I’m going to be real. I don’t know where I’m really from or where I call home. I can easily give a theological answer or offer up the ideal sense of place in my head. After all, Luke’s Parable of the Lost Son is the most beautiful description of going home I’ve ever heard.
I’ve called a lot of places home, which has benefits, but probably creates some confusing compartmentalization in my life.
My dad was an Air Force pilot, so I’ve lived in Okinawa, Japan, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Maine, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Egypt, Mississippi, Kentucky, and North Carolina. And three of those places, I moved back there at different times. I’m like that Geoff Mack penned song “I’ve Been Everywhere Man,” an Australian tune that was later reworked and made popular in America by country artists Hank Snow and then Johnny Cash.
While a nomad for a good chunk of my life, I still know that a sense of home and community are vital. Maybe I long for “home” more because it can feel elusive.
My dad’s family is from Northern Michigan, so I spent a lot of summers on a picturesque lake up there. It feels like home in many respects. I belong. While I’m reticent to admit it, I’m not sure I’m strong enough to commit to northern winters anymore. So, I have to hedge a little.
I spent many formative years in Mississippi, and like the natives, understand the love / hate relationship many feel for the Magnolia State. Mostly love though. The Mississippi novelist Eudora Welty once wrote about visiting Chicago and how the whipping wind and the stacked-up commercialism created a crushing homesickness in her soul. I get it.
I lived in central Kentucky for some years and I miss the lonesome feel of the landscape. The beauty of Kentucky weighs on you. The hills and hollers to the east are eerie. It can push you into deep thoughts, evoking sentimentality.
Communities and a sense of home matter for self-governing people, and simply put, for a sense of belonging and purpose. We love our country because we love our homes, family, friends, and the little platoons that shape and cultivate us.
I put together a short list of films, books, and songs that talk about the uniqueness of home, and hopefully, help to reveal why it matters so much. You’ll obviously have a much different list.
Feel free to share your list with me and I’ll publish it at American Habits.
“Smoky Mountain Memories” by Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton is one of the greatest songwriters ever — male or female. There is a live album where Parton talks about the inspiration for this song, but I’m sure it’s a story she tells often. Her dad went up to Detroit to work in a Ford factory as many Southerners and Appalachian folk did back in the early to mid-20th century. They had to in order to support their families.
Robert Lee Parton came home after a few weeks because he missed his wife and kids and the mountains of East Tennessee, claiming he would never leave again, and pledging to die in those hills.
You oughta go north somebody told us
‘Cause the air is filled with gold dust.
What a striking opening to a song from one of America’s greatest wordsmiths.
I first saw this film in 10th grade. Most of the class groaned about a black-and-white film. I was immediately captivated by the story. Gary Cooper won best actor in 1941, and while a rather vanilla character on the screen, his persona makes for a great everyman.
Alvin C. York (1887 – 1964) was a highly decorated World War I veteran who was drafted and started out as a pacifist-conscientious objector. After speaking to superior officers who shared his Christian faith, he decided to take up arms. A recipient of the Medal of Honor, York is one of the most decorated combatants in all American history. He killed 20 Germans and essentially caroled over 120 to surrender to him singlehandedly during the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
Despite a litany of requests that would have brought monetary gain and even greater fame, all York wanted to do was go home and farm in Northeast Tennessee. “Sergeant York” captures that brilliantly and he spent the rest of his life raising funds and even mortgaging his home to educate poor children in his home region.
“North Towards Home”
There is a famous scene from the “Mississippi Burning” film where Deputy Clinton Pell says to the lead FBI agent played by Gene Hackman, “We ain’t too interested in hearing your good old Mississippi stories anymore, you ain’t from here anymore.”
But if you want to hear some unusual and often hilarious Mississippi stories of Yazoo City from somebody who left and eventually went back home, there is none better than Willie Morris (1935-1999). Morris, the youngest ever editor of Harper’s Magazine, is critical of Mississippi, but he returns 13 years after publishing this memoir. The first half of the memoir particularly shines, and you can sense his return is more imminent than he likely believed at the time.
“It’s a Wonderful Life”
Not much needs to be said about this film, but it’s appropriate that the finale takes place in George Bailey’s physical home in fictional Bedford Falls.
Director Frank Capra was a genius. He used so many of his films to shame people into helping others, standing up for the little guy, and just pushing them to be an overall better person.
“To my big brother George: the richest man in town.”
The great irony, of course, is before that, all George ever wanted to do was leave home.
“Carolina” by Jason Harrod
I once took a Facebook quiz (remember those?) that said I would be happiest living in North Carolina. Maybe Facebook knows something because that’s where I live now. About the same time of the quiz, I discovered this tune by Jason Harrod.
“Take me where them rolling hills, can gather up and cure my ills, let me smell that long-leaf pine.”
Obviously, “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show deserves mention, too.
“I’m On My Back To The Old Home” by Bill Monroe
Bluegrass music sounds ancient, but it’s not very old. Bill Monroe organized and made the sound popular mostly in the post-World War II era. Of course, the roots of the sound are ancient. I love the music, in part, because it’s deeply sentimental and authentic to life. Just stories about normal people with ordinary, or sometimes tragic outcomes. Another huge theme is the abiding affection for home and family.
“Back in the days of my childhood
In the evening when everything was still
I used to sit and listen to the foxhounds
With my dad in the old Kentucky hills.”
“Cold Mountain” (The Novel)
Who wouldn’t want to go home to a woman if the other option is continuing on with a bloody Civil War siege in the trenches? W.P. Inman deserts his unit in a Homer-like “Odyssey” to get back home where the physical journey speaks more to the spiritual and idealistic journeys so many of us face.
I never read the novel by the same name, but I’ve seen the film. “Brooklyn” (2015) is a nod to the Golden Age of Hollywood. The ending embodies the classic love story wrapped up in a sense of place, home, and belonging. It’s probably why I like this film so much. Oliver Anthony’s line, “Living in the new world with an old soul” from “Rich Men North of Richmond” resonates with me. What does “home” mean? This film helps to answer that.
Simply put, this tune written by Graham Parsons and Bob Buchanan is a literary masterpiece. The listener feels the deep angst in the search for meaning and purpose. The Emmylou Harris and BR5-49 covers deserve mention as well.
“It’s a hard way to find out that trouble is real
In a faraway city, with a faraway feel
But it makes me feel better each time it begins
Calling me home, hickory wind.”
Ray Nothstine is the future of freedom fellow and a senior editor and writer at State Policy Network. He edits and manages American Habits.