Burns Kemp, Ben Howell, Frank Layhew, Kemp Briggs & Bill Pendergrass
Detroit City depicts a period of each of their stories.
- Burns delivered a friend’s Harley Davidson motorcycle from Nashville to Detroit and stayed on to work in an automobile plant.
- Ben fled from a little town in Florida to avoid prosecution. He went to work in an automobile plant and stayed on.
- Frank went to visit a friend who was working for Chrysler and took a job in the automobile plant also.
- Kemp followed his older brother to Detroit and accepted a job at the Dodge Main Auto Assembly Plant in Hamtramck, Michigan.
- Bill Pendergrass took a job in Detroit in an Automobile plant. In late October he concluded that he had to buy a heavy coat or go to a warmer climate. He put the money for a winter coat into a bus fare to California, where he met a nurse and was married.
Detroit City is a composite of each of these homesick guys. Let’s call him Burns Bridges to be consistent with his story.
Burns served in World War II in the US 3rd Army under General George S. Patton (Old Blood & Guts) – “Our Blood this Guts.”
Having quit East Nashville High in the 10th grade, Burns was limited to construction or factory type jobs. In 1946 he took a job as a framing carpenter for Evans & Morris Construction in Nashville. They were building low cost housing for WWII veterans who obtained total financing on the $5,000 to $6,000, 2 bedroom started homes. His framing crew could frame a house from the sub-floor to decking the roof in about two days.
As winter set in he was laid off on a Friday. On Monday he went into the US employment office to apply for unemployment compensation at about 9:00 a.m. The clerk told him that she did not want to fill out his form until the office was warmer. He was to return in the afternoon. Years later, that poor clerk was probably still calling, “Burns Bridges”.
Southerners who migrated to Detroit usually bought a new car before they returned on vacation. One such former neighbor offered Burns a free ride to Detroit if he would help with the driving.
He was able to obtain room and boar from his aunt, Hester, later from Jimmy D. Lovelady, and finally from Mrs. Lulla Bee Gaw. She often cooked fried apples for dinner and would include an apple sandwich in his lunch for a mid-morning snack. A creative guy on the assembly line made coffee with a soldering torch to go with the apple sandwich.
Burns had a pain of conscience when he first started to lie about his prosperity. The Cadillac he claimed to own still belonged to General Motors. He simply had the privilege of driving one every few minutes from the end of the assembly line to the parking lot.
He had an addiction to gambling on nine ball at the poolroom after work. This kept him broke from paycheck to paycheck.
In his mind, what had been a very mundane life in Nashville over time became more and more glamorous in his memory. And Jo Ann whom he had left behind became the lady of his dreams.
In reality he had no home, but within the longing of every wanderer is the deep groaning, “I want to go home. Oh, how I want to go home.”
Bobby Bare described this longing in the song, “Detroit City.”
“Detroit City” – sung by Bobby Bare
Lyrics for Song “Detroit City” by Bobby Bare
I want to go home, I want to go home,
Oh Lord, I want to go home
Last night I went to sleep in Detroit city,
And I dreamed abut hose cotton fields and home,
I dreamed about my mother
dear old Papa, sister and brother,
And I dreamed about that girl, whose been watin’ for so long.
Home folks think I’m big in Detroit city,
From the letters that I write they think I’m fine
But by day I make the cars
by night I make the bars
If only they could read between the lines.
I rode a freight train north to Detroit city
After all these years I’ve been wasting my time
I’ll take my foolish pride
on a southbound freight and ride,
Go on back to the ones I’ve left waiting’ so far behind.