Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Flint: The Biggest Southern City in the North?

Dan Coburn, the lead singer of the Hill Country Revue, preserved his Southern mindset despite growing up in Flint.

Stewart Oksenhorn of The Aspen Times reports:
Coburn, though, is a northerner, and an urbanite to boot, a native of Flint, Mich., home of unions and the birthplace of General Motors.

Still, Coburn claims to have the South in his blood, and not only because he has lived for the last four of his 34 years in Hill Country Revue's home base of Memphis. On the dirt road where he grew up, Coburn would watch his grandfather barbecue chicken in his own mustard-based barbecue sauce, with the country songs of Merle Haggard and Del Reeves playing in the background. Coburn's father had different tastes in music, but they were equally Southern: ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blackfoot. Coburn and his friends would sometimes talk about the roots of their respective families — in Kentucky, Georgia or Mississippi.

About the only thing about the upbringing that wasn't Southern, in fact, was the address. Flint might seem a part of the South only if you were standing in, say, Green Bay or Duluth. But Coburn says Flint was a destination for the mass migration of Southerners — including his paternal grandfather, from the southern Missouri town of Hornersville — who landed in Michigan's urban centers in the mid-20th century, lured by jobs in the auto industry. So in Flint, Coburn was surrounded by neighborhoods like Little Missouri, kids who had family back in Tennessee or Florida, and neighborhoods, like the one he grew up in, that were built to resemble the rural towns the people had left behind.

“It was the auto rush,” said the 34-year-old Coburn from a tour stop in Santa Fe, following a 10-hour drive from Dallas and a noon-ish wake-up cup of coffee. “He went north to work for Buick, and the whole family went. But my grandpa was so Southern, a Southern gentleman, and that resonated through the family. I call Flint, Mich. the biggest Southern city in the North.”


  1. Yeah, I agree.

    In a way, my family was a part of this Northern migration, and many of my Flintoid friends were culturally "suddern."

    There was Skynyrd, and ZZ-Top, fried chicken, and trips to Charleston.

    Do you think it also explains some of the negative stuff I experienced in my youth: the N-word, and the wide use of the descriptor "N-word town," amongst my white buddies for that area accross Gilky creek in my Pierce School neighborhood where mostly black people lived. The racial fights I heard about at Whittier and Central, etc., etc.

    I have never really thought about that before, but if it is so, I kind of wish that we had imported another southern tradition to Flint:


  2. In the 50s and 60s, it was commonly understood that metro Flint was a statewise "melting pot" because of the migration that began with worker-recruitment advertising programs and related word-of-mouth during WWII.

    A number of kids with whom I went to elementary school had southern-states accents because that's what they heard at home.

    The same Lebanese-run grocery stores that advertised specials on Polish sausage, also promoted their Southern-traditional preferences.

    It would have been hard for me as a kid to think of people from Arkansas or Slovenia as "other", since some of them were my classmates, friends or dates.

    However slow Flint may have been in growing past its racial divisions, there were positive aspects to growing up in a diverse environment.

  3. Our neighborhood was certainly diverse, JWilly. But as I recall, many of the neighborhoods just outside the city had the largest population of people who migrated from the South.

    The most famous Lebanese-American who worked at a Flint area grocery store was Casey Kasem, who worked at the Larry Hamady grocery store in Fenton when he was very young.

  4. I've always thought that some of the uglier parts of the South showed up in Flint from time to time. That said, I've never been as creeped out in Flint as I've been in parts of Kentucky.

  5. For those who don't already know the song, Dwight Yoakam's "Readin Writin and Route 23" is about the migration North from Kentucky (though Yoakam's family only made it as far north on US 23 as Columbus OH.)There are several versions on YouTube.

    I wonder if the south isn't getting too much blame for prejudice that was/is commonly found in white Flint. My neighboorhood was white but mostly non-southern, many people there seemed to master use of the N-word quite well without the help of the people they would have called "hillbillies."

  6. My great grand father game up from Missouri to work at Fisher Body in Flint.

    He was apart of the sit down strike as well.

    I also wanted to say that Burton is also know in Burtucky. Did you know Durant Heights (judd rd.) was a swamp?

  7. Several older southern friends down here will tell you they learn't the 4 R's in school. Readin, ritin, rithmitic and route 31 north. Not so much anymore; duh.

  8. Burtuckey (Burt) and Montuckey (Montrose) are common references in those areas. Most of us in the area had family that worked in flint at the "shop" too, if not several family members. Interesting.....

  9. Kentucky roots here on my mom's side. My grandfather moved his family North in the mid-20s.

    I didn't know my Auntie's most excellent fried chicken was "Southern Style" until after moving out of the area when I was 20. I just thought that was the way all homemade fried chicken was made. :{)


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at www.teardownbook.com.