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Hillbilly / Southern Highlanders

The Southern Highlands lie within nine Southern states, and too often are called, disparagingly by some and apologetically by others, the "back-yards" of the Southern states. The Highlands as a whole make up about one-third of the total areas of nine states. Their population was nearly a third of the total population in the early 20th Century. West Virginia, is a mountain state in its entirety, while the mountain section of South Carolina, the smallest state mountain area with the exception of Maryland, is about one-eleventh of the entire state area. In Virginia the mountain area is about one- half, in Tennessee three-sevenths, in Kentucky one-third, in Alabama one-fourth, in Maryland one-fourth, in North Carolina one-fifth, and in Georgia one-seventh of the total state area.

The term "Southern Mountaineers" has been made to suggest a peculiar people, with peculiar needs. Appalachian people are a hybridization of various ethnic groups, including Native Americans, Africans, and Scotch-Irish. The culture is carried forward by oral tradition but is not static. The culture of the rural hollows promotes stereotyped hillbilly images of independence, family orientation, feuding, and religious fundamentalism.

The "Scotch-Irish," is unknown both in Scotland and Ireland, and is spoken of only in America. The term "Scotch" is out of the question, since it is a brand of Scottish whiskey ; and no such element as "Scottish-Irish" exists. The Scotch Highlander inhabits the highlands of Scotland ; the Kentucky Mountaineer inhabits the highlands of Kentucky. Ergo, the Kentucky Mountaineers are of Scotch Highlander ancestry, because the Scotch Highlander must have highlands in which to "live, move, and have his being." Further, that, since the Scotch Highlander, in his hilly, craggy retreats, was something of a feudist, the Kentucky Mountaineer, who inhabits surroundings the topography of which is similar to the highlands of Scotland, and who is himself something of a feudist, must be of Scotch Highlander ancestry.

The way patriarchal decision making in West Virginian families is portrayed is more a stereotype than reality. The traditional family structure that includes a wife who stays home to rear children and a husband who is head of the household and provides financial support has changed. Religion, family cohesion, friendship, health, and integrity are important values according to participants. Faith in God is important when a person needs support. Faith appears to be a traditional value that has been carefully passed down from one generation to another. Deep religious faith has its origins in the early years when West Virginia was settled. Life was hard, and people sought relief in religious faith. Spiritual beliefs offered emotional and spiritual support, and churches served as a bonding element in communities.

Residents generally have a positive reaction to the term hillbilly; this term resonated more with them than the term Appalachian, as illustrated by the following quote: " . . . well my view is I'm a hillbilly, and I'm proud of it. But my idea of a hillbilly is not the world's perception of a hillbilly. To me, my perception of a hillbilly is somebody who loves the mountains, who loves their family, who loves their home, who loves this way of life."

Modern bluegrass music developed in the early 1950s as a separate musical genre from "Country and Western." This happened when Nashville's Country and Western sound became progressively "popular" with the inclusion of large orchestras, trap drum sets and full electrification of the rhythm instruments. Bluegrass has kept closer to its rural roots in old-time music, once pejoratively termed "hillbilly" music. The "hillbilly" genre probably was born in the 1920s and was featured on recordings and radio programs of the era, especially the Grand Ol' Opry on Nashville's radio station WSM. Most instruments used in modern bluegrass bands are nearly the same as earlier "old-time music." Instrumentation is primarily acoustic and rarely electrified.

For more than a century, Appalachia has been mythologized by journalists, scholars, and policy makers as an area apart from the rest of America in terms of geography, economy, and culture. Beginning in the 1870s, the local color literary movement characterized Appalachia as "a strange land with a peculiar people," isolated from mainstream America and its modernization. Characteristics attributed to Appalachians included fundamentalism, isolationism, familism, and homogeneity, and these characteristics soon "calcified into stereotypes" that are still promulgated by the media and recognized by people living in this region.

Of all phases of mountain life having root in individualism, those of moonshining and the feud are the ones most commonly attributed to the mountaineer and most widely advertised. They may be found in all of the mountain classes, although they form a very small proportion of the whole.

One example is the concept of the "hillbilly feud." Although blown out of proportion and exaggerated comically by the media, there really were hillbilly feuds. Pikeville (population 6,000) was founded in 1824 as the seat of Pike County and became the trading center for area farmers. During the Civil War, the community was occupied by the Union Army and was a center of Federal operations in Eastern Kentucky. The notorious Hatfield-McCoy Feud between two families in the 1880s gained national publicity and helped to create an enduring stereotype of the "hillbilly."

Let us account for some of the lawlessness and blood-thirstiness among the Mountaineers. In the pioneer days these people were compelled to bear the brunt of fighting the Cherokee and other Indian tribes, while the people of the plains were molested with comparative rarity. A mere handful of red men could guard a mountain pass against a large body of whites, and it was the strategic importance of the highlands that made them a favorite fighting ground between the pioneers and the tribesmen. Woe to the pale face that had not learned to use the rifle.

The general "toting" of pistols, a part of their manhood creed, was a contributing cause. The attitude was that of a gentleman of old, ready at all times to defend his personal honor or the honor of his family by his own prowess. It was not incongruous to see in court a lawyer whose pocket was bulging with an ill-concealed weapon, prosecuting a case in which the defendant was brought to trial for an offense resulting from his having carried concealed weapons.

Miscarriages of law and justice have been perhaps the greatest cause of keeping up feuds, if not of originating them. The greatest and most direct cause of the old feuds was the fact that the people who engaged in them lived in isolated, out-of-the-way, law- forsaken mountain sections, far removed from the courts. Folks are mostly related in this country. If someone got into trouble, even if they were not to blame, there was no use of going to law if the judge was kin to the other side, or if the lawyer had succeeded in getting his own men on the jury. It didn't make any difference what the evidence was, the case went the way they wanted it to go.

When an offender was brought into court he was generally turned loose to run at large among the near relatives of him whom he had slain. These people having trusted their rights to the courts of justice (?) and finding their trust betrayed, and the offender, the slayer of their brother or son, insulting them with his very presence and most often with taunts, took the law into their own hands, and killed. The killing of one naturally led to the killing of others, and each one killed brought other relatives and friends into the fray, and hence the feuds.

The feud leader was often a political chieftain. He may not have been so ostentatious as the city " boss," wont to don his silk tile and frock coat in attending the funeral of his henchman's baby, but his relations to his followers were much the same. He held a patriarchal attitude toward them, helping them in all times of need and expecting help in return.

The moonshiner, as he is called without the mountains, or blockader, as he is more commonly known within them, is one who engages in the illicit distilling of spirituous liquors. Secrecy is necessary for this practice, and he is called moonshiner because it is supposed that he engages in his illicit traffic on moonlight nights when there is enough light to make work easy and enough darkness to make him secure. To dispose of the product of his still, he or his confederates must run the blockade thrown about the sale of liquor by government officials. He is, therefore, regarded as a blockade runner. Moonshining is due primarily to economic reasons. It is, too easy a way to make money. Corn, raised with hard labor and sold at small profit, will bring four to five times as much a bushel when distilled into whiskey. This is a strong argument with poor men having large families.

Stereotyping the culture began after the Civil War when outside developers entered the region, was a social control tactic, and was expanded and perpetuated by the mass media in the 1950s-60s. Psychological internalization of the pejorative image has hindered the ability of mountain people, particularly the young, to accept their identity, resulting in self-hatred, cultural denial, and lack of self-determination. The stereotype has also been internalized by education systems, which use it as an excuse for educational problems.

Two of the most stigmatized languages in the United States today are African American dialect and Appalachian English dialect. In this day and age of political correctness, Appalachians may be the last remaining ethnic group that it is still socially acceptable to scorn, demean, stereotype, and joke about. "If you open your mouth, and you have a West Virginia accent or a Kentucky accent, when you open your mouth, your IQ immediately drops thirty points - they assume that you're stupid." For many years, even the best intentioned attempts to present a balanced view promoted generalizations which sustained the demeaning image - like Jethro Bodine from the Beverly Hillbillies - or worse, a defensiveness about past actions. Tony Earley wrote in a 1998 New Yorker article, "In less generous regions of the greater American culture, the sound of Appalachian dialect has come to signify ignorance, backwardness, intransigence, and, in the most extreme examples, toothlessness, rank stupidity, and an alarming propensity for planting flowers in painted tractor tires."

Television has been a part of this Appalachian bashing. Arnow's The Dollmaker, Jessie Stuarts's works, the Foxfire books, all became mainstream successes and represented the culture of Appalachia, along with popular media shows such as the "Beverly Hillbillies", and "Green Acres" or "Mayberry". "Green Acres" featured farming mountain folks conversing with a talking pig. The "Dukes of Hazzard" featured stereotypical mountain folk jumping in and out of cars, without bothering to open doors, and a car horn that played Dixie. Even "The Waltons", a series with numerous morally uplifting episodes and storylines that promoted hard work, love of family, honesty, patriotism, and spirituality, can be faulted for its beautifully romanticized version of poverty.

Come 'n listen to my story about a man named Jed,
Poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed.
And then one day he was shootin' at some food
An' up through the ground came a bubblin' crude.
Oil, that is! Black gold! Texas T!

"The Beverly Hillbillies" on TV is about a family who lived in the "Back Hills Country of Tennessee" and who struck it rich by discovering crude oil on their property and moved to Beverly Hills. The ratings proved that it was "cool" to be a country bumpkin. The critics hated it, but the viewers loved it. The TV sitcom "The Beverly Hillbillies" showed that money (or the lack of it) may categorize one as impoverished, middle class, or wealthy, but financial status alone doesn't mean one can successfully function among peers. The "hidden rules" within the structure of a "class" are a multitude of things taught when young, and once learned, used the rest of life somewhat unconsciously. Even though they had millions, the Clampet's ignorance of the hidden rules of the wealthy kept them at bay with their peers. Miss Jane eemed to be the most insightful, realizing that Jed, Granny, Jethro and Elly May needed to be taught the hidden rules of the wealthy in order to successfully function in Beverly Hills. But the Clampetts were an unapologetic symbol of their strong-willed independence and immunity to social pressures. The Clampetts -- naive and ignorant hillbilly folks -- would always outwit and confound the slick townsfolk.




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