Take me home, country roads
Sarah Morris, a teaching associate professor of English, investigates home in the iconic song “Country Roads.” Working on her book, “Transformation, Translation, and Complication: Take Me Home Country Roads,” which West Virginia University Press plans to publish in 2022, Morris digs into the song’s long-lasting success. She questions why these lyrics, written by songwriters with only a peripheral knowledge of the state that “takes them home to the place where they belong,” have transcended generations, becoming a song, an anthem, a prayer and a hymn not only to West Virginians, but to people around the world.
“We play ‘Country Roads’ every time we cross the state line back into West Virginia,” one West Virginian told Morris. “We’ll even wake up the kids if they’re asleep.”
Morris has taken note of several similar stories, including one in which hearing the song frequently in a refugee camp prompted a Vietnamese immigrant to move to Appalachia.
In any case, Morris said, “‘Country Roads’ is this charismatic, cultural artifact that is rhetorically flexible and deeply meaningful, for many different people in many different settings.
“We use the song as a marker of identity, on T-shirts, in performances, as decoration in our homes, as a soundtrack to our lives. It has different purposes and audiences, and that's what really interests me.”
Like many West Virginians who grew up in the 1970s, she remembers “Country Roads” from her earliest childhood memories. She can still hear her father’s voice serenading it to her and her younger brother as only one of a handful of songs he’d sing. Just as clearly, she can envision the music box placed on the mantle above the living room fireplace, shaped like an old Model-T Ford plunking out an offkey version. It is still on display in her parents’ home today.
As doors remain closed and personal interactions occur through masks, Plexiglas and screen time, the response to the “Country Roads” anthem has been reinvigorated through a spike in covers over the past year. From Brad Paisley’s virtual living room concerts, to WVU’s Mountaineer Nation social media montage, to being pegged as the nation’s 20-second handwashing prompt, it’s clear “Country Roads” has been ingrained in our local and global culture since its release in 1971.
Through her research, Morris reasons, “‘Country Roads’ has universal meaning across the world. Whether a listener is from West Virginia or not, the song really represents a call to home.”
Morris contends that it could be the lyrics, a home-calling. It could be the cadence of the words, defining a universal sense of place. It could be something in the primal chord progressions, influencing our brain chemistry. It could trigger emotional feelings from past experiences when played alongside loved ones, family, friends, our community. Or it could be the music itself, tapping into this subconscious sense of longing.
But most interestingly of all, according to Morris, is that her research begins to uncover the personal, historical, social, economic, political, artistic and pedagogical implications of a song that depicts home in only a limited light.
“It’s like a glamour shot, showing only the best of us,” Morris said. “‘Country Roads’ creates an image of space, place and lifeworld as listeners imagine it – seeing us in a soft, kind light, regardless of how we actually are. In reality, even when we come home to the same place, it’s changed and we’ve changed. So we are really singing about a longing or a homesickness for a place that doesn’t exist.”
Home transcends boundaries
The call to home knows no borders. It’s personal. It’s complex. It’s rich and powerful.
Karen Culcasi, an associate professor of geography, explores these complexities of “home” an ocean away in Jordan. Through her research and interviews with hundreds of Palestinian and Syrian refugees, she probes how they’ve experienced resettlement and a renewed sense of belonging after leaving one Arab home for another.
While having no ties to family from that region of the world, Culcasi’s curiosity about Islam, Arabs, Muslims and the Middle East was sparked in 10th grade social studies. Her teacher challenged the class to consider the Western world’s portrayal of Islamic religion and culture. Intrigued and challenged by these ideas, she has pursued the topic ever since.
After nearly a decade of studying the formation of post-World War I states in the broadly defined Middle East – from the perspective of both Western and Arab geopolitics and maps – she knew she needed to expand her studies.
Something was missing. Maps, borders and territories could only provide insights into how those in power chose to represent these states and their people.
That’s when her research of Western and Arab cartographies and geography converged with the humanities.
Meeting refugees, first Palestinian and later Syrian, allowed Culcasi to place the personal, human experience at the heart of her work.
“Their views and senses of belonging are so deep and complex, much more than a map could ever reveal,” she said. “And as refugees are, by definition, people who cross borders to seek safety, they experience the fluidity of identity, belonging and home in powerful ways.”
In her book, “Displacing Territory: Imaginings of Territory and Belonging for Palestinian and Syrian Refugees in Jordan,” scheduled for release by the University of Chicago Press in January 2022, Culcasi finds that these refugees feel a connection to Jordan, even calling it a “home away from home” or their “second homeland,” thanks in large part to Jordan’s historical and cultural roots.
“Many refugees turn down offers to move to other nations with more opportunity because of this strong sense of place and belonging,” she said. “Even though they are experiencing displacement and live in a country that’s not their own, that sense of belonging to a fellow Arab country, a place that shares the similar historical and cultural connections, is more powerful than moving to a land of greater opportunity.”
Examining Palestinian and Syrian refugees’ daily lives, Culcasi discovers that their everyday experiences affect their decisions about migration and settlement along with their perspectives of what home really means.
During her interviews, she begins to recognize that there’s no hierarchy when it comes to the love, passion and attachment people feel to the place they call home. Whether it’s a physical place on a map, an intimate place of residency or a place in our hearts, this formidable sense of belonging crosses modern borders and sentiments.