2 programs, 1 speech, 1 question

'People in motion,' in a range of ways.

Larry Groce, founder and longtime host of the NPR music program Mountain Stage, and singer Kathy Mattea, just announced as his successor. (Photo courtesy of Brian Blauser, of musicianpix.com)

This is a weekend reading-list item. It covers two kinds of programs; several lines from a speech; and a request for ongoing guidance.

1) Musical program: a new host for Mountain Stage.

Over the years I’ve written frequently about the NPR music program Mountain Stage. It’s a delight, and its founder and host, Larry Groce, has become a friend. He was a featured figure in our HBO movie Our Towns. We happened to be filming in Charleston, West Virginia on the week in 2018 that Jeff Daniels was one of the show’s guest performers. That episode became a musical and visual leitmotif for the West Virginia segment of the film.

Larry Groce and his team have produced more than 900 shows in a nearly 40-year run. This week he announced that the Grammy-winning singer Kathy Mattea, who is a West Virginia native, would take over as host. Yesterday WV Public Broadcasting ran an interview with Mattea, by Caitlin Tan.

I am mentioning this transition for several reasons:

To congratulate both Larry Groce and Kathy Mattea; to point you to a long discussion I had with Groce back in 2014, where he tells illuminating parts of his own story; and, most of all, to introduce a wonderful 49-second clip from the HBO film, which gives a vivid idea of how Larry Groce thinks, sounds, and talks. Of particular timeliness is the way he describes West Virginia’s place in the national imagination.

For technical reasons, I can’t embed that HBO clip (used with their permission) in click-and-view form in this post. But if you go to this new item on OurTownsFoundation.org, you’ll be able to watch Larry in action. I think you will find it worthwhile.

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2) Legislative program: a new Federal Writers’ Project.

Learning from successes (and failures) of the New Deal is one of my ongoing themes. As illustrated in past posts here, here, here, and here. Of course there is a rich and growing literature in this field, for instance Eric Rauchway’s excellent Why the New Deal Matters.

Among the New Deal programs that most deserve new life is the Federal Writers’ Project. David A Taylor wrote an absorbing book and an acclaimed documentary movie, both called Soul of a People, about how the FWP worked in the era when the likes of Ralph Ellison, Studs Terkel, and Zora Neale Hurston were part of its corps. (Plus among others, the noirest of all noir writers, Jim Thompson.)

Now Rep. Ted Lieu, of California, and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, of New Mexico, have introduced a bill to create a “21st century Federal Writers’ Project.” David Kipen, a former Director of Literature at the National Endowment for the Arts, has an essay in USA Today explaining the case for the bill—whose practical effect would be to hire 900 writers, editors, photographers, and others to chronicle modern America’s stories.

In keeping with the list-structure of this item I’m writing, here is a list from Kipen’s piece (to be clear, these are Kipen’s points rather than mine):

Writing to Heal an Ailing Country

A reborn FWP might enable us to confront five of the more pressing problems afflicting America today, a quintet we might think of as The Five Nobodies:

  1. Nobody listens. Half the country feels unheard by the other half. 

  2. Nobody values local journalism. Small-town papers are closing or cutting way back, leaving nobody to tell local stories for hundreds of miles around.

  3. Nobody, or far too few of us, have friends a lot older or younger than we are. Older Americans fear the younger ones, the young ones resent the old, and the middle-aged get it from both sides.

  4. Nobody values the humanities. College graduates in English or history departments – at least where colleges still maintain English or history departments – are graduating straight back into their high-school bedrooms. 

  5. Nobody agrees on simple facts. 

Count me as a Yes vote. Now, let’s get Congressional majorities on board.


3) One speech: ‘Get vaccinated.’

A week ago I argued that, for most speakers, formal rhetoric is most effective when least noticeable. (“Eloquence is Overrated.”) Just make your point.

Yesterday Joe Biden gave his speech on the administration’s new, tougher vaccination program. You can see the whole as-delivered transcript on the White House site.

Here are some lines that illustrate “just make your point” rhetoric. Presented without commentary but as a sample set:

  • “Before I took office, we hadn’t ordered enough vaccine for every American.  Just weeks in office, we did.”

  • “While America is in much better shape than it was seven months ago when I took office, I need to tell you a second fact. We’re in a tough stretch, and it could last for a while.” 

  • “This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated…Despite the fact that for almost five months free vaccines have been available in 80,000 different locations, we still have nearly 80 million Americans who have failed to get the shot.”

  • “There are elected officials actively working to undermine the fight against COVID-19.  Instead of encouraging people to get vaccinated and mask up, they’re ordering mobile morgues for the unvaccinated dying from COVID in their communities.”

  • “Nearly three quarters of the eligible have gotten at least one shot, but one quarter has not gotten any…. That 25 percent can cause a lot of damage — and they are.”

  • “We cannot allow these actions to stand in the way of protecting the large majority of Americans who have done their part and want to get back to life as normal.”

  • “This is not about freedom or personal choice.  It’s about protecting yourself and those around you — the people you work with, the people you care about, the people you love.”

  • “Some of the biggest companies are already requiring this [vaccines]: United Airlines, Disney, Tysons Food, and even Fox News.”

  • “The bottom line: We’re going to protect vaccinated workers from unvaccinated co-workers.”

  • “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin.  And your refusal has cost all of us.  So, please, do the right thing.”

I could give another dozen examples. What is remarkable about the language is that it is unremarkable. This is not how Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama might have sounded. But it is how Harry Truman would have.


Bonus remarkable-language detail: For years I have inveighed against the modern cliche that Presidential speeches must end with some version of “God Bless the United States of America.”

Of course I agree with the sentiment! But it had become a lazy substitute for writing a real conclusion. Before Ronald Reagan, presidents did not end speeches this way. You can look it up.

Joe Biden has his own formula for ending speeches. He improvised slightly on it yesterday, adding an extra two words. From the White House transcript, complete with time stamp:

God bless you all and all those who continue to serve on the frontlines of this pandemic.  And may God protect our troops.

Get vaccinated.

5:28 P.M. EDT


4) One question: people in motion.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, it is clear that we have entered an era in which many fundamentals affecting where people live, and why, may be transformed. I might as well just put it the way I did then:

Every day shapes every society. But certain periods stand out in history, because of the speed and scale of the changes wrought in people’s mark upon the land. For the U.S., we have the 1880s and 1890s, when immigrants poured into the big East Coast cities, and farmers, ranchers, homesteaders, and entrepreneurs moved further west.

And the 1910s and 1920s, with the great Black migration from the likes of Mississippi and Alabama to the likes of Chicago and Detroit. And the 1930s, with the migration from the Dust Bowl to anywhere else. And the 1950s, with the post-World War II creation of suburbia and the California boom.

We’re living through another such era. 

For reasons of choice, and necessity, people will move. They will move because of the still-unfolding consequences of the pandemic. They will move because of climate pressures: Away from fires and floods, toward fresh water and higher ground. They will move because jobs have been created, or destroyed. They will move because the nature of jobs has changed. They will be driven by real-estate costs. They will move to be in communities that are more diverse, or less.

Trying to make sense of what this next wave of “people in motion” will mean for the country is one of my journalistic, personal, and cultural concerns right now. It is a big theme of the non-profit Deb and I have started. Recently a team of scholars from industrial areas in the U.S. and the U.K. wrote about the political, cultural, and economic importance of strategies aimed at reviving regions often dismissed as “Rust Belts.”

I will be writing more on these themes. I invite leads, questions, objections, and other responses, and will do my best to make good use of them.