The song is sweetly plaintive, almost mournful, its melody suggesting down-home woods and fields, its rhythm just upbeat enough to avoid depression. It can be very affecting to the transplanted Kentuckians, Tennesseans, West Virginians, and other white Appalachian folk whose feelings it expresses.
When they play "Detroit City" or "Green, Green Grass of Home" at Li'l Abner's lounge in north-central Detroit, the dance floor fills with nostalgic, sometimes homesick hillbillies -- for that is what they call themselves today, with a growing sense of pride. Those who don't dance just sit there over a bottle of beer, seemingly lost in varying states of reverie. "It really hurts," said one ex-Kentuckian.
For three decades and more the hillbillies have trekked northward from the green hills and coal country of job-poor Appalachia, seeking the steady employment and solid security offered by the industrial Middle West.
No one really knows how many there have been, but a conservative estimate says that at least 4 million have poured -- at a somewhat lower rate in recent years -- into such cities as Cincinnati, Akron, Cleveland, Dayton, and Chicago. And especially Detroit, with its bountiful supply of jobs in the automobile industry.
Though the vast interstate movement of these fiercely proud and independent but often shy and different people has paralleled that of the blacks, it has been much less noted.
William K. Stevens, "Appalachia's hillbillies find a life in the North," The New York Times, Mar 28, 1973, reprinted in Gene Roberts and David R. Jones, Assignment America, New York, 1974, pp. 133-134.
About three years before we wrote this, I played a little old club in Detroit... and I saw these people that are in this song. They did go North. When I was a kid, they'd say. "Where's John now?" "Well, he's gone up to De-troit."
I sat there and talked to these people. They were from Alabama, West Tennessee, Kentucky, and they'd go to Detroit and work in the car factories. Now, they had more cash money in their pockets than they'd ever seen in their lives, but they were homesick. And to keep from being so lonely, they'd go sit in a bar and drink. And when they did get home, they'd get home with no money. They wasted, literally, ten or fifteen years of their lives, and they wanted to go home all the time. They'd think they were rich, but they'd spend it. Then, eventually, they'd dovetail and catch that Southbound freight and ride back home where they came from.
Dorothy Horstman interview, Nashville, TN, Jun 2, 1973, reprinted in Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy, New York, 1976, pp. 9-10.
Last night I went to sleep in Detroit City,
And I dreamed about the cotton fields and home.
I dreamed about my mother, dear old papa, sister and brother,
And I dreamed about the girl who's been waiting for so long.CHORUS:Home folks think I'm big in Detroit City,
I wanna go home, I wanna go home,
Oh, how I wanna go home.
From the letters that I write they think I'm fine.
But by day I make the cars, by night I make the bars,
If only they could read between the lines.NARRATION:
'Cause you know I rode a freight train north to Detroit City,
And after all these years I find I've just been wasting my time.
So I'll just take my foolish pride and put it on the Southbound freight and ride
And go back to the loved ones, the ones I left waiting so far behind.