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Released October 24, 2003

URBANIZATION OF SOUTH EXAMINED
IN HISTORY PROFESSOR'S NEW BOOK

HATTIESBURG - Seeking a better life, millions of farmers in the rural south pulled up stakes and headed to the region's cities in the late 19th and 20th centuries. With this mass migration came enormous economic, social and cultural changes, both in their new surroundings and the ones they left behind.

In his new book, The Social Origins of the Urban South, Dr. Louis M. Kyriakoudes, assistant history professor at The University of Southern Mississippi, examines the causes for this migration and its effect on regional development.

Exploring the process from the perspective of real migrants, Kyriakoudes focuses on Nashville and the Middle Tennessee hinterland, where mounting agricultural pressures forced many poor families off their farm and into the cities. The cities of the region, particularly Nashville, also enticed single men seeking fortune and adventure, single women seeking independence, and African-Americans seeking equality.

"This book is about what these changes meant to the South and how everyday people navigated those changes," said Kyriakoudes, who received his doctorate from Vanderbilt University.

The book, published this month by the University of North Carolina Press, begins with the study of the Grand Ole Opry and how the development of this rural radio minstrel eased the transition to urban life.

"While people think of the Grand Ole Opry as a cornpone, hillbilly show - and it does have some of those elements - it tried to explain to Southerners what modern urban life was about, giving them the elements of a fading world culture. It helped them to remember what was rapidly disappearing," Kyriakoudes said.

A thoroughly modern program, the Grand Ole Opry was created by an insurance company that used the new technology of radio to advertise products. The stars of the show had come out of the old vaudevillian acts popular before radio. "The Opry had one leg in the past and one in the future," Kyriakoudes said.

Kyriakoudes details the exploits of two young men who both benefited from Nashville's urbanization - Robert Penn Warren and Sidney Harkreader. Both came from rural backgrounds to the city in 1923. There, Warren - who'd later go on to fame as an author and poet - joined the Southern Agrarian movement, a group of social critics who lambasted the changes in southern rural culture due to industrialization and economic development. Kyriakoudes said the Southern Agrarians looked at the small farmer as the epitome of "what was best about the South."

Rather than idealizing rural life, Harkreader took advantage of new technologies like radio and the phonograph to build his career as a performing fiddle player. An unlearned man from the upcountry white yeoman culture the Agrarians romanticized, Harkreader helped define the emerging forms of what would eventually become bluegrass and country music.

The final chapter in the The Social Origins of the Urban South studies the flood of female migrants into Nashville in the '20s as they sought a world free of the hardships of rural life. "For women, migration had a special significance because in the country side their career options were limited. They could get married and that's about it. But in the city, they could gain independence by getting wage jobs of their own," Kyriakoudes said.

Blacks too left the countryside with the same motives as their white counterparts, but their struggles were compounded by institutionalized racism, Kyriakoudes said. When black farmers moved to places like Nashville, they were usually denied high-paying jobs. Therefore, many kept migrating north to other industrial Midwestern cities such as Chicago and Detroit, where they found greater equality.

"I think this book would be of interest to anyone who wants an example of how Southern life has changed in the 20th century," Kyriakoudes said.

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October 29, 2003 2:41 PM

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