I’ve been reading a new book lately, Where Misfits Fit: Counterculture and Influence in the Ozarks by Thomas M. Kersen, who is a sociologist at Jackson State University in Mississippi. Tom grew up in a back-to-the-land community in the northern Arkansas hills, so he knows whereof he speaks regarding counterculture in the Ozarks.
The book, after a couple of chapters establishing its geographical and theoretical base, goes into a series of chapters about various groups that have existed on the cultural “edge” in the Ozarks: religious groups, music groups, alternative-living societies, and others. Although the book has an impressive scholarly apparatus, it’s clearly a work of love on Kersten’s part: he doesn’t shy away from the first person, describing his own experiences and his interactions with members of the various groups. This approach gives the book a more informal feel than many scholarly studies, which I welcomed.
Many of the chapters originated as talks given to the annual Ozarks Studies Conference, held in September in West Plains, so I had the privilege of hearing them in an earlier form as a member of the audience there. (Let me pause to give a plug to that conference, which is sponsored by Missouri State University – West Plains; if you’re at all interested in the Ozarks, it’s a great event to start attending!) But seeing them developed into book form gives me a better sense of the connecting threads.
What connects the chapters is their focus on groups and people who are at the edges of the social mainstream, what Kersen calls “liminal” regions. Inhabiting an edge region gives someone more freedom of behavior than a person or group possesses when firmly entrenched in a social structure. His theory is that the Ozarks themselves are a liminal region, and thus they attract liminal groups and individuals. It’s an intriguing argument.
Kersen covers a wide range of edge-dwellers, from music groups to religious groups to back-to-the-landers. It’s hard for me to pick out a favorite chapter, but I’d have to say the ones in which Kersen has personal experience were the most fun for me to read. He writes about well-known music groups such as the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Black Oak Arkansas, but he also goes into great detail about more obscure groups such as “The Group” (known also as the Dan Blocker Singers) and Hot Mulch, the creators of the back-to-the-land anthem “Ozark Mountain Mother Earth News Freak.” A section on UFO-focused groups introduces us to the remarkable Buck Nelson of Mountain View, Missouri, whose booklet My Trip to Mars, the Moon, and Venus prompted a long string of spaceship conferences on his remote property.
It’s tempting to see these misfits as amusing eccentrics, but the book also touches upon groups that had a darker side, such as the Purple People, the Searcy County, Arkansas, group whose strange dress and religious beliefs were underlain by a repressive and sometimes violent set of behaviors. This direction is not the ultimate province of this book, though, but I’d like to see someone take it on. I find myself wondering: if the Ozarks has proven to be a welcoming home for communal groups and eccentric agriculturalists, so too has it been a comfortable place for fanatics, cultists, and plain old scary people. I’m old enough to remember The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, a violent Christian Identity group that set up a compound in northern Arkansas in the ’70s and ’80s. They were not the first, and certainly have not been the last, and even today there are extremist groups up some of those dirt roads. Being a liminal region poses threats as well as offering opportunities.