Hillbilly

Beverly Hillbillies

Hillbilly is a term (often derogatory) for people who dwell in rural, mountainous areas of the United States, primarily Appalachia in the east but also the Ozarks in the center of the country. Owing to its strongly stereotypical connotations, the term can be offensive to those Americans of Appalachian heritage.

Origins of the term are obscure. According to Anthony Harkins in ‘Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon,’ it first appeared in print in a 1900 ‘New York Journal’ article, with the definition: ‘a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.’

The Appalachian region was largely settled in the 18th century by the Ulster Scots, Protestants who migrated to the Irish province of Ulster during the Plantation of Ulster in the 17th century. The majority of these people originated in the lowlands of Scotland. In America, the Ulster Scots became known as the Scotch-Irish. Harkins believes the most credible theory of the term’s origin is that it derives from the linkage of two older Scottish expressions, ‘hill-folk’ and ‘billie’ which was a synonym for ‘fellow,’ similar to ‘guy’ or ‘bloke.’

Although the term is not documented until 1900, a conjectural etymology has it originating in 17th century Ireland for Protestant supporters of King William III during the Williamite War. The Irish Catholic supporters of James II referred to these northern Protestant supporters of ‘King Billy,’ as ‘Billy Boys.’ However, Michael Montgomery, in ‘From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English,’ states: ‘In Ulster in recent years it has sometimes been supposed that it was coined to refer to followers of King William III and brought to America by early Ulster emigrants…, but this derivation is almost certainly incorrect… In America hillbilly was first attested only in 1898, which suggests a later, independent development.’

Harkins theorizes that use of the term outside the Appalachians arose in the years after the American Civil War, when the Appalachian region became increasingly bypassed by technological and social changes taking place in the rest of the country. Until the Civil War, the Appalachians were not significantly different from other rural areas of the country. After the war, as the frontier pushed further west, the Appalachian country retained its frontier character, and the people themselves came to be seen as backward, quick to violence, and inbred in their isolation. Fueled by news stories of mountain feuds, such as that in the 1880s between the Hatfields and McCoys, the hillbilly stereotype developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The ‘classic’ hillbilly stereotype – the poor, ignorant, feuding family with a huge brood of children tending the family moonshine still – reached its current characterization during the years of the Great Depression, when many mountaineers left their homes to find work in other areas of the country. It was during these years that comic strips such as ‘Li’l Abner’ and films such as ‘Ma and Pa Kettle’ made the ‘hillbilly’ a common stereotype. The period of Appalachian out-migration, roughly from the 1930s through the 1950s, saw many mountain residents moving north to the midwestern industrial cities of Chicago, Cleveland, Akron, and particularly Detroit, where jobs in the automotive industry were plentiful. This movement north became known as the ‘Hillbilly Highway.

The advent of the interstate highway system and television brought many previously isolated communities into mainstream United States culture in the 1950s and 1960s. The Internet continues this integration. Presently, the term ‘hillbilly’ is commonly used outside of Appalachia, the South and the Ozarks as a reference in describing socially backward people that fit certain ‘hillbilly’ characteristics. In this context, it is often (though not always) derogatory. Although the described person may reside on completely flat terrain, hillbilly is substituted in place of more disparaging terms, such as ‘white trash.’ In urban usage, hillbilly is sometimes used interchangeably for terms like ‘hick.’

Hillbilly music was at one time considered an acceptable label for what is now known as country music. The label, coined in 1925 by country pianist Al Hopkins, persisted until the 1950s. Although some artists and fans, notably Hank Williams Sr., found the term offensive even in its heyday, the term hillbilly music is still used on occasion to refer to old-time music or bluegrass. For example, a popular, long-running weekly show at radio station WHRB titled ‘Hillbilly at Harvard’ is devoted to playing a mix of old-time music, bluegrass, and traditional country and western.

Early tunes that contained the word hillbilly were ‘Hillbilly Rose’ by the York Brothers in 1942 and ‘Hillbilly Boogie’ by the Delmore Brothers in 1946. Earlier, in the 1920s, there were records by a band called the Beverly Hillbillies. In 1927, the Gennett studios in Richmond, Indiana, made a recording of black fiddler Jim Booker with other instrumentalists; their recordings were labeled ‘made for Hillbilly’ in the Gennett files, and were marketed to a white audience. Also during the 1920s, an old-time music band known as the Hill Billies featuring Al Hopkins and Fiddlin’ Charlie Bowman, achieved acclaim as recording artists for Columbia Records. By the late forties, radio stations broadcast music described as ‘hillbilly,’ originally to describe fiddlers and string bands, but was then used to describe the traditional music of the people of the Appalachian Mountains. The people who actually sang these songs and lived in the Appalachian Mountains never used these terms to describe their own music.

Popular songs whose style bore characteristics of both hillbilly and African American music were referred to, in the late 1940s and early 1950s as ‘hillbilly boogie,’ and in the mid-1950s as ‘rockabilly.’ Elvis Presley was a prominent player of the latter genre and was known early in his career as the ‘Hillbilly Cat.’ When the Country Music Association was founded in 1958, the term hillbilly music gradually fell out of use. However, the term rockabilly is still used today. Later, the music industry merged hillbilly music, Western Swing, and Cowboy music, to form the current category C&W, Country and Western.

Film and television have portrayed the hillbilly in both derogatory and sympathetic terms. Films such as ‘Sergeant York’ or the ‘Ma and Pa Kettle’ series portrayed the hillbilly as wild but good-natured, and television programs of the 1960s, such as ‘The Real McCoys,’ ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ and especially ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ portrayed the hillbilly as somewhat backward but with a wisdom that always outwitted more sophisticated city folk. The popular 1970s television variety show ‘Hee Haw’ starred several well-known country and western singers and regularly lampooned the stereotypical hillbilly lifestyle. A darker image of the hillbilly is found in the film ‘Deliverance’ (1972), based on a novel by James Dickey, which depicted the hillbilly as genetically deficient, inbred and murderous.

In the Appalachian and Ozark regions, the hillbilly stereotype formed the basis for financially lucrative commercial interpretations of traditional culture through theme parks and theaters, such as Dogpatch USA (an abandoned theme park based on ‘Lil’ Abner’) in Arkansas, and Dollywood (Dolly Parton’s theme park) in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

‘Hillbilly Days’ is an annual festival held in mid-April in Pikeville, Kentucky celebrating the best of Appalachian culture. The event began by local Shriners as a fundraiser to support the Shriners Children’s Hospital. It has grown since its beginning in 1976 and now is the second largest festival held in the state of Kentucky. Artists and craftspeople showcase their talents and sell their works on display. Nationally renowned musicians as well as the best of the regional mountain musicians share six different stages located throughout the downtown area of Pikeville. Want-to-be hillbillies from across the nation compete to come up with the wildest Hillbilly outfit. The event has earned its name as the Mardi Gras of the Mountains. Fans of ‘mountain music’ come from around the United States to hear this annual concentrated gathering of talent.

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