A Voice from Home: Southern Mountain Musicians on the Maryland-Pennsylvania Border

Harvey Wang

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 5 No. 2, "Long Journey Home: Folklife in the South." Find more from that issue here.

The following article contains references to sexual assault. 

If you had wanted to hear the exciting music of Southern mountaineers in the late 1930s and ’40s, you could have done far worse than to follow the Delaware-based North Carolina Ridge Runners through the country music parks, fire halls, and carnivals where they played nightly on the Maryland- Pennsylvania border. A decade later, a good bet would have been the New River Ranch at Oxford, Pennsylvania. In the early 1960s, local people —many of them second or third generation migrant Southerners — joined the college-student vanguard of the urban folk revival to hear local musicians and touring stars like the Stanley Brothers in the converted stockroom of a family grocery store called Campbell’s Corner, also at Oxford. These days, most of the pickers and singers, most of the toe-tappers and reverent listeners, eventually turn up at Ola Belle and Bud Reed’s house near Rising Sun, Maryland. 

The half-century-long survival and continued vitality of hillbilly music in the Maryland-Pennsylvania-Delaware area is no historical accident.* It is a concrete cultural expression of a complex social and economic process that transplanted thousands of Southern mountaineers - scores of them fine musicians — to Maryland and Pennsylvania during the past half century or so. 

For about two years, we have been trying to understand why and how and when so many of these musicians have turned up in the northeastern part of Maryland — especially those who came from the Ashe County, North Carolina, and Grayson County, Virginia, area. What music did they bring with them? What kind of music did they hear when they arrived? How did the musical styles and repertoires interact? And what can the story tell us about the problems of maintaining cultural vitality and continuity in the midst of intense and rapid social and economic change? 

What follows is an interim report on what we have learned. At a personal level, it is the intensely human story of some fine musicians like Ola Belle, Bud, and David Reed; Ted Lundy and Bob Paisley; Arthur (“Shorty”) Wood and other members of the North Carolina Ridge Runners; and the DeBusk-Weaver family. More broadly, it is a story of shifts in agricultural patterns, the building of dams and ordnance plants, the Depression, media-induced changes in taste, and large-scale economic dislocations and readjustments. 


The families that left Ashe and Grayson counties — the Campbells, Lundys, Woods, DeBusks, Graybeals, and others — were part of several migrant “streams,” most of which led not to rural areas like northeastern Maryland, but to big cities. Consequently, most of what is currently known about the migration of Southern mountaineers comes from scholars who have studied their movement into such places as Detroit, Cincinnati and Chicago. 

Albert Votaw’s account in Harper’s of the hillbilly “invasion” into the Uptown area of Chicago in the mid- 1950s is fairly typical of urban reactions to mountaineer migrants: 

The City’s toughest integration problem has nothing to do with Negroes. It involves a small army of ...migrants from the South — who are usually poor, proud, primitive, and fast with a knife... .Settling in deteriorating neighborhoods where they can stick with their own kind, they live as much as they can the way they lived back home. Often removing the window screens, they sit half-dressed where it is cooler, and dispose of garbage the quickest way.... [ Their] sex habits — with respect to... incest and statutory rape — are clearly at variance with urban legal requirements ....On the job they are said to lack ambition....[Some] get wise to the practice of rent-skipping.... Prone to disease... they tend to avoid immunization officers.... 

Reactions of Chicagoans to the “invasion” were well summarized by the remark of a municipal court judge who said “you’ll never improve the neighborhood until you get rid of them.”

An aimless, quasi-primitive horde, scattering randomly from the ridges and hollows, and descending like a marauding army or a Biblical plague upon an advanced and orderly urban civilization, disrupting public order, clogging the sidewalks outside the welfare offices and day-labor hiring halls, blaring hillbilly music out the windows of rundown apartments and the doors of redneck bars, overhauling beat-up automobiles at curbside, lowering standards of decency in the community and SAT scores in the schools — migrating mountaineers, we have generally been given to understand, are a “social problem,” a drain upon the public treasury and a strain upon liberal good will. Akron and Cincinnati and Dee-troyt City, Gary and Indianapolis and Chicago, Lexington and Louisville, Washington and Baltimore. 2 

Why did the migration occur? Despite the image of the mountains as remote and isolated from the currents of “modern life,” it is precisely the intensive operation of those currents within the region that has produced a steady stream of outmigration for nearly a hundred years: the “push” of a played-out timber industry as early as the 1880s, and the “pull” of a new timber industry in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Washington state; the push of the Depression in the early 1930s and the pull of jobs in defense plants a few years later; the loss of jobs in the newly automated coal industry in the 1950s and the promise of jobs in the post-war auto industry; the push of Appalachian colleges and universities, and the pull of the Appalachian Regional Commission’s urban-oriented “developmental” highways in the 1960s and 1970s. 

As early as the 1930s, a few scholars began to study the migration of Appalachian people, sometimes urged along by pleas from urban officials for help in “understanding” and “managing” the new arrivals. Their work focused on the large-scale movements of mountaineers, their “adjustment” to urban life, and their adaptability as blue collar workers. 

The US Department of Agriculture’s 1935 study, Economic and Social Problems and Conditions of the Southern Appalachians, commented on migration within the region and noted an overall population gain (from 3.2 to 5.0 million) between 1900 and 1930, but paid no attention to outmigration except to suggest that there was “an excess of population in relation to economic opportunities inside the region.” One chapter in Carter G. Goodrich’s Migration and Economic Opportunity (1936) focused on 84 counties on the Tennessee-Kentucky-southwest Virginia coal plateau. Goodrich assessed the outmigration that was already under way, calculated that perhaps another 15 percent of mountain people should migrate, and suggested somewhat ambiguously that policy should focus upon “facilitating [their] spontaneous tendency” to do so. 

As the tide of migration that both USDA and Goodrich advocated and predicted began to swell, scholars turned their attention to the question of mountaineers’ adjustment to urban life, and their collective impact upon the urban “receiving centers.” In a December, 1937, article in Social Forces, Grace Leybourne assessed the situation in Cincinnati. The facts she uncovered were directly contrary to the stereotype of the unkempt briarhopper- ridgerunner-hillbilly who “came to get welfare” and behaved disruptively. The majority of Cincinnati’s mountaineer migrants turned out to be young people who came to find work, lived similarly to their citybred neighbors of comparable social and economic status, and yet bore the brunt of layoffs and seasonal workforce reductions. 

Nearly two decades later, Roscoe Giffin inquired again into the “adjustment” of Appalachian migrants to life in Cincinnati. Using a larger sample and a more scientific method than Leybourne, Giffin found again that - insofar as participation in churches, clubs, lodges, unions and the like was indicative of “adjustment” — mountaineers were usually indistinguishable from city people within the same socioeconomic group.

As studies of migration were progressively refined in the 1940s and 1950s, sociologist James Brown and others were able to show that, far from being random, migration actually occurred in patterned systems or “streams.” Mountaineers from eastern Kentucky tended to migrate to southwestern Ohio (Cincinnati, Hamilton, Dayton); those from western West Virginia moved to central and northeastern Ohio (Columbus, Akron and Cleveland); those from eastern West Virginia found their way to Pittsburgh or the Maryland-Washington, D.C., area. 

The work of the early scholars was useful in relating Appalachian migration to economic change inside and outside the region, charting the large geographical patterns of mi-gration, and countering the stereotype of hillbillies in the city (which nevertheless maintained its vitality for another quarter century). But to understand the migration of Southern mountaineers to northern Maryland — and especially to comprehend its significance for music and musicians — one has to reach beyond the urban-oriented, “macro” studies of migration. The migration of which the Campbells, DeBusks, Lundys and others were a part was mostly a rural-to-rural and rural-to-small-town migration, and the “adjustment” to be comprehended involves musicians rather than bluecollar auto or rubber plant workers.4

As early as 1940, Woodrow Clevinger’s study of Appalachian migrants in western Washington suggested that rural-to-rural migration was a healthier phenomenon than the rural-to-urban movement upon which most subsequent analysts have focused.5 Clevinger studied some of the 15,000 refugees from the played-out lumbering areas of Appalachia who migrated to Washington state between 1890 and 1930 and settled in Lewis, Cowlitz, Skagit and Snohomish counties. Families settled close to each other, he found: the Silers and Slagles from North Carolina’s Macon and McDowell counties settled in eastern Lewis County; the Amburgeys, Stampers and Adamses from Knott County, Kentucky, settled around Mineral;and the Moores and related families from Jackson County, North Carolina, gathered in the Skagit Valley village of Lyman. 

Many of the migrants found work in the expanding timber industry, in agriculture, and in the development and management of public lands. They adapted traditional farming practices to the heavy rainfall and short growing season of the Northwest, substituted new crops for ones found unsuitable to the area (such as sweet potatoes and white field corn), transplanted some species of trees (such as black walnut) from their old homes to their new home, practiced their crafts and trades and taught them to their new neighbors, opened businesses, and got themselves elected to public office. Rather than social pathology, Clevinger found stability and a creative adaptation that left a profound imprint upon economic, social, political and cultural life in western Washington. 

The impulse to maintain not only family solidarity, but also a larger cultural — and even political — identity appears to have been strong among the Washington state migrants. Clevinger reported that mountain music — ballad singers, string bands, and gospel singing — were thriving, and that local music festivals were being held. A more overtly political expression of cultural solidarity was in evidence between 1910 and 1920, when the Cowlitz Valley mountaineer migrants tried to separate from Lewis County and form their own county within the Cascade Range where they had settled.

A decade before they had been noted by other scholars, and several decades before they had become a normal assumption in similar analyses, two central facts emerged from Clevinger’s analysis of Appalachian migration: the centrality of the family in establishing migration patterns, and the importance and durability of Appalachian cultural traditions within migration systems. Both facts are of crucial significance in understanding Southern Appalachian musicians on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. 

The centrality of the family has subsequently been explored in great detail by University of Kentucky sociologist James Brown.6 For more than 35 years, Brown studied the community of “Beech Creek” in eastern Kentucky, and followed the migration of its citizens northwest to Ohio. Like several earlier scholars, Brown showed that, contrary to the implications of the stereotype (hillbilly jokes are abundant in Ohio cities), migration was a rational, purposeful, thoughtful, adaptive mechanism for Beech Creek people, 78 percent of whom went to Ohio to find work. 

More important for understanding transplanted Appalachian musicians in northern Maryland, however, is Brown’s demonstration that the “stem family” patterns and gives stability and continuity to the migration system. The roots of the migration “tree” (frequently parents and grandparents) remain in the mountains, while the stem (sons and daughters and their families) stretches toward the city, and the branches fan out into contiguous urban neighborhoods. Thus, instead of being swept along as an atomized particle in an undifferentiated tide of migrants, stripped of identity and cast upon his own resources in an alien environment, the individual mountaineer actually finds himself in a two-pole cultural and economic system, supported by and in touch with both the roots of his own stem family “back home” and the enfolding branches of its extensions into the new environment. 

Although Brown’s Beech Creekers moved predominantly to the city, his analysis appears consistent with the patterns of migration and settlement experienced by many hillbilly musicians in northern Maryland: families sent out their stems and branches, kin groups settled near each other in their new surroundings, community support networks established themselves, and values and cultural patterns remained vital through constant reinforcement drawn both from the “branch” system and a constant sense of being in touch with roots “back in the mountains.” 



One of the earliest migrations to the Maryland-Pennsylvania border area involved the Graybeal family, from just across the North Carolina border near Mountain City, Tennessee. Fred Graybeal now runs the Susquehanna Campground and music park just up the road from the Conowingo Dam—whose construction in the late 1920s was to attract other mountaineers looking for jobs. Graybeal’s land was bought by his grandfather when the family came to Maryland around World War I. The Graybeals seem to have been part of a “pull” migration: conditions were not so bad back home, but Maryland farm land was preferable to the steep hillsides they were used to farming. Having money to buy land as soon as they arrived, the family became immediately respectable (perhaps partly because neighboring farms were owned by the Kilbys and the Goodmans, also from Ashe and Grayson counties), and apparently never felt the prejudice leveled against later waves of mountaineer migrants.7 

The migration of Arthur Wood’s family lagged behind that of the Graybeals by about 10 years, but the reason for the migration was similar: better farm land further north Wood was born in Ashe County, North Carolina, in 1910. In 1928, he and his parents — true to Brown’s description of the stem-branch family migration pattern — followed the lead of some relatives who had migrated north some years earlier and moved to southeastern Pennsylvania. 

“My aunts and uncles lived up here, and they kept wanting my mother and father up here,” Wood recalls. “So we just got on a bus and come on up. It was good farming in Pennsylvania, and down there farming wasn’t too good. I lived in Maryland for a while after I got married in ’34. We lived down there and I worked on a farm. Later we moved to Delaware and I got a job on a rich man’s farm. I had an uncle who worked there and a good friend who worked there and they kind of worked me in. I worked for a dollar a day on the farm. That was big money in those days.” 

The migration of Ola Belle (Campbell) Reed’s family came at about mid-point on the half-century span, and was sociologically and psychologically more complex because it was instigated by both push and pull factors. There was still attractive farm land to the north, but by the early 1930s mountain families were also leaving because the Depression had set in. 

The Campbells had been in Ashe County for several generations. Although Ola Belle remembers a preacher who tried to raise money for his church by taking her and a friend on tour as examples of “poor destitute mountain children,” the Campbell family was not destitute. Her father, Arthur Harrison Campbell, was a schoolteacher and storekeeper. There was no extra money, but hard work and frugality yielded sufficient clothes, food and shelter for a family that grew to include 13 children. During the school year the family lived in the little town of Lansing, but in the spring and summer they moved to a farm on the banks of the New River to raise the year’s crops. 

The Depression hit the Campbell family hard, as it did most of their neighbors. Uncollectable debts drove the store to bankruptcy, and the farm also was lost. Of all the rumors about places where things were better, the most reliable seemed to come from Maryland. Arthur Campbell had seen a bit of the state on his trips to Baltimore to buy stock for his store, and other Ashe County families had moved to northern Maryland farms and to work on the Conowingo Dam. A relative sent word back that farms up north could be rented for $65 a month. The oldest Campbell son went ahead to look for work, and soon sent news that he had found a job on a farm. The whole family prepared to move. Into a cousin’s canvas-covered truck Ella Mae Campbell piled her other 12 children and a few belongings — bed covers, canned goods and clothing. Arthur Campbell followed a few months later. The family’s first temporary home was in Nottingham, Pennsylvania, just across the Maryland line. 

Ola Belle’s first job (it was 1934, and she was 18) was keeping house for a well-to-do family for $2.50 a week. In a succession of such jobs, she felt the prejudice that accompanied the mass migration of mountain people looking for work. “No wonder you people down South never amount to anything,” one rich woman told her. “You should be glad to have a place like this to come to.” The general attitude, Ola Belle recalls, was “go back where you belong." 

As a refuge from such hostility, and as an act of self-affirmation, mountain people turned to their families and especially to their music, two things they had always built their lives around. Arthur Wood remembers going to hear G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter play when he was a boy in Ashe County, and music was a mainstay of Ola Belle’s family. Grandfather Alexander Campbell was a Primitive Baptist preacher who was “churched” for playing his fiddle. Arthur Campbell played fiddle, banjo, guitar and organ. With his brother Doc and sister Ellen, he played in a string band. Uncle Bob Ingraham conducted singing schools in the mountains, and Uncle Herb Osborne brought back mining songs from his work as a miner in West Virginia. Since there was no radio or phonograph in the Campbell home, they made their own music. From her grandmother and her mother, Ella Mae Osborne Campbell (who was from Grayson County), Ola Belle recalls learning “Omie Wise,” “Barbara Allen,” “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies,” and “Wayfaring Pilgrim.” These songs and the home gatherings at which they were sung formed the basis for the music that Ola Belle and other musicians of the migration era would later take north with them. 



For the musicians who moved to the Maryland-Pennsylvania border between the wars, the adjustment to Northern ways had a musical as well as a social dimension. There are specific examples of the merging of the mountain music styles with the music which was popular in the Maryland- Delaware-Pennsylvania area, but the adjustment to a quite different set of performance circumstances may have been more significant. For many of the musicians, including Arthur Wood and Ola Belle Reed, music back home was more often played for family and friends than for formal audiences, and in schoolhouses or barns rather than music parks or Legion halls. 

But if the stages were different, the demand for the mountain styles helped to ease the transition from informal gatherings to weekly bookings. Maryland and Delaware audiences which had been listening to the Grand Ole Opry and other country programs carried by WSM and WWVA were primed for the North Carolina Ridge Runners and other local bands composed of musicians fresh from North Carolina and Virginia. The recordings of Jimmie Rodgers and the Delmore Brothers had found their way into many Northern homes by the mid-1930s, and local Maryland musicians like Bud Reed, who had begun to learn and copy the sound of these performers, welcomed the coming of Southern musicians. 

Fortunately for the North Carolina Ridge Runners, their audience demanded the tunes and the style the group knew best. Had they begun to play before these same audiences 15 years earlier, they might have found things to be very different. Many of the additions to the Ridge Runners’ show, especially the introduction of a more polished Western sound, actually anticipated public tastes and helped to create a greater demand for this kind of music in the area. 

The musical changes introduced by the Ridge Runners and other Southern bands took advantage of and took place within what must have been a nearly ideal climate for making music. There were two key ingredients in this positive climate. First of all, there were enough paying opportunities for musicians to make the prospect of performing on a regular or full-time basis a practical possibility. By the mid-1930s, there were scores of music parks and picnic grounds throughout southeastern Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware, each with a sizable audience of regulars and enough gate and concession money to pay and feed a house band. Some of the parks, like New River Ranch and Rainbow Ranch, were created by some of those who had moved north from the Carolinas and Virginia, but most were in existence prior to the major migrations of the 1920s and ’30s. 

Ola Belle Reed recalls these early parks and the change they represented from the music parks she had known in North Carolina: ‘‘Back home in the summertime we had carnivals — they were the main thing — and little parks. They were so little that the few times the Ridge Runners played down there, we would be the only show there. I remember one time we came back on a Monday after playing one of these parks, and Shorty and I couldn’t speak. We’d played every half hour all day till the park closed. Up here the parks were bigger and there were more of them, especially in Pennsylvania. There weren’t big music parks like that back home. The ones up here didn’t always have seats, but they had a good stage, not anything fancy. They always had a good kitchen and stuff like that. Nothing like a park that you go to see, not like Disneyland by a hundred per-cent. There were a lot of smaller parks that went out at the time. While we were on radio in Havre de Grace, we built Rainbow Park in 1950, then New River Ranch in ’51. We’d have a national group and local talent. In the ’60s, we left New River Ranch and went to work for Lawrence Waitman at Sunset Park in Oxford, Pennsylvania. We’ve been there ever since with our group.” 

Once the North Carolina Ridge Runners and other Southern-style bands began playing at some of the parks in Delaware and Pennsylvania, those parks which had not offered live music quickly realized their disadvantage and recruited local acts. This healthy competition between the parks led to the first bookings of Grand Ole Opry and other prominent country performers in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania. In fact, the parks may have provided the only opportunity for artists of Opry stature to perform in the area, since growing public interest in Southern music had not yet convinced Northern booking agents and hall managers of the commercial appeal of these performers. 

A second important factor in the development of a commercial market for Southern music in the Middle Atlantic was the exposure this music received on area radio stations. Not only were there many more stations in the Maryland-Delaware-Pennsylvania area than there had been in North Carolina and Virginia, but there were many more opportunites for local bands to audition for radio shows and, if contracted by the stations, perform for the larger radio audience on a daily or weekly basis. 

Arthur Wood’s first band, the Dixie Cowboys, began playing professionally as a result of such an audition policy at a small station in Pennsylvania: “The first group I worked with was the Dixie Cowboys — the Sturgill brothers, Ralph and Russ. They were from down South, but they played fiddle and guitar and got me to go up with them to WGAL in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They wanted to get on this radio station because they had a country program every Saturday afternoon. So we went up there, took the audition and the man put us on the air the same day. So we started there and played for a while.” 

While many of the musicians we interviewed spoke of the influence of stations like WSM and WWVA on the development of their playing styles, the small Pennsylvania and Delaware stations such as WCOJ, Coatesville, Pa., WEEV, Reading, Pa., and WDEL, Wilmington, provided the key to a paying career in music and a crucial test for new material. The radio programs seldom, if ever, paid enough money to keep the musicians alive, but they provided a medium for the free advertisement of records and local appearances, many of which were arranged or booked by station personnel. Arthur Wood recalls that the Ridge Runners were popular enough to switch radio stations when they pleased, which indicates not only the popularity of the group but also the number of stations interested in the Ridge Runners’ style of music. 

It was no wonder, consequently, that many native Maryland and Delaware musicians, including Bud Reed and Deacon Brumfield, began to alter their own repertoire and style to come in line with the music of the Ridge Runners and other Southern groups. But except for a few recollections of the types of music played in the tristate area prior to the Southern migrations, we have little to go on in describing just how this fusion of Northern and Southern music took place. Once the recordings of Southern performers began to be sold in the area and local radio stations began to play them, the musical complexion of the area changed dramatically and quickly. Some native Maryland musicians who picked up on the Southern style have told us that there was no live music in the area with the exception of church singing prior to the migrations. However, we have gathered some bits of information about the Maryland scene which may help to define the impact of the migrations upon native musical styles. 

According to Bud Reed, the small groups in northeastern Maryland which played for dances and parties in the early and mid-1920s, prior to the major period of migration, consisted of guitar, fiddle and plectrum banjo. Bud identifies this particular line-up as a “Northern” one. Bands of this kind, in which Bud himself played, shared a number of tunes with Southern bands of the period, including “Golden Slippers” and “Soldier’s Joy.” However, their main bill of fare appears to have been music for dancing - waltzes, polkas, and schottisches. These dance forms, as opposed to Southern-style square or round dancing, have often been accompanied by the plectrum banjo as a second rhythm instrument with a resulting sound characterized by Bud and others as a “New England style.” Although Bud and other musicians living in northeastern Maryland at this time had no more regular contact with traditional New England music than with Southern music, the instrumental line-up and the emphasis upon certain dance forms seems to suggest that Bud is at least partially correct in saying that the “native” Maryland style prior to the migrations was analogous to that of New England. 

One key to the distinction between Northern and Southern styles appears to be the plectrum banjo. The husband of an acknowledged master of the clawhammer banjo style, Bud knows the difference between the way Ola Belle and other North Carolina musicians play the banjo and the way it was being played by Maryland musicians before the migrations of the late 1920s and ‘30s. Furthermore, Arthur Wood recalls that in the early days of the North Carolina Ridge Runners, he employed two banjo players: Ola Belle on clawhammer and Inky Pierson on plectrum tenor banjo. Wood says that he added Pierson, a native Marylander, to his otherwise all-North Carolina line-up because “the local folks seemed to go for it; it was how they were used to hearing the banjo played.” In the course of conducting fieldwork for the Maryland Folklife Festival, we have come across a surprising number of plectrum banjo players in rural western Maryland whose repertoire — a combination of traditional and popular tunes from the turn of the century — may approximate that of the northeastern Maryland musicians Bud recalls. It is clear that the migration of a relatively limited number of Southerners into central and western Maryland was much more gradual than was the case in the northeastern part of the state, but whether this factor alone accounts for the survival of what appears to be an older style in western Maryland is hard to say. 

In any case, the migration of Southerners to northeastern Maryland, Delaware, and southeastern Pennsylvania brought about a rapid and almost total change in the style of music performed by local musicians and played on local radio stations between 1925 and 1940. Apparently, there was not even a brief transition period during which native and newly introduced styles competed for the support of the local audience, since recordings and radio had already begun to “soften” those living in the area to the musical migration which was to come. 



Each musician we spoke to had a different tale concerning his or her recollections of the movement north. There is little question that the acceptance of the music these people brought with them made the adjustment to the area a much less painful experience than might have been expected. For Arthur Wood and many others, what had been planned as a change of farm land from the hilly and increasingly depleted North Carolina soil to the rich flat fields of southeastern Pennsylvania and Maryland turned out to be a more disturbing shift from farm to factory life. Although Wood’s father bought a small farm after moving north, he was eventually forced to take a job at the National Vulcanized Fiber factory where his son began working shortly after the move north. 

Yet during this difficult time, there was one certainty in Arthur Wood’s life: “I always had my music.” Wood’s reasons for forming the North Carolina Ridge Runners appear to have had as much to do with his consuming desire to play with musicians who shared his musical background and interests as his perception of a growing market for Southern music in the Middle Atlantic area. The music was not only the means by which Wood and his contemporaries opened doors of acceptance for themselves and their kind in the area; it also provided them with the opportunity to acquire some of the symbols of status displayed by their fellow workers and, perhaps more importantly, keep these symbols during the money crunch of the War years: 

“During the war, I worked seven days a week and played an average of five nights a week. During the war, I worked two jobs and it was pretty tough when you didn’t make much money working. Pretty hard to live. I bought a new car in 1939. When the music brought money, I would bring it home and give it to my wife and let her put it up to pay on my car. At that time I was making $14.40 a week. My superintendent told me he was going to have to put me on three days a week. He said, ‘What are you going to do without your new car now?’ I said, ‘I’m going to keep it.’ He said, ‘How you gonna keep it?’ I said, ‘There’s my music money.’ And I paid for that car, too. Paid it off before it was even due.” 

Wood’s story is not unique, but his strong determination to stay with his music and his willingness to work with an audience, playing their favorites as well as his own, has had more to do with the establishment of Southern musical styles in the Maryland- Pennsylvania area than any other factor or the contribution of any other individual. Ola Belle Reed, for example, whose own career has seen several decades of growth and change, looks back at her days with the Ridge Runners as a time of special comraderie and inspired music: “In those days the North Carolina Ridge Runners were the main band. They weren’t the only band, but when they played it was like there was no other band you’d ever heard. When I was playing with them, I don’t know where we got the strength to go on. I guess the music was the strength. We played every night, it seemed like, but the people never got tired of us. There was no group around here that could touch us.” 

Arthur Wood is the sort of figure around whom entire musical scenes are made. He made friends for Southern music, and this acceptance spilled over onto other local groups like the York-based 101 Ranch Boys. What made the Ridge Runners different from the local bands which followed their lead and maintained the group’s constant popularity throughout the late 1930s and ’40s was their wisdom in retaining the Southern style with which they had begun. In the beginning, the band had built its following from people who, like most of the members of the band itself, had migrated from North Carolina and Virginia. As Southern music became more popular in the Middle Atlantic region, the Ridge Runners won new converts, but never lost their original fans. 

“We knew songs that had been out a while,” Wood says. “We learned new songs, but we played in our own style, original style. We didn’t play it just like they did. We played Southern style. In the Southern style the fiddle player played out the tune in long, smooth strokes. They didn’t jump. The Northern music to me was jumpy. When they (Northern musicians) played a Southern song up here, they couldn’t play it like we could. It was a different sound altogether. I’ve heard some of them play songs and I didn’t know what they were playing. They were trying to learn them.” 

Beyond the music itself, one of the reasons for the continuous success of the Ridge Runners was Wood’s considerable ability as a band leader. As was previously pointed out, he encouraged other members of the band to introduce new material, including Western swing tunes and arrangements, and put his assessment of the public’s tastes first in his changes in the group’s line-up. “On stage, I would always try to build everybody up. They all got the same buildup and they worked together. If we would be out in the crowd, we would mix with them and sign autographs.” Perhaps more important was the respect and fairness with which he treated the members of his band. “Everybody got the same money; one fellow didn’t get more than the other. I got in trouble with a union up in Lancaster one time. One of them (union people) turned me in because he saw me pay off at the end of the week and I took the same money as the other players. They pulled me into the office and made me take two parts of the money.” 

Although Wood and many of the other musicians with whom he worked, including Ola Belle Reed, have never been reluctant to point out the Southern roots of their music, neither their music nor their personal lives reflect a consuming passion to return to the mountains they left behind. Wood has returned to North Carolina only a few times, and the Ridge Runners never took regular bookings anywhere south of the Maryland line. Ola Belle Reed has returned more frequently, but she has chosen to make her music in her Maryland home and to spread its message among those who live near her. 

In many ways, the lives of these musicians have taken them away from their birthplace in much the same sense that the Depression era carried away their parents and kin to the North. But perhaps more importantly, one senses in the words of Arthur Wood, Ola Belle Reed, and their contemporaries a strong sense of identification with not only the music they have produced, but the pioneering achievement they have made in the creation of a new audience for their music. The degree to which these new listeners originally embraced and have continued to support Southern music is a continuing testimonial to the contribution the Ridge Runners and others have made. The pride Arthur and Ola Belle have in their music is one which derives from both the satisfaction of those special nights when the crowd would not let them go, and the recognition that much of the music being made in the area today owes a great deal to their efforts over the past 30 years. 


Since the era of the Ridge Runners, the Southern Music scene has continually grown in northeastern Maryland and the adjoining areas of Pennsylvania and Delaware. Some of this activity can be directly traced to the migrations of the 1930s and the continued importance of some key musicians who took part in that experience, most notably Ola Belle Reed. But now the children of the ’30s migrants are beginning to make their presence felt and are providing a crucial transition between the Southern music brought north by their parents and the newer commercial bluegrass style which is popular throughout the Middle Atlantic and Northeast. 

Ted Lundy, Bob Paisley and the Southern Mountain Boys represent a hybrid of these styles in which fathers and sons make new music within a traditional mold. Bud and Ola Belle Reed’s son David is a highly skilled and creative musician whose style and repertoire is based upon, but reaches beyond, the music with which he grew up. Fred Graybeal’s youngest son plays with the Lundy-Paisley band and his daughter is part of a young bluegrass band, Fertile Dirt, which plays throughout the area. Whether these younger musicians will themselves move on to areas where their native style of music is less well known, or whether the era of exploration and colonization in Southern music is over, cannot be said. But the mixture of older and younger musicians in the area offers a positive outlook for the music of the region. 

One of the more interesting examples of this mixture of generations, and one which reinforces the importance of the family in the Southern musical tradition, is the DeBusk-Weaver family gospel group. Until very recently, when the group began to perform for secular audiences and travel outside the Rising Sun, Maryland/Oxford, Pennsylvania area, the DeBusk-Weaver family was best known to outsiders as an important influence upon better-known local musicians and as one of the most highly regarded gospel quartets in the tri-state area. In a sense, the gospel setting of the DeBusk-Weaver family’s music initially placed the group outside the scenes in which their music would be likely to attract a larger following. But the same understanding of and commitment to the native Southern style which motivated the Ridge Runners has gradually come to define the music the DeBusk- Weaver family makes and make clear its share in a common heritage. 

The migration story which underlies the musical history of the DeBusk- Weaver family is different in many respects from that of Arthur Wood, Fred Graybeal or Ola Belle Reed. Donny Weaver is the only member of the family with direct ties to the Ashe County, North Carolina/Grayson County, Virginia area: “My family on my father’s side is from North Carolina. They came up here about 1932, during the Depression. On my mother’s side, they’re from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.” Donny’s father-in-law, Burton DeBusk, comes from Glade Springs, Virginia, a small mountain town near the southwest corner of the state where Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky meet. Burton moved to northeastern Maryland in the late 1950s, following the lead of a brother and sister who had been recruited to work at the Elkton munitions factory in 1941. Burton’s wife, Liz, is also from southwestern Virginia, and their daughter Linda, Donny’s wife, was born in Virginia prior to the family’s move north. 

Donny Weaver is a distant relative of Ola Belle Reed, but their strongest ties are musical. As a boy, Donny recalls spending Sundays with his father listening to the North Carolina Ridge Runners play at Sunset Park. Later, he was influenced by Ola Belle and her brother Alec’s performances with their band, the New River Boys and Girls, at New River Ranch, Rainbow Ranch and other parks in the area. Perhaps partly as a result of the musical interests developed during these visits, Donny was instrumental in convincing his wife, mother and father-in-law to pursue gospel singing as a family group. 

The music closest to the DeBusks was that of the Carter Lamily, who lived just down the road from where Liz DeBusk grew up, and whose musical style was so strongly influential in Western Virginia and Kentucky. In addition to the Carter Lamily and the Chuck Wagon Gang, both of whose recordings were widely available during the 1940s, the DeBusks were also strongly influenced by groups performing in the Bristol, Virginia, area such as Curly King and the Tennessee Hilltoppers and the A.L. Phipps family. But while both Liz and Burton’s families were highly musical, they did not take up music as a commercial or professional enterprise until a few years ago. 

Since the family has begun performing for churches and other gatherings, they have had the opportunity to return to the musical traditions from which they came. The influence of the Carter Family can be heard in the group’s instrumentation and sweet harmonies. On their latest recording, E.C. and Orna Ball, from the Ashe-Allegheny county area, lend strong and totally compatible instrumental support. The combination of these western Virginia and North Carolina sources attests to the continuing exchange of musical influences and ideas which typifies not only the music of the DeBusk-Weaver family, but the Maryland-Pennsylvania scene as a whole. 

While the DeBusks and Weavers have come to accept their home in the Maryland-Pennsylvania area, this acceptance has been more painful and has come only with the recognition of people and sounds from the home left behind. Burton DeBusk is reminded of West Virginia by the people he now calls neighbors: 

“I don’t know why, but there’s several things that will remind you of down there. The people, they’re just good, friendly people in this area. And I guess it all goes back to the fact that most of them moved out of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee and settled in this area. So that’s why I guess it seems more like home.” 

Burton’s wife, Liz, had a harder time adjusting to the area, but she rejected the pattern of several families she knew who moved back and forth between Maryland and western Virginia: 

“There was one or two families I knew of that moved up here and moved back and then came up and moved back again, and they just couldn’t get satisfied, I guess....My mother asked me how I’d like to move back down South, and I said, ‘Well, I’m not saying I won’t ever move back down there, but I’d have to get used to it all over again. All the people’s grown up and moved away, all the young people that were little then are big people and I don’t even know them.’” 

The differences between the paths of migration followed by the DeBusk- Weaver family and other Southern musicians in the northeast Maryland area appear to have little to do with the way in which the group’s music is identified and understood. Perhaps the nature of migration itself, and the bonding effect it exerts, overrides matters of geography and history. In any case, the music of the Debusk- Weaver family is more closely connected to that of the Reed family or the North Carolina Ridge Runners than are the different communities and traditions from which each springs. Ola Belle Reed’s influence is certainly present in the DeBusk-Weaver family’s music, but not so much as a musical force. Rather, she and the Ridge Runners before her have established a setting in which the traditions of a musical form need not be disguised in order to be accepted. Of course, as Burton DeBusk points out, the migration of Southerners to the area helped to provide a pool of listeners as well as players. However, what is at work in this area is not simply the performance of older traditional Southern styles by a number of migrated musicians, but rather a delicate chemistry of masters and apprentices, parents and children, traditional and contemporary ideas. This chemistry provides for the constant renewal of those parts of the musical tradition which speak clearly to both those who have journeyed and those who have yet to choose their path. 


* Although “hillbilly” has most often been used as a derogatory term or cultural slur, it is used here — as it is frequently used among natives of the Southern Appalachians themselves — to denote an awareness and proud acceptance of shared origins, values and cultural traditions.



1. Albert N. Votaw, “Hillbillies Invade Chicago, Harper's, CCXVI (February, 1958), 64-67. 

2. Reactions of journalists, scholars and urban activists to the influx of Southern Appalachian migrants may be sampled in Todd Gitlin and Nanci Hollander, Uptown: Poor Whites in Chicago (1970); Joseph Howell, Hard Living on Clay Street (1973); a series of articles by J. Anthony Lukas in the Baltimore Sun, June 5-12, 1960; Hal Bruno, “Chicago’s Hillbilly Ghetto,’’ Reporter, June 4, 1964, pp. 28-31; and James Adams, “Appalachia Transplanted,” in the Cincinnati Post, July, 1971. 

3. See Thomas R. Ford (ed.), The Southern Appalachian Region: A Survey (1962), esp. pp. 35-84. In “The Adjustments of Mountain Families to an Urban Environment,” Social Forces, XVI (March, 1938), 389-395, Morris Caldwell reported more “maladjustment” among migrants than among urban families, but his categories were seriously biased. According to Caldwell, having a large family, or a mother who worked outside the home, or a habit of not attending or contributing to the church were all evidence of maladjustment. 

4. Representative studies of mountaineer migrants as workers in Northern industry are Erdman D. Beyman, “The Southern White Laborer Migrates to Michigan,” American Sociological Review III (June, 1938), 333-343; Lewis M. Killian, “The Effects of Southern White Workers on Race Relations in Northern Plants,” American Sociological Review, XVII (1952), 327- 331; and William E. Powles, “The Southern Appalachian Migrant: Country Boy Turned Blue-Collarite,” in Arthur B. Shostak and William Gomberg (eds.), Blue Collar World: Studies of the American Worker (1964), pp. 270-281. 

5. The following discussion is based upon Woodrow R. Clevinger, “Southern Highlanders in Western Washington,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly XXIII (January, 1942), 3-25. 

6. The following discussion is based upon James S. Brown, “The Conjugal Family and the Extended Family Group,” American Sociological Review, XVII (June, 1952), 297-306; James S. Brown, et al., “Kentucky Mountain Migration and the Stem Family: An American Variation on a Theme by LePlay," Rural Sociology, XLV (March, 1963), p. 66; George A. Hillery, Jr., James S. Brown, and Gordon F. Dejong, "Migration Systems of the Southern Appalachians: Some Demographic Observations,” Rural Sociology, XXX (March, 1965), 33-48; James S. Brown, Harry K. Schwarzweller, and J. J. Mangalam, Mountain Families in Transition: A Case Study of Appalachian Migration (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1971). 

7. Information on family migration and the transplanting and development of hillbilly music in the border area is based primarily upon a series of taped interviews with Ola Belle and Bud Reed, Arthur Wood, the DeBusk-Weaver family, Fred Graybeal, and Deacon Brumfield. Interviews conducted May-June, 1977, by Charles Camp and David E. Whisnant.