Book 4. Racer Class. Essentially the same family of savage mountaineers were featured as the Hatburns in the film Tol'able David, the Scraggs of AI Capp's long-running comic strip Li'l Abner beginning in , and the unnamed mountain rapists of the movie Deliverance. And sixty-eight years after his inception in the early years of the Depression, the lazy, isolated, and cantankerous comic strip mountaineer Snuffy Smith was still appearing in hundreds of newspapers nationwide. As these examples attest, the portrayal of southern mountain people as pre- modern and ignorant "hillbillies" is one of the most lasting and pervasive im- ages in American popular iconography, appearing continuously throughout the twentieth century in nearly every major facet of American popular cul- ture from novels and magazines to movies and television programs to coun- try music and the Internet.
The key to the "hillbilly"'s sur- prising ubiquity and endurance from to the dawn of the third millen- nium has been the fundamental ambiguity of the meaning of this term and image. In its many manifestations, "hillbilly" has been used in national me- 3. Consistently used by middle-class economic interests to denigrate working-class southern whites whether from the mountains or not and to define the benefits of ad- vanced civilization through negative counterexample, the term and idea have also been used to challenge the generally unquestioned acceptance and le- gitimacy of "modernity" and "progress.
Estrella, Ph. TAGS Hillbilly, hillbilly image, southern mountain, southern mountain people. Louis, and used his railroad connections to aggressively market the book through railroad station newsstands and hawkers. Surprisingly, On a Slow Train has very little to do with Arkansas or southern mountaineers and is largely a haphazard retelling of standard jokes, puns, and minstrel stage quips. But the damage had been done, and the widespread notion that the state was peopled by slow and slow-witted bumpkins thrived well into the post—World War II era.
Jackson Publisher, His book is a strange combination of tall tales, ethnic and racial jokes, and a careful assessment of local social and economic conditions. It also added important visual and literary elements to the emerging hillbilly image and further combined mountain and poor white constructions. Her dress came just a little below her kneecaps, and was a Mother Hubbard. This sense of mocking laughter at poverty, antisocial behavior, and animal living, as well as his ambiguous relation to the local people and the hillbilly myth he helped create, is well captured in the bit of doggerel with which Hughes closes the book: I have lived in 16 States But of all I ever saw There is no place like living Down in old Arkansaw Hillbilly 54 They all wear homemade clothing Both the men and females While the children with dirty faces All go in their shirttails The men drink moonshine whiskey The women chew and dip And the big gals go barefooted With tobacco on their lip.
University of Arkansas professor Joseph W. Critics of the new company towns and textile factories that sprang up all over the Piedmont region in the early twentieth century railed against the low pay, poor living and working conditions, and particularly the widespread practice of employing children, some as young as nine years old. In response, industrialists launched a public relations campaign designed to illustrate the backward and unhealthy life ways of hill people and the supposed advantages of town life and to present themselves as agents of benevolence.
Building upon the by-then well-established vision of hopelessly isolated and irrationally violent mountain people, propagated in local-color novels by Mary Murfree, John Fox, Jr. Likewise, to newly arriving urbanites—either transplanted nativeborn farmers or immigrants from southern and eastern European villages— the hillbilly represented a way of life and cultural values from which they sought to escape.
Even in the southwestern mountains, the word was not at all common in the years surrounding If pre—World War I writings on mountain folk are to be taken as representative of national attitudes, most Americans still saw the mountaineer far more as a potential threat than a comical throwback. Prior to World War I, only one motion picture used the word in its title, promotional copy, or interior title cards, the aptly named Billie—the Hill Billy of The death toll in some was even higher. As unambiguous melodramas, these stories nearly always conclude with the outsider besting his mountain rival and bringing his female prize back to the city or lowlands, proving the superiority of modern, urban, capitalist America to primitive backwoods society.
These plots also strongly suggested that properly virile modern men, despite their years of formal education and positions in the bureaucratic social structure, could still triumph on the frontier. In a surprising number of cases, however, once in the city, the mountain woman discovers that her urban partner is weak, cowardly, or untrustworthy and realizes Hillbilly 58 that true happiness lies with her native suitor in her beloved mountains.
Such transgressive behavior by women, however, was rarely allowed to last long, and the mountain vixen inevitably ends up married to the male lead. The same case can be made for the typical victory of the urban modern man over the backward mountaineer. The themes of intercultural relationships and the desire of white male leads for nonwhite or mountaineer women are another striking similarity. Instead, most characters are dressed in ordinary turnof-the-century clothing with a slightly rural look. Male leads, even ones portraying moonshiners or feudists, often are dressed in suit coats, boots, and even ties, and female characters generally wear long, bustled dresses.
Yet as the appearance of these supporting characters suggests, more humorous readings of this image began to appear in the s. Other movies were explicit burlesques, featuring characters with ridiculous names, such as the feuding families the Higginses and the Judsons or revenue agent Snitz, and starring leading silent comedy stars such as Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.
In its place was emerging a parallel but distinct interpretation of the mountaineer as a humorous hillbilly persona, an idea that drew on earlier comical writings about the southern mountains, particularly the Ozarks region. Amazingly, however, the iconography hardly changed. Hillbilly 62 The same storylines and images that once denoted palpable brutality were now used to suggest comical and absurd characters and situations.
Whether the name is used as a term of reproach, intended as a compliment or employed only to describe, I do not know. On the one hand, he praises their Anglo-Saxon purity and generally strong work ethic and acknowledges the extreme hardships of their mountain existence, as well as the excesses of the prevalent stereotype. Unlike earlier accounts, Bradley often notes the incursion of the coal mining and lumbering industries in much of the region, the way coal towns and railroads are breaking down the insularity and primitiveness of the people and the land, and the subsequent despoilment of the natural beauty.
Most strikingly, Bradley acknowledges the way the national press has distorted the image of mountain people and perpetuated negative stereotypes. When he reaches the small town of Hillsville, Virginia, where a courthouse shootout focused national media attention three years earlier and prompted the Baltimore Sun to call for education or extermination, Bradley plans to avoid referring to the event, certain that local townspeople will rather not discuss it. Nonetheless, during his journey through the region, Bradley is only dimly aware of the way local residents use the mountaineer stereotype for their own ends and embraces the long-entrenched view of isolated and backward mountain people.
Not in the whole town did we see a single person who seemed to have anything to do, and yet there was not one who had not risen at four in the morning to do it. In , having become more a class yearbook than a literary journal, The Hillbilly featured regional images of log cabins, waterfalls, and young people backpacking in the mountains. Hillbilly 68 perceived urbane students of this modern city at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. But with few exceptions, it was still largely limited to regional usage. Initially, self-perceived defenders of the mountain people, particularly of the southern Appalachian region, studiously avoided the use of hillbilly, believing that it reinforced negative conceptions of senseless violence and degradation.
This quasi-mythic mountaineer construction remained strong into the s and would persist in a somewhat muted form in American culture throughout the twentieth century. Many in the latter group used the term 71 to disparage both what they deemed a base and formulaic genre and the culture from which it developed. Musicians and their audiences, on the other hand, held a more complex view. Steady rural migration to small towns and cities since the mid-nineteenth century introduced thousands of rural Americans to urban cultural forms and styles that they then incorporated into their own musical repertoires.
When to his surprise the album sold out within a few months, however, he brought Carson to New York to record. Uncle Dave Macon, Dr. Humphrey Bate, Jimmie Rodgers, and Hank Williams are only the best known of the myriad country performers who learned many of their songs and stylings from black musicians. Early record catalogs often listed white and black rural musical selections in separate categories but on facing pages. Although at times they played up their country herFigure 3. Producers and commentators on early commercial performers, however, assumed that the musicians and the music would have a rural, even bumpkinish, appearance, and described and costumed the performers accordingly.
Although the band members had all grown up in the mountains of northwestern North Carolina and southwestern Virginia, they were far from rustic rubes. And now I had gone to New York and put their music on records and called it a bad name to boot. Talking Machine World, April 15, , p. And as presented in publicity photographs by Ralph Peer and Okeh Records. Al Hopkins and the Hill Billies, c. More important, Lair constructed a distinctly mountain, and at times even explicitly hillbilly, image for his performers and, to a degree, for the music as a whole.
The radio copy Lair wrote for the band also emphasized the homespun mountain image he wished to project. To Lair, as to many others in the interwar years, this culture and its traditional values of independence and a strong sense of family and kin seemed most perfectly preserved in the southern Appalachians, where physical and social isolation had allowed it to survive long after it had been washed away elsewhere by the forces of modernity, urbanism, and industrialization. Lair portrayed himself as a protector and defender of this fast-disappearing traditional mountain culture, and he was indeed an important folksong and folklore collector who included performances of numerous traditional ballads on his radio programs.
Hillbilly 82 Figure 3.
Mountaineers and folk from the hill country maybe, but no hill billies. Tin Pan Alley hung this name on certain types of music and entertainers. Other ads in the series featured men with exceedingly long beards and common hillbilly tropes of laziness and ignorance of modernity. Furthermore, there is no such animal. Intolerance has no place in our organization and is not allowed. But writers like Harry Steele made no such distinctions, and the practices of Lair and Hay provided ready fodder for such distorted and mean-spirited portrayals of both southern mountain folk and folk music. Within the next half decade, other record companies followed suit; Okeh in , and Decca and Bluebird by Them hillbillies are mountain Williams now.
In reality, they were local musicians Leo Mannes, Cyprian Paulette, and Tom Murray who were clandestinely recruited by Rice to portray genuine mountaineers. If anything a little in favor of those who have seen [them]. Figure 3. The Beverly Hill Billies, c. Country music blossomed in these years for several reasons. In the hard economic times of the Depression years, the low-priced recordings and free radio broadcasts provided a cheap and readily available entertainment option to Americans in towns and cities as well as in far more remote locales. His songs deal with loneliness, misery, death, murder.
The great majority, probably 95 percent, can neither read nor write English [and are]. Yet public disavowals were limited at least through the s. Others may have also disliked the label, but felt obligated to accept it at least for the moment. We were hillbillies. Courtesy of Simon J. It also helps explain why such a potentially pejorative label and image spread so rapidly and was so quickly adopted at all cultural levels by musicians, promoters, and audience alike.
This was as true in the factory towns of central New York as in the industrializing South and Midwest. At the same time, these men and women recognized that despite their removal from the farm, many born-and-bred urban Americans continued to perceive them as ignorant hicks—as hillbillies. Once again, the Beverly Hill Billies represented a broader trend, the general shift in country music from hillbilly and mountain to cowboy and western attire, songs, and personae. The introduction of cowboy imagery into country music was not a wholly new development.
Robinson, Carl T. Sprague, and above all, Jimmie Rodgers, gained prominence singing cowboy songs and wearing exaggerated cowboy costumes. But by the mids, these more positive readings were being superseded by a growing derision toward, and increasingly negative image of, the southern mountains and mountaineers.
As audiences increasingly perceived the mountains as a cultural site of backwardness and degradation, country musicians and listeners nationwide turned to an image that had been more consistently heroically constructed by the popular media. By the mids, then, country singers still sang about cabins in the mountains, but they now referred to the Rockies not the Cumberlands, and the Kentucky Ramblers of the National Barn Dance became the Prairie Ramblers and backed up Patsy Montana born Ruby Blevins in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Radio-station-sponsored periodicals and country music fan magazines also widely used the term. Decca Hill Billy Records catalog, May 2, Promoters, musicians, and listeners all strove to disassociate the term from its negative stereotype and even from any connections to the southern mountains or southern mountain culture. Southern migrants seeking defense work in the industrial North and West and servicemen and women in military bases around the country introduced the music to thousands of new listeners and created a growing market in cities as disparate as Los Angeles, Detroit, and Baltimore for live performances, records, and jukebox selections.
The traditional string band style and instrumentation was increasingly supplanted by electric guitars and drums. Yet these Figure 4. This artwork is copyright of its owner s if applicable and is used solely for historical and scholarly illustrative purposes. To some readers, they could even be seen as populist celebrations of the hill folk, descendants of white AngloSaxon pioneers who preserved colonial life skills and values.
From this perspective, hillbilly characters, who rejected a lifestyle driven by the pursuit of monetary gain and who cherished family, kin, and personal independence, might be seen as models of the traditional American values needed to save the nation from the twin threats of unfettered industrial urbanism and unregulated capitalism. In the process, they iconicized the pictorial hillHillbilly billy and fundamentally shaped all subsequent depictions and conceptions of the mountain people. Born in north-central Pennsylvania in , he received professional art training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and in Europe.
After several years as a freelance cartoonist for his regional newspaper and various national magazines, he began drawing his hillbillies for the Saturday Evening Post and soon thereafter for Esquire, his primary venue for the next two decades. Webb did not set foot in the southern mountain region until six months after he began The Mountain Boys, nor is there any evidence to suggest he had read much of the by-then voluminous literature on this population and region. Figure 4. Everett Shinn, Esquire, August , Webb presents an absurd inversion of the proper social order, with barnyard animals eating and sleeping in the cabin, and the menfolk spending most of their time sitting, or more commonly lying, in the front yard, with a whiskey jug close at hand.
The fact that Webb frequently shows men in their underwear also underscores their laziness, which he contrasts with the drudgery of female characters. Challenging the long-standing view of an idyllic antebellum society of stately plantations and cultural sophistication, this reconceptualization was one result of a much broader struggle over the nature of modern America that was part of the shift from a country grounded in localized commerce and social relations to one characterized by mass production and consumption.
This conception of dangerously inbred and imbecilic mountain folk was increasingly common in s public discourse, not only in Hollow Folk but also in popular medical periodicals. A article on an isolated Virginia mountain clan, for example, argued that inbreeding and incest had created a whole community of feebleminded men and women. There was not a normal human being in the room. In this regard, contemporary audiences could see them as models of human endurance and a heartening symbol that the nation too could survive the current economic and social upheaval.
Born in Chicago in and professionally trained at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, DeBeck had grown wealthy on the strength of Barney Google and his pathetic but lovable horse Spark Plug, his mastery of fantastical dialogue, and his involved and constantly changing exotic adventure continuities. He also drew heavily on the language and spellings used by Harris and other southwestern humorists, freely mixing, as did they, genuine local expressions with ones he invented. Although DeBeck traveled through the mountains of Virginia and Kentucky and conversed with the local inhabitants, his fanciful plots and colorful phrasings show that he, like Webb, clearly based his imagery and humor primarily on these literary accounts rather than on the people and conditions themselves.
Reprinted with special permission of King Features Syndicate. DeBeck added the Webbian vision of absolute laziness. Snuffy is constantly seen prone or asleep, his whisky jug clearly suggesting his perpetual state of inebriation. Hillbilly woman as willing drudge.
Journal of Social History
DeBeck also continually portrayed Lowizie as utterly subservient to her husband. Snuffy Smith may be immoral, violent, lazy, and abusive, but he also represents the antielite attitudes, rugged independence, and physical prowess of the mythic frontiersmen epitomized by Crockett and Boone. As porters, maids, stablehands, and other manual laborers, these characters served as homely and slow-witted comic foils for sophisticated white characters and, in Snuffy Smith, even humble mountain folk.
This viewpoint was advanced by a diverse group of observers, who questioned the consequences of an increasingly mechanized, prefabricated, and centralized modern America. Writing for an urbane middle-class readership in , playwright Percy MacKaye articulated this conception of the promise of mountain society: Over there in the mountains are men who do not live in cages; a million Americans, who do not chase the dollar, who do not time-serve machines, who do not learn their manners from the movies or their culture from the beauty parlors.
Shall we not then, hasten to civilize them—convert their dirty log-cabins into clean cement cages?