appleton, head of the Appalachian American Indians of West Virginia, told me. “When people raised the question of why some people in the state have darker skin, the standard answer was, well, we’re Portuguese, because that made them white.” Appleton, a Charleston-based chemist who also goes by the name “Chief Grey Owl”, has made it his life’s work to resurrect the heritage of Native Americans in the state.

Federal and state leaders did all kinds of things to obscure the history of previous human inhabitants. They spread rumors that somebody else had built burial mounds. Curriculums emphasized that West Virginia had been empty, or a “hunting ground”, before white settlers moved in, a line we heard echoed in interviews for the film. It’s comforting for white Americans to think that their ancestors didn’t displace anybody in settling this vast, diverse land.

In the last few decades, the light of truth has been shining through in parts. In 1996, West Virginia’s state senate passed a resolution recognizing Appleton’s group, the AAIWV, and affirming that “American Indians were the original inhabitants of the lands that now comprise the United States of America and West Virginia.” The resolution noted that “concepts such as the freedom of speech and the separation of powers in government, all of which were found in the political systems of various American Indian nations, influenced the formation of the government of the United States of America.”

John W. Miller

Candidate for Council Dreams of Rebuilding Town While Making $19,000 a Year Working as CVS Cashier

David Seum Wants to Reboot Moundsville With Events, Family Park — Imagines Life on $37,000 A Year

Way up this fall’s U.S. election ballot is the presidential choice of Donald J. Trump or Joe Biden, and, in Moundsville (pop. 8,000), way down the list is 37-year-old David Seum, who’s standing for town council. You can watch the eight candidates for council debate in an online candidate forum Wednesday, October 7 at 6 p.m. (Two, Gene Saunders and Phil Remke, are stars of Moundsville, now playing on PBS.)

Seum (pronounced SEE-UM) is running on a platform of rebuilding shared physical public spaces, like new businesses and plants, and events, clubs and parks. “It’s nice to talk about how great things were 50 years ago, but my question is what is this place going to look like in the next 50 years,” he says. “Once the oil and gas industry fades, if we don’t diversify, we’re going to be in trouble.”

The question Seum is posing — how life in America can be happier and healthier in places like Moundsville — still escapes much of the vision of national politics, which is obsessed with the theater of famous persons, the circus of celebrity, and a surface stock market-based prosperity, and has lost sight of the importance of everyday lived human experience.

The national conversation usually avoids uncomfortable truths, especially the country’s gaping and growing inequalities, exploding poverty, and how dependent the U.S. economy has become on an underclass of tens of millions of service workers at companies like Amazon, McDonald’s and WalMart making under $15 an hour with limited benefits. That class includes Seum, who works at CVS as a cashier for $11.25 an hour and gets his healthcare via taxpayer-funded Medicaid. You don’t have to be a working-class populist or raving socialist to see the damage wrought by the hollowing out of America’s middle class and rotting of thousands of once prosperous and tight-knit communities.

In Moundsville, the economy is built on a thousand or so low-wage service gigs, and another thousand jobs working in local hospitals and a prison. There is only one unionized factory left, with jobs in the low hundreds, and it makes lids for jars. City government and the school system employ a few hundred more. The gas industry is relatively strong, but its best jobs are for migrating engineers and pipeliners who don’t settle down. The population is aging, and the brain drain has sapped the town of its best and brightest, making a rebuild feel out of reach. And yet some people stay- for family or work, or simply because they love the place. And like Seum, many are doing something. Against the odds, they are rebuilding. They are doing hard work worth celebrating. (For a broader celebration of the rebuilders, I recommend James and Deborah Fallows’ Our Towns book and upcoming documentary.)

I’ve been talking to Seum these past two weeks. He’s been out and about, knocking on doors and walking the streets talking to voters. We’ve been chatting via messenger apps, and on the phone, including once as he picked up McDonald’s drive-through in his 2010 Kia Sportage.

Politically, Seum is an independent. In fact, he doesn’t seem to care about at all about national politics. Any time I brought up Trump and Biden, he changed the subject. Conversationally, he’s earnest, polite and enthusiastic. His dream really is to improve quality of life where he grew up. I’m rooting for him, partly because unlike older town leaders, he’s from a generation that has struggled its entire life in a system without stable employment, strong unions and tight-knit communities.

Seum’s day-to-day toil and troubles right now are typical of young and middle-aged residents of small towns in the Rust Belt and Appalachia. After stints in other places, he returned to Moundsville care for his ailing parents, moving into a garage apartment behind his parents’ house. He has an ex-girlfriend and son in California.

On weekends, Seum supplements his CVS income by calling bingo games. His total income for a year of full-time work in 2019 was $19,000. “It doesn’t make sense that you can work full-time and not have enough money for life as a single person,” he says. His dream revenue is around $37,000, enough to take vacations, pay for his medical care and save for retirement. Right now, it’s hard to see how that could happen if he stays in Moundsville. CVS has offered to train him to work in their pharmacy, but that only offers a raise of 65 cents an hour, and the other places he could work are Walgreens and WalMart. Another challenge is that installing automated cashiers has allowed CVS to cut Seum’s weekly hours to 26 from 34.

For Seum, who’s still undecided on his presidential choice, politics feels so broken, so remote, that it’s hard to see how anything good at all could come from the government.

Big ideas like a higher minimum wage, universal health care, universal basic income, and investment in infrastructure and education don’t feel that realistic, even if campaigns still make those promises. The Biden platform, for example, includes support for a $15 an hour minimum wage. That sounds utopian, and even like something Seum doesn’t think he deserves. “I’ve been on my own since I was 17,” he says. “I don’t like to make excuses.” In Seum’s America, things fell apart a long time ago. Even in Moundsville, the $7.25 per hour minimum doesn’t amount to a prosperous life.

Really rebooting Appalachia and the Rust Belt would require some combination of big, sweeping ideas, plus specific investments in a new colleges, training centers, factories, or public institutions or offices.

But what counts as investment in Moundsville these days is a new armored car the town received as part of a Pentagon plan to steer used military gear toward local governments. The presidential campaign’s theater of personality, identity validation, and basic ideas feels feels distant. (The Democratic primary was more substantive, and Seum says he was attracted by Sen. Bernie Sanders’s pro-working class platform.)

Seum’s selling point in running for council is his aptitude for organizing concerts and other events, which he did in Wheeling when he lived there. “We need to give people stuff to do,” he says. “Right now, there’s nothing for kids to do but sports. I’d like to bring in more bands, more acts, and revive life here.” For example, he’d like to install a family entertainment complex with “a go-kart track, miniature golf, cornhole, darts, that kind of thing” on the former Fostoria glass factory site. That would bring in local tourists “from towns that don’t have the resources we have,” he say.

He hopes to attract investors. “Right now, the only businesses taking advantage of tax breaks that are available are these gambling parlors” catering to gas workers from out of town,” he says. There are around 10 gambling parlors in and around town. “That’s a detriment to the economy, because people spend money there instead of on their kids,” he says.

“Growth comes from the nuanced cooperation between local government and private enterprise,” Seum writes in his campaign bio, which notes that Seum has served on boards of organizations like an Italian festival and the Ohio Valley Jaycees, “group of younger people creating positive change.” The past, he tells me, “should be remembered and even celebrated” but it doesn’t “hold the answers as to what Moundsville can be in the future.”

In places like Moundsville, people run for town council partly for extra income. Council members make $250 per bimonthly meeting, says Seum. The mayor, chosen from its members, makes $1,000 a month.

John W. Miller